For the University of South Carolina's women's basketball team, these have been tumultuous times. Barely a month ago the Lady Gamecocks boasted a 7-0 record, the No. 2 ranking in the national polls and a future so rosy that Coach Pam Parsons was openly talking about embellishing her already successful, if ofttimes stormy, career with the national championship. That dream now lies shattered. Parsons is out of a job, having resigned last month under initially mysterious and still troubling circumstances. Since her departure, the Lady Gamecocks have lost six of 11 games to fall out of the Top 10. They have been so decimated by dropouts that at one point last week, the team had just six players. As a result, the man who succeeded Parsons, former Assistant Coach Terry Kelly, was reduced to placing a notice in the campus newspaper, Gamecock, announcing open tryouts for new players.
Explanations for the stunning reversal in the Lady Gamecocks' fortunes vary with who's talking. One interpretation is offered by Parsons, 34, a Brigham Young-educated, self-styled pioneer of women's sports who breezily describes herself as "a simple little redheaded, left-handed, pigeon-toed girl from Utah." Parsons believes that the troubles that have befallen her are a matter of persecution, pure and simple. "In men's basketball, they want coaches who produce," she says. "In women's sports, they want women they can mold, women who will roll over and die. And I won't die." Be that as it may, the more immediate reason that Parsons' high-flying program self-destructed is a staggering array of allegations of financial, academic, recruiting and sexual improprieties, exacerbated by her own knack for stirring up controversy and emotions. Beyond what they say about Parsons' own program, the details of her downfall suggest that women's college basketball, having only recently gone big-time, is still suffering growing pains and that women still aren't always comfortable in the fiercely competitive caldron of high-powered team sports. Those details also are a reminder of the enormous influence that coaches wield, for good or ill, over the young people in their care.
The central figure in the sorry saga, Parsons, has a career record of 151-73. She formerly coached at Old Dominion (1974-77), where her success in recruiting Nancy Lieberman, Inge Nissen and other stars laid the groundwork for the Lady Monarchs' national championships in 1979 and '80, although by that time Parsons had moved on to South Carolina after a public squabble with Old Dominion Athletic Director Jim Jarrett. Parsons immediately made herself conspicuous at South Carolina—a trim, immaculately groomed figure who appeared at courtside in low-cut dresses or ensembles consisting of, to take one eye-catching example, disco pants slit at the ankles and a purple tube top. One of her team's media guides, as slick as a Saks Fifth Avenue catalog, bore the credit line, "Ms. Parsons' fashions furnished by Rackes," the latter being a Columbia, S.C. clothing store. After she arrived on campus the nickname of the team was changed from Chicks to the slightly ludicrous Lady Gamecocks. She unsparingly berated referees and players, and when sports-writers therefore referred to her as the Bobby Knight of women's basketball, she berated them, too, asking heatedly, "Why aren't there any women they can compare me to?"
Parsons' operation at South Carolina was volatile from the start. In contrast with NCAA rules, which provide that transferring athletes ordinarily must sit out a year before playing at a new school, the AIAW's code makes it possible for such athletes to play immediately, one proviso being that they can't always receive an athletic scholarship during their first year at the new institution. The rule is well-intentioned, predicated on the notion that as students first and foremost, athletes should be able to participate immediately in all student activities, including intercollegiate basketball. But the rule has resulted in shameless raiding by coaches and in wholesale ship-jumping at the slightest hint of a leak. The revolving door has been especially busy at South Carolina. Before this season, no fewer than 18 players had quit the Lady Gamecocks during Parsons' reign.
February 8, 1982
To be sure, one of the fugitives from Parsons' program, Cheryl Autry, a guard from Rome, Ga., says that she transferred to the University of Georgia only because she was homesick, adding, "Coach Parsons was good to me. That lady was sharp. She dressed so well. She wouldn't let us wear jeans on the plane. She wanted us to look like ladies. Our team was classy. Everybody commented on our dresses." Now working as a mechanic in a textile mill in Calhoun, Ga., Autry says, "I grew so much as a person under Coach Parsons."
