Stacey Farrell was a wide-eyed incoming freshman at Oakland (Mich.) University in the summer of 2007.
An all-state guard from St. Clair (Mich.) High, Farrell couldn’t hide her enthusiasm over the prospects of playing for Beckie Francis, a basketball coach whose players won on the court and excelled in the classroom.
But for Farrell, all that began to change the summer day the freshmen were summoned to Francis’ office and handed a sheet of paper with team and personal goals and expectations.
Francis — fired last month under a cloud of mystery — began talking about her church and invited them to attend services with her. Then she returned to the subject of how her program operated.
According to Farrell, Francis said: “We don’t fraternize with the men’s team. By the way, are you guys virgins? You guys are virgins, right? You haven’t had sex, right?”
The players were stunned.
“We didn’t say anything,” Farrell said. “We were all pretty much dumbfounded at that point. You’re 18 years old, some of the girls were 17 at the time.”
Farrell later learned from older players that Francis’ remarks were a recurring message aimed at Oakland freshmen — and the start of what players say was an obsession by the coach to control their lives on and off the court.
The older players’ advice: If anyone asks, you are a virgin. You are Christian. You do not drink. You do not smoke. You do not talk to guys. You sit in your dorm room and study.
And, above all, you also watch what you eat.
Farrell recounted Francis’ summer goals-and-expectations meeting in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. Five former players and three others familiar with the program described similar meetings Francis held in subsequent years.
Since Francis’ firing — after 13 seasons, a record 65 games over .500 and two NCAA tournament appearances — Oakland University officials have shed little light on the reasons for her dismissal. The school released a statement at the time that said an investigation had begun in April after concerns about her conduct and behavior and that she had been terminated with cause in June.
Francis and then-Oakland president Gary Russi — also Francis’ husband — have declined multiple requests for comment. Athletic director Tracy Huth accepted an interview with the Free Press, but would not comment on the situation.
Farrell was among 15 former players and others close to the Oakland program who in interviews with the Free Press were critical of Francis. A common thread was that the players — some of whom spent four years in the program and some who left early — felt powerless because their coach was married to the school president and she could not be challenged by anyone in the athletic department.
Three former players offered detailed, on-the-record accounts of their experiences; the others requested anonymity when providing similar accounts because they feared criticizing Oakland would jeopardize their employment or playing status depending on their situations.
Those interviewed told the Free Press that Francis:
- Fixated on their weights, to a point that photos were taken of players in their sports bras and Spandex to chart body changes and that some players developed eating issues.
- Pushed her religious beliefs, insisting players attend church services on trips and showing Christian-based videos on bus rides.
- Engaged in intimidation and emotional abuse, “head games” far beyond common motivational methods used by coaches.
“Mental abuse is definitely the two words that describe my three years there,” said Farrell, who chose not to play as a senior in 2010-11 and was among a large number of players to leave Francis’ program early.
Karli Harris, who transferred in 2010 after one season, said Francis’ behavior bordered on harassment. Harris said Francis focused her attention on a player’s weight, her grade-point average, her social life and whether she attended church services with her.
“It was every day,” Harris said. “It was so stupid. Looking back, it had nothing to do with basketball. The focus on basketball was 8% of her energy, the rest is wasted on other stupid, trivial things.
“It was just head games, constant head games.”
Jenna Bachrouche, who transferred in 2012 after two seasons, said she felt emotionally abused by Francis and was forced to endure religious intimidation from Francis. Bachrouche is Muslim. She also said Francis constantly criticized her weight, although Bachrouche appeared to be anything but overweight.
“Honestly, it was exhausting; it was stressful,” Bachrouche said. “I tried to avoid as much conversation with her as possible. I know it was the same for a lot of other girls. I got stressed out just thinking about talking to her or going to practice or having something to do with basketball. My academics suffered.
“To have someone make you feel so insecure about yourself, for someone to have that kind of power over you, is really, really overwhelming. Looking back on it now, it was just insane.”
“My nature to stay positive”
Beckie Francis’ downfall at Oakland came in stunning fashion.
