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Kentucky was investigating ‘predator’ swim coach for sex abuse. Then it paid him to quit.

University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.   (Brian Simms/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS)
By John Cheves Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON, Ky. — On June 28, 2023, the University of Kentucky paid head swimming and diving coach Lars Jorgensen $75,000 to go away quietly.

Jorgensen and UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart signed a four-page agreement ending the coach’s 2021-25 employment contract, effective immediately.

It included the farewell money and language allowing Jorgensen to resign without any public explanation or admission of wrongdoing. A mutual non-disparagement clause prevented the university and Jorgensen from publicly criticizing each other.

When reporters called to ask what happened to the swim coach, UK refused to comment.

At first glance, this might have looked like a raw deal for Jorgensen. After all, he built an SEC-winning swim program at UK after his arrival in 2012, and he still had $377,500 in base salary remaining on his contract.

But a review of dozens of internal documents obtained by the Lexington Herald-Leader under Kentucky’s Open Records Act shows that, had he stayed, he potentially faced the public humiliation of getting fired.

By the time Barnhart opened the back door for him, Jorgensen was the focus of misconduct complaints from students and staffers and two investigations at UK, one for alleged sexual abuse of women in the swim program and the other for alleged NCAA student-athlete training violations, the documents reveal.

Evidence was being gathered against him inside the UK Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity and the UK Athletic Compliance Office.

“With Lars, I feel he should immediately be fired and can tell you it is a matter of time before he is going to be banned from the sport,” a former UK assistant swim coach wrote to the UK Athletic Compliance Office on May 14, 2023.

The woman was not identified in the records. Also, the Herald-Leader does not disclose the names of sexual abuse victims unless they choose to come forward publicly.

The woman, now coaching at another SEC school, described Jorgensen as a “predator to young women” who “physically violated” her at a Christmas party.

“I’ve spent years in therapy navigating how to move forward from my time at Kentucky,” she wrote in 2023. “Until recently, I haven’t been able to be around a pool deck without facing many of these memories.”

“Lars has continuously demonstrated inappropriate relationships with female swimmers during his time at Kentucky,” a former swimmer wrote in a 2023 letter to Barnhart, describing the coach as a loud, angry bully.

In interviews about training violations, UK swimmers told investigators that Jorgensen and his coaching staff kept them in the pool for too many hours, on too many days, and the coaches inflicted “punishment practices” when they were mad about student misbehavior.

Students described the swim program as “brutal.”

“My body is constantly in pain and never recovering,” one swimmer told investigators, according to interview notes. “My friends have quit and girls are miserable. The boys are miserable.”

Jorgensen has declined to be interviewed. Speaking through his attorney, he has denied the allegations made against him.

Two previous suspensions

Jorgensen earned a national reputation as a winning coach, taking the UK women’s team to their first-ever SEC championship title in 2021 and, that same year, getting named the SEC Women’s Swimming Coach of the Year.

But inside UK, he also had a history of getting into trouble.

UK suspended him twice: in 2019, for failing to report sexual harassment by an assistant coach, and in early 2023, for 2021-22 school year training violations, driving his swimmers harder than NCAA rules allowed.

And records show that UK had received occasional complaints about his alleged predatory behavior toward women from the day it hired him.

UK suspended Jorgensen a third time, on May 1, 2023, as it began its latest reviews of his conduct. In a June 1 letter, Barnhart reminded Jorgensen that he was under orders to cease his coaching duties while making himself available to investigators.

Jorgensen wasn’t guaranteed a soft landing if either investigation found him guilty of wrongdoing.

His contract authorized UK to fire him for cause without any further payments or protection from embarrassing publicity. Among the definitions of “cause” were acts of misconduct that could embarrass UK or threaten to harm the welfare of students.

‘Protect the brand’

So why — in the middle of all this — did UK pay Jorgensen to resign?

“Just to make it easier, really,” said B. David Ridpath, a professor of sports business at Ohio University who has three decades of experience with NCAA compliance, as a former university compliance official and an author and private consultant on college sports ethics.

An undisclosed, no-fault buyout is the typical way a university gets rid of problem coaches ahead of a legal firestorm, Ridpath said.

“You may want to avoid litigation,” Ridpath said.

“You may want to do it quietly to protect the brand. The one thing that universities and athletic departments hate the most is publicity — bad publicity — and if you can just make this go away and keep it contained with a settlement, then that’s what’s they’ll do.”

Most of the time, the problems end up getting exposed, anyway, by lawsuits, news coverage or both, he said.

Then the university must explain why it didn’t handle matters correctly, allowing formal investigations to run their course, handing down appropriate penalties and disclosing everything to the public, he said.

For UK, the latest allegations against Jorgensen began spilling out nearly a year after he left, on April 12, when a federal lawsuit was filed against the university, Barnhart and Jorgensen by two former swimmers who went on to become assistant swim coaches at UK.

The two plaintiffs said Jorgensen created a “toxic, sexually hostile environment” inside UK’s swim program by harassing, groping and raping them and a third swimmer on multiple occasions over a period of years.

Some of the allegations in the lawsuit were among those being investigated at UK in spring 2023.

Jorgensen has denied the allegations. He said he and his two accusers were in consensual dating relationships while they worked for him as assistant coaches.

For its part, UK said it’s “distressed” by the allegations and has referred them to law enforcement. It also hired a public relations firm to help with the fallout, which has drawn national news coverage.

This could have gone much more smoothly, Ridpath said.

