Traci-Waites

Editor’s Note: This article was pitched to multiple well-known publications. While nearly all of them expressed interest in the story, they all said that Columbia women’s basketball wasn’t a big enough program for them to cover. I felt that this story deserved to be told though, so I decided to publish it here at ScreenPicks.com, the site that I founded. While it is an admittedly unusual place to run, it does allow me the opportunity to tell this story in its entirety, and to share all of the information that I uncovered.

On the morning of February 3, 2005, Columbia women’s basketball point guard Sue Altman entered head coach Traci Waites’ office. Altman had planned to watch some film with Waites one hour before a scheduled practice. The Lions were preparing to face Yale in New Haven the next day, and then travel to Providence to take on Brown a day later. It was a key road trip for a team that had exceeded preseason expectations, sporting a 9-8 record overall, 2-2 in the Ivy League.

Before Altman could turn on the television, associate athletic director Merry Ormsby walked into the room.

“Dianne Murphy would like to see you now,” Ormsby said.

Murphy was Columbia’s new athletic director who had been hired over the previous summer, one month after Waites. She officially started the position in December 2004.

Waites went up to Murphy’s office, and Altman proceeded to watch film. Waites never came back downstairs. An hour later, Altman went to Levien Gym for practice, and Murphy was there with assistant coaches Tory Verdi and Tasha Pointer.

“Traci Waites has been indefinitely banned from campus,” Murphy said to the entire Columbia women’s team. The players sat in stunned silence.

Murphy proceeded to introduce Verdi as the interim head coach. She referred to Verdi as an “honorable coach,” implying that Waites had something dishonorable. Murphy also told players that they could not discuss Waites’ departure with the media.

“I was shocked, confused, wanting answers, and frustrated that we couldn’t get any,” Altman recalls. “I was also exhausted. The team had been through a lot over the years.”

For years, many in the Columbia community assumed Waites had done something horrible. Wild rumors were whispered around campus as athletes and coaches guessed what could have forced Waites out so suddenly.

To this day, Columbia will not discuss the reasons for Waites’ departure. And for ten years, Waites was silent. Until now. When reached at her home in Georgia, Waites provided a fairly surprising explanation for her departure from Columbia.

“Excuse my language,” Waites said. “But it was an f—ing beer.”
 

Traci Waites’ Story

When Waites entered Murphy’s office, both the athletic director and associate athletic director Al Carlson were seated inside. Murphy pushed a two-sentence resignation letter across her desk.

“I can’t allow you to have a beer on the road,” Waites recalls Murphy saying.

According to Waites, Murphy explained that there was a school policy that prohibited coaches from drinking alcohol on road trips. Waites says that she was unaware of this policy, but she did acknowledge having one beer while the team was staying at a hotel.

“We are going to escort you off campus, and don’t contact anyone,” Murphy told Waites.

“I was escorted off campus as if I were a criminal,” Waites says.

Waites cannot recall the exact road trip, but a look at the schedule reveals it may have been a trip to Western Kentucky on January 17, 2005. It might have also been a weekend trip to Dartmouth and Harvard from January 28-29. A former Columbia athletic department employee who regularly traveled with the team could only recall Waites drinking once on the road – a celebratory drink on New Year’s Eve the day before the Lions were playing at Eastern Michigan on January 1.

Waites says she had the beer in a coffee mug and shared it with Ormsby at a hotel bar. At her table were two other Columbia employees, including the one just mentioned previously. The coffee mug was used just in case in players came downstairs after they had supposedly gone to bed the night before a game.

“It was not unusual for Columbia coaches to drink on the road,” the former employee said. “But it was an unwritten rule that you’d generally try not to do it in front of students.”

The former employee also claimed to be unaware of an official alcohol policy until our interview ten years later.

Prior to her final meeting with Murphy, Waites says the athletic director had only spoken with her once. Waites said she was initially enthusiastic about the Murphy hire. Murphy had been a women’s basketball head coach at Florida State, Eastern Kentucky, and Shorter College, and after moving into athletic administration, she had served on a number of NCAA committees for women’s basketball. This included the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. The opportunity to work with an athletic director who prioritized women’s basketball excited Waites. But that excitement quickly dissipated.

In their first conversation, Murphy told her: “If you don’t do well here, then you’ll never coach anywhere ever again.”

It turns out that Murphy was right about the last part, as she has helped prevent Waites from receiving other coaching jobs to this day. More on that later though.
 