In October, she received national acclaim for revealing to a Detroit-based Associated Press reporter that she had been sexually abused by her father, now deceased, between the ages of 4 and 13. In the winter, she testified before the Michigan House Education Committee and later lobbied representatives in support of Erin’s Law, bipartisan legislation allowing schools to educate students about sexual abuse.
In April, at the women’s Final Four in New Orleans, Francis received the Pat Summitt Most Courageous Award, given by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, for demonstrating “extraordinary courage while facing adversity in life.”
On May 1, she hired a new assistant. On May 8, she basked in Oakland’s move to the Horizon League, a step up in prestige, at a news conference in downtown Detroit.
Behind the scenes, though, Oakland had started an investigation of Francis’ program, after end-of-the-season interviews with players and their standard anonymous online evaluations of their coach and her program were cause for concern.
Over the years, Francis had received raves in her annual reviews, according to documents obtained by the Free Press under the Freedom of Information Act. Francis, 48, also received healthy yearly salary increases as she compiled a 227-162 record (.584) and her players performed well in the classroom. Bumps in the road came in 2002-05, when she took a three-year sabbatical from coaching for health reasons, and in 2011-12 and 2012-13, when her teams lost more games than they won.
Since Francis was rehired for the 2005-06 season, her reviews were written by Huth, who is overseen by Russi. On her reviews in 2008-11 under the supervisor’s overall rating, Huth wrote: “Outstanding: Performance consistently far exceeds job requirements.” In 2007, Huth wrote: “Represented the women’s program, athletics department and university at all times in the highest regard.”
Francis’ focus on academics was reflected in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rates. Her teams ranked among the highest in the country, with a perfect 1,000 score in four of five years from 2007-08 to 2011-12. The 2012-13 team had the 11th-highest GPA among Division I teams at 3.503, according to rankings released Thursday by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. Oakland has been in the top 25 seven of the last eight years.
Her revised contract, as with the other Oakland coaches, had a structure that included a 15% bonus for a near-perfect or high Academic Progress Rates (991-1,000). Academic incentives were higher than on-the-court incentives: A regular-season league championship earned a 5% bonus and a postseason league tournament title a 10% bonus.
Francis, after three seasons at Stony Brook, started in 1997 with a $50,000 salary as Oakland was making the transition to NCAA Division I from Division II. This past season, in which the Golden Grizzlies went 9-20, she made $126,381. She would have made an additional $10,000 next season.
But on May 30, after what Oakland termed “an internal review,” Francis was suspended without pay pending further review by the school’s general counsel.
On June 12, she was fired at 10 a.m. ET, but it wasn’t announced until eight hours later. That came two hours after another surprise — the school posted on its website that Russi would retire, effective Aug. 1, a date later accelerated to July 1. He turned 67 in April.
No explanation for Francis’ firing was listed on the school’s personnel action form that documented the contract termination.
The school issued a statement about Francis that said in part: “Indications of conduct and behavior of the women’s basketball head coach, that if true could be malfeasance and materially adversely affect the orderly or efficient operation of the women’s basketball program, came to the attention of an Oakland University administrator in April.”
Francis’ most recent contract described termination with cause to include: “Conduct or behavior … or materially detracts from the reputation, image or respect of the program … violation of established university rules.”
The day of her firing, she tweeted: “Looking forward to next phase of life. Gary & I have talked about retiring for a while now-it’s time for both of us. Wish Oakland the best.”
Nine days later, she issued a statement to several media outlets (but not the Free Press): “Instead of focusing on my views with respect to recent events regarding my employment, it has always been in my nature to stay positive. I have greatly enjoyed coaching the student-athletes over the years at Oakland University. I have challenged myself personally, professionally and spiritually, and I am looking forward to the future.”
The exact connection between Russi’s retirement and Francis’ firing — they were married in 1999 — remains unclear. Board of Trustees members have deflected questions to board chairman Michael Kramer, who has repeatedly declined to comment on Russi’s announcement.
Russi’s contract, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, includes a condition that if Russi resigns, both he and the board will refrain from any comments or actions that “might directly or indirectly undermine or disparage the board, individual board members, Dr. Russi, the university … in any manner. … It would reflect negatively on the reputation or image of the university or Dr. Russi.”