But other South Carolina players, past and present, say that Parsons was erratic, dictatorial and inclined to play favorites. Parsons also was loose with the rules. In 1980 the Lady Gamecocks were put on probation because, among other things, she had sent flowers to a high school star, a breach of an AIAW rule prohibiting "inducements" to recruits. On another occasion Parsons was so devastated by a loss in a tournament at the University of North Carolina that she confined herself to bed in a motel and refused to coach the next game, relenting only after her players, hoping to cheer her up, sent flowers to her. "She was so mentally drained that she made herself physically ill," recalls a former player, Suzanne Woolston, who eventually fled South Carolina for Old Dominion. Another critic of Parsons is Forward Evelyn Johnson, a junior on the current South Carolina team and kid sister of Magic Johnson, who also lost a coach this season, for reasons, some say, of his own doing. Says Evelyn, "Under Coach Parsons you couldn't stand up and voice the way you feel. It was her way or no way."
Parsons sometimes liked to leave the impression that she took such complaints in stride. "You have to close your eyes to criticism," she said after her resignation. But, in fact, Parsons was anything but mild-mannered, often seething when things didn't go her way. During the 1979-80 season, in which the Lady Gamecocks finished third in the nation with a 30-6 record, Parsons angered team members following a galling defeat to Clemson by forcing them to wear T shirts bearing the legend CHICKEN CHOKE to practice and on campus. Last season the emotional roller coaster the Lady Gamecocks often seemed to be riding took some new dips and turns. During a game in a tournament in Los Angeles, All-America Guard Frani Washington, who had transferred at the start of the season from Ohio State, refused to return for the second half after Parsons upbraided her at courtside and in the dressing room for asking for advice on strategy from the team's assistant coach, Karen Brown. Two weeks later, after a 78-57 home-court win over North Carolina State, it was Parsons who didn't return to the court with the team at the start of the second half, and after the game, threatening to quit, she rushed into the Carolina Coliseum parking lot crying, followed by her tearful players, who pleaded with her to stay. The mother of one South Carolina player says that she later asked Parsons about the incident and that the coach replied, "I had my period." Other sources say, however, that Parsons was still unhappy about the influence of Brown, who was left at home when the team departed the next day for Ohio State. Brown thereupon quit, as did, six days later, Administrative Assistant Linda Singer, with whom Parsons had been sharing a house.
Parsons continued to feud both with Washington and with another player, Pat Mason, who had transferred at the start of the season from Kansas only to have a rift develop between herself and her coach. According to Mason, Parsons frequently told team members, "You'll never be anything without me." At a team meal in Knoxville before a 65-54 loss to Tennessee, the coach asked players to bow their heads in prayer for Washington and Mason, "for they are troublemakers." After the next game, an 82-54 win over Mercer in Columbia on Jan. 15, Mason's mother was visiting the dressing room when, Mason says, "Parsons walked in and said, 'O.K., everybody out. I don't want anybody in here but my team.' She looked at my mother and said, 'Moms out.' That was so cold. I thought, if that's all the respect you have for my mother...." Mason quit the team the next day, claiming that Parsons had told her she'd "ride the bench forever." Mason told the Gamecock that the team was "a cult and she is Jim Jones. I wasn't willing to be manipulated to the point that I don't have a mind of my own." In another jolting development. Washington was declared ineligible by the AIAW five days later, following the discovery of discrepancies relating to her academic record at Ohio State. The Lady Gamecocks forfeited eight games, making a 21-9 record 13-17.
The public turmoil surrounding the 1980-81 season can be at least partly explained by allegations that, SI has learned, were being lodged against Parsons with university officials. One accuser was Brown, who at one point hired a private detective to shadow Parsons. Now the women's basketball coach at Winthrop College in Rock Hill, S.C., Brown says she turned on her boss because she knew of many transgressions, wanted them stopped and was conscience-stricken about her own role in the wrongdoing. Brown says she told university officials, including William F. Putnam, associate dean of business administration and NCAA delegate, and then-Athletic Director Jim Carlen, about financial dealings that Parsons allegedly had had with Mason and Washington. As transfer students, under AIAW regulations they weren't permitted to receive housing allowances for playing basketball during their first year at South Carolina, but Brown claims such payments were made to both women. Mason and Washington say so, too. "I told the university that Parsons gave me $800 in cash to pay Pat Mason's housing and that she or Linda paid for Frani's housing," Brown says. Brown, Washington and Mason call the university's response to that information unsatisfactory, and Mason terms it a "cover-up." Washington and Mason say they were told by athletic-department higher-ups that any funds they received were loans and that they were expected to pay back all the money. The extension of loans to first-year transfer students could violate AIAW rules, too. At any rate, both women deny that the payments were loans, and both also tell of other improper transactions.
