Sex harassment claims were behind Cal Poly investigation of volleyball coach

On the surface, beach volleyball hall-of-famer Jon Stevenson coached the Cal Poly volleyball team to national relevancy, bringing success that had been absent from the program since the mid-1980s.

But behind the scenes, players told a university investigative team about a darker side of Stevenson’s story, one in which they accused him of fostering a culture of sexual harassment and intimidation.

According to allegations made in a university investigative report completed and dated April 6, 2010, and released to The Tribune on Wednesday, the coach once attempted to pull one player’s shorts down. It’s alleged he made comments about players’ bodies and would “say things like, ‘(Player B) is a crazy sex addict — all she wants to do is party.’ ”

The report details a road game after which Stevenson allegedly hugged a player, grabbed her face, kissed her on the cheek and whispered in her ear, “I love you.”

Upon receiving the findings of the investigation, then-Cal Poly athletic director Alison Cone recommended to Provost Bob Koob that Stevenson remain as coach, subject to meeting a list of limitations on his contact and interaction with players. Koob agreed. But a review by Cone’s replacement, new athletic director Don Oberhelman, led him to conclude that Stevenson should no longer lead the Mustangs. Oberhelman replaced the coach with third-year assistant Caroline Walters last week.

Asked if there were recent complaints against Stevenson, Oberhelman said, “I can’t say no to that” but stressed that the decision was not a result of Stevenson failing to comply with the conditions.

“This issue has very little to do with this report and has everything to do with my confidence in his leadership,” said Oberhelman, who was hired away from San Diego State in March after Cone retired in December.

“If you’re asking for an ‘aha moment,’ there’s no specific moment, no specific thing that did it. I would just say there’s me being on the job for five months, and I had just gotten to the point where I had seen enough.”

While Stevenson declined the opportunity to comment on specific charges to The Tribune, he told investigators that many of the alleged comments and instances of physical contact were appropriate in the context of volleyball.

He acknowledged hugging and kissing athletes. He denied attempting to pants a player or discussing anyone’s sex life, according to the report.

The investigation, conducted by Cal Poly Director of Employment Equity Martha Cody and Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Preston C. Allen, found Stevenson less credible than the others in a group of 23 witnesses.

The Cody/Allen report also found it more likely than not that Stevenson engaged in the conduct alleged in 12 separate allegations listed and found his conduct was unprofessional. The report found it a very close call as to whether his overall conduct “was severe or pervasive enough to create an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.”

Outside the realm of sexual harassment, witnesses described Stevenson as “odd, paranoid, weird, unpredictable, irrational, crazy and manipulative.” Frequently using the term “mind games,” almost every player interviewed by investigators described an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within the program.

Players reported fearing three-hour phone conversations Stevenson subjected them to, feeling unsafe alone with him and intimidated into giving private details about other players. Some feared he would cut their scholarships if they did not appease him off the court.

Still, Koob said Cone was not in favor of parting ways with the coach who led the program to NCAA Tournament appearances in 2006 and 2007. Reached Wednesday, Cone declined to answer any questions about the decision to keep Stevenson.

“She felt that the allegations, while serious, were not the kind that would result in automatic firing, were correctable, and set up a regimen to ensure that would occur,” Koob said.

“I respected that decision to continue his employment with the university at that time. ... I’m not suggesting that it was a bad decision at all. I think it was a calculated risk and one she was willing to take.”

Had the university terminated Stevenson in 2010, it would have likely had to negotiate a settlement for breaking Stevenson’s employment contract, which runs through the 2012 season.

While the full amount of his roughly $100,000-plus annual salary and benefits would have been negotiable, the coach could have demanded a significant chunk if not all of it.

Koob said the amount it would have taken to buy out Stevenson did not factor into keeping him on staff.

“It’s not something we talked about,” Koob said. “When I empower someone to make a decision, it has to be on the welfare of the student athletes and the individuals.

“I don’t recall talking about money. I don’t think it’s an issue. I think it would be an issue in a negotiation, but since it never reached a negotiation, we never talked about it.”

Cal Poly is currently negotiating a separation agreement with Stevenson. He remains neither fired nor resigned with nearly two full seasons left on his contract and will continue to receive pay until the agreement is reached.

Under terms of the agreement signed by Stevenson and Koob in August 2010, Stevenson was prohibited from phoning or sending text messages to any player for any reason, from discussing the Cody/Allen investigation with any current or former player, and from discussing dating or sex lives with players. He also was required to attend an anti-sexual harassment training course.

In exchange, Cal Poly agreed not to place the Cody/Allen report in Stevenson’s personnel file. Instead, the documents were to be placed in a sealed envelope in the athletic director’s office.

Stevenson declined a phone interview but detailed his expectations in a text message to The Tribune.

“I never did anything wrong and just want the contract to be honored,” Stevenson said. “So if they don’t want me, they will honor the contract I have honored. I wish them all the best and urge them to act in good faith. So if they are willing to ruin my rep that they at least pay out my contract & benefits.”

Some of the players’ charges

Here are some examples of inappropriate conduct cited by Cal Poly’s investigation, based on statements by players who said they witnessed the incidents. Volleyball coach Jon Stevenson denied certain findings and disputed others, saying they were taken out of context:

He once attempted to “pants” one of his players (pull down her shorts).

He repeatedly hugged and kissed certain players on the head and face.

A player reported Stevenson told her, “You’re so beautiful, you have such a great body, you could be the face of the team.”

Several players reported Stevenson invited them to dinner, for a hike or for a run on the beach, along with suggestions they agree in order to maintain a strong relationship with him.

While watching a video of actor Paul Walker (of “Fast and Furious”) in his office with a player, he said, “Paul Walker, he masturbates fast and furious.”

He once displayed a small Latina doll to several players and said, “This is to remind me never to interact with Latino women because they are such crazy bitches.”

During one road trip, he discussed his sex life with several players, saying, “We’ve done the monkey.”

He described a player to a bystander by saying, “She’s becoming a woman, but she’s not fully developed yet.”

He made frequent comments and inquiries into players’ personal lives, told certain players to drop their boyfriends and said he expected to be introduced to potential boyfriends before any dating.

He often discussed players’ personal lives with other members of the team, saying things like, “(Player B) is a crazy sex addict — all she wants to do is party.” He told one recruit, “I can’t wait until you get here because you have good priorities; the girls here only want to have sex and take drugs.”

Read the redacted report

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