Who is Traci Waites?

Traci Waites hit two game winning free throws for Rockdale High School in the 1984 Georgia State Championship Game.

Traci Waites hit two game winning free throws for Rockdale High School in the 1984 Georgia State Championship Game.

It’s worth knowing who Traci Waites is before proceeding further. A native of Conyers, GA, Waites starred at Rockdale County High School and led her team to a Georgia state title in 1984. She decided to play college at the University of Georgia for Andy Landers, and as a freshman she helped take the Bulldogs to the 1985 NCAA Championship Game.

Waites eventually transferred to Long Beach State, and took coach Joan Bonvicini’s team to the 1988 Final Four. Waites is the only player, man or woman, to have played in two Final Fours with two different schools.

“She understood the game,” Bonvicini said. “A lot of people are skilled and can play, but Traci really saw the game on many different levels.”

After playing professionally in Italy, Waites became an assistant coach at Santa Monica College, and was eventually promoted to head coach. She later joined Bonvicini’s staff at the University of Arizona as an assistant from 1994-98 before she received her first major head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Her background made her a little rough around the edges,” says Avie Bridges, her friend and mentor who hired her at Santa Monica College. Bridges was the former women’s basketball head coach at Alabama-Birmingham, and she is now dean and athletic director at Santa Ana College in California. “She was very good at mentoring student-athletes and getting them to perform at a level beyond what they normally do.”

Waites in her first season at Pitt

Waites in her first season at Pitt

In her second season, Waites led the once moribund Panthers program to a rare winning season and a berth in the WNIT. Waites was named co-Big East Coach of the Year, and she seemed like a coach on the rise. But the program suffered through three straight losing seasons, and Waites was fired in 2003 by former interim athletic director Mark Boehm. Waites says her firing was partially due to her use of profanity towards players.

Boehm is now an associate athletic director at Nebraska. At first, he wouldn’t discuss Waites’ dismissal from Pittsburgh.

“It’s not all about wins and losses,” Boehm said. “There were more things involved than just the record.”

When asked if Waites was let go because of both her record and the profanity, Boehm responded: “That’s accurate.”

Her former top assistant coach, Bill Broderick, felt there was a double standard applied to Waites. Currently the head coach of the women’s team at Christopher Newport University, Broderick has decades of experience in college basketball.

“Ben Howland was the men’s coach [at Pittsburgh] back then, and he used profanity all the time,” Broderick says. “Mike Krzyzewski uses profanity in practice. All of the men’s coaches do.”

After leaving Pittsburgh, Waites took a break from coaching for a while. She had gone through a difficult five-year stretch that included the death of her brother James Waites from AIDS in 1998 and a car accident that killed her sister Sharon in 2003.

In the meantime, Columbia was dealing with the oddly-timed departure of its women’s basketball head coach Jay Butler in June 2004. While Butler hadn’t been successful at Columbia, his decision to become an assistant coach at Centenary College in Louisiana came as a surprise.

Athletic Director John Reeves had retired from Columbia at the end of the school year, and the school had yet to replace him. Interim athletic director Paul Fernandes put Ormsby in charge of the search. Traci’s sister Keisha Waites, who today represents the 60th district in the Georgia House of Representatives, saw the opening and took it upon herself to send Traci’s resume and bio to Ormsby.

“At the time I wasn’t looking at coaching. But I came once and talked to Merry Ormsby candidly about my past. I came back the second time and knew I wanted to be [at Columbia],” Waites said to me back in 2005 for a Columbia alumni magazine article that was never published.

During the interview process, Waites won over players and athletic department officials with her commitment to discipline and her knowledge of the game, and she was hired in July of 2004. Murphy was hired as the new athletic director one month later, coming over from the University of Denver.

Under Waites’ leadership, the Lions looked like a much-improved team. Players also seemed to like their new coach.

“She had a lot of energy and she was enthusiastic. She was a breath of fresh air for the program,” Altman said. “She was pretty tough, but she got along well with the players.”

Waites also said she learned from her experience at Pittsburgh.

“I didn’t do any cursing at Columbia,” Waites says. “I made a conscious effort not to do that. I learned my lesson.”
 

Columbia’s Version

Part of what makes this story so unusual is the lack of information provided by Columbia and nearly everyone who was part of the athletic department. Columbia’s silence is still maintained to this day, and most athletic officials claim to have no knowledge as to why Waites left.