"I was told that in coming to South Carolina I wouldn't have to pay a cent," says Washington, now a non-basketball-playing student at the University of Toledo. "Then all of a sudden Parsons comes to me and says I owed $865 for housing." Washington says she was also given money for a flight home to Toledo, another probable violation of AIAW rules.
On leaving the team, Mason publicly complained about a housing bill she'd received from the university and said that Parsons had promised her that all such expenses would be "taken care of." Parsons denied making any such promise. Associate Athletic Director John Moore said at the time he hadn't yet made a "thorough examination" of Mason's claim. Today Moore says he eventually determined that "no huge examination was needed." Mason, who now plays for Oklahoma City University, says, "Parsons told me everything would be taken care of moneywise—books, housing. She said some alumni would be looking out for me." Mason also says that as a recruit she made both an official visit to Columbia and one on her own and that Parsons improperly underwrote part of her expenses during the second visit. She further maintains that Parsons improperly gave her $80 toward rent during the summer she spent in Columbia before enrolling at school.
Brown says she also told university officials that she believed recruiting rules were being violated. It was to substantiate one such charge, she said, that she hired a Columbia detective to stake out Parsons' residence. The detective reported that he established surveillance of Parsons' house at 6:50 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 2, 1980 and that Tina Buck, a visiting high school recruit from Atlanta, left the house with the coach and Singer at 9:58 a.m. Brown concluded that Buck had spent the night at the house, which is a 20-minute drive from campus, in apparent violation of an AIAW prohibition against off-campus recruiting.
Last May Parsons was relieved of her duties as women's athletic director and replaced by Ron Dickerson, a former Miami Dolphin defensive back, who took charge of all women's and non-revenue sports. But Parsons stayed on as coach, and there was no indication that school officials tried very hard to get to the bottom of the allegations made by Brown, Washington and Mason, or to hear what else they might have had to say. For example, all three have told SI that Parsons appeared to be "stoned" on marijuana during a road trip last year. In a particularly disturbing allegation, Brown says that she and Parsons collaborated to write as many as half a dozen term papers for players "if it meant the difference between passing and flunking. It was Pam's idea. She did the majority of the writing. I typed them."
Evelyn Johnson is another witness who contends that Parsons appeared to be stoned on a road trip. Johnson also makes an allegation about Singer. "She gave me money to buy drugs for her," Johnson says. "She wanted me to buy speed, pills—like uppers and downers. Not pot. She gave me $15 or $20 each time, once a week, for about two, three or four weeks. But I just kept the money. I felt funny about that. I asked her if there was anything she wanted me to do for her—like move something or help her clean. I told her my sources dried up. I knew Linda could have gotten the drugs herself. It's not that hard on a college campus. When she approached me, I thought, 'Now how stupid does this look? I'm sure you know just as many people as I know.' I felt like Linda and Pam were trying to set me up. It just wouldn't have looked good, Magic Johnson's sister caught for buying drugs." Singer, now living in Atlanta, declined to comment on any charges arising from her work at South Carolina.
What ultimately forced Parsons from her job was yet another stunning charge: that she had sexual relations with a player. Such an accusation would be no less unsettling if it involved a male-female or male-male liaison between coach and athlete. But it happens that speculation and anxiety about lesbianism are common among women basketball players and parents who fear that their daughters will be compromised by lesbian coaches. Not all women basketball coaches, certainly, are homosexual, nor do those who are necessarily get involved with, or impose their sexual preferences on, their players. Nevertheless, Kansas State Coach Lynn Hickey isn't alone in admitting that she has tried to allay fears on the subject by publishing photos of herself with her husband in media guides.
