As Baylor poured on the points during an NCAA-record breaking 140-32 win over the Winthrop women’s basketball team in December, Eagles coach Kevin Cook stared across the court.
His new boss, Winthrop athletic director Ken Halpin, had traveled with the team to Baylor as part of a plan to experience a road trip with each of the school’s athletic teams and to reach out to Winthrop boosters in Texas. Halpin had seats close to the action and was easily in Cook’s view.
Temporarily looking beyond the shock of an embarrassing 108-point loss, Cook had a sudden realization.
“Right after that game I said ‘my seat just went from warm to scorching hot,’” he said recently while seated at a Starbucks counter.
The Baylor blowout occurred amid a tumultuous winter for the women’s basketball program, and Cook, coping with symptoms from Parkinson’s Disease. Cook was suspended in late January after complaints from players, at least one player’s parent, and one of his assistant coaches.
The resulting investigation by Halpin and associate AD Renae Myles revealed no smoking-gun violations, but rather a series of allegations, difficulties and squabbles worsened by upheaving roster turnover and the departure of established assistant coaches. All that led to two years of losing basketball and a program in turmoil.
In late March, Cook lost his job and was replaced by assistant coach Lynette Woodard.
Part of the settlement between Winthrop and Cook decreed neither party could talk about what happened during mediation. Halpin wouldn’t speak on the record. But Cook did open up about other aspects of his former program, including its success and subsequent three-year downfall.
Departures, injuries and the unknown
Cook took over the Winthrop women’s program in 2012. He won 21 games and the Big South Conference’s first WNIT game that year. He topped that the following year with 24 wins, a Big South title and the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance.
The best player in school history, Dequesha McClanahan, graduated and the win-total dipped to 17 the following season. But Winthrop beat Auburn in non-conference play, and there was hope going into the 2015-16 campaign with three all-conference players -- Schaquilla Nunn, Erica Williams and Aliyah Kilpatrick -- returning. The team was picked to finish second in the conference.
The program’s initial wobble came with the departure of four assistant coaches during two offseasons. Cook said top assistant Christena Hamilton doubled her salary when she left for Bradley, and rookie assistant Carlotta Kloppenburg didn't turn down an obviously-big opportunity at Arizona State. At least one assistant returned to her alma mater, but it's not clear why the other left Winthrop.
Cook brought in new coaches, including shooting guru Marvin Harvey. Then, disaster struck before the 2015-16 season when Nunn, the most dominant defensive player in the league, broke her foot before the season began. She missed the entire year.
Nunn’s injury was the first in a litany of health problems Cook’s 15-16 team encountered. Winthrop lost point guard Jimecheia Banks to a broken ankle. Williams and Ronata Rogers also were sidelined by a broken foot. By the start of the Big South tournament, the Eagles had eight healthy players, three of whom were walk-ons, including one player borrowed from the women’s soccer team.
Nunn told her coach she was transferring the day after the season ended. She ended up at Tennessee and was recently selected in the WNBA draft. Cook said he didn’t begrudge Nunn’s opportunity, but wondered if outsiders had influenced her. Cook said he wrote Nunn a recommendation letter to Tennessee’s graduate school.
“That started a parade of players to my office,” he said.
Kilpatrick left for N.C. A&T, Banks transferred to Division II Clayton State, and promising freshman Arianne Whitaker left for Chattanooga.
Cook had signed three players heading into the offseason, but the slew of transfers sent him back into the recruiting market late in the year. He had to cram a process that can take two or three years into a matter of weeks or months.
“I didn’t have time to research these people, so I’m taking flyers,” Cook said. “Now, they’re all good kids at heart, but I don’t exactly know how all their work habits are.”
Allegations and denials
Cook had eight freshmen on the 2016-2017 roster and five upperclassmen, including three seniors. Only Williams had been a key part of the program during her career. There also was an almost completely new coaching staff.
“I came into this year optimistic, but I saw some of what I was asking of them was too much for a young team,” Cook said. “And I tried to rush this thing.”
The Herald obtained Winthrop athletic department documents and emails from November, December and January. The emails portray a program rife with mistrust.
By early January, Halpin and associate athletic director Renae Myles had received emails from at least one concerned parent, whose name was redacted, and from an assistant coach on Cook’s staff about his alleged treatment of the players.
The parent’s email to Myles made a number of allegations, including that Cook would call timeouts and stare blankly without saying anything. Cook, who had a major operation in 2015 to quell his Parkinson’s Disease tremors, said he never felt his health was an issue, though he did think Winthrop administrators were paying close attention.
The parent’s email alleged Cook verbally abused their daughter “because he considered her soft and weak.” The parent demanded a verbal apology from Cook, and a graduate assistant coaching position for their daughter.
Cook denied the parent’s allegation.
A member of Cook’s own staff, assistant coach Marvin Harvey, sent a letter to Cook in early January detailing a perceived change in Cook’s behavior.
