CHARLOTTESVILLE — Members of the Virginia women’s volleyball team secretly recorded a coaches-only meeting in a Miami-area hotel room in March, then complained about the staff to the administration, leading to the firing of the coaches and cancellation of the final three weeks of the season, according to a source.
A member of the dismissed staff, speaking Sunday on the condition of anonymity, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that players used their cellphones, holding them up to the door and adjacent walls of the room where the coaches met for three hours after a 3-0 loss at Miami on March 14 that kept them winless in the ACC.
The former staff member declined to reveal what was discussed in the meeting.
It is unknown if the players demanded the coaches’ termination, but the former staff member said continuing the season at that point would have been untenable.
“It was a rough trip. A lot of trust was broken between both parties on that trip and it would have been a really big uphill battle to actually finish that season given what happened that night,” the former staff member said. “But for the players, I haven’t spoken to any of them, so I have no idea if they were happy with that outcome. If they realized what they were doing was going to cause this or not.”
Virginia fell to 2-12 and was winless in the ACC after the pair of losses in South Florida. On March 17, the school announced the entire coaching staff — head coach Aaron Smith, assistants Nikki Dailey and Joe Klein, and director of volleyball operations Kelsea Kalich — had been placed on “a paid administrative leave pending the review of a personnel matter,” and that the team’s upcoming matches against Florida State and Louisville had been canceled.
A day later, UVA announced the staff had been fired and the remainder of the season had been canceled.
Smith, a Richmond native and former Monacan High School star, joined the Virginia staff in 2011 as an assistant. In 2017, he was promoted to head coach and went 31-74 in four seasons, including a 12-55 mark in ACC matches.
On April 26, Virginia hired Florida assistant Shannon Wells to take over the program.
According to the former staff member, the team returned to Virginia on Monday, March 15. UVA officials interviewed the staff members on Tuesday, March 16, then interviewed a select group of players before deciding to fire the coaches a day later.
The staff found the speed of the investigation unsettling, as well as the fact that they were not told what issues the players had brought to the administration until receiving their termination letters.
The former staff member said none of the terminated staffers have heard the recording, but players told them about it before leaving Miami and administrators confirmed its existence. However, the source said, the official termination letter the school issued did not cite the recording as the cause for the dismissals. That letter contained both true and false allegations, according to the former staff member, though the source declined to reveal what any of those were.
“I’m not proud of everything that happened that day but what they gave for reasoning, I don’t agree with all of it,” the former staff member said.
The coaches’ meeting was a fairly standard session “recapping the weekend” and planning the next week’s practices, though the source said it lasted three hours.
“I remember that night very, very vividly and I don’t remember some of the accusations that they said,” the former staff member said. “But there could have been some miscommunication.”
The University of Virginia rejected a request made under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act by The Times-Dispatch seeking the audio recording as well as a collection of emails from members of the team to senior athletics administrators. UVA said those items were “exempt scholastic records containing information concerning identifiable individuals,” according to the university’s Friday response.
“While I am unable to comment on the details, I do want to commend our student-athletes for their leadership and express my gratitude for how they have handled a very difficult situation,” said athletics director Carla Williams in a statement at the time of the dismissals. “We will continue to support them as our program moves forward.”
An athletic department spokesman said Sunday that Williams had no further comment.
According to the source, the staff was surprised by the level of player discontent revealed in the termination letters. Outside of some player frustration over the coaches’ enforcement of stringent COVID-19 safety protocols, the former staff member said the coaches were largely unaware of the rift that was apparently growing.
“I do care about them and think highly of them. That’s why I have such a hard time with this now,” the former staff member said. “I don’t know if I read them right or misread something or was totally oblivious to another thing. I don’t know. That’s kind of where I’m at with that. I did get some confirmation from other members of the athletic department that the players were very unhappy with the staff.”
The former staff member declined to say whether the fired coaches were pursuing any legal action against the school, but did acknowledge the staff has been trying to obtain a copy of the recording.