Columbia Athletic Director Dianne Murphy

Columbia Athletic Director Dianne Murphy

Murphy is leaving as Columbia’s athletic director on Monday, April 13, but she is still refusing to discuss the departure. Through Columbia’s sports information department, she issued the following statement:

“Traci Waites was hired as Columbia’s head women’s basketball coach in July 2004, approximately one month before I accepted the position of athletics director at Columbia University in August 2004. Traci resigned as Columbia’s head women’s basketball coach on February 5, 2005. Columbia is a private university. All personnel matters are confidential between the University and its employees. We do not comment on personnel matters to the media.”

Two things should be noted about this statement. First, it’s probably a mistake, but Waites actually resigned on February 3. Second, it’s interesting that Murphy feels the need to mention that she didn’t hire Waites. It plays into a belief that Murphy never wanted Waites hired as the head coach for a program she probably cared most about. More on this later though.

In the meantime, other past and present Columbia employees have been equally unhelpful. Most who were contacted refused to respond to me. Others did have short statements either claiming ignorance, or refusing to speak. Carlson is still at Columbia and he sent back a short terse e-mail saying: “I think you know that I am not allowed to comment on personnel issues.”

After serving as interim athletic director, Fernandes went back to being an associate athletic director. He left Columbia in 2008 for a job in the Ivy League office, and he’s now retired. Through e-mail, he wrote:

“My recollection was that Traci left for personal/family reasons. I believe she needed to be closer to her family and that required relocation. Since she was reporting directly to [Ormsby] at the time, I wasn’t in on exactly what was transpiring at the time.”

When told of the story about Waites drinking a beer, he responded:

“The info you have provided is new to me. I don’t have any additional information to provide to you. Hope you are able to sort it all out.”

Reached by phone at her home in New Jersey, Ormsby claimed to have no knowledge as to why Waites left, and expressed disbelief when she was told of the information previously reported.

“I had no idea that Traci Waites was going to be resigning that day [February 3, 2005],” Ormsby said. “I thought Traci Waites was a good hire and she was winning. I told her that I’d write her recommendations.”

Ormsby admitted that she did write a letter of recommendation for Waites on two separate occasions for jobs she would apply for in later years. But it seems odd that she would do so while claiming to not know why Waites resigned. Waites says that Ormsby knows why she left, and the two discussed the situation.

Ormsby also left Columbia in 2005. Waites suspects that it was related to her situation, and that would seem like a reasonable explanation. When asked why she left, Ormsby angrily responded: “That’s personal!”

Ormsby went on to compliment Murphy’s leadership.

“Dianne Murphy really knew what she was doing,” Ormsby said. “She really wanted to change the culture.”

Ormsby grew more angry throughout the interview. When asked if she wanted my contact information should she remember any more details, Ormsby shot back: “Absolutely not!”

She ended the phone call by repeatedly saying the phrase: “Leave Traci alone! Leave Traci alone!” and didn’t respond when I noted that Waites wanted her story told.

According to Waites, she receives a notification from MyLife.com every few weeks stating that Ormsby is searching for her personal information. The notifications increased to daily after Ormsby was interviewed.

The only other time Ormsby was interviewed about Waites post-2005 was by a reporter researching the story in 2007. Ormsby refused to discuss Waites, and she immediately called Murphy, tipping off the athletic director that the story was being investigated. No story ever ran.

Another odd wrinkle in this is Waites’ coaching staff at Columbia. Former Rutgers star Tasha Pointer got her start as an assistant under Waites. Now an assistant coach at her alma mater, Pointer was asked to speak about her former boss. Via e-mail, she wrote a bland statement about her “awesome experience” at Columbia, completely ignoring my request to interview her and not mentioning Waites at all.

When told of the story about Waites being let go for drinking, Pointer eventually wrote back:

“In regards to Traci, there are no specifics I can present that can shed any new light on her departure. I am unaware of any of the circumstances referencing her dismissal. Thanks for the inquiry and have a great day.”

The next big question is what role Verdi may have played.
 

Verdi’s Role

Tory Verdi was Waites' top assistant Columbia. He is now the head coach at Eastern Michigan.

Tory Verdi was Waites’ top assistant Columbia. He is now the head coach at Eastern Michigan.

Being hired in the summer of 2004 posed a challenge for Waites in terms of putting together a coaching staff. Most collegiate coaches were already entrenched in their positions and they were preparing for the upcoming season. The normal spring window for coaching hires had long closed.

