Sue Murphy was asked to resign as University of Richmond women's lacrosse coach after athletic department officials discovered a parent-operated fund was supporting the team's budget, including travel expenses and senior gifts, The Collegian has learned.
In an interview at her home on Thursday, Murphy said she knew the fund was against department policy and that using it meant she risked losing her job. She was working without a contract while at Richmond.
"My commitment to making sure my student-athletes had a positive experience was a high priority for me," said Murphy, who has 4- and 13-year-old daughters.
The athletic department forbids the use of outside accounts to fund an athletic team, said Jim Miller, director of athletics. Employees found violating the rule are subject to termination.
"The problem with an outside account is that completely innocent purchases appear to be improper because you can't account for the funds," Miller said. "If you can't account for funds, it creates the impression that there were no receipts and no checks. We need to make sure athletes receive no extra benefits. We need to know what athletic funds are used for."
Miller said he had received about 10 e-mails or phone messages expressing divided opinion about the resignation. He declined to comment about the reasons for Murphy's departure -- citing it as a "personnel matter" -- and didn't acknowledge the fund's existence or whether it was the reason for her resignation.
Murphy stepped down March 18 during the middle of her eighth season coaching the Spiders, who are 1-10 this season. Last year, they were 10-9 and Atlantic 10 regular-season champions, but were defeated in overtime at the A-10 championship game against the University of Massachusetts after winning three straight A-10 titles from 2005-07. The team won its first game today against St. Bonaventure 17-15 to open conference play.
Peter Albright, coach of the women's soccer team, has been named her interim replacement for the remainder of the season while the athletic department searches for a permanent coach.
Four parents of current players revealed that many had contributed to the fund to defray the cost of meals for the team and purchase photo albums, frames, fleeces and blankets for graduating seniors. The fund was also used to purchase a team tent for games.
Several parents said they knew they were contributing to supplement the team's travel, but they didn't believe it was a violation of policy. John Townsend, the parent of senior lacrosse player Sarah Townsend, acknowledged that the fund had been in operation for at least four years, before his daughter arrived at Richmond.
One parent was designated to handle and account for donations, Townsend said. He declined to name the parent, and efforts to identify him were unsuccessful. Dawn Townsend, Sarah's mother, said Murphy never explicitly solicited her or her husband for donations.
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Some parents expressed concern that the athletic department didn't care enough about the team, saying that most national caliber programs had multiple assistant coaches and volunteers. Richmond has one assistant coach, Allison Nuzzi, a 2006 graduate.
E-mail messages left for seniors Mandy Friend and Alli Furstenburg were not immediately returned. Other players declined to comment about the reasons for Murphy's resignation.
"I don't think the athletic department has ever supported women's lacrosse," said Dawn Townsend, echoing the sentiments of several other parents. "Murphy was working with the money she had and was doing the best job she could."
The team's annual operating budget is slightly more than $100,000, not including salaries and scholarships, Miller said. The number of athletic scholarships for lacrosse has fallen from 12 to 10.5 during the last five years, but Miller said only once has women's lacrosse used all the scholarship funds allotted to the program during those five years. The NCAA limits women's lacrosse to 12 full scholarships.
"Any assertion that the women's lacrosse program was, or is, not funded in a way that they can be successful is just not accurate," Miller wrote in an e-mail.
Miller contended the team was "virtually fully funded," meaning that the athletic department was financing the team to nearly the maximum amount allowed under the NCAA's rules. He said he was satisfied with the team's performance, citing its three consecutive conference championships.
"Nothing could be further from the truth [about the team being underfunded]," Miller said. Swimming, field hockey, men's soccer, women's soccer and lacrosse are the only Richmond sports with one assistant coach.
Few schools provide all the NCAA's allowable number of athletic scholarships for all sports, Miller said. He cited Richmond's women's swimming and diving programs, which has won eight consecutive Atlantic 10 conference titles with about half the number of permissible NCAA scholarships.
What remains unclear is how money from the parent funds was transferred to the team and whether Murphy handled any of it. If the fund had been used to recruit prospective student-athletes, the university could be subject to a major NCAA rules violation, but Murphy denied that the fund's money was spent on recruits.
Asked whether Murphy's resignation could lead to NCAA violations, Miller said that a now-complete internal investigation into the lacrosse program after her departure indicated that there were no violations.
"The few times there were NCAA issues with other programs, we (the athletic department) were the ones who discovered it, and we were the ones who issued a media release," Miller said. "If there was ever some sort of NCAA issue, we would be open and forthcoming."
In September, the athletic department disclosed that two former coaches of the men's and women's basketball programs had sent illegal text-messages to recruits. And on Feb. 25, former men's tennis coach Steve Gerstenfeld pleaded guilty to a count of receiving child pornography after hundreds of illegal images were discovered on his university computer. He is set for sentencing May 22.
NCAA laws dictate that all expenses and revenues for or on behalf of an institution's intercollegiate athletics program are subject to an annual review by an independent accountant. Jill Redmond, assistant director of athletics and compliance, declined to comment when asked about the NCAA's rules related to funds operating outside the university.
It has not been publicly disclosed how the administration stumbled upon the account, but several sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, confirmed that a parent or parents tipped off athletics officials.
The athletic department formally raises money for its operating costs by soliciting donations for the Spider Club, a part of the university's overall annual fund designated specifically for athletics. Donors may either pledge an unrestricted or restricted grant to the Club. Unrestricted donations can be used to fund any part of the athletic budget, but restricted donations can be specified for a team, for instance, and even further designated for a team's operating costs, be it travel expenses, scholarships or equipment, Miller said.
"You can do anything you want to for your own child," Miller said of parents with student-athletes. "If you're donating money for the team, in an organized fashion, those have to be processed through our donation system."
In a meeting with lacrosse team parents during the Towson University game on March 21, Miller said that "thousands of dollars" were unaccounted for from the parents' lacrosse fund, John Townsend said. That means that the university was not able to track how the money was spent, not that thousands had gone missing. But Townsend contended that the parent operating the outside fund could account for all but about $70. He and another source, who spoke off the record, said about $800 was left in the fund.
Miller did not comment on the reasons for Murphy's departure at the meeting, John Townsend said.
Miller also mentioned during the meeting that several players were asked to reimburse the athletic department for $40 in bowling expenses, John Townsend said. Player eligibility is not affected if the value of a benefit is less than $100, on the condition that the player repays the money.
After the fund's discovery, an investigation into other sports ensued, during which coaches were asked whether they had operated a fund outside the university, two people within the department said. They requested anonymity because they feared retribution for speaking to the media.
Miller said he was sure, to the best of his knowledge, that all of the university's sports were in compliance with the school's rule against use of outside accounts.
Messages left for President Edward Ayers and Juliette Landphair, dean of Westhampton College, who attended the parent meeting at Towson with Miller, were not returned.
This version of the story UPDATES with the team's win on Friday against St. Bonaventure University.
Contact staff writer Dan Petty at email@example.com
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