The UC San Diego athletic department issued media notes this week ahead of the season opener for the women’s soccer team.
Not appearing anywhere among the 2,500 words were these two: Brian McManus.
He was the Tritons’ head coach for 31 seasons and won seven Division II or III national championships, and there was no mention that the school would play a women’s soccer game without him for the first time since “Back to the Future” was in movie theaters and a ticket cost $3.50.
The university announced Aug. 9 McManus had resigned amid potential NCAA violations that, over the course of several years, he provided “student-athletes impermissible benefits in the form of small amounts of money.” A day later, McManus clarified the allegation to the Union-Tribune: Once or twice a season, he gave “$50 or $60” to players for pizza after late-night games.
“That’s it,” he said.
Multiple sources inside and outside the university say McManus, 72, was summoned to a meeting with Athletic Director Earl Edwards in early August and told to resign or be fired. Kristin Jones, his longtime lieutenant and expected successor, was demoted from associate head coach to an assistant and given a four-game suspension, as was fellow assistant Trent Painter.
Edwards said a national search for a head coach will be conducted after the season.
“Pizzagate,” current and former players are calling it.
UCSD officials have declined to elaborate beyond the initial news release and set a target date of Oct. 26 to disclose open records from a Union-Tribune request for documents related to McManus’ abrupt departure.
Since its Aug. 9 announcement of “women’s soccer leadership changes,” there have been five athletic department releases about the upcoming season, including one previewing the Tritons’ pursuit of an eighth national championship with quotes from Jones and a player. McManus’s name doesn’t appear in any of them, nor did anyone discuss the transition of not having him on the bench for the first time since 1985.
But if the university has ignored his legacy, others are actively trying to restore it.
More than 100 former players signed a letter to the editor published in the Union-Tribune that called UCSD “shameful” for its treatment of McManus, noting: “As we stand at the forefront of a nationwide effort to empower and protect women, it is even more perplexing that the university would dishonor a man who inspired young women year after year to succeed and thrive.”
Many of them will attend the home opener Saturday at 3:30 p.m. against No. 7 Western Washington, wearing specially designed T-shirts honoring McManus. There are plans for a letter-writing campaign to UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, plus other forms of protest.
“We’ll see how things are going, how things play out,” said Annie Wethe, a midfielder from 2008-2011. “If the university comes back with something more appropriate, if they take some kind of action that rectifies what I think is a mistake, maybe we won’t have to do anything but continue to support the program.
“But we will be 100 percent relentless. Every single one of us will do anything for Brian. It’s not the type of thing where we’ll say, ‘Oh, we gave it our best shot.’ We’re not going to stop until things are made right.”
Parents of players have not been quiet, either. Several wrote a letter to the Edwards and the vice chancellor of student affairs, a copy of which was obtained by the Union-Tribune, expressing “serious concerns regarding the treatment of our daughters” during the university’s internal investigation of McManus and the women’s soccer program.
Multiple sources said it was initiated after two players confided in an athletic department staffer about potential issues within the team, and the staffer reported them to university officials. Normally, investigations of potential NCAA violations are conducted within the athletic department, but this one was handled by UCSD’s Office of Ethics and Compliance.
The pizza money allegations, the sources said, were not the initial focus of the probe. They were uncovered later, and the sources indicated they were the primary reason for McManus’ ouster.
Technically, coaches can pay for meals for players in certain situations if it is properly documented and approved. McManus admitted he did not. Even so, in individual cases under $200, NCAA rules allow players to retain eligibility by paying the amount in question to a charity.
Complicating the situation, though, is what happened with the UCSD women’s crew program in 2013. Head coach Pattie Pinkerton was fired after 13 years for having academically ineligible athletes row in competitions under the name of eligible athletes, as well as allegedly distributing Voltaren, an anti-inflammatory cream that is sold over the counter in many countries but requires a prescription in the United States.
Buried on page 32 of the final report from the NCAA is this line: “As required by NCAA legislation for any institution involved in a major infractions case, (UCSD) shall be subject to the provisions of NCAA Byline 188.8.131.52, concerning repeat violators, for a five-year period beginning … Aug. 6, 2013.”
That means subsequent violations of a certain level within the five-year window can bring elevated sanctions, one of which could ban coaches in the new offending sport from “involvement directly or indirectly in any coaching activities at the institution” for one or two seasons.
All of this also played out against the backdrop of UCSD applying for reclassification from NCAA Div. II to Div. I status. To fund the move, students will begin paying increased athletic fees when they register for fall classes.
UCSD plans to elevate athletic scholarships to minimum Div. I levels over the next two years, then join the Big West Conference in 2020 and start a four-year transition period when the Tritons cannot compete in postseason events in Div. I or II. They would become full-fledged Div. I members in 2024.
When asked at the time of McManus’ resignation if the two incidents were related, Edwards said: “It’s just dealing with the situation as is. The whole Div. I thing is a separate issue. We’re just focusing on what’s taken place.”
An athletic department spokesman declined further comment Friday.
While McManus’ legion of former players has disputed the results of the investigation, parents of current players have criticized its methods. Their letter to Edwards and Drew Calandrella, the interim vice chancellor of student affairs, claims the investigator used “intimidating tactics” and asked “inappropriate” questions, and “the girls felt like he was putting words in their mouths.”
“From our standpoint, the compliance department bullied the girls and handled the interviews unethically,” the letter said. “We feel this is just a witch hunt and our girls were used as pawns … Our daughters are student-athletes that give their blood and tears to this university and deserve respect instead of being treated as criminals.”
Respect is a theme of the former players’ gripes as well.
“From the outside looking in, it looks like Brian was forced to resign over pizza money, which he says he did maybe a couple times,” said Wethe, a four-year starter who was a NCAA Woman of the Year candidate as a senior. “That seems like a really, really, really big and drastic step to take when he’s done nothing but be loyal to the program, to the school and to every single player he’s ever coached.
“You’d think that kind of loyalty and dedication he’s showed throughout the last three decades would be returned to him, and it hasn’t. To me, it feels like a betrayal. I don’t want it to sound too dramatic or harsh, but that’s what it kind of feels like.”