Detroit Mercy women's basketball: Detailing the allegations against AnnMarie Gilbert

·18 min read

AnnMarie Gilbert's issues were known when Detroit Mercy hired her as women's basketball coach.

Her problems with the NCAA happened just 40 miles away, at Eastern Michigan, only a decade prior.

It took less than a year into her latest job for similar allegations to arise.

Detroit coach AnnMarie Gilbert walks the sideline against Michigan State, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 82-45.
Detroit coach AnnMarie Gilbert walks the sideline against Michigan State, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 82-45.

All 14 players are leaving the program, with junior Maxine Moore being forced out late last week and entering the transfer portal. She was among the Titans given the option of keeping a scholarship for a year and remaining at UDM but no longer playing basketball, with one (Nicole Johanson) expecting to remain at the school as a student.

HOW WE GOT HERE: How UDM women's basketball's 'cry for help' shattered dreams, gutted roster

Gilbert signed one recruit in guard Taylor Blunt, a Morgantown, Pennsylvania, native who pays at The Peddie School in New Jersey. She also added Louisiana Tech transfer Friday in Spanish forward Irene Murua, who did not play this winter.

"If this was going to happen at any university, this was the year for it to happen, because there are so many girls in the portal," a former player told the Free Press. "And it's sad. There are going to be enough girls who are that desperate to stay at (the Division I) level that they'll be willing to come and play for (Gilbert), just because there's no other option."

And Gilbert is left with a number of allegations against her, including more potential NCAA violations as a repeat offender, while having to replace an entire roster. A parent of one of the players said they want to make sure Gilbert "can't do this to other kids."

"It's not fair. These coaches, they can get in trouble and go somewhere else and coach," the parent said under the condition of anonymity. "A kid has four years to play college basketball, and they're done. The kids lose out. The kids are always losers in this."

The Free Press spoke to multiple players and parents, who united to send a letter detailing the problems to UDM athletic director Robert Vowels on Jan. 16. Vowels canceled the Titans season Jan. 20, then announced April 15 he planned to keep Gilbert after an internal investigation into the allegations. The school said findings were sent to the NCAA for review of potential violations.

Michigan State's Julia Ayrault, left, and Detroit's Maxine Moore battle for a rebound, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 82-45.
Michigan State's Julia Ayrault, left, and Detroit's Maxine Moore battle for a rebound, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 82-45.

Here is a look at Gilbert's issues, from EMU to UDM.

Past problems

UDM hired Gilbert on April 24, 2020, to replace Bernard Scott, who went 42-109 in his five seasons with the Titans. She arrived after five successful years at Division II Virginia Union. She spent five seasons from 2002-07 as an assistant coach working with guards at Michigan State under Joanne P. McCallie. It included the Spartans' only Final Four appearance in 2005.

When McCallie left for Duke in 2007, MSU hired Suzy Merchant from Eastern Michigan. That provided an opening in Ypsilanti for Gilbert, who who has declined comment through a UDM spokesman. She went 94-64 in five seasons at EMU, produced three straight 20-win seasons and a 2012 Mid-American Conference title and NCAA tournament berth.

But she also encountered significant violations that led to her resignation and an NCAA show-cause penalty — banishment from coaching for two years — for failure to monitor the program, multiple instances of excess practice time and illegally working out recruit. Gilbert sat out the next three years.

“I’m not a perfect person,” Gilbert told the Richmond Times Dispatch when she was hired at Division II Virginia Union in 2015. “I’m not a perfect coach. What I am is hard-working and driven.”

File photo of AnnMarie Gilbert.
File photo of AnnMarie Gilbert.

Gilbert took the Lady Panthers from 48 wins in the five seasons prior to her arrival to a stellar 135-18 record in her five seasons. It included an appearance in the 2017 Division II national title game. Her husband, Jonathan Walker, had been a star men’s player at the school from 1986-90 and also served an assistant under his wife when they returned to Richmond.

Gilbert eventually got promoted to assistant athletic director and senior women's administrator at Virginia Union, which like UDM is a private school and not subject to open records requests.

"She is a very good coach and an even better person,” former EMU trustee Jim Stapleton told MLive in 2015 after Virginia Union hired Gilbert. “I don't know anybody in life who hasn't made a mistake. If she made any mistake here at EMU it's that her passion got a little out of view, but she deserves a second chance and they won't be disappointed in giving her one.”

