Ball State debacle has no end in sight and few hard truths
Editor's note: This story contains racially sensitive language.
MUNCIE, Ind. -- What happens in Muncie tends to stay in Muncie.
Not for the same reasons things that happen in Vegas stay in Vegas, per se. Events in this fading former industrial town of 65,000 are more ho-hum than hush-hush.
But the salacious happenings in Muncie on June 24, 2007, could not be contained at the city limits. When the simmering hate at Ball State came to a head within a dysfunctional athletic department, the news ultimately went national.
On that June Sunday morning, typed notes reading "NIGGER LIAR CHEATER" were found under the doors of the men's basketball offices at Ball State University. And the aftershocks that rippled out of mundane middle America are still being felt.
A state with a sketchy racial reputation was freshly maligned. A town was tainted, a campus smeared, a basketball program crippled. Even the alleged victim of what his lawyer calls "a hate crime" has been presumed by some to be the actual perp. The nation's most prominent African-American coaching family was bloodied.
Ronny Thompson, son of John Thompson and younger brother to John Thompson III, the builder and the reviver of the Georgetown basketball dynasty, respectively, was the Ball State coach. His first year as a college head coach was a disaster on the court and even worse off it, ending with his resignation three weeks after the notes appeared, amid an investigation of NCAA violations.
"I don't think Ronny Thompson was a bad hire," said school president Jo Ann Gora. "I think he was a good hire that just didn't work out."
If you listen to Ronny Thompson, his lawyer and his former assistant coaches, he was a young coach caught in the crossfire of an athletic department rife with internal strife and mismanagement. He walked into a bad situation that quickly got worse, thanks to poor oversight and leadership. He got insufficient support from his superiors, both on campus and around Muncie, and was told to suck it up and accept it when wrongly accused of NCAA violations. A vindictive Ball State athletic administrator used a racial slur in reference to Thompson and his staff, and they became so distrustful that they began secretly tape-recording conversations. Ultimately, they say, Thompson was the victim of a racist hate crime that the university did not take seriously, forcing him to leave town.
If you listen to some people at Ball State, Thompson quickly angered people by having longtime support people reassigned outside of the basketball program. His reclusive behavior cut him off from the community and he resisted offers of assistance and guidance from his bosses. He had problems adhering to simple NCAA rules, allegedly breaking the same rule about monitoring offseason workouts twice in a year. And they point to another black man who coached basketball at Ball State, Muncie native Ray McCallum, as someone who enjoyed his time at the school.
And if you listen to others in and around Ball State, you get a picture that tars everybody: Thompson, the paranoid, bratty scofflaw who left because of racist treatment but made racist comments in his own right; an athletic administration that was either inept or racially insensitive; and elements of the Ball State community that were so resistant to change they devoured their outsider basketball coach in near-record time.
"There was a cover-up," Thompson told ESPN.com's Andy Katz in August in his last on-the-record comments about the situation. Thompson would speak only through his lawyer, Matthew Keiser, for this story. "There were things that took place on more than one occasion. There's so much more to this process."
Today, Ronny Thompson is back in Washington, D.C. -- recently joining Comcast SportsNet as an NBA and college basketball analyst and mulling legal action against Ball State, according to Keiser. His one-year record as a college head coach: 9-22. The Cardinals' basketball program is trying to regroup under new head coach Billy Taylor, an African-American, but a series of dismissals and transfers has left him with just nine players -- none taller than 6-foot-5 -- heading into Ball State's exhibition opener on Nov. 4. The NCAA is investigating the alleged rules violations by Thompson and his staff; the school is conducting a racial climate assessment; and the athletic department is conducting its own assessment of the working environment in its corner of the university.
It is a debacle with no end in sight, no winners and few hard truths. The only thing that seems certain is this: Ball State had no idea what it was getting when it hired Ronny Thompson, and Ronny Thompson had no idea what he was getting into when he came to Ball State.
"A bunch of people didn't want Coach Thompson there," said Bill Howze, an assistant under Thompson at Ball State.
|Ball State timeline|
March 15, 2006: Ball State reassigns Tim Buckley to a different position within the athletic department.
Apr. 4, 2006: Ball State hires Ronny Thompson.
