For the University of South Carolina's women's basketball team, these have been tumultuous times. Barely a month ago the Lady Gamecocks boasted a 7-0 record, the No. 2 ranking in the national polls and a future so rosy that Coach Pam Parsons was openly talking about embellishing her already successful, if ofttimes stormy, career with the national championship. That dream now lies shattered. Parsons is out of a job, having resigned last month under initially mysterious and still troubling circumstances. Since her departure, the Lady Gamecocks have lost six of 11 games to fall out of the Top 10. They have been so decimated by dropouts that at one point last week, the team had just six players. As a result, the man who succeeded Parsons, former Assistant Coach Terry Kelly, was reduced to placing a notice in the campus newspaper, Gamecock, announcing open tryouts for new players.
Explanations for the stunning reversal in the Lady Gamecocks' fortunes vary with who's talking. One interpretation is offered by Parsons, 34, a Brigham Young-educated, self-styled pioneer of women's sports who breezily describes herself as "a simple little redheaded, left-handed, pigeon-toed girl from Utah." Parsons believes that the troubles that have befallen her are a matter of persecution, pure and simple. "In men's basketball, they want coaches who produce," she says. "In women's sports, they want women they can mold, women who will roll over and die. And I won't die." Be that as it may, the more immediate reason that Parsons' high-flying program self-destructed is a staggering array of allegations of financial, academic, recruiting and sexual improprieties, exacerbated by her own knack for stirring up controversy and emotions. Beyond what they say about Parsons' own program, the details of her downfall suggest that women's college basketball, having only recently gone big-time, is still suffering growing pains and that women still aren't always comfortable in the fiercely competitive caldron of high-powered team sports. Those details also are a reminder of the enormous influence that coaches wield, for good or ill, over the young people in their care.
The central figure in the sorry saga, Parsons, has a career record of 151-73. She formerly coached at Old Dominion (1974-77), where her success in recruiting Nancy Lieberman, Inge Nissen and other stars laid the groundwork for the Lady Monarchs' national championships in 1979 and '80, although by that time Parsons had moved on to South Carolina after a public squabble with Old Dominion Athletic Director Jim Jarrett. Parsons immediately made herself conspicuous at South Carolina—a trim, immaculately groomed figure who appeared at courtside in low-cut dresses or ensembles consisting of, to take one eye-catching example, disco pants slit at the ankles and a purple tube top. One of her team's media guides, as slick as a Saks Fifth Avenue catalog, bore the credit line, "Ms. Parsons' fashions furnished by Rackes," the latter being a Columbia, S.C. clothing store. After she arrived on campus the nickname of the team was changed from Chicks to the slightly ludicrous Lady Gamecocks. She unsparingly berated referees and players, and when sports-writers therefore referred to her as the Bobby Knight of women's basketball, she berated them, too, asking heatedly, "Why aren't there any women they can compare me to?"
Parsons' operation at South Carolina was volatile from the start. In contrast with NCAA rules, which provide that transferring athletes ordinarily must sit out a year before playing at a new school, the AIAW's code makes it possible for such athletes to play immediately, one proviso being that they can't always receive an athletic scholarship during their first year at the new institution. The rule is well-intentioned, predicated on the notion that as students first and foremost, athletes should be able to participate immediately in all student activities, including intercollegiate basketball. But the rule has resulted in shameless raiding by coaches and in wholesale ship-jumping at the slightest hint of a leak. The revolving door has been especially busy at South Carolina. Before this season, no fewer than 18 players had quit the Lady Gamecocks during Parsons' reign.
To be sure, one of the fugitives from Parsons' program, Cheryl Autry, a guard from Rome, Ga., says that she transferred to the University of Georgia only because she was homesick, adding, "Coach Parsons was good to me. That lady was sharp. She dressed so well. She wouldn't let us wear jeans on the plane. She wanted us to look like ladies. Our team was classy. Everybody commented on our dresses." Now working as a mechanic in a textile mill in Calhoun, Ga., Autry says, "I grew so much as a person under Coach Parsons."
But other South Carolina players, past and present, say that Parsons was erratic, dictatorial and inclined to play favorites. Parsons also was loose with the rules. In 1980 the Lady Gamecocks were put on probation because, among other things, she had sent flowers to a high school star, a breach of an AIAW rule prohibiting "inducements" to recruits. On another occasion Parsons was so devastated by a loss in a tournament at the University of North Carolina that she confined herself to bed in a motel and refused to coach the next game, relenting only after her players, hoping to cheer her up, sent flowers to her. "She was so mentally drained that she made herself physically ill," recalls a former player, Suzanne Woolston, who eventually fled South Carolina for Old Dominion. Another critic of Parsons is Forward Evelyn Johnson, a junior on the current South Carolina team and kid sister of Magic Johnson, who also lost a coach this season, for reasons, some say, of his own doing. Says Evelyn, "Under Coach Parsons you couldn't stand up and voice the way you feel. It was her way or no way."