“She was fixated on what I ate”
According to former players, Francis was overly concerned about the weight of her players.
This past season, four Oakland players battled eating disorder symptoms developed since they joined the basketball program, according to four people with knowledge of the situation.
“She was fixated on my weight; she was fixated on what I ate,” said Bachrouche, who played two seasons before transferring to Western Michigan in 2012. “I would have to have my teammates sneak me snacks on the road. She would subtly tell me, but most of the times it was through the captains. She would tell the captains to tell me to cut down on my eating because I was eating too much at meals.”
Coaches in the women’s game traditionally approach weight issues entirely different than the coaches of men’s teams. For four years Michigan State men’s coach Tom Izzo, for instance, spoke publicly about center Derrick Nix and his battle with weight. That would be shocking to happen in the women’s game, where eating disorders are more prevalent and the topic is treated with sensitivity.
The Free Press interviewed an expert in the field, Paula Turocy, department chairwoman at Duquesne’s School of Health Science who helped write the National Athletic Trainers’ Association’s position statement on weight loss and maintenance practices in sports and exercise. Turocy was told of the accusations, but not told the identity of the coach or school.
Turocy started with a question: “What training did the coach have in nutrition and weight management?”
Then she added: “With athletic trainers, there’s really no need for coaches to get intimately involved with an athlete’s weight. That’s what we’re trained to do.”
She was stunned that a team could have so many players with eating disorder symptoms.
“I’ve been an athletic trainer for almost 30 years now,” she said, “and I can tell you I don’t think I’ve had four in any sport, including gymnastics, ever.”
Farrell, who graduated in three years, remembered teammates talking to Bachrouche about her eating habits even though she thought Bachrouche was not overweight.
“They would say stuff to her about how much milk she was drinking and this, that and the other, and it was because it was coming from the coach,” Farrell said. “Milk! Who would think that you can only have so much 2% milk when you’re burning off probably 2,000 calories in basketball?”
Turocy said trying to control a player’s caloric intake could backfire on the coach.
“Not only could that impair her performance, which then kind of repeats that cycle of, ‘You’re having poor performance, I’m going to get on you about your weight,’ but it could also make her more susceptible to things like stress fractures, other injuries, because you don’t have all the nutrients you need,” Turocy said. “Then, third of all, if you don’t get enough calories, what happens is your metabolism starts to slow down and then it’s even harder to lose the extra weight, so it’s a three-strikes-and-you’re-out kind of thing.”
Oakland players were disgusted last summer when they were asked by an assistant coach, under orders from Francis, to take off their shirts and pose for pictures flexing their muscles, front and back, wearing only their sports bras and Spandex. This was done so there could be before-and-after photos to show body changes, according to three people with knowledge of the situation.
They also said they felt uncomfortable when Francis participated in regular-season practice sessions because of what they termed her obsession with weight. At Colgate in the mid-1980s, Francis had been a four-year starter and three-time captain.
“She would pass the ball around or try to guard us and she would always touch your stomach or always feel for your stomach,” said a former player who asked not to be identified. “After a while she’d be like, ‘Oh, let me feel your six-pack.’ ”
Eventually, players realized there was a direct correlation between weight and playing time.
“It was a really sickening environment because if you weren’t skinny, you’d be called out,” said a former player who asked not to be identified. “If you weren’t skinny, you wouldn’t play. If you weren’t skinny, it was automatically assumed you were drinking, you weren’t taking care of your body when, in reality, you needed to get thicker, you were gaining muscle.”
Turocy said it could be dangerous for a coach to determine the proper weight of players.
“Just to create numbers out of the top of your head or to give people weight goals without having scientifically determined what is their safe weight goals is not very good health practice,” she said. “The second part of it is coaches need to worry about their sport. If you’re spending all that time worrying about your athletes’ weight, it takes away from what their real responsibilities are.”
The Free Press asked Michigan State women’s coach Suzy Merchant how she handled weight issues with her players. Merchant, a head coach for three seasons at Saginaw Valley State, nine seasons at Eastern Michigan and six seasons at Michigan State, said she never spoke specifically about a player’s weight.