May 2006: The basketball staff commits a secondary violation by watching off-season workouts. June 2006: Ball State self-reports the secondary violation to the NCAA. March 3, 2007: Thompson's first season ends with a first-round loss in the MAC tournament. The team finishes with 22 losses, the most in school history. May 2007: The basketball staff is allegedly caught watching off-season workouts, a secondary violation. The staff disputes the violation. June 24, 2007: Notes with racial slurs, "liars" and "cheaters" are found in the basketball offices. July 12: 2007: Thompson resigns, although in his letter to president Jo Ann Gora, he says he considers his leaving "termination without cause" because of the "racially hostile" environment. Aug. 8, 2007: Ball State hires Billy Taylor as its new head coach. Oct. 31, 2007: Thompson begins as a Washington Wizards and college basketball analyst for Comcast SportsNet. Nov. 4, 2007: Ball State tips off its season with an exhibition game against Anderson in Muncie.
"It's a chapter in my life I will never forget. It's sad."
A sad chapter
There was no sadness in Muncie on April 4, 2006, the day Ronny Thompson was hired to succeed Tim Buckley as the head coach at Ball State.
"I've heard tremendous things about the support in the community and in the entire Ball State family," Thompson said at the news conference. "I want to win, and I want to win big."
He was confident but inexperienced -- a big name more by birthright than for anything he'd done as a coach. Thompson was part of a Stan Heath staff at Arkansas, and prior to that had worked under Craig Esherick at Georgetown. He was an East Coast guy walking into the cornfields of eastern Indiana for the first time.
"I think there was a definite East Coast arrogance about him," said longtime Muncie Star Press sportswriter Doug Zaleski, who covered Thompson's 15-month tenure at the school. "Just my feeling, I don't think he really liked it here, don't think he fit in here. He was kind of the square peg in a round hole."
Part of understanding the square peg is understanding where it came from. As the son of John Thompson Jr., Ronny grew up watching his father smash racial barriers all the way to the 1984 national championship and three Final Fours in the first half of the 1980s. Perhaps as a necessary means of breaking down those doors, the elder Thompson didn't always play nice along the way.
Big John wasn't only the first African-American coach to win an NCAA basketball title; he performed a hostile takeover. And he had little use for white players at a Jesuit school with an overwhelming white population, and he generally disregarded diplomacy on the way to the game's summit.
These days, in his role as host of a radio talk show in D.C., race is hardly a taboo topic -- especially on the September day when Big John finally talked about his son and Ball State.
"I don't believe black folks are supposed to sit still and take insults the way Jackie Robinson did. I didn't raise my kids to take that kind of abuse," Big John said in September.
Those who know Ronny say he has a lot of his old man in him.
"Ronny has an air of confidence about him," Howze said. "He is just like his father in a lot of ways, and some people didn't like that. [Ball State] is an old, small place that didn't want to change.
"I think they should have hired a different kind of basketball coach than Ronny. I don't think they were prepared for him."
And then there is the task of understanding the round hole that is Muncie.
It famously became known as "Middletown" in the 1920s. Muncie was said to represent the quintessence of middle America, and in many ways it does -- race relations included.
The identity of the person who slipped the racist notes under the doors of the basketball office is unknown, and might never be known. Ball State University police announced in September that their investigation had no suspects and was basically at a dead end.
What's known is that the episode last June climaxed an increasingly tense time at Ball State.
At that point, Thompson and his staff were facing allegations of violating the same NCAA rule for the second time in less than a year -- observing offseason workouts. Thompson and his staff vigorously assert their innocence, although former assistant coach Steve Flint acknowledged briefly being in the weight room with some players. They say the school tried to railroad them into admitting guilt for a minor violation to avoid NCAA inquiry, since the school already was dealing with an NCAA investigation of a major textbook scandal involving other sports. The coaches resisted, saying they would not admit to anything they did not do. Ball State responded with signed statements from eight witnesses saying they saw the Cardinals' coaches violating the rule.
Ball State was ready to implode.
Ronny Thompson was the first major hire for athletic director Tom Collins, who had been on the job less than six months after serving as an assistant AD at Arizona State for nine years. Collins had gotten the job over interim AD Ken Brown, who remained on the staff as deputy athletic director.
Collins was taking a chance on the unproven Thompson. And given the state of the athletic program, Thompson was taking a chance on Ball State.
