UNC Women’s Basketball Coach Sylvia Hatchell Faces a Reckoning

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Sylvia Hatchell, the University of North Carolina’s women’s basketball coach, used to preach about “the fishbowl.”

“You’re always in the fishbowl,” Hatchell would tell players like Tonya Sampson, a former player who recalled the admonitions in an interview on Friday. “You never know who’s watching. You’ve always got to carry yourself with integrity and the best way you can.”

Twenty-five years after Hatchell and Sampson won a national title for North Carolina, Hatchell’s reputation is in peril and her team is in turmoil. U.N.C. officials, who were told late last month about three episodes that some players thought revealed Hatchell to be racially insensitive and aloof, placed her and her assistants on paid administrative leave and opened a storied program to abrupt scrutiny.

An outside law firm is investigating. Several U.N.C. players are considering transferring. And Hatchell, 67, one of women’s basketball’s most successful and influential coaches and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, is not talking beyond a single written statement.

It seems no one, from high-ranking state lawmakers to parents of players, is certain whether she will coach again at U.N.C., a Southern powerhouse of athletics and academics that has spent years grappling with issues of race. Hatchell’s lawyer, Wade M. Smith, could only say, “I hope she does come back.”

The allegations against Hatchell, privately detailed to university officials on March 28 and in news media accounts in the week that followed, represent a grave test to her 33-year tenure at U.N.C., where she is under contract for just one more season. And although the just-concluded season was modestly more successful than other recent campaigns, Hatchell has lately led a program that felt removed from the one that, not long ago, routinely won at least 25 games a year.

This year, in its first appearance in the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament since the 2014-15 season, U.N.C. (18-15) exited in the first round with a 20-point loss to California.

Hatchell’s critics have been reluctant to speak publicly, in part, they said, because they fear retaliation. After so many years, Hatchell has become an institution at U.N.C., not quite on par with Dean Smith, the revered former men’s coach, but not far off. Many current and former players did not respond to messages, but some who did expressed support for Hatchell, even as they depicted her as a coach of searing, drawling intensity.

The university said it had hired a Charlotte law firm to “assess the culture of the women’s basketball program and the experience of our student-athletes.” Officials have declined to comment beyond that.

The law firm is expected to examine the quality of medical care for players and whether Hatchell had warned her team that “nooses” would await them if they turned in a poor performance against Louisville. U.N.C. officials were also told that Hatchell had urged her team to perform a “tomahawk chop” war cry to fire them up — a suggestion the women resisted — and that she had described players as “old mules.” Some people perceived the comment as a reference to female slaves.

Smith, Hatchell’s lawyer, said the coach “doesn’t have a racist bone in her body.”

He said some players had misconstrued Hatchell’s words, but he acknowledged that she had apologized after an internal uproar about the episode in which people recalled that she had referred to nooses.

“She said words like, ‘They’re going to hang us out to dry. They’re going to take a rope and hang us out to dry,’” Smith said. He added that Hatchell, who did not believe she had said anything improper, initially apologized by saying something like, “I’m sorry you took it that way.”

“The team did not see that as an apology,” Smith said. “I think she thought she apologized.”

But a furor still built, and the university, whose trustees declined to comment or did not respond to messages, will soon have to decide the fate of the coach, who cultivated the modern women’s game and has been known more for her fiery courtside coaching than personal controversy.

“I never encountered any kind of racial slurs or racism,” said Nikki Teasley, a former U.N.C. point guard who went on to a long career in the W.N.B.A. “My experience with Coach Hatchell was very heartfelt, very loving, very kind.”

Teasley, who is African-American, said she did not recall any racially improper comments but did say Hatchell was fierce and demanding.

“After playing and then becoming a coach myself and then a mother,” she said, “you understand that sometimes things do get overheated, and in the heat of the moment you do say some things.”

Hatchell grew up in Gastonia, N.C., a small city 20 miles west of Charlotte, and graduated from a public high school that had only recently integrated. Judge Jesse B. Caldwell III, who graduated from Hunter Huss High School a few years ahead of Hatchell, recalled little friction over integration in the area. Basketball, he said, helped bring people together. At nearby Ashley High School, an integrated team won a state championship in 1967.

Hatchell’s school did not have a women’s basketball team when she was a student. She began coaching as an undergraduate, and she took control of the North Carolina program, already an emerging incubator of basketball players, in 1986.

She became known as a skilled recruiter and drew some of the nation’s top basketball talent to Chapel Hill. Yet to people in and around her program, Hatchell sometimes seemed to be more of a chief executive than a coach. Andrew Calder, a Hatchell deputy since her arrival at U.N.C., was often credited with developing players.

“I learned the game through Coach Calder,” Sampson said. “You knew who the head coach was, but hands-on, no, she wasn’t hands-on when I was there.”

To a point, the formula worked. Lifted by a three-point shot as time expired, the Tar Heels won their only women’s basketball title in 1994. Including that season, the Tar Heels have reached the Final Four three times — far less than programs like Connecticut, Tennessee and Notre Dame.

At their best, Hatchell’s teams played with an attractive, fast-paced style that relied on fast breaks and smart point-guard play. This season she continued to tout her up-tempo offense.

Hatchell’s stature has grown in a state where college basketball is prized. She missed one season, in 2013-14, for cancer treatment, but the next season North Carolina went 26-9 and finished with a No. 9 ranking.

Hatchell’s comeback era came as U.N.C. wrestled with an academic fraud scandal that reached into the women’s basketball program. Although the university was not punished, years of bad headlines, investigations and speculation took a toll. Some players cited the scandal when they chose to transfer elsewhere.

Hatchell, though, remained and, in 2016, received a contract extension. Last year, she signed a deal with Nike: $150,000 for up to four personal appearances a year until 2028. (The contract ends early if Hatchell leaves as head coach.)

Beyond basketball, Hatchell’s Christian faith has long been central to her life and her public persona. More than a decade ago, she started a women’s Bible study in the Chapel Hill area. For the last six years, the teacher has been Rachel-Ruth Wright, a granddaughter of Billy Graham, the North Carolina evangelist.

“I’ve never heard her say one negative thing about any of her players,” Ms. Wright said. “She’s always positive, always excited. She’s just an encouragement all the time.”

The university’s investigation might answer if she went too far in doing so. The Charlotte Observer this week published a scathing editorial about the conduct of college coaches.

“Other women’s basketball programs, including Georgia Tech, have fired coaches in recent years for mistreating players,” the paper, among the state’s most widely read, wrote. “If U.N.C. finds abuse from any coach — men’s or women’s — it should do the same.”

Weeks ago, Hatchell appeared in high spirits at a commemoration of U.N.C.’s only national title.

Hatchell visited a pregame lunch for members of that 1994 championship team, who were later honored on the court.

“She hugged me. ‘Glad to see you’ kind of thing,” Sampson said. “Then she was off, because she had to get prepared for the game.”

Alan Blinder reported from Chapel Hill, Richard Fausset from Atlanta and Marc Tracy from Minneapolis.

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