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Holy Cross women’s basketball coach steps aside

A former player in a lawsuit said Holy Cross women’s basketball coach Bill Gibbons was "verbally, emotionally and physically abusive."

Steve Lanava/Telegram & Gazette/File 2010

A former player in a lawsuit said Holy Cross women’s basketball coach Bill Gibbons was "verbally, emotionally and physically abusive."

WORCESTER — Holy Cross women’s basketball coach Bill Gibbons voluntarily stepped aside from his coaching duties, one day after he was accused in a lawsuit of verbally and physically abusing his players at games and practices.

The college said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that Gibbons will be on administrative leave with pay and his assistant coaches will assume all coaching duties.

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Gibbons declined comment.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, a former student-athlete alleged that Gibbons physically and verbally abused his players and the college perpetuated a culture of denial and feigned ignorance over his actions.

In the 21-page lawsuit filed in New York, Ashley Cooper, who played two years on Gibbons’s team, claims the coach struck her on the back on more than one occasion, including during a January 2012 game against Brown. The incident caused Cooper to experience pain and left a red handprint on her skin, according to the complaint.

Cooper, 20, claims the coach struck and humiliated her sometimes in the presence of other school officials. She is seeking unspecified damages and lawyers’ fees, according to the suit.

A star high school basketball player from New Jersey, Cooper accused Gibbons of shaking her by the shoulders, yanking her by her shirt collar, and squeezing the back of her neck in anger on several occasions.

“Defendant’s [Gibbons] actions constitute the worst type of bullying because not only is defendant Gibbons her coach and supervisor, but also he is someone she is supposed to respect and instead plaintiff Cooper was in fear of physical pain, suffered emotional abuse and fear of retaliation at the hand of defendant Gibbons,” the suit said.

Holy Cross said Wednesday it had investigated earlier allegations by Cooper, but the lawsuit contains new information, which it intends to review with lawyers, according to a college spokesman.

“The physical, mental, and emotional well-being of our students is our highest priority at Holy Cross. We just received the lawsuit and are in the process of reviewing it,” the college said in a statement Wednesday.

The college’s investigation into Cooper’s earlier allegations found nothing to substantiate her claims, a college spokeswoman said.

Gibbons held a meeting at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Hart Center.

Those in attendance included former and current players, Holy Cross administrators, coaches of other Holy Cross sports teams, and Holy Cross legal counsel.

“We are here to support Coach,” said Anna [Kinne] Patel, who played for Holy Cross from 1996-2000 and later served as an assistant on Gibbons’s staff.

“We are 100 percent behind Coach Gibbons,” added Jeanette [Paukert] Wehrenberg, a Crusaders player from 1998-2002. “I have a 3-year-old daughter and I would not hesitate for one second having her play for Coach Gibbons.”

Journalists were also in the room at Gibbons’s invitation but were subsequently escorted from the building and off campus by Holy Cross police.

Gibbons, entering his 29th season as coach, has the most victories in the program’s history, with a career record of 533-315.

The suit names Gibbons, the college and its trustees, athletic director Richard M. Regan Jr., and associate athletic director Ann Zelesky as defendants.

Zelesky’s employment status has not changed. Regan announced in July he was stepping down as athletic director. A national search is underway for his successor.

Cooper’s lawyer, Elizabeth Eilender, said she was pleased with Gibbons’s decision to temporarily step aside.

“He has no place in collegiate coaching,” she said. “At least I know the current players at Holy Cross will not be subjected to his abuse in the foreseeable future.”

Cooper, who now lives in New York, played guard and was enrolled at the college from September 2011 to May 2013. She accepted a full scholarship to play at Holy Cross after a high school basketball career that featured two state championships.

The suit claims she was forced to leave Holy Cross and enroll in another college to escape the alleged abuse. Cooper’s love of basketball and self-esteem have been damaged, the suit said.

Eilender said Cooper is now a junior at New York University and is not playing basketball. Cooper has gone from a free college education to a $65,000-a-year payment, the New York City-based lawyer said.

“The whole point of the lawsuit was to make real change,” Eilender said. “We just don’t have anyone’s attention at Holy Cross. She’s trying to change things at Holy Cross and all over.”

The lawyer said former Holy Cross players contacted her and relayed similar stories about the coach.

Cooper, a 5-foot-10-inch guard from Colts Neck, N.J., would have been a junior this year. The daughter of former University of Louisville basketball player Tim Cooper, she attended Rumson-Fairhaven High School.

Last year, she played in 21 of Holy Cross’s 32 games, starting in five. She averaged 4.7 points and 1.6 rebounds. As a freshman, Cooper averaged 3.0 points and 1.6 rebounds in 26 games.

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