[Ball State] is an old, small place that didn't want to change. I think they should have hired a different kind of basketball coach than Ronny. I don't think they were prepared for him.
The job already had been turned down by Brad Brownell. The Indiana native was desperate to leave a winning program at North Carolina-Wilmington -- but not so desperate that he would come to Ball State. He interviewed in Muncie and toured the campus, but wound up taking a job at Wright State, a program in worse shape in a lower-profile league and with less history of success than Ball State.
That should have been a warning signal to anyone interested in Ball State, but it didn't appear to faze Team Thompson. John Thompson Jr. and JT III were in attendance at Ronny's introductory news conference, supplying a shot of big-time juice to the Mid-American Conference school's announcement.
The difficulties started long before it was time to play games.
In the summer of 2006, Thompson encountered his first problem with the rules. In July, assistant volleyball coaches were expecting their team to be on the gymnasium floor working out when they reportedly found the men's basketball team playing -- with coaches in attendance. What began as a turf squabble went to the administration, which realized that coaches watching offseason workouts was an NCAA violation.
Flint said the staff watched a signed player work out in an open gym "once or twice," and was meeting with "our guys for academic purposes and weight lifting sessions," and "by the letter of the law it was a violation." But, Flint added, "We were turned in by our own people, and to me it was ludicrous."
At the time Thompson and his staff were being rung up on those secondary violations, Ball State had a bigger NCAA issue on its plate. The school was in the midst of an ongoing investigation of what would ultimately be deemed major violations in a student-athlete textbook scam that did not involve men's basketball. The NCAA Infractions Committee just closed the case last month by putting Ball State on two years' probation and pulling three football scholarships, citing it for lack of institutional control.
That was the backdrop when Thompson's staff was found in the gym. It wouldn't be the last time Thompson and Ball State compliance were at odds.
"If you told him no, he didn't want to hear that," said former Ball State compliance director Dave Land. "When somebody wants to do something, you can't legislate honesty."
Land cited several issues with Thompson during his tenure: the coach wanted to pay a student's way home when it was impermissible; the coach wanted to recruit players Land did not think would be admissible academically; and the staff was accused of handing out shoes to players in violation of NCAA rules.
Keiser said Ronny Thompson denies breaking any rules with the shoes. Feeling betrayed by the people they worked with, the members of the basketball staff quickly became suspicious.
The suspicions mount
At one point during the 2006-07 season, according to guard Peyton Stovall, Thompson instructed his players not to trust white people.
"He had said that," said Stovall, a fifth-year senior who is black. "It kind of bothered me a little bit. It was hard for me to believe. I grew up around white people."
Howze did not refute Stovall's assertion that Thompson told the players not to trust white people. The former assistant coach said Thompson's words and message were taken out of context.
"What coach Thompson meant was that not everyone on campus has your best interests at heart," Howze recalled. "There are people who will try to get information from you and use it against you."
There is no disputing that Thompson used the n-word in talking to the players.
"He used it with the team, and guys [players] used it with him as well," Stovall said. "I guess society has kind of made it all right for us to use it with each other, which is unfortunate."
"All Ronny said, in a teaching environment, is that you guys need to grow up and act like responsible adults, and you need to be smart," Keiser said after speaking with Thompson. "If you go around acting like an n-word, you might be treated like one and it'll reinforce stereotypes at a predominantly white school."
Of much greater issue to Thompson was the alleged use of the word to describe the men's basketball staff -- all of whom, except Flint, were black. Keiser said the staffers were told by Ball State compliance director Kyle Brennan last May that deputy athletic director Brown referred to them as "those n------ downstairs."
That alleged incident occurred during the crisis that finally broke open the department. In May, the Ball State compliance office received a report that the basketball coaches were again monitoring offseason workouts -- their alleged second violation of the same rule in less than a year.
Thompson and his staff refuted the claims. Brennan produced eight signed statements from witnesses who said they saw basketball coaches violating the rules. Keiser showed ESPN.com copies of the statements, all of which were handwritten in what appeared to be the same handwriting.
"It didn't matter what we said. We were told on more than one occasion that the truth didn't matter, that we had to take this pill and swallow it," Thompson said in August.
