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"Lesbians, Dykes and Atheists" at Fresno State

(This story was published in 2005).

What is going on in the athletic department at Fresno State? In this Wizard of Odd, it's lesbians, dykes and atheists, oh my.

The firing of female coaches, filing of lawsuits, and allegations of harassment and gender discrimination are now centerpieces of the athletic department at a university that likes to label itself, "Leading the New California." But one of the few categories in which Fresno State is leading these days is controversy.

In less than nine months, two female coaches have been fired and replaced by men. The athletic director resigned just days after harassment allegations were levied against him by one of those fired coaches. An associate athletic director, also part of the harassment allegations, left the school for a new job. And now, the women affected are fighting back.

In late August, one of the fired female coaches filed a lawsuit against the university, in part claiming that members of the athletic department, "would repeatedly refer to certain woman coaches as lesbians, dykes and atheists." Yet another fired female coach, according to media reports, is set to file a lawsuit of her own against the school.

Consider this recent timeline of events at Fresno State:

Dec. 6, 2004: Head women's volleyball coach Lindy Vivas is fired after 14 years at the school by Athletic Director Scott Johnson. According to the campus newspaper, Vivas' firing came seven months after she filed a Title IX complaint against the university with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. That was one of four separate complaints of gender-based discrimination filed by various persons against the athletic department from November 2002 to May 2004, according to USA Today.

Jan. 28, 2005: Johnson announces the hiring of a new head women's volleyball coach -- Ruben Nieves, a man who, according to the official Fresno State athletics web site, hadn't coached women's volleyball in 17 years.

Feb. 9, 2005: Johnson announces he has placed head women's basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein on administrative leave for "allegations of serious violations" of university policy. Included in the allegations are charges that Johnson-Klein inappropriately used athletic department money and took prescription painkillers from athletes. The athletic director announces that during Johnson-Klein's absence, the interim head women's basketball coach will be Adrian Wiggins, a man who, according to the official Fresno State athletics web site, had two seasons of head coaching experience at Division II Cameron University in Lawton, Okla.

Feb. 17, 2005: The Fresno Bee publishes a story saying, "Nine days before she was suspended, Fresno State women's basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein complained of being harassed by her supervisor about her attire." According to the newspaper, Johnson-Klein wrote in an e-mail to athletic director Johnson, "That is harassment I do not wish to deal with from a male supervisor anymore," apparently referring to associate athletic director Randy Welniak, who oversees women's basketball.

Feb. 25, 2005: Johnson, 54, announces he will be retiring from his athletic director position when his contract ends during the summer. During Johnson's tenure as AD, Fresno State's men's basketball program was placed on probation by the NCAA for various rules violations, stripped of some scholarships, found to have used an ineligible player, and rocked by a scandal in which a player was arrested and charged with murder. University president John Welty, in a press release issued the same day, praised Johnson, saying, "“Scott has made a lasting contribution to this university." Johnson himself says, "I know some may want to connect my retirement announcement with items in the news about the women’s basketball coach’s suspension. There simply isn’t any connection."

March 2, 2005: Fresno State president Welty announces that Johnson-Klein has been fired in a news conference carried live on local television in Fresno. Welty cites deceit, misuse of prescription painkillers and fiscal mismanagement as reasons for the termination and, according to The Fresno Bee, presents a 380-page report prepared by the university that accuses Johnson-Klein of violating NCAA rules and university policies.
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July 28, 2005: Welniak resigns his post as associate AD at Fresno State to accept a similar position at Illinois State.

Aug. 23, 2005: Johnson-Klein files a lawsuit against Fresno State, accusing the university of retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment and the lack of support for the women's athletic programs on campus. According to The Fresno Bee, the lawsuit names university president Welty, former AD Johnson and former associate AD Welniak as defendants. The Bee writes that the lawsuit, "reveals some new allegations in the controversy between Johnson-Klein and Fresno State's athletic department. Johnson-Klein claims that Johnson, who announced his retirement in February, inappropriately touched her, and made comments about her body and physical appearance." Additionally, according to The Bee, the lawsuit also maintains that Welty and Welniak "made inappropriate comments about her breasts, cleavage and what they perceived as tight-fitting and revealing clothing." Additionally, the suit says the athletic department "has a long-standing pattern of discriminating against women coaches, specifically those who are lesbian or who complained that women's teams were not receiving funding or support equal to men's."

