New Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk is expected to testify in San Diego Superior Court as a central figure in former Aztecs women’s basketball coach Beth Burns’ wrongful termination suit against Sterk’s former employer.
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Burns, who announced her retirement in April 2013, filed a civil complaint against San Diego State in February 2014, alleging that she was terminated in retaliation for her complaints about department’s lack of Title IX compliance.
Title IX is a 1972 federal law that codifies equitable treatment of men’s and women’s sports at public universities. California also has more stringent guidelines, which establish participation targets and funding mandates (including scholarships) above and beyond Title IX requirements, according to the Union-Tribune.
Sterk, who spent last week in Columbia before returning to San Diego, isn’t expected to testify until next week, but Burns’ attorney, Ed Chapin, claimed in his opening statement Tuesday that Sterk destroyed evidence, throwing away notes he kept on Burns a few months after she was fired despite knowing her termination might be litigated.
San Diego State’s lead attorney, David Noonan, denied that accusation in the defense’s opening statement.
Still, among the key pieces of evidence put forth in pretrial briefings by Burns, according to the Union-Tribune, is a May 2012 email Sterk sent to two athletic department staffers regarding a possible contract extension: “I am open to … lengthening her contract if we have ways to separate if she has issues rising to that level (like driving us crazy w complaining). One moment she is fine the next everything is terrible and we do not care about her of the WBB program even after we have invested significant resources the last couple years.”
Sterk was hired Aug. 9 to replace Mack Rhoades, who left a month earlier to become Baylor’s athletic director, and was scheduled to begin his role at MU on or before Sept. 1.
MU interim chancellor Hank Foley’s office confirmed Wednesday that he was made aware of the pending civil litigation during the interview process with Sterk, who is scheduled to travel to West Virginia for the football team’s season-opener Saturday in Morgantown, W.Va.
San Diego State contends Burns was fired for cause based on a review of video evidence that she struck former assistant coach Adam Barrett twice during a 2013 home game against Colorado State.
Missouri athletics issued a statement on behalf of Sterk on Wednesday that said: “My goal is to ensure that all of our student-athletes, coaches and staff are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve and, when this does not happen, I will take appropriate action.”
Former Aztecs senior associate athletic director John David Wicker, one of the staff members who received Sterk’s email, oversaw an internal investigation into Burns’ conduct at Sterk’s behest in early 2013.
Attorneys for Burns said Wicker, who is now at Georgia Tech and might be a candidate to reunite with Sterk at Mizzou, “deliberately misled witnesses” and called his investigation a “farce,” according to court documents.
The Union-Tribune, which obtained a copy of the video through an open-records request directed to Colorado State after San Diego State declined to release the video, said the video shows Burns appearing to “slam her right hand into a clipboard or notepad on the lap of Barrett” and that “Burns swings her right elbow into Barrett’s shoulder” after a poor defensive set.
Barrett, who only coached one season at San Diego State, reached a $250,000 settlement with the school when his contract wasn’t renewed, according to the Union-Tribune.
During 16 seasons with the Aztecs, Burns posted a 295-186 record, including seven NCAA Tournament appearances and one Sweet 16 berth in 2010. Burns is now an associate head coach at Southern California.
Before leaving San Diego State, she won 27 games and had just finished the first year of a five-year contract extension — worth $220,000 annually plus bonuses — that she signed before the 2012-13 season.
Burns is seeking more than $4.5 million, including $1.5 million for breach of contract and $3 million for whistleblower retaliation plus punitive damages, according to the Union-Tribune.
Sterk is one of several current and former San Diego State staffers, including president Elliot Hirshman and men’s basketball coach Steve Fisher, expected to be called as witnesses.