Commentary

K-State to blame for messy situation

School's decision to reject transfer request harms own reputation and Romero

Originally Published: May 21, 2014
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

Ever seen improv comedy where the performers start down an odd path and keep going ... and going ... and nobody's laughing? The audience is uncomfortable and eventually really confused, thinking, "What on earth are they doing?"

That is the position Kansas State is in now in regard to the Leticia Romero transfer saga. If anyone was looking for a textbook case on how not to handle a coaching transition and launch a new era for a program, look no further. Kansas State has provided it.

I have seen and reported on some strange happenings in women's college basketball over the years. This Romero/Kansas State dispute joins a short list of the most confounding.

I think of it as improvisational because it seems like with the decision-making process in this case, Kansas State's administration has been making it up as it goes along.

Initially, Kansas State completely denied her release. In the past week, Romero said the administration would release her, but to none of the 100 schools she had included when K-State requested a list of programs she might be interested in.

Kansas State has brought itself negative publicity, has put a foreign teenage student-athlete through nearly two months of stress and uncertainty, has marred the start of new coach Jeff Mittie's tenure and now might be in a legal battle, as Romero is being represented by a lawyer.

All of this was unnecessary. K-State should have released Romero from her scholarship in April, when she made a reasonable request to leave after coach Deb Patterson was fired.

Considering Romero was the team's best player last season, I understand why K-State would have preferred she stay. But once it was clear she didn't want to do that, the school needed to let her go and focus on its future.

Instead, the athletic department denied Romero a release from her scholarship, then an appeal committee did the same thing. In neither case was Romero given a reason for the denial.

When the school received media and social media criticism, it responded by way of Twitter. Athletic director John Currie suggested the former coaching staff had tampered with Romero and suggested that she had not followed procedures in "an honest and forthright manner."

When questioned about that -- or anything else in this process -- Kansas State has said it can't comment, supposedly because of privacy concerns for the student-athlete that it has obliquely maligned via Twitter.

Romero has firmly and repeatedly denied that she was unduly influenced by anyone to leave Kansas State. But how, exactly, is she supposed to prove she made up her own mind about her future? Does Kansas State have to prove that she didn't?

That's where things were when I wrote about this in a story for espnW.com published May 6. But according to Romero, since May 5, Kansas State has dangled the possibility of her still getting her release. She said Currie told her it was up to the committee, not him, and he wrote a letter to committee chairman Pat Bosco. Why would the committee, which was convened for the student-athlete's benefit, have any reason to protest the athletic director changing his mind and granting her request?

After being told the committee still wouldn't agree to the release, Romero said she suddenly found out that she had been released to some schools, but not her initial list of 100 schools. She says she had no idea initially where she wanted to transfer, so she just made a long list of schools, mostly from the BCS conferences. Now she was being told the committee had refused to release her only to the schools on that list, even though the email she received from the committee in April said her release was denied, period.

I don't think K-State's administrators actually [listened to Romero]. That's the saddest and most frustrating part of all this. The administration's attitude toward Romero was dismissive. It treated her more like a problem than a person. And now, it actually does have a problem, one it created.

Huh? Did the committee reconvene? Or was K-State's athletic administration using "the committee" as a smokescreen for revisiting its much-criticized decision? If you were Romero, would you have any idea at this point what in the heck was actually going on?

Admittedly, this is Romero's version of what has happened. Kansas State is not talking to the media about it. This might all be adjudicated, and school officials might give answers in court.

I believe Kansas State's athletic department officials mishandled this from the start. If Romero's account of her recent interactions is accurate, this tap-dancing of, "Maybe you'll get the release after all, but maybe you won't," would be in keeping with how wrong the entire process has been.

I don't say this because I want to bash Kansas State. I'm criticizing the university because what it has done is so perplexing in the treatment of a student-athlete and so potentially harmful to the reputation of the program.

I have lived in Kansas since 1996 and have written a lot about Kansas State women's basketball. I regularly covered the program for several years when I was with the Kansas City Star. Since news of the conflict between Romero and the school broke in April, I have spoken to many sources close to the situation, on and off the record. I wanted to be fair in analyzing what happened. I was open to hearing the K-State administration's side of this. I listened to it.

But I also listened to Romero. And I don't think K-State's administrators actually did that. To me, that's the saddest and most frustrating part of all this. The administration's attitude toward Romero was dismissive. It treated her more like a problem than a person. And now, it actually does have a problem, one it created.

If Kansas State was so convinced that the former staff was tampering with Romero -- even though the administrators didn't tell her that -- maybe it could have said it was waiting until those former staff members had moved to other jobs to release her.

[+] EnlargeLeticia Romero
AP Photo/Waco Tribune Herald/Rod AydelotteWith a release, Leticia Romero could transfer to a D-I school and receive scholarship money while sitting out the required year. Without the release, she would have to pay all her own expenses that year.

But now that has happened. All four of the ex-coaches are at Northern Colorado. Xavi Lopez, the graduate assistant from Spain who helped Romero in the recruiting process and then was hired at K-State, told me he will be going to Northern Colorado, too.

Romero said she has no intention of going there. Former K-State assistant Kamie Ethridge -- whom Currie praised as a "winner" when she was hired as head coach at Northern Colorado -- also has said publicly Romero is not coming to that school.

So what is Kansas State's reason now for denying Romero every school she listed as a possibility? What does the school gain from appearing to manipulate her future for no apparent reason except that it has the power to do so?

I have no idea. I have to wonder at this point whether Kansas State even knows what it's doing or why.

When Currie fired Patterson and hired Mittie from TCU, I understood both decisions. Patterson had success at K-State but just one NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in her 18 seasons -- and that was 12 years ago.

Mittie wanted the Kansas State job not just because he and his wife have ties to the area, both being from this region. It's also a place where he thought women's basketball could have a consistent, large fan base -- because it had that passionate following in the best years of Patterson's tenure. After many years of trying so hard to gain traction for his TCU program, Mittie didn't see that happening to the degree he wanted in the Metroplex. Too many other pro and college sports blotted out the sun for TCU women's basketball.

Kansas State's choice to change leadership with its women's basketball program was a move I think most people who follow the sport could accept and even endorse. I certainly could. But any such large-scale change usually has some fallout. A player wanting to transfer is not at all unusual.

When I spoke with Romero, she praised her teammates. She said she had nothing against Mittie. She had positive comments about the school and her experience in Manhattan, Kansas. But she had come all the way from the Canary Islands to play for the coaches who recruited her. When they were gone, she lost the comfort factor that had brought her so far from home.

People can say she should have given it more time and tried longer to adjust to the new staff. But athletes get only one chance at a college career. When it's done, it's done forever. There are no do-overs. Romero didn't see herself staying at K-State for three more years and really being happy. I think she knows her own mind. I believe she made her own choice.

In the end, I respect Kansas State's choice to make a big decision about the future of its women's basketball program. But I also respect Romero's decision to not be a part of that future. I wish Kansas State simply would have done the same. It could have saved both her and Kansas State a lot of needless drama and difficulty.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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