Waites was visited in New York by former Kentucky women’s basketball coach Bernadette Locke-Mattox, who had moved on to become an assistant coach with the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. Locke-Mattox was also a Georgia alum, and she was an assistant for the Bulldogs when Waites played there. Locke-Mattox came to Columbia’s campus with Verdi, who at the time was a 31-year old lower level assistant with the Sun. At Locke-Mattox’s recommendation, Waites hired Verdi to be her top assistant, but the two did not get along.

According to Waites, Verdi had multiple “phone calls that were inappropriate with a recruit.” When asked what she meant by “inappropriate,” Waites said: “I know how a male coach is supposed to speak with a player on the phone. This didn’t sit right. It sounded like he wanted a date.”

Waites reported Verdi’s behavior to Ormsby, who was her direct supervisor. Ormsby said she would talk to Verdi and address the issue. However, in my interview with Ormsby, she claimed to have no knowledge of this. Waites said she confronted Verdi about this as well, and she planned to fire him after the season.

Verdi refused to be interviewed for this story, but back in 2007, he told the same aforementioned reporter that the Columbia staff “wasn’t always as professional as we could have been on recruiting trips” without elaborating further.

Waites and Verdi only took one recruiting trip together, and that was to Florida in the fall of 2004. While both were in a rental car leaving the airport, Verdi called the recruit on his cell phone to coordinate their meeting. Waites didn’t like Verdi’s tone and told him so, right after the call.

“I admit that I may have gone overboard in chastising him,” Waites said.

The recruit from Florida was reached for this article and agreed to speak on the condition that her name would be withheld from the story. She expressed surprise that anyone would believe Verdi was inappropriate.

“From what I remembered, Tory Verdi was very professional,” the recruit said.

Other Columbia players interviewed said Verdi never spoke inappropriately to them as well.

When told of the comments from the Florida recruit, Waites said: “That was my observation of their conversation. I can’t dispute her thoughts.”

While there is no proof, Waites does believe that Verdi reported her drink of beer to Murphy. Verdi served the rest of the 2004-05 season as interim head coach, and a dispirited Lions team finished 3-7 under his leadership. Verdi went on to become an assistant coach at Nebraska. While it may or may not have been coincidence, the Nebraska athletic director at the time was Steve Pederson, who had previously been the athletic director at Pittsburgh when Waites coached there.

Verdi would stay in Lincoln for five seasons, and then moved over to Kansas for two years. In 2012, he was hired to become the head women’s basketball coach at Eastern Michigan.

Had Verdi been fired after one season at Columbia, then it’s unclear where his career would have gone. But by taking over for Waites so suddenly, Verdi won plaudits from the Columbia administration for coaching under difficult circumstances. He was set on a career path to eventually become a head coach.
 

Singled Out

Waites at Pitt

Waites at Pitt

The motives for Murphy’s decision to dismiss Waites are not entirely clear, but it may have had something to do with the athletic director’s connections to Pittsburgh.

“[Murphy] had a close relationship with people from Pitt,” a former Pitt athletic department employee said. “[Murphy] had it out for [Waites] to have someone else coach.”

Another former Pittsburgh athletic department employee said that Murphy knew former Pittsburgh associate athletic director Carol Sprague. Both have served on multiple NCAA women’s basketball committees. Sprague declined to be interviewed for this article.

By removing Waites for cause, Columbia did not have to pay the rest of her four-year contract that provided a $130,000 annual salary. With the budget savings, Murphy could then hire her own chosen coach for the program. In 2005, Murphy hired Paul Nixon, who went on to have a disappointing 70-153 record in eight seasons leading the Columbia women.

Murphy’s decision continues to follow Waites and it has prevented her from receiving other coaching opportunities.

“This has ruined my life,” Waites said.

After Columbia, Waites applied for numerous coaching jobs. Most schools were afraid to touch her, believing that she had done something terrible to leave Columbia so suddenly. But a few schools were interested.

One of them was Southwest Baptist, a Division II school in Missouri. Dr. Renae Myles had been an academic advisor in the Pittsburgh athletic department from 2000-04, and by 2007 she serving as Southwest Baptist’s associate athletic director. She pushed for the school to consider Waites.

“I’ve always admired what she’s brought,” Myles said. “I’ve always thought she deserved another opportunity at running a team.”