“Bad news doesn’t get any better with age,” he said. “It’s often very difficult to keep these things concealed, and you don’t look very good when you try to. There’s something to be said for just ripping off the Band-Aid all at once.”

A lawyer for the two plaintiffs suing UK said she agrees with Ridpath.

“The University of Kentucky must explain why it felt it was appropriate to provide Lars Jorgensen with a financial parachute to force his compliance with an NCAA investigation,” said Megan Bonanni, an attorney in Royal Oak, Mich.

“It’s clear this was an effort to protect the university’s brand — not its students, staff or wider community,” she said. “Acts such as these empower abusers and help them avoid accountability.”

Mitch Barnhart explains

Barnhart has been UK’s athletic director since 2002. He declined requests to be interviewed for this story.

In a prepared statement, Barnhart defended his decision to help Jorgensen leave quietly in June 2023 while internal investigations into his conduct were still underway.

“UK Athletics officials believed Jorgensen’s actions would ultimately lead to an NCAA finding of violations as a result of a preliminary internal investigation that we initiated in response to complaints,” he said. “We negotiated a settlement for a fraction of his contract value in exchange for his cooperation with the NCAA and UK in the investigation.”

Barnhart was referring to the investigation into alleged violations of NCAA training rules.

Shortly after Jorgensen quit, UK self-reported three pages of training violations to the NCAA for the 2022-23 school year involving the men’s and women’s swim teams, including forced participation in “voluntary” workouts and failure to provide athletes with mandatory days off.

As a result of the violations, UK told the NCAA, Jorgensen no longer is employed, and the swim teams’ playing seasons will be reduced for a length to be determined.

The NCAA review of the case is not yet complete, UK spokeswoman Kristi Willett said.

In the other investigation, into alleged sexual misconduct, “investigators had not yet reached a conclusion,” so “UK Athletics could not take disciplinary action against Jorgensen or fire him for cause,” Barnhart said.

“The settlement removed Jorgensen from the UK program and protected student athletes and other coaches,” Barnhart said.

“We listen when people come forward with information about inappropriate behavior by employees and students, and we follow our established processes. UK Athletics and the Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity each took action upon receiving reports of allegedly inappropriate actions and possible violations,” he said in the statement.

NCAA training violations

Jorgensen started 2023 already in trouble.

Records reviewed by the Herald-Leader show on Jan. 20, 2023, the NCAA found against UK’s swim program based on self-reported violations of student-athlete training rules during the 2021-22 school year. Among the penalties, Jorgensen was suspended for seven days, issued a letter of reprimand and ordered to attend an NCAA rules seminar.

Because any further NCAA violations would be taken more seriously, the UK Athletics Compliance Office began to closely monitor Jorgensen’s swim program.

Investigators stopped by the pool during practices. Swimmers were encouraged to report complaints. Regular meetings were held with coaching staff to remind them of their responsibilities.

On April 5, 2023, as Jorgensen served his suspension, compliance officer Jenna Wesley sent her colleagues an email with a seven-page memo laying out fresh grievances about the swim coaching staff from four swimmers, two men and two women.

The swimmers reported “punishment practices” ordered for minor rules infractions; body shaming of swimmers considered slightly overweight; mandatory “voluntary” practices; cursing; bullying; and inaccurate record-keeping of swim practice times intended to deceive compliance officials.

Wesley followed with an April 28, 2023, email to her UK Athletics colleagues. A female swimmer said Jorgensen had gathered the team together and urged them to come to the coaches, rather than go to compliance officials, if they had any more complaints, Wesley wrote.

Jorgensen was placed on indefinite paid suspension May 1, 2023.

Sex abuse allegations

The world of college swimming isn’t large. Word got around that Jorgensen was embattled.

On May 14, 2023, the former UK assistant swim coach who is now at another SEC school wrote the UK Athletics Compliance Office to say she heard through the grapevine about Jorgensen’s NCAA compliance problems. The woman said she wanted to report that Jorgensen sexually assaulted and harassed her during her time at UK.

Soon, another person reached out — Briggs Alexander, a former swim team captain and assistant coach. He competed as Bridgette Alexander at UK from 2014 to 2018 before transitioning.

Alexander alleged sexual assault, abuse of power and bullying by Jorgensen. He would end up as one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit filed against UK this year.

“There are other people with stories,” Alexander told UK on June 15, 2023, according to interview notes.

Two weeks after Alexander’s interview, UK bought Jorgensen out of his employment contract.

In his own interview with UK investigators, conducted by Zoom on June 14, Jorgensen denied making inappropriate comments or having inappropriate physical contact.

Jorgensen’s buyout changed things. Since he wasn’t a UK employee anymore, he couldn’t be fired. UK investigators said in internal documents that this development largely tied their hands.

Having received another complaint about Jorgensen, on Oct. 16, 2023, one of UK’s Title IX investigators, Brandon Williams, wrote to Shannan Stamper in the UK Office of Legal Counsel: “In her email, she accuses Lars Jorgensen of sexual assault. In my reply I notified her that Lars is no longer affiliated with UK so we are unable to investigate her concerns, but she could meet with an investigator if she wants her account on record with our office.”

Among those frustrated by this response was Alexander.

Writing to UK’s investigators in November 2023, Alexander said he raised concerns about Jorgensen in the spring, while the coach was still on the payroll.

Why hadn’t the university moved faster on those allegations when it still believed it had the authority to do something, he asked.

“I guess I just want to be more included in this process, as I really have not been informed as much as I have expected,” Alexander wrote.