“That’s not something that I’ve ever had conversations about,” she said. “I don’t know what our kids weigh. I always talk about a level of fitness and a commitment to being an athlete. We let our strength and conditioning coach and our athletic trainer work with any kids that may need a little extra. And we also have a full-time nutritionist on staff.”
A Division I assistant coach, who asked not to be identified because it could jeopardize employment, saw Bachrouche, a 6-0 forward, play in high school and at Oakland and never thought her weight needed monitoring.
“She was not someone you looked at and said, ‘If she ever got in shape, she’d be a pretty good player,’ ” he coach said. “She looked solid and strong. She did not look fat.”
Bachrouche said Francis challenged her to a weight-losing contest before her sophomore season. She also said the constant attention about her weight took a psychological toll.
“It’s still something I’m kind of trying to work through now,” she said. “Literally, anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a health nut. I eat so healthy. I was raised on organic food and Mediterranean food, so it’s healthy, healthy, healthy.”
Carrie Banner Aprik is the nutritionist Oakland’s athletic department uses as a contract employee, but she didn’t want to address the issues with the basketball program when contacted by the Free Press.
“I don’t feel comfortable commenting,” Banner Aprik said, “because I didn’t have much interaction with the team while I’ve been there.”
Matt Herrema was an Oakland athletic trainer in 2010-13 and among the teams he primarily worked with was women’s basketball. He declined comment and is now a trainer at Davenport University, an NAIA school in Grand Rapids.
“No one was immune”
During Francis’ 13 seasons at Oakland, 36 players of the at least 170 listed on rosters left the program early. In the last two years, seven players left, an alarming number for any college program with a roster size around 15. By comparison, the Oakland men’s basketball program had 18 players leave over the last 13 seasons under coach Greg Kampe.
According to Free Press interviews, no one in the athletic department challenged anything Francis did because she was thought to have the ultimate job security: Her husband was Russi, the school president since 1995. As a result, upperclassmen regularly would explain to freshmen that no one was permitted to question Francis on anything or there would be consequences.
Francis’ rule about not fraternizing with the men’s basketball team runs counter to what is common at other schools, where players from the men’s and women’s programs often root for one another and socialize, even date. At Michigan and Michigan State, officials said there was not a policy about fraternization among student-athletes.
Players also said in Free Press interviews that after receiving the “virgin talk” as freshmen, it was not emphasized on a regular basis, although it was mentioned.
Players said overall that Francis’ off-the-court control was “suffocating” and that she ruled by “intimidation.”
“With me it was because I had a social life outside of basketball,” Farrell said. “She couldn’t understand how I could perform in practice, perform in the games, have a 3.7 GPA for almost my entire career at Oakland and still be able to go out with friends, and I had a part-time job at the Palace (at Auburn Hills) the entire time I was in college.”
Farrell was disturbed during her freshman year when she learned of Francis’ comments when teammates’ names appeared on a campus police report.
“She had a conversation with the captains and said, ‘You know, I’m just really disappointed because out of all my freshmen I just thought it would be Stacey’s name that was going to be on that (report),’ ” Farrell said. “She was always looking for reasons to pin me as the bad seed.”
Their problems escalated in 2010 after Oakland lost an afternoon game to Oral Roberts, 91-87. Farrell had played two minutes.
“After the game, hours passed, and I guess Coach Beckie was watching film and she gave me a call about 10 o’clock at night and told me the reason why we lost the game was because I didn’t cheer loud enough when my teammate made a free throw,” Farrell said. “I was sitting on the bench at the time and she was watching film and she must have zoomed in on me and I didn’t stand up to clap on that made free throw and that was the reason we lost the game.”
Farrell said she received an e-mail from Francis the next day saying she had been suspended and could not come to practice or be around the team.
Like other former players contacted by the Free Press, Farrell said Francis’ methods tainted her college days. In her final season, she played in 29 of 30 games, averaging 11.3 minutes, 2.6 points, 1.9 assists and 1.9 rebounds.