Gilbert did enough image repair to get back on the Division I radar. Vowels and UDM came calling last spring.

Injury issues

It took nine months for many of the same concerns from EMU to become issues with the Titans.

Gilbert told the Richmond Times Dispatch in 2018 that in working with her own daughter, Jada, now a four-star prospect who signed to play at Kentucky next season, “I’m not going to overpush her. I’m not going to overdrive her to injury or to exhaustion.”

However, her UDM players say they did not get similar treatment. In fact, quite the opposite.

Jiera Shears told the Free Press last week she suffered a concussion in practice and feared telling team trainer Mike Miller because of how Gilbert might react. The junior from Charlotte, North Carolina, said she called her mother, Danielle, who is a neurosurgical nurse, and convinced her to see Miller.

Miller diagnosed a concussion, but Shears said Gilbert then repeatedly questioned whether she was “faking” symptoms and “questioning my toughness.”

“There was an environment set where we as players were hesitant to report our injuries to the trainer,” said Shears, who entered the portal earlier this month and became the first player to speak publicly about the mistreatment in a video she posted to Twitter. “That was kind of a thing amongst all of us. … And after getting that medical diagnosis, there was question about my symptoms, which was extremely belittling because there was somebody who was trained professional to deal with athletes' injuries, and I'm being questioned about my symptoms.”

Shears was not the only player to be pushed to participate with a concussion, according to sources. And players and parents who spoke to the Free Press confirmed instances they wrote Vowels about involving other issues with plantar fasciitis, bone bruises, fractures and migraines, and Gilbert allegedly making players “coerced and guilted into competing” while hurt, both in practice and during games.

"The injuries on this team, there was quite a few," one parent said under the condition of anonymity. "And they didn't have to be. ... But it was like, 'No, you gotta keep going, just gotta keep going.' There were different times where she would get degraded in front of the team. The head coach made the comment that, 'Hey, you're just weak, you're soft, that's a loser's attitude if you limp.''"

Moore said she felt the need to return quickly after surgery to repair a stress fracture to her tibia in June 2020, coming back to run with the team in August. She went from gobbling ibuprofen to aspirin to keep pushing her body but stopped short of using the heavier medication she was prescribed after her surgery.

Issues persisted, and Moore said Miller made her tell Gilbert about her injuries rather than being a conduit for the information. When Miller would leave, Moore said, that is when her injuries were questioned.

“It's fine until now the doors closed, and I'm in there for an hour and a half, being told that I need to change my mindset,” she said. “We had conversations where it was just me and Mike and Coach Gilbert, and Mike says, 'This is what it is.' We'd devise a plan and I'd try to follow that plan to the best of my ability. But then when Mike leaves, it's a completely different message. Mike is saying, 'She's just gotta listen to her body. If it hurts, then she shouldn't do this.'

“When he leaves, (Gilbert) is like, 'OK, define the word excruciating. If it's excruciating, you shouldn't even be able to walk right now, you shouldn't be able to breathe, you should not be able to come upstairs and even talk to me right now. That's excruciating pain. So you can't be picking and choosing when you want to play.' Now I'm now picking and choosing when I want to play. It was so confusing, so mentally draining.”

Moore said she eventually went to a doctor on her own to get an X-ray before her and her mother, Meredith Perry-Okonkwor, decided she should stop playing after a New Year’s Day game against Milwaukee. Moore averaged around 10 minutes in the seven games she played and said Gilbert asked her after that decision if she could keep playing through the pain.

University of Detroit Mercy guard Abbie McDowell (Tecumseh) looks to pass the ball during a game for the Titans.
University of Detroit Mercy guard Abbie McDowell (Tecumseh) looks to pass the ball during a game for the Titans.

“At this point, I heard (Gilbert) say it because Max got me on the phone with Coach,” Perry-Okonkwor said. “And she was just like, 'If you could just give me two to three minutes, even 5-10 minutes a half to score those points.' ...

“She was hemmed up in an office with Coach Gilbert, the trainer, the assistant coaches — all of them against Max, telling her that at 20 years old, she did not need to be talking to her parents, because she told them her mom told her to go get a second opinion."

Emotional abuse

A number of players told Vowels in their January meeting about Gilbert's manipulative nature. Others spoke of Gilbert trying to cause division between the players.

"I think it definitely affected different people, different ways," Shears said.

