32-year Brandeis coach is contesting this forceout play
November 15, 2006
By Barbara Matson, Globe Staff
Mary Sullivan is sitting on the edge of a sofa in the small living room of her Marshfield home, trying to make sense of the last two months. Her lank, blonde hair hangs to her shoulders, framing an unsettled face. She’s not comfortable, and she shifts around on the couch as if springs were poking her. This is not easy.
Sullivan holds a sheaf of papers in her hands – mostly letters of support from former students – and looks at them hopefully, then lays them on the coffee table and shuffles through them, stopping to scan a page, trying to find something that isn’t there.
She’s looking for a reason.
For 32 years, Mary Sullivan was good enough to be the softball coach at Brandeis University. Then suddenly, she was not.
After devoting her entire professional life to Brandeis – softball coach, volleyball coach, physical education teacher – Sullivan was abruptly fired at the end of July. The school offered her two months’ severance pay in exchange for signing a waiver promising not to criticize the university, and then stopped taking her calls.
“I’m 54 years old,” said Sullivan. “I’ll never get another job; who’s going to hire me now?”
She declined the offer and has filed a claim of age discrimination with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. There’s no way to reclaim her sense of self.
This is not how the Somerville native expected to leave the only job she’s ever had, shoved out the door a year short of the 55-year-old limit to start receiving retirement benefits. Her husband, Richie, is a self-employed lobsterman, so the couple depended on Mary’s job for medical insurance.
It gets worse.
Athletic director Sheryl Sousa, a 1990 Brandeis graduate, played on Sullivan’s teams in both volleyball and softball for four years. It was Sousa who fired her.
20 wins weren’t enough
Division 3 athletics used to be a sleepy little corner of college life, a place for students who liked to play sports and compete. At Brandeis, about 300 students play on 21 varsity teams, but the Judges are known as academic hotshots, not jocks. Still, students from three decades remember playing on Sullivan’s softball team as the core of their college experience.
Sullivan joined the Brandeis athletic department when she was 22, after graduating from Boston State College. In addition to coaching softball, she started the Brandeis volleyball program and coached the varsity for 25 years. She also assisted with women’s basketball for several years, and taught physical education, including swim classes for scores of frightened students who needed to meet the university requirement.
When Title IX transformed athletic departments across the nation in the 1970s, Sullivan worked hard to implement the changes. “I was on a lot of committees for equality for women,” she said, “fighting for women’s rights in athletics; basically, the things that allowed Sheryl to be in the position she’s in.”
Sullivan was well-liked, respected, and provided a role model strong enough to send a batch of players on to careers in coaching: players such as Karen Farrell, now the volleyball coach at Case Western Reserve; Mary Tom, volleyball coach at LaSalle; and former Brandeis volleyball coach and current AD Sousa.
Not every softball season Sullivan coached was spectacular, but there were some good ones. Sullivan was named New England Women’s 8 Conference Coach of the Year in 1993, and the Judges won that league title in 1990 and 1993, and the inaugural University Athletic Association tournament in 1995 after switching leagues.
Sullivan’s team went 20-24 last season, a dramatic improvement on the previous year’s 9-27 struggle, with essentially the same players. Six recruits were on board to start school in the fall. So Sullivan went to her postseason evaluation meeting with Sousa in early June full of confidence.
Instead, the AD told her she had not met expectations and that she was not going to get a merit raise.
“She just blasted me,” Sullivan said. “She wasn’t happy with the team. She said winning 20 games was not an accomplishment and that a lot of the teams we beat had records less than .500. I was very upset with that. I took it as an insult. We played very good softball. We were competitive the entire season.”
Sousa told Sullivan to submit a report outlining her plans for improving the team. In the next six weeks, Sullivan handed in several reports, each of which was rejected. Revisions were demanded, until finally, Sullivan said, Sousa asked her to write an analysis of each player’s strengths and weaknesses, along with a projected lineup and a batting order. It was a tall order in July, and with six recruits expected to challenge for playing time, but Sullivan did it.
Sousa summoned Sullivan to her office July 20.
“I sat down and she just said, `I’m terminating your contract with Brandeis,”‘ said Sullivan.
Sullivan, stunned, stammered out a request to stay one more year to help her recruits adjust to the program and to allow her the opportunity to resign with dignity.
Sousa said the decision was final. And then the AD asked her if she wanted a party.
There is no one who will dispute, embellish, deny, or dismiss Sullivan’s story, because Sousa will not comment. According to Brandeis director of media relations Dennis Nealon, the university never discusses personnel matters.
For Sullivan, Brandeis was family. She and her husband have been married 33 years but have no children.
“It was so hard,” she said. “When I came home, I didn’t know how I was going to tell Richie. He was so mad for me.”
A lot of Sullivan’s former players were angry, too.
“Mary was the reason I went to Brandeis,” said Farrell, who came to Waltham from Evanston, Ill. “Playing for her for four years, I had a great experience. I decided to go into a career in Division 3 athletics.
“Mary’s such a standup person, so honest, so caring for her team and her players; a lot of teams would be lucky to have her. It’s disappointing that a coach would not be allowed to finish.”