Waites had told Myles how she was dismissed at Columbia, and about the beer incident. Myles called Murphy for confirmation.

Dr. Renae Myles

Dr. Renae Myles

“[Murphy] said ‘Traci Waites worked at Columbia from this date to that date’ and she wouldn’t say anything else,” Myles says. “My bosses needed to know more and I couldn’t provide more. They were quite impressed with Traci, but we couldn’t get any information from Dr. Murphy.”

Myles is now an associate athletic director at Alabama A&M. She said that Waites’ name was put forward for a coaching vacancy there, but again said that questions about her Columbia departure prevented her from becoming a finalist for the role.

“As long as I’m an administrator in athletics, Traci is on my radar,” Myles says. “I believe she deserves another shot.”

If Waites was in fact let go for drinking a beer, then she was unfairly singled out. As noted earlier, a former Columbia athletic department employee said it was not uncommon for coaches to drink on the road. Having covered multiple Columbia sports teams myself for the Spectator and WKCR Radio from 2000-04, I also saw several coaches have beers on the road. Other reporters say the trend continued into Murphy’s tenure.

Furthermore, Waites did not have a drinking problem.

“I spent seven years of my life with her, working very closely, and I never saw her take a drug,” said Broderick, who also worked with her at Arizona. “She was just a social drinker.”

The next question is why Waites stayed silent for so long about her dismissal. Waites only told a handful of people who were close to her.

“It wasn’t because I didn’t want to talk to anyone,” Waites said. “It’s because I didn’t think anyone would believe me.”

“She’s extremely spiritual and felt it was meant to be,” Broderick says. “She wasn’t going to win that battle. And she didn’t want to be somewhere she wasn’t wanted.”

Waites said she considered filing a wrongful termination lawsuit against Columbia. She consulted a lawyer in Pittsburgh who thought she had a case, but he said he couldn’t practice law in New York. Her sister Keisha pushed her to fight, but she wound up not pursuing any action, deciding to do her best to move on.

“Why would a university say that you can’t talk about something? What are they trying to hide?” Waites asks. “Everyone thinks that I’ve done something because they won’t talk about it.”

“I find it pretty appalling that Columbia won’t say if Traci’s story is true,” Altman says. “We deserved a better explanation. This would never happen at another program. They couldn’t get away with it.”
 

Traci Today

After losing her job at Columbia, Waites went back to Georgia, completely devastated.

“I stayed in my bedroom for six months straight,” Waites says. “What I did next was pick myself back up.”

In October of 2005, Waites began volunteering with Chris Kids, an Atlanta-based charity that primarily helps youths ages 16-21 who have been physically or mentally abused. She was eventually hired as a full-time program coordinator until state funding for the organization dried up in 2008.

“Helping those kids … that was like my therapy,” Waites says.

In the summer of 2008, at the urging of Keisha, Waites ran in the Democratic primary for the Georgia state House of Representatives 93rd district. Waites raised virtually no money and barely campaigned, but she still finished in fourth in a six-person race, missing a runoff by less than 1,000 votes.

In 2009, Waites took a part-time job as the head coach of Atlanta Metropolitan College as a favor to a friend. Waites was asked to launch the women’s basketball program for the junior college, but the position only paid $5,000 a year. She left in 2011 and took on a sales manager role with Mattress Firm.

“It wasn’t for me. I was searching to find my niche,” Waites says. “I did pretty well there, but I just didn’t want to do it.”

Today, Waites works as an executive assistant for external requisitions at Robert Bosch, LLC. She recently started in the role full-time.

“I love what I’m doing now. I’m working with great people and I’m learning,” Waites says.

Still, the question of whether Waites will return to coaching remains. Keisha has urged her sister to get back into the business.

“I think that there’s a void in Traci’s life, and I encourage her to seek coaching opportunities,” Keisha says.

Waites says she is done coaching though, and she has been focused on the next chapter in her life.

“I feel like I can breathe now because finally my voice was heard. It was time for me to move forward in my life because it had been sitting in the pit of my stomach forever,” Waites said. “I feel like no matter what I do, I’ll be scrutinized for the rest of my life. I’m not the same person anymore. It’s damaged me so much. I don’t want to go through it [coaching] again. It would have to be something really special.”

“I’m not interested in anything else besides clearing my name. Nothing else,” Waites added. “I’m proud of myself that I got through it. It has taught me a lot about myself.”

 

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