“I’m tearing up right now because it still bothers me,” she said. “If you’re going to go play college basketball, you had to have some kind of stellar career prior to that. You go in and you go from being the best player on your high school team or AAU team to the one of the worst players on your college team, you still expect to love basketball when you’re done.
“I can honestly say she changed a lot of her players’ outlook on the game because I went from loving it to not even wanting to play my last year in college.”
After graduating, Farrell obtained a master’s degree in sports administration from Canisius. She is a premium sales executive for Olympia Entertainment.
Intimidation at Oakland apparently came in many forms and was not limited to players. Players said assistant coaches were restricted from voicing their opinion if they challenged Francis.
An example of Francis’ control: An assistant coach brought an infant son on a 2010 road trip to South Dakota State. With the team in a study session, the baby was sleeping in a carrier when the assistant was sent by Francis to run a short errand, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who was present on the road trip. The person said that while the assistant was gone, the baby began to cry and Francis picked up the carrier, placed it in the hallway and returned to the room. The baby was left alone in the hallway for about 10 minutes until the assistant returned.
No one in the room questioned Francis’ actions, not even the assistant coach, who is no longer with the program. Two others confirmed the account.
On her Twitter account @Coach_Beckie, Francis states her bio as: “Loves God. Child abuse advocate. Coach.”
Current assistant coaches declined to comment for this story, and current players say they have been ordered not to talk about Francis with the media.
Harris, a 5-4 guard from Fishers, Ind., decided after one season that she could not handle playing for Francis. As a freshman, she played in 28 of 30 games, averaging 6.0 minutes and 0.9 points. She transferred in 2010 to Davenport, where she became an All-American as a senior and led the Panthers to the NAIA Division II championship game this past season.
“I went through the same stuff everybody else who went there went through,” Harris said. “Every single person, whether they played 40 minutes or two minutes, went through something with her. No one was immune.”
Harris said she drew the ire of Francis because she told a joke to a teammate. She said she was chewed out by the coach that night — her birthday — and Francis “made me cry pretty hard there.”
“She told me I laughed too much,” Harris said. “I was the team clown because I made a joke in the hallway one time. She kept me after dinner.”
“If you’re not a devout Christian”
Francis used “Pray to Play” as a team motto. Several former players told the Free Press that they were bothered by how she continually referenced her Christian faith and pushed the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. They said she wanted players to attend church services on trips, and she showed Christian-based videos on bus rides.
While many coaches use Twitter to tout their program, Francis’ tweets often had religious overtones. Eleven of her 14 tweets between May 30 and June 9 — the last ones before she was fired — were faith based or referenced Bible verses.
Bachrouche, whose mother is Christian and father is Muslim, as are she and her two siblings, thought Francis might be trying to convert her to Christianity.
“It felt like it, I know that much,” she said. “If it felt like it, that was probably what she was trying to do.”
Bachrouche described a day in October 2011 when Francis told the team it would watch film. Bachrouche said Francis pulled her aside to say, “Jenna, we’re going to be watching my testimony in church. I think it would be really, really, really good for you if you came in and watched it. But you don’t have to, but I think it would be a really, really, really good idea if you did.”
Bachrouche said she felt pressured to say yes and to be with her teammates.
Bachrouche also said Francis “encouraged” her to attend Christian church services with her, and Francis would not speak to her when she refused. Bachrouche said Francis made her attend a Christmas party at her home at which Bible verses were read.
“I just want people to be aware of what she did and has been doing and just to educate people that things like this do happen at the collegiate level,” Bachrouche said. “I know the NCAA has never, ever, ever had a case with religious discrimination or anything like this.”
After the Free Press reported June 26 that Bachrouche said she was emotionally abused and forced to endure religious intimidation from Francis, Oakland issued this statement:
“At the conclusion of the 2011-12 season, a women’s basketball student-athlete requested a transfer release from Oakland University. OU granted her release and also supported her request for a waiver so that she could play immediately at another NCAA institution. At that time, she raised issues of non-secular conduct and behavior on the part of the women’s basketball head coach. The athletics department, under the auspices and at the direction of the general counsel, immediately commenced an internal review that resulted in appropriate corrective action being taken.
“Since that time, the university received no reports of continued non-secular conduct or behavior.”