It is the nature of teaching that it is sometimes best if veteran coaches move along to make room for new mentors with fresh ideas. And it is also true that coaches get fired.
But the refrain that has echoed across the Brandeis campus and through the alumni network the last two months is: “C’mon, this is Division 3. This is Brandeis, for goodness’ sake.”
“I have some confidence if you work hard and do the right things and teach your players, you should never be fired,” said Farrell. “I wouldn’t expect to be and I would hate to be at an institution where winning is a catalyst for keeping your position.”
Even Division 3 schools with longer and stronger athletic histories don’t fire coaches. Sometimes they get pushed out, but they are allowed to retire.
“I think I’d have to really screw something up for several years to get fired,” said Babson hockey coach Jamie Rice.
Brandeis made a commitment to its athletic program with the 2003 hiring of Jean Eddy, senior vice president for students and enrollment, who put an emphasis on improving sports. A new artificial turf soccer field, encircled by a new track, and illuminated by new lights, puts a fresh face on Brandeis athletics. But firing Sullivan has blemished the look.
“I can’t understand it or the way it was handled,” said Judy Houde, who coached tennis and taught physical education for 30 years at Brandeis, until 2003, when she was “allowed to retire” at the age of 60. “I’m telling you, [Sullivan] had kids that couldn’t even catch the ball [when she started]. Jean Eddy would have done a better job if she had built another library. That’s who Brandeis is, and bravo for that.”
Words of support
The student newspaper, The Justice, reported in September that complaints from a number of players led to Sullivan’s dismissal, but other players, including last year’s captain, Mari Levine, and this year’s captain, senior Christina McWilliams, defended their coach in a flurry of letters to the editor. Even the complaining students later hedged.
“We had no intentions [of getting Sullivan fired],” said Marissa Rubin, one of three players who acknowledged stating their dissatisfaction with Sullivan. “It was completely inappropriate.
“We wanted just to continue to improve. We were just frustrated that it’s the same thing every year. We have the potential to be such a good team. Not necessarily the right decision was being made to what team was out there.”
“I’m very happy with [softball],” said McWilliams, a senior. “It’s been really enjoyable. Coach Sullivan, she devoted herself to the program and it was nice to be part of that tradition.”
Levine said evaluations are solicited from athletes at the end of every season in every sport. “They’re interested in what athletes have to say,” she said. “But this definitely wasn’t the whole team. I think it was handled unprofessionally.”
Elissa Glucksman, now pursuing a joint degree in social work and public policy at the University of Connecticut, said the softball team was her center at Brandeis.
“I was completely shocked,” said Glucksman, a third baseman. “Maybe after my junior year – it shouldn’t have happened, but I could see someone saying it because we were 9-27 – but we had 20 wins my senior year. We had such a turnaround, I would never have seen it coming. I know some people were upset with how their playing time went, but I can’t believe that’s what the athletic department based the decision on.”
`It’s extremely upsetting’
Some alumnae, whose teams had prospered under Sullivan, felt as if they had been dismissed along with their coach.
“I was a four-year starter and a cocaptain of the 1990 Women’s 8 championship team,” said Bethany Joseph, a geriatric social worker who lives in New Jersey. “My four years, we made the finals every year. I was very proud of that.
“I loved being at Brandeis. I loved putting that jersey on. You have to start wondering what’s going on, where is it going to land in 10 years, because there’s no going back. It wasn’t conceived to be like every other school; that wasn’t the plan.
“It’s extremely upsetting. I’m wondering what happened to the Brandeis I went to, that taught me about priorities. It doesn’t feel like that university anymore. I mean, nobody’s choosing to go to Brandeis next year because the softball coach has been replaced.”
As Lauren Perlmutter (Class of ’93) wrote in a letter to university president Jehuda Reinharz, rather than fire Sullivan, “I would have imagined that you would have celebrated such a career.”
What would prompt a university with such a powerful academic reputation, a school that embraces social justice, to start lopping off people who didn’t fit anymore?
The Brandeis athletic department has many longtime coaches. Now that one has been dismissed for failing to produce adequate results, it feels as if a strong wind has blown in from UConn or Ohio State.
“It’s Brandeis,” Joseph said. “If you’re going to spend that much time playing sports, Brandeis is not the school for you.”
In September, Brandeis hired Jessica Johnson, 28, to coach the softball team. A two-time All-American at Wheaton, Johnson coached Mount Ida to a 13-26 (8-4 NAC) record last year.
Mornings used to be easy for Mary Sullivan: Get up, go to school. Now, there’s an empty space. Some days, she goes out on the boat with her husband; she could help him with banding lobsters, but really, she’s there because she has nowhere to go.
“I just go out on the boat and watch him because I don’t know what else to do,” she said. “For 40 years, I went to school.”
And later, she sits on her sofa, trying hard to understand. Sullivan shuffles through her papers again and looks up, clear-eyed but bewildered: “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Barbara Matson can be reached at email@example.com
Credit: Barbara Matson Globe Staff. BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF
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