Both Moore and sophomore Abbie McDowell both said they developed anxiety throughout the course of the season as Gilbert’s berating of players in front of their teammates increased. McDowell said she developed panic attacks during practice a few times and did not have a history of them before.

One of the biggest criticisms is Gilbert downed her athletes’ abilities repeatedly. Moore, one of the team’s leaders, said Gilbert continually would try to ferret out information about teammates from her and demean their abilities in private meetings. Others said she would do the same, often shifting her attention to create a ripple effect among the players.

“She said that even though she doesn't have Division I athletes that she's gonna win, she's a born winner, she's gonna win regardless, and she was gonna make sure that we won,” Moore said. “She even said that if we started losing, she would leave — she said she knows how to pack a box and leave.”

The Titans went 1-13 overall and 1-9 in Horizon League play in Gilbert's debut season before it was canceled.

Corey Harrison, whose daughter Cierra transferred to UDM to play for Gilbert but entered the portal after the season, said Cierra called him and wanted to go home but stayed until the season was canceled.

“You gotta understand every kid comes from a different background, a different upbringing, a different environment. So you have to learn every kid to be able to deal with that kid,” Corey Harrison said. “I don't care if it's my kid or anybody else's kid – if you're gonna tear a kid down, you better be willing to build them back up. If you're breaking them down for a reason, they better understand why you're tearing them down and what the process is, and then you're building them back up to be better.”

That, McDowell said, rarely happened.

“At the moment, I really bought into what coach G was saying. She had told us, 'No matter how you are doing, if somebody asks how you are, you say good.' Just the thought of never let 'em see you sweat,” McDowell said. “And looking back, I felt like I couldn't really tell anybody because we were supposed to just always say, Oh yeah, I'm doing well,' even though we all were miserable.”

De-emphasizing academics

There also were accusations that Gilbert demanded players drop classes or change majors to fit their academics around basketball, moving practices to afternoons when certain required labs and classes were only available to take.

Both Shears and McDowell said Gilbert belittled them for their academic interests and told them they needed to focus more on basketball and less on schoolwork. Shears is a mechanical engineering major, and McDowell’s educational pursuit is cyber security and was on pace to graduate in three years.

“(Gilbert) talked to us about the difference between the divisions of basketball, at D-I, D-II and D-III. And her main difference, she said, was that at this level, at this D-I level, the focus was not necessarily on academics, like the other levels were,” Shears said. “So I could tell also then, that was early on when we first got to campus, that the focus was not on academics. That was very frustrating, and I knew I would kind of have to kind of work uphill from then.”

One player said Gilbert, in the locker room at one point, told the team: "How do we have 4.0s in the classroom but we're failing on the court?"

Practice violations

McDowell said it was fairly early in the season when she realized something was wrong.

Two days after UDM’s opener against Xavier and the day after Thanksgiving, McDowell said the Titans worked out for 6½ hours. The limit is four per day. It became more and more regular, between lifting, practice and film study, she said.

“I'm just looking at the clock and I'm like, 'What is going on here?' because this is obviously illegal,” McDowell said. “These are the same problems she had before. And that's where I kind of started realizing, maybe she didn't learn from before.”

McDowell said in another instance, the team lifted weights during the morning for an hour, then went through a three-hour practice. When it was done, Gilbert sent them to the film room for more work. She questioned having already hit the four-hour daily limit, and a staff member heard her and walked away.

"It just kept happening and happening," she said. "It kind of became norm."

Gilbert was suspended without pay for a month and her salary was frozen for the 2010-11 season following a two-month investigation by EMU's compliance office for similar issues during the 2009-10 season. She received a letter of reprimand and underwent mandatory counseling during her suspension. Gilbert also was required to attend an NCAA regional rules seminar and apologize to team members.

Those problems persisted and ultimately led to her resignation in 2012, with the Eagles placing themselves on two years of probation for more self-reported NCAA violations.

Title IX concern raised

Moore said the women's team was not permitted to use the shooting cannons on the main floor at Calihan Hall, which is home for both the Titans' men's and women's teams. The women were instead directed to ones on the baskets to the side of the court,

That would be a potential federal Title IX violation.

"I was trying to get some shots up one day before we were going to play Michigan State" on Dec. 2, Moore said. "I was feeling pretty good. Coach Gilbert asked us to come get some shots up, and I was like 'Oh perfect, the lights are off, nobody's going to be in here, I can get some shots up with the gun real quick.' Here emerges one of the (men's) graduate assistants, out of the dark, and tells me, 'Sorry, I can't let you do that.'"