Farrell said Francis made a regular habit of pushing her Christian beliefs.
“I was raised in a Catholic home,” Farrell said. “I just would never pressure my views on other people. Like in the Jenna (Bachrouche) story, things that were said to be optional, we all knew they were not optional.”
Harris said she felt the religious pressure.
“If you’re not a devout Christian that goes to FCA and goes to church every week and wants to pray constantly,” Harris said, “you’re not going to play if you’re different in any way.”
“I cried tears of happiness”
Oakland University has tried quickly to move past the events of June 12, when at 10 a.m. ET it fired Beckie Francis, its longtime basketball coach; when at 4 p.m. it posted a release on the school website announcing the retirement of its longtime president and her husband, Gary Russi; and when at 6 p.m. Francis’ dismissal was announced in a news release.
The Board of Trustees immediately appointed an interim president, Betty J. Youngblood, the school’s associate vice president for outreach. At its next meeting June 26, which Russi did not attend, Youngblood was sworn in. A national search will be conducted for a permanent replacement. Russi, who did not have an end date in his contract, had a base salary of $350,000 and made $437,500 in total compensation.
Athletic director Tracy Huth appointed an interim coach, Jeff Tungate, a 1993 Oakland graduate and the associate head coach of the men’s team for seven seasons. On Tuesday, at the OU Fan Fest at the O’rena, Huth announced the interim tag had been removed for Tungate, who will have a multi-year contract. His 20 years in college coaching include five as the head coach at Lincoln Memorial, an NCAA Division II school in Tennessee, and one year as a women’s assistant at Oakland Community College. He also was an assistant coach of the girls team at Clarkston High, his alma mater.
Tungate declined to discuss Francis’ departure, preferring to talk about how he considered his new job a big break for his career and how quickly his new players had shown they wanted to play for him.
“I told the team that we’re moving forward, and this is the way I’m going to do things,” Tungate said. “We kind of laid out the plan and the vision for what we want to do and accomplish and how we’re going to go about it.”
Russi and Francis continue to decline interview requests. Since June 12, Francis, a frequent Twitter user, has posted only two tweets, on July 4 and July 12: “Love July 4th holiday. Great chance to find mt biking trails. #stonycreektoughtobeat” and “Pure Michigan! Can’t beat this weather. #bestincountry.”
The biggest unanswered questions remain the relationship between Francis’ firing and Russi’s retirement announcement on the same day and why players on the 2012-13 team, in essence, broke a code of silence through anonymous evaluations and postseason interviews that were critical of Francis and her program. Former players told the Free Press that they felt powerless because of Francis’ ties with Russi and that their complaints stayed among themselves. Once the code was broken this year, Oakland started an internal review and then further review by the school’s general counsel.
Top Oakland officials have kept all other details as a closely guarded secret. Multiple other staff members have told the Free Press that under no circumstances were they to speak publicly about Francis or Russi.
“The problem was she was the wife of the president,” said a former player who asked not to be identified. “It was so frustrating because you couldn’t run to anyone. Tracy (Huth) couldn’t do anything; the assistant coaches couldn’t do anything because at the end of the day, their boss went home to her.”
Jenna Bachrouche, meanwhile, prepares for her first season on the court at Western Michigan and hopes to contribute much more than the 4.0 minutes, 1.3 points and 1.0 rebounds from her sophomore season at Oakland. She had to sit out last season after transferring but nonetheless said “this place is like heaven. I just love it.”
Stacey Farrell, now 24, will continue touting the virtues of the Tigers and Red Wings in her sales position with Olympia Entertainment.
Karli Harris, out of basketball eligibility at Davenport, will continue as a nursing student and join the soccer team next month.
The three women and the other former players interviewed by the Free Press were pleased that Francis had been fired.
“I cried tears of happiness when I found out she got fired because I was so, so happy for those girls that they don’t have to go through that — or the girls coming in,” Bachrouche said. “The future basketball players don’t have to go through that.”
Contributing: David Jesse. McCabe, Snyder and Jesse write for the Detroit Free Press, a Gannett affiliate.
Courtesy of USA TODAY and the Detroit Free Press.