The South Carolina team had been awash with speculation that Parsons was "involved" with players or had made passes at one or another of them. One former team member who was rumored to have been propositioned admits that she's a lesbian and says that homosexuality is "all over the place," not only in women's sports but also in men's basketball and football. She says that Parsons had indicated she was a lesbian in their conversations. "She used to say to me, 'We have to be careful. If people knew, they'd hang us for what we are.' She told me she was in love with a particular woman but had to break up because it got to the point where the other woman was picking out her clothes for her." But the former player also says that while Parsons once invited her to accompany her to a gay bar in Atlanta, she declined the invitation and that Parsons had never made overt sexual advances toward her.
Brown and Mason draw damning inferences from some of Parsons' words and actions. "Pam recruited with sex in mind," says Brown. "I talked to a high school coach in Georgia the other day and he said, 'Karen, I never believed any of those stories about Pam. Until now. Pam is interested in Jane [fictitious name for the coach's star player]. She called and said, "Is Jane good-looking?" And I said, "Good-looking?" And she said, "Yeah, I only want good-looking girls on my team." And I said, "Well, coach, I only know how she plays basketball." ' "
Mason: "On my first recruiting visit to campus, Parsons felt my arm and said, 'It's so strong.' I looked at her and thought, 'What is with this lady?' In her office, she patted me on the rear end. It wasn't like it was in any athletic context or was a sending-me-off-in-the-world kind of thing. It really freaked me out. I got out of there fast. I didn't say anything to anybody about it. I tried to excuse it. She was always giving us compliments about our bodies. I felt funny about it. She thought Philicia [Philicia Allen, a 6'6" sophomore who quit the team last week] had nice legs. Philicia and I were together when she told Philicia that. And the way she looked at Philicia when she said it, I don't think she was joking."
It's conceivable that allegations by Mason and other players that Parsons acted suggestively toward them were the product of the vivid imaginations of young women who feared, or were infatuated with, so high-powered an authority figure. As Evelyn Johnson perceptively says, "A young girl might actually think she's fallen in love with Parsons, I guess. Maybe she never felt good about being so tall, so boyish, an athlete. And maybe she could never talk about it with anyone—then she meets Pam. And maybe she thinks she's in love." And maybe, in such cases, a player misconstrues a compliment or a smile or a squeeze of the arm. Johnson notes that Parsons herself may have fueled speculation by "always inviting the same favorite people out to dinner." Nor did Parsons end the whispers when, according to two witnesses, she embarrassed a player on a team bus last season by saying, in a loud, mocking tone, "What happened? You didn't come to my room last night." Johnson also says, "It seems to me that Parsons recruited very naive, almost dumb players and tried to bring them under her influence." Pat Mason concurs: "Some of her players were there physically, but mentally they were zombies."
Parsons' departure was melodramatic. The loss of Mason and Washington had been offset this season by the arrival of new stars, and the Lady Gamecocks were rolling right along until Dec. 31. That afternoon Dickerson paid a call at Parsons' house. When he emerged, he had in his possession a two-sentence handwritten note in which Parsons said she was resigning "due to serious conditions with my health." On New Year's Day, her 34th birthday, Parsons phoned the university and attempted to revoke the resignation. She also called reporters to say that she hadn't resigned and was in "perfect health." But James B. Holderman, president of the university, pointedly said that her resignation had been accepted. On Jan. 2, after beating St. Joseph's 50-48 in Philadelphia to run their record to 8-0, the Lady Gamecocks, now coached by Kelly, flew back to Columbia and were greeted in the middle of a drizzly night by the sight of Parsons holding a banner that read, in part, WELCOME HOME. I HAVE NOT RESIGNED! The message was signed YOURS IN SPORT, P¬≤. Mike Nemeth, the school's assistant sports information director, later said, "When I saw her holding that sign, I thought, 'Uh, oh, here we go again.' " That night Parsons sent a single silk red rose to each of her players as "a sign of love." Two days later, she resigned anew, this time for keeps. She had reached a settlement under which the university agreed to pay her $20,111.68. She cited "philosophical" differences with the school as the reason for her leaving.
