CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Two days after a report on allegations of mistreatment and racism in the University of Illinois women's basketball program leveled that a former assistant coach treated players harshly, head coach Matt Bollant said he wants to change the tone.
After the season ended in March, seven former players accused Bollant and ex-assistant coach Mike Divilbiss of mistreating them and using race to try to drive unwanted players off the team, and filed a lawsuit last month. Wednesday was the first time since that Bollant or any of his coaches has spoken to reporters.
Current assistant coach Tianna Kirkland, who is black, said none of the women ever mentioned concerns to her and that she never saw any racist behavior from Bollant or Divilbiss.
Bollant said Wednesday he didn't know what drove the players' accusations, which were called unfounded in Monday's report by a university-hired law firm.
"I really don't. I don't want to speculate," he said.
The report noted Divilbiss' tone and language with players could be "harsh," though not abusive. He left the program in May under what the school has called mutual agreement and has not commented.
Bollant called Divilbiss, who was in many cases the primary voice players heard during games, a friend and a good coach, but an "old-school guy." The both coaches came to Illinois in 2012 from Wisconsin-Green Bay.
"When we came here, we had a standard of excellence that we were pushing and we wanted to get to," something the team had fallen short of before his arrival, he said. The report also said the players' unhappiness grew after a losing streak and suggested at least some of the complaints may have been driven by diminished playing time.
Bollant said he now wants the program to reflect his demeanor.
"I'm a positive, optimistic, upbeat person," he said. "I want to program to be a reflection of me."
Kirkland, who started in 2012 along with Bollant and Divilbiss, said she was baffled by the players' accusations.
"I'm a minority myself — I've experienced racism myself, in my life, and I never saw anything I thought was racist going on," she said. "I had a lot of conversations with some of those girls, a lot of conversations. It was not brought up."
Terry Ekl, the attorney who represents the players, said he wasn't surprised by Kirkland's statements.
"Any present member of the U. of I. coaching staff, concerned over continued employment, would support the position of the university," Ekl said in an email.
Both Bollant and Kirkland said they plan to make clear to players that they can talk to the coaching staff, particularly Kirkland and associate head coach LaKale Malone, about any problems.
The team leaves Monday for a series of preseason games in France.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.
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