Cal State Fullerton bought out the contract of its women’s basketball head coach amid numerous allegations of unprofessional conduct from his former players.
Daron Park’s exit came less than 72 hours after the Daily Titan contacted him and the athletic department for comment about his treatment of players.
Eight former players talked to the Daily Titan in recent days detailing allegations, including threats to take away scholarships and verbal abuse.
Saturday, the athletic department announced that Park was “stepping down” from the team and that the two sides “mutually decided to part ways.”
One of Park’s former players said phrasing his departure as “stepping down” was letting him off too easy.
“I think it’s a huge cop out,” said former CSUF women’s basketball player Jessica Palmer. “It’s all, excuse my language, but bulls***.”
Park finished with an overall record of 32-89 over four seasons in his first stint as an NCAA head coach and had one year remaining on his contract.
His departure came less than two weeks after the Daily Titan reported leading scorer Iman Lathan had left the team, the latest member of an exodus that has seen more players leave the Titans than the team has won games over the last two seasons.
The athletic department was informed of the dysfunction in the women’s basketball program at least a year ago, according to an email obtained by the Daily Titan. Former player Karima Gabriel sent an email to Senior Associate Athletic Director Steve DiTolla in April 2016 informing him of her concerns for her former teammates under Park’s leadership.
“As you may recall from our conversation during my exit meeting, I chose to leave the program due to personal reasons. Though this was true, I omitted my distaste with Coach Park’s conduct toward players and staff out of respect for the opportunity I had received and the commitment to a program that I did not keep,” Gabriel wrote in an email obtained by the Daily Titan. “I find it imperative that administrative attention is paid to this matter.”
“Opportunity” and unkept commitment were not the only reasons players were afraid to speak up.
“He would indirectly threaten and say, ‘There’s a lot of people out there who want scholarships’ and ‘I got coaches here who can recruit, so we can find somebody, if you don’t want to do it, we can find somebody else who does want to do it.’ He would say stuff like that all the time,” said former Titans forward Xava Grooms.
Distrust between Park and his players began to brew within a short time of his arrival at Fullerton. Within just a few weeks of Park being hired, Palmer—who said she had been awarded a medical scholarship by the university after tearing her ACL prior to the season—said Park made it clear she was unwelcome.
“He made her feel like she wasn’t a part of the team,” said former Titan Kathleen Iwuoha. “He was changing the codes to the locker room and (said) she needed to clean out her locker, and she wasn’t to be around the team anymore.”
Exiling Palmer didn’t sit well with the players on her team.
“For him to throw her away, even though her body basically gave up on her, it was just like ‘how do you do that to a person who you don’t even know, you didn’t even get to know?’” Iwuoha said.
Former player Tailer Butler also said she felt Park tried to get her to leave.
“He was threatening us to take our scholarships away if we did something stupid in practice,” Butler said. “When I was in a game, he called me stupid, and one of the assistant coaches during the time had told me he called me stupid.”
Iwuoha said she felt Park didn’t care about her at all during her two years playing under him.
“It was just all a mind game,” Iwuoha said. “Everything was about him and how he wanted things and he wanted to kind of wipe out my entire class that I came in with so that he could get all his players because he felt like we were all untrained, uncoachable players.”
Several of the players Park inherited when he took over said they felt as though he wanted to force them out to make room for his own recruits. However, nine of his recruits have left in the team’s past two seasons.
Gabriel, Lathan, Dani Craig, Michelle Berry, Madison Crawford, Portia Neale, Kimari Hollis, Keimeshia Walker and most recently, Jordan Jackson have all departed from the Titans over the past two seasons.
When reached for comment on the allegations Park’s former players were making against him, DiTolla sent a statement to the Daily Titan:
“As sport supervisor, we are currently undergoing a thorough review of our program and this past season.”
Park did not return a request for comment Sunday. In an interview with the Daily Titan Wednesday about the season, Park said the change in mindset from the current generation compared to past generations may have something to do with the number of transfers, using an example of his own parents telling him to “suck it up” during tough times.
“This generation I don’t think does that as often and I’m not saying that’s right or wrong,” Park said.
More than the loss of any roster spot or playing time, some of Park’s players said he took something much simpler from them.
“The mind games with threatening to get rid of my scholarship, and that kind of stuff, that was the scariest part, because I didn’t have any other way to pay for college,” said former Titans guard Chelsea Austin. “He just drained the passion and the love for basketball out of me.”
Harrison Faigen and Christopher Sheats contributed to this report.