According to The Bee, Johnson-Klein says she was told that "lesbian coaches were not to be hired at California State University-Fresno." On numerous occasions, she saw or heard her supervisors and athletic department staffers refer to lesbians as "the other team," adding that "you need to be on the home team and not the other team." According to the article, Johnson-Klein said she was told to choose sides and "was instructed not to harbor or foster any type of relationship with any women athletes who were considered lesbians or complained of Title IX violations," the lawsuit alleges. The lawsuit also states that supervisors repeatedly referred to certain women coaches as "lesbians, dykes and atheists," according to the newspaper.

Aug. 24, 2005: Vivas tells the local CBS affiliate that the university's goal regarding female coaches was, "to do anything possible to create a situation where the women would fail." Part of Johnson-Klein's claim against the university, according to CBS 47, alleges that, "The administration in the athletic department would hope that lesbian coaches would lose, so their contracts would not be renewed." Vivas told the television station, "My understanding is that the athletic department would cheer when certain women's programs would lose." "They stole my career intentionally and illegally," Vivas said. The CBS affiliate says that Vivas plans to file her own lawsuit against the university.

Johnson-Klein was considered by many to be the shining star of the athletic department early in her coaching career at Fresno State. Before ever coaching a game, she was married to Chuck Klein in an elaborate wedding ceremony complete with white carriage and attended by 150 family and friends at the home of Fresno State president Welty and his wife, Sharon. The university appeared to not only embrace, but flaunt her heterosexuality by placing a full wedding album of photos on the official athletics website of the university. Johnson-Klein was the talk of Fresno, gracing the covers of magazines and billboards around town, along with landing several endorsement deals and making countless public appearances. She took over a program that had gone 9-20 in the year prior to her arrival and turned it into a 21-game winner. Her first team advanced to the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals, finishing the season 21-13 overall. It was the first postseason bid for the team in 13 years.

The year before Johnson-Klein's arrival at Fresno State, the average attendance for a Bulldog women's basketball game was 552. Her first season, the average rose to 1,462. Last year, attendance increased to 4,351 fans per game, including a school-record crowd of 7,042 for the home opener against Pepperdine.

Vivas, after 14 years of leading the Bulldog volleyball program, was fired in December despite an overall record of 263-167, three NCAA Tournament appearances and three NIT appearances. Her 2004 team, dominated almost exclusively by freshmen, finished 15-13 overall and advanced to the league tournament semifinals where it took a game from the nation's unbeaten and 2nd-ranked team, Hawaii. After that match, Hawaii coach Dave Shoji said of Vivas' Bulldog team, "They were just outhitting us and outplaying us every phase of the game." It was the last game Vivas would coach at Fresno State.

In her final three seasons, Vivas' overall record was 59-27. In 2002, she was named WAC Coach of the Year. Her 2003 squad ranked in the nation's Top 30 in attendance, setting a school record for average, as well as individual-game crowd, drawing 4,708 for a home match at the sparkling Save Mart Center against Hawaii.

The team's use of the new state-of-the-art arena was a bone of contention for Vivas. When the 16,000-seat arena was under construction, it was being billed in promotional literature and on the school's athletics website as the future home for Fresno State basketball (men and women) and volleyball (women). With this beautiful, expansive arena as a key recruiting tool, it appeared the Bulldog volleyball program was looking at a very bright future. But after construction was complete, the university forced the team to continue playing its regular-season matches at the tiny and cramped North Gym. Citing economic concerns, the university allowed only two volleyball matches in two years to be played in the new arena. Those two matches drew more than 7,000 fans, more than double the capacity of the North Gym to which Vivas' teams were relegated.

Despite the 2003 team's record volleyball crowds, Johnson cited low attendance and poor non-conference scheduling as reasons for Vivas' firing. New head women's volleyball coach Nieves, entering his initial season at Fresno State this week, scheduled three home non-conference matches for the team this year. Two of those three matches are against Oregon, a team that has lost 35 of its last 36 Pac-10 matches. According to the campus newspaper, Vivas’ lawyer, Rayma Church, said in a press release after Vivas' firing that Johnson “did his best to sabotage the success of [her] volleyball program.”

With the firing of both Vivas and Johnson-Klein, Fresno State is left with only three female head coaches in an athletic department that competes in 16 Division I sports. Six of the nine women's sports on campus have male head coaches. The lone female head coaches at Fresno State are Margie Wright (softball), Angie Cates (golf) and Becky Malmo (equestrian). Wright is entering her 21st year as head softball coach, having won Fresno State's only team NCAA championship in 1998. She is the only female head coach on campus with more than one year under her belt. Cates and Malmo were first-year head coaches last season.

Whew! All this and not a single reference to Jerry Tarkanian.