In the face of these accusations, Thompson sought legal counsel from Keiser in Washington, and began secretly recording conversations with Ball State administrators. Keiser played select snippets of conversations he said occurred between Thompson and Brennan, but the lawyer did not allow the conversations to be re-recorded to verify the other voice was Brennan's. The voices on the tape state that Ball State wanted Thompson and his staff to admit to the second set of secondary violations, whether they were true or not. A voice Kaiser identified as Brennan's also said he would come forward about Brown's alleged racial slur only if "deposed."
We're getting national recognition. It's not so good. We're so ready to just move on.
Brennan declined to comment to ESPN.com to verify or refute the conversation.
Thompson took his complaints about Brown to Gora, the school president, who told him to file a formal action with the university. Thompson did not, believing that the university should not wait for the formality of completed paperwork to address alleged racism.
Around that time, Zaleski said, Thompson's wife, Erica, resigned her position on the board of directors for the Muncie Civic Theater -- a move some people considered a warning sign that the besieged coach was preparing to bolt. But Thompson did not, holding a basketball camp in June and preparing to recruit in July.
Finally, on June 24, a different form of paperwork was filed. The racist notes were slipped under the doors in the basketball offices.
A volatile situation
The doors to the basketball department were locked the morning the notes were found, Howze said, which indicated an inside job. How far inside remains open to widespread conjecture.
Said one member of Thompson's staff: "The sad thing is, more people think Ronny did that himself than somebody did this to us."
Keiser scoffs at the notion that Thompson planted the notes, pointing out that he personally called the FBI and asked it to investigate.
"If my client did that themselves, why would I call the FBI?" Keiser said.
ESPN.com requested copies of all documents from Thompson's office computer from June 1 through his resignation July 12. The memory on Thompson's office computer was erased the day after the notes were discovered, so documents from June 26 forward were the only ones available.
After news spread about the notes, documents show that several people in the community called or came by to offer support to Thompson, who seemed to recede even further from the public eye. Collins e-mailed Thompson, urging him to return calls from the media. Rumors circulated that Thompson was going to resign.
On July 3, Gora met with Thompson's father and JT III in Richmond, Va., in an attempt to salvage the situation. She e-mailed Thompson after the meeting, saying, "I realize I have lots of work to do, but I am committed to doing it. I believe in you and will follow through on the commitments that I made to the family today."
Judging from a subsequent e-mail from prominent agent David Falk, who has worked closely with the Thompson family, Gora's support was too late. Falk wrote to Thompson:
"Unfortunately 2 [sic] little 2 late
The environment has been so poisoned it wouldn't work if she fired the whole athletic dept.
Besides, there would b so much resentment it would be Ken all over again
Finally, u couldn't afford the divorce"
Eight days later, Ronny Thompson made it official. He e-mailed his resignation, asserting in that letter that he believed he was fired without cause because the circumstances at Ball State prevented him from continuing to coach there. Ball State officials insist that they wanted Thompson to stay.
That ended one sordid chapter of the Ball State debacle and opened the next: the recrimination phase.
As people close to Thompson began soliciting their story to various media outlets, they described it as "Watergate" and compared it to the Scooter Libby case. They found several people in the media to listen, notably Michael Wilbon (who was critical of Ball State) and Jason Whitlock (who was critical of Ronny Thompson). A speaker at an NAACP banquet in Hammond, Ind., called Ball State "racist" for its actions and said that the organization is "watching this case very closely."
As a result, Ball State athletics has received disproportionate attention, for all the wrong reasons.
"We're getting national recognition," Stovall said. "It's not so good. We're so ready to just move on."
The moving on officially commences Sunday. That's when Ball State opens the 2007-08 season with an exhibition game against Division II Anderson University.
It will be a welcome moment for new coach Taylor, a black man who was hired away from Lehigh in early August.
"I was looking for someone who understands Ball State and understands Indiana, someone who knows how we fit in the MAC," said AD Collins.
In September, Taylor's office was still threadbare, the transition barely under way.
"The kids are so resilient," Taylor said. "The ones who are on their third coach in three years are great. They've been really receptive and responded very well."
But the lack of numbers and lack of height are scary for a Division I school. And on Nov. 21, the night before Thanksgiving, the Cardinals will face their ultimate test: Georgetown, coached by John Thompson III, is coming to Ball State.
Don't be surprised if the Hoyas go for the kill, in what surely will be the last visit ever by a Thompson to Muncie.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
Information for this story was also gathered by ESPN.com's Andy Katz.