One line read, “Instead of the sharp X’s and O’s coach that I am familiar with, that person has somehow been replaced with a paranoid, and untrusting shell of the individual that I knew.”
Myles investigated the claims that month. On Jan. 18, Myles sent an email to the concerned parent stating the inquiry had wrapped up, and Cook would be evaluated at the end of the season. Her email indicated Cook had met with Halpin twice, the AD presenting the coach with documentation of specific expectations and metrics that must be met. Myles also traveled with the team on a road trip to Charleston and noted “the players seem to like each other and get along great.”
Then came an email from Harvey to Halpin and Myles on Jan. 21.
The email contained a number of allegations, including that Cook ignored his assistant coaches’ advice and players’ health problems. The email described a program where the players didn’t trust each other, in some cases didn’t like or trust the coaching staff, and where the coaches often did not agree. Cook wouldn’t speak on the record about his relationship with Harvey, but denied ever purposely ignoring players’ health concerns.
The loss to Baylor didn’t help.
But by that point Winthrop had suffered losses to College of Charleston (31-point margin), Florida State (63), Michigan (37), Gonzaga (30), Tennessee Tech (23) and Akron (21).
The sole reason the rebuilding Eagles were playing teams like Baylor was economics.
Baylor paid Winthrop $30,000 guaranteed -- good money in women’s college basketball -- to come to Waco. The Eagles also got $20,000, plus hotel rooms to play at Ohio State this past season, according to contracts obtained by The Herald. If it was up to Cook, there would have been one more provision in the Baylor deal.
“(Baylor coach) Kim (Mulkey) didn’t come through, because I told her for every point above 30 it would be an extra thousand per point,” Cook joked. “Now if she would have come through for that, that would have set us up for the next three years.”
Winthrop’s 2016-17 schedule included four top-25 opponents.
Former Winthrop athletic director Tom Hickman confirmed scheduling tough teams was intentional.
“We were playing guarantee games to try to raise revenue,” said Hickman, who retired last year.
He said scheduling games for guaranteed money wasn't as daunting in Cook’s first few years when Winthrop’s team had better players. He said the Baylor game was set up at least a year earlier when the Eagles’ roster looked much different.
By January 2016, the Eagles were 1-12 and Cook’s job was in jeopardy. He coached Winthrop to its first Division I win of the season against Longwood on Jan. 24. He received a text from Halpin 15 minutes after the game asking him to meet the following day.
At the meeting, Halpin handed Cook a letter -- a copy of which was obtained by The Herald through the Freedom of Information Act -- stating he was suspended:
“This is to inform you that I have received several complaints from Women’s Basketball student-athletes, the parents of student-athletes and other coaches alleging mistreatment of some student-athletes by you as the head coach. Such actions constitute a deliberate or serious violation of the duties set forth in your Employment Agreement with Winthrop.”
Cook said he asked if he could coach the remainder of the season and was told “at this point, no” by Halpin. Cook was suspended with full pay but was not allowed access to Winthrop athletic facilities or his school email account.
He was told to clean out his office but it didn’t take him long. Cook and his wife, Francine, had returned to the Coliseum after the Longwood win to remove his things.
According to Cook’s contract, suspension was the only option. There were no clauses in the contract offering administrative leave or other options.
“I was disappointed and I disagreed with the suspension,” Cook said.
Cook also hired lawyers the week prior. The reason?
“A hunch,” he said.
However, Cook thought he would need the lawyers at the end of the season. Assistant coach Lynette Woodard was put in charge of the team, which lost all 12 of its remaining games.
The suspension -- made public by a two-sentence press release -- elicited reactions from across the country. A veteran of women’s basketball coaching at every level, Cook has industry contacts throughout the world.
“I heard from coaches across the country, and I had to dispel a lot of their thoughts,” he said. They all asked, “What did you do, Kevin?”
“I don’t curse,” Cook said. “I couldn’t holler if I wanted to. I wasn’t doing anything abusive or wrong.”
Cook said he watched every Winthrop women’s game during his suspension and attended the Liberty game at Winthrop Coliseum. He said he knows it’ll be hard for him to find another job, but he’s ready to move on.
Cook and Halpin are civil with each other. Both agreed it would be positive for Cook to attend Woodard’s press conference when she was named head coach. Woodard thanked Cook, sharing a story from more than 30 years ago when he drove from Kansas to North Carolina to support her during her tryout with the Harlem Globetrotters.
Many Winthrop supporters were shocked by Cook’s suspension and wondered why Halpin wouldn’t let him finish the year. Cook said at the coffee shop that he would not have resigned. He rattled off recruits he had for next season, in addition to returning players.
“I wouldn’t have resigned, because I’m not that type of person,” he said.
Cook and his wifewill be around Rock Hill for the next few months.
“What we will do, I don’t know,” he said. “I know God has something planned for me.”
He mentioned he’d love to coach boys’ high school basketball.
“Everything is wide open and that’s exciting.”
Bret McCormick: 803-329-4032