Parsons sometimes liked to leave the impression that she took such complaints in stride. "You have to close your eyes to criticism," she said after her resignation. But, in fact, Parsons was anything but mild-mannered, often seething when things didn't go her way. During the 1979-80 season, in which the Lady Gamecocks finished third in the nation with a 30-6 record, Parsons angered team members following a galling defeat to Clemson by forcing them to wear T shirts bearing the legend CHICKEN CHOKE to practice and on campus. Last season the emotional roller coaster the Lady Gamecocks often seemed to be riding took some new dips and turns. During a game in a tournament in Los Angeles, All-America Guard Frani Washington, who had transferred at the start of the season from Ohio State, refused to return for the second half after Parsons upbraided her at courtside and in the dressing room for asking for advice on strategy from the team's assistant coach, Karen Brown. Two weeks later, after a 78-57 home-court win over North Carolina State, it was Parsons who didn't return to the court with the team at the start of the second half, and after the game, threatening to quit, she rushed into the Carolina Coliseum parking lot crying, followed by her tearful players, who pleaded with her to stay. The mother of one South Carolina player says that she later asked Parsons about the incident and that the coach replied, "I had my period." Other sources say, however, that Parsons was still unhappy about the influence of Brown, who was left at home when the team departed the next day for Ohio State. Brown thereupon quit, as did, six days later, Administrative Assistant Linda Singer, with whom Parsons had been sharing a house.
Parsons continued to feud both with Washington and with another player, Pat Mason, who had transferred at the start of the season from Kansas only to have a rift develop between herself and her coach. According to Mason, Parsons frequently told team members, "You'll never be anything without me." At a team meal in Knoxville before a 65-54 loss to Tennessee, the coach asked players to bow their heads in prayer for Washington and Mason, "for they are troublemakers." After the next game, an 82-54 win over Mercer in Columbia on Jan. 15, Mason's mother was visiting the dressing room when, Mason says, "Parsons walked in and said, 'O.K., everybody out. I don't want anybody in here but my team.' She looked at my mother and said, 'Moms out.' That was so cold. I thought, if that's all the respect you have for my mother...." Mason quit the team the next day, claiming that Parsons had told her she'd "ride the bench forever." Mason told the Gamecock that the team was "a cult and she is Jim Jones. I wasn't willing to be manipulated to the point that I don't have a mind of my own." In another jolting development. Washington was declared ineligible by the AIAW five days later, following the discovery of discrepancies relating to her academic record at Ohio State. The Lady Gamecocks forfeited eight games, making a 21-9 record 13-17.
The public turmoil surrounding the 1980-81 season can be at least partly explained by allegations that, SI has learned, were being lodged against Parsons with university officials. One accuser was Brown, who at one point hired a private detective to shadow Parsons. Now the women's basketball coach at Winthrop College in Rock Hill, S.C., Brown says she turned on her boss because she knew of many transgressions, wanted them stopped and was conscience-stricken about her own role in the wrongdoing. Brown says she told university officials, including William F. Putnam, associate dean of business administration and NCAA delegate, and then-Athletic Director Jim Carlen, about financial dealings that Parsons allegedly had had with Mason and Washington. As transfer students, under AIAW regulations they weren't permitted to receive housing allowances for playing basketball during their first year at South Carolina, but Brown claims such payments were made to both women. Mason and Washington say so, too. "I told the university that Parsons gave me $800 in cash to pay Pat Mason's housing and that she or Linda paid for Frani's housing," Brown says. Brown, Washington and Mason call the university's response to that information unsatisfactory, and Mason terms it a "cover-up." Washington and Mason say they were told by athletic-department higher-ups that any funds they received were loans and that they were expected to pay back all the money. The extension of loans to first-year transfer students could violate AIAW rules, too. At any rate, both women deny that the payments were loans, and both also tell of other improper transactions.
"I was told that in coming to South Carolina I wouldn't have to pay a cent," says Washington, now a non-basketball-playing student at the University of Toledo. "Then all of a sudden Parsons comes to me and says I owed $865 for housing." Washington says she was also given money for a flight home to Toledo, another probable violation of AIAW rules.