But Chris Vlahoplus, senior vice-president for university relations, offered a different explanation. On Jan. 7 he told SI that the mother of one South Carolina player, freshman Brantley Southers, had complained to the university that Parsons was having relations with a second player. "Ron Dickerson talked at great length about it with Parsons." Vlahoplus said. "At first she denied being a lesbian and having an affair with a player, then she finally admitted it." Vlahoplus added, "We have nothing against anybody who's gay. But to have a coach carrying on with a student...we just can't let that go on." Two weeks later, Paul J. Ward, a university attorney, learned of Vlahoplus' statement. Ward called SI to say that Vlahoplus now denied making the statement. However, Ronni Keisler, Southers' mother, said she had indeed complained to the school about Parsons' being involved with a player and that Holderman had "told me on the phone that Pam admitted it to Dickerson."
The incidents Brantley Southers told her mother about allegedly occurred in Parsons' home, where Southers had gone in recent weeks to watch TV and where once, when Parsons was out of town, she had, by her own account, spent the night. The incidents, Southers says, involved Parsons and one of Southers' teammates. "I saw them kissing on more than one occasion," says Southers, a 6'1" forward whose jumping prowess accounts for her nickname, the Great White Leaper. "They were long kisses. It really spooked me. And I heard them say they loved each other." Referring to the other player, Southers said, "I'd heard a lot of rumors about her and Parsons, and she told me the rumors were all true."
It should be noted that Southers acknowledges that she told her mother about Parsons and the other player only after having been caught in a lie by her parents; she said she'd spent the night at a friend's house when, in fact, that was the night she'd stayed at Parsons' house. Although this circumstance might be seen as calling into question Southers' truthfulness, university officials acted on the information she provided.
Attempts to question Parsons about allegations of payments and false representations to Mason and Washington, recruiting violations, ghost-writing of term papers, marijuana use on team trips and other matters were unavailing. Parsons' attorney, Jean Toal, ruled out phone calls to her client and said of the allegations, "This is all Karen Brown's hatchet job." On the subject of lesbianism, Parsons had earlier said to SI, "What does 'being gay' mean? I've had close relationships with women, but when does a relationship become 'gay'?" However, when The Greenville News reported Jan. 20 that Parsons had quit after being accused by the mother of an unnamed player of "being involved in a lesbian situation with one player and making sexual advances toward another," Parsons denied the allegations, and Toal denounced them as "unsubstantiated rumor." As far as SI could determine, the accusation made by Southers' mother involved just one player.
The conclusion is inescapable that Parsons committed a serious betrayal of trust. This is a subject that Southers' mother spoke of with more than a little bitterness when she said, "What would you say if Pam Parsons came into your home, all dressed up, with pretty clothes and makeup and nice hairdo, and said, 'In a year from now you won't even know your daughter'? You'd think, 'My little tomboy is finally going to learn how to be a lady.' Instead...." There was no need to finish. In her temperamental outbursts and psychological ploys, not to mention possible rule infractions, Parsons belied her own avowed mission, as she once described it in a newspaper interview, to "reinforce the principles Mom and Dad taught." Parsons also had, at the very least, violated a fundamental principle of coaching ethics—that coaches treat all players equally. Whatever the truth of Southers' allegations with regard to sexual improprieties, Parsons was closer to some players than others. And she was especially close to the player with whom Southers linked her. Friends say the two of them went skiing together after Christmas. Following Parsons' resignation, according to that player's mother, they traveled together to Atlanta. More recently that player—or rather, ex-player, since she, too, has quit the team—was seen driving in the Columbia area at the wheel of Parsons' new silver Honda Accord.
Parsons implies that she's not interested in landing another coaching job and says, "I may write a book, get into broadcasting, or go into the chiropractic field." She hasn't been attending Lady Gamecock games because, she says, "I don't want to be an outside interference. I want them to win." But victory may not come as easily for the Lady Gamecocks in the future. Last week's tryouts produced three new team members, but they weren't likely to make up for the five players, two of them starters, who have departed since Parsons' resignation, some out of loyalty to her, others because they reportedly find Kelly, her successor, less than forceful. But Kelly sounded forceful enough when he spoke the other day of three of the departed players, none of whom had been previously implicated in any wrongdoing. "They're mad at me because I cut off their money," Kelly said. "Pam was paying for them to go home, giving them money." The accusation had a depressingly familiar ring to it.