A lawyer for Shanan Rosenberg, the Linfield University men’s basketball coach who was suspended and then told he would be fired after he responded to a parent heckling him from the stands during a game, has put the school on notice that he will sue if he can’t get his job back under certain terms.
In a letter sent to the university’s board of trustees and president this week, Rosenberg’s lawyer argues that what’s behind the coach’s dismissal goes beyond what happened on the court last month.
He alleged the athletic director, Garry Killgore, has harassed and retaliated against Rosenberg for not showing “sufficient support” or praise for his decisions and has created a toxic environment that already has driven other staff out of the athletic department.
The university acted to suspend and then fire Rosenberg after he spoke back to a father of a Linfield player, who repeatedly shouted at him during the end of the team’s last game of the season against Whitman College.
The parent yelled, “Put in the seniors! Put in the seniors!,” and the coach looked up and responded with something like, “Look, if you want to talk to me, talk to me after the game,” according to other parents seated behind the team’s bench.
According to Linfield University’s Scott Nelson, an associate vice president for communications, a fan’s video of the Feb. 18 game showed an “angry confrontation” that lasted more than a minute where Rosenberg, at one point, is “gesturing angrily into the crowd” and yelled, “come outside after the game, sir. Let’s have some words then.” Nelson said one of the team’s players put a hand on the coach’s arm, “apparently attempting to defuse the situation.”
Two days later, Rosenberg was suspended. Then on Feb. 24, the school gave Rosenberg the option of either facing immediate firing or accepting 21 days to review a severance proposal that would provide some compensation in exchange for Rosenberg agreeing not to sue the university or athletic director. School officials told Rosenberg they wanted him to leave “because of an unrepairable relationship with the university,” according to Craig Crispin, Rosenberg’s lawyer.
In the letter to board trustees, Crispin described the offered “severance” as inadequate. He declined to say what it was. Rosenberg, 51, who has become known as “Coach Rose,” has been the head men’s basketball coach at Linfield for the past 10 years.
If he can’t return to his coaching job under “appropriate circumstances,” Rosenberg gave notice that he plans to sue Linfield, seeking up to $2.5 million in damages for wrongful termination, Crispin wrote to the board.
“The best way around this would be to negotiate the terms for Coach Rose to continue on in his role as basketball coach and serve the university and the community,” Crispin said. “That would be his preferred approach.”
His main concern is the welfare of his players, including current and prospective recruitments, but the university has “humiliated” him, his lawyer said.
Nelson said Friday that after the university reviewed the Feb. 18 “heated verbal exchange” that Rosenberg had with a Linfield parent, “the university determined his actions did not meet the standards of professionalism and sportsmanship that had been communicated to him, and which are expected of our coaching staff. We believe the university’s response is in the best interest of our student-athletes and the Linfield community.”
To avoid litigation if the coach can’t return, his lawyer wrote, Rosenberg would require Linfield pay him $1.2 million in economic and non-economic damages, continue health insurance coverage for Rosenberg and his children for a year and a half, reimburse his attorney fees, write him a favorable recommendation letter reflecting his successes and contributions to the university and ensure the school’s responses to any of Rosenberg’s future prospective employers say that his departure wasn’t performance-related.
Division 3 head men’s basketball coaches earn between approximately $60,000 and $75,000 a year.
“Despite his successes and achievements on behalf of Linfield University, Coach Rose has been targeted by Athletic Director Garry Killgore, who has treated my client with extreme hostility, retaliation, and harassment,” the letter said. “Mr. Killgore’s toxic and retaliatory conduct has resulted in the departure of five female employees in the athletic department and the termination of five coaches over just the past four years.”
Rosenberg’s lawyer accused the university President Miles K. Davis of recently calling the mother of a past Linfield basketball player, who is Black, and telling her he was contacting former team members regarding alleged racial incidents involving Rosenberg.
“These efforts at after-the-fact fabrication of a racist justification for firing Mr. Rosenberg is evidence of ‘consciousness of guilt’ over the lack of basis in the decision to fire my client,” Crispin wrote.
His attorney said the action is similar to when the university attempted to “interrogate” Rosenberg after the departure of assistant basketball coach Jonathan Willis, who is Black. Willis left Linfield as an assistant basketball coach and became the head coach of South Puget Sound Community College’s basketball team in August 2020. Rosenberg had been upset that when Willis left, he took some prospective basketball recruits who had committed to Linfield with him to the community college.
“Mr. Rosenberg reported the matter to Human Resources, who responded that the process and inquiry were inappropriate,” Crispin’s letter said.
Crispin attached to his letter statements from current and former Linfield basketball team players and letters from parents who support Rosenberg.
“Every quality I have learned that a good leader, teacher or coach should have is possessed by Coach Rose,” sophomore team player Cayden Lowenbach wrote to the board.
When Lowenbach arrived to campus on crutches after dislocating his ankle, he said the coach’s first question wasn’t when he’ll be ready to play but, “what can I do to help you?”
Another sophomore Jake Downing wrote that Rosenberg has supported players both on and off the court “with respect and truthfulness.”
“I have truly never experienced such love from someone outside of my real family in 20 years of life. He is someone I truly care deeply for and wish all the best for no matter what,” Downing wrote.
Parent Justin Morrill said he was at the Feb. 18 game and said the coach was subjected to “significant verbal heckling” by one parent, and it wasn’t the first time.
“In a moment of frustration, Coach Rosenberg lashed out verbally at the parent. I know his reaction was not ideal, and the optics of the situation present a difficult dilemma for the University,” Morrill wrote. “That being said, I feel very strongly that Coach Rosenberg is a very positive influence on his players. He is tough and, at times, even a bit harsh with the players, but he is also their biggest advocate, and he is shaping them into men of character.”
— Maxine Bernstein
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