Moore said she met with Vowels to discuss her role on an NCAA student committee and to give him input on how other schools were dealing with COVID-19. Afterward, Moore said, Vowels asked her after they were done if there was anything with which he could help. Their relationship was strong at that point, she said. She mentioned the situation with not being able to use the main baskets, and he said he would look into it.

"And then that's when Coach Gilbert called me and chewed me out for 45 minutes about hierarchy," Moore said. "Coach Gilbert wants us to get our percentages up, she wants us to live in the gym. We're not going to be able to do that if we can't shoot on the basket that we're about to be shooting on in the game. Like, it makes no sense."

Post-letter fallout

Vowels in a statement Thursday refuted the allegations.

“Any concern from a student-athlete about health or safety receives my highest priority," he wrote. "Every concern expressed from this team was heard by Athletic and University administration immediately following the initial letter that was sent from the team and parents on Jan. 17. For the next two days, I listened first-hand to every member of the team and took appropriate action to look into each situation. We then conducted an internal fact-finding by an independent outside legal counsel and the allegations were not substantiated which led to us retaining the head coach.

"In the months since concerns were first expressed, we have put steps in place to ensure compliance going forward and assure a safe and healthy environment for all student-athletes in this and every program. Also, our Athletic Academic Services Office works closely with all student-athletes to ensure they remain eligible to compete and complete their academic degree requirements."

Moore said after she and her teammates met with Vowels on Jan. 19, she followed up with an email the next day to reiterate the players wanted to continue playing, just not for Gilbert.

Vowels, who said during the initial meeting he planned to cancel the season "unless you tell me differently," replied and said "the season has ended for Detroit Mercy." He went on to chastise Moore about the meeting between the players, Vowels and associate athletic director and senior woman administrator Teri Kromrei being "recorded without our knowledge or consent."

"That is unethical, a violation of trust, a question of character, deceitful, dishonest, lack of respect, a breach of confidentiality and unprofessional," Vowels wrote to Moore. "Quite frankly I do not understand why anyone thought it was appropriate to secretly record the meeting. Teri and I have provided the individual members of the team the opportunity to share information in confidentiality but yet we were not afforded the same courtesy.

"As we move forward I hope there is some reflection on the importance of relationships, the deterioration of relationships and how it affects outcomes, decisions and the willingness to help."

Under Michigan law, only one party of a conversation needs to know a conversation is being recorded. Multiple players recorded it on Jan. 19 according to sources, and the Free Press obtained audio of the meeting.

The Free Press has seen both Moore's email and Vowels' response.

Shears said on top wondering how she felt Gilbert strayed from UDM's Jesuit mission, watching friends who played at other schools throughout the winter added to her frustration and anguish. Particularly because it was not their decision to be at home instead of continuing to play.

"It definitely hurt, it definitely had an affect," she said. "I know for me personally, watching was hard, knowing that we were forced out of a season that we didn't want to end."

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

Titans no more

A look at the 14 women who will no longer be playing for Detroit Mercy's women's basketball program and where they are headed.

Kaela Webb, junior guard: Transferred to Florida Gulf Coast

Alicia Norman, junior guard: In NCAA transfer portal

Jiera Shears, junior guard: In NCAA transfer portal

Sammiyah Hoskin, sophomore guard: Transferred to North Dakota

Markyia McCormick, sophomore guard: In NCAA transfer portal

Abbie McDowell, sophomore guard: In NCAA transfer portal

Aly Reiff, senior guard: Retiring from basketball, graduated (had one season of eligibility remaining and had entered the NCAA transfer portal)

Sylare Starks, sophomore guard: Transferred to Purdue Fort Wayne

Annika Corcoran, sophomore guard: Transferred to Akron

Cierra Harrison, junior guard/forward: In NCAA transfer portal

Maddie Puletti, freshman guard: In NCAA transfer portal

Nicole Johanson, redshirt junior forward: Retiring from basketball, finishing biology degree at Detroit Mercy

Maxine Moore, junior forward: Re-entered NCAA transfer portal Saturday

Bridgid Fox, sophomore forward: In NCAA transfer portal

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Mercy women's basketball: Allegations against AnnMarie Gilbert