The Times West Virginian

Sports

March 31, 2014

Turnbull: Luck called me ‘too old’ to coach

MORGANTOWN — Craig Turnbull, fired this week after 36 years as West Virginia University’s wrestling coach, said Sunday that Athletic Director Oliver Luck said he was “too old” and had “been around too long” during a meeting late in the 2013 season and refused to consider an offer from the coach to have an orderly transition that would end with him retiring following next season.

Turnbull charged that Luck became angry during the 2013 meeting — the first of three meetings that culminated with his being immediately discharged and banned from the facilities — and twice placed his hand on Turnbull’s chest.

Reached Sunday night, Luck responded to Turnbull’s accusation.

“The context was, after I did considerable research with folks within the wrestling community — coaches, administrators — I asked them where do you think WVU should be and what kind of a program we should have,” Luck said.

“Many of them told me that Craig had lost his energy, enthusiasm, and been there too long, so when I met with Craig I said, ‘Craig, the folks I have talked to have told me they think you have been there too long, you’ve lost your energy, your enthusiasm, you’re recruiting edge. What do you say to that?’

“That was the context of that statement.”

Asked if he said Turnbull was too old, Luck reiterated what he had said previously about his research but did not directly address his age.

Luck, according to Turnbull, denied having said he was too old and been around too long in the meeting last week when he was fired. Paul E. Lewis, Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, who accompanied Turnbull to the meeting, confirmed that Luck denied ever saying that at the time.

Turnbull, speaking in attorney Allan Karlin’s office and with Karlin present and advising him, left no doubt that he felt he deserved more respect to close out a career that had begun by taking over a program in Stansbury Hall, where the door didn’t close and the rain came in, and building it into one of the most respected wrestling programs in the nation.

He coached five individual national championships and 26 of the program’s 29 All-Americans, 42 Eastern Wrestling League champions and more than 160 NCAA qualifiers. His career record was 287-214-9 and he was the driving force behind building a $1.4 million wrestling pavilion.

Turnbull gave his version of the events that led up to the firing, beginning with a meeting between the Big 12 Championships and the NCAA championships in 2013.

According to Turnbull, he was summoned to Luck’s office and asked to defend himself and his program. It was during this time he said Luck brought up his age, which today is 61, and whether he had been around too long.

Turnbull replied by saying that was like saying a sportswriter couldn’t do his job at 22 because he was too young and didn’t know anything and couldn’t do it at 60 because he was too old.

They talked about what admittedly was a bad season for the team, one marred with injuries, and Luck told Turnbull, “It’s unacceptable.”

“No kidding,” Turnbull said he replied. “It wasn’t any fun to live with, either.”

Then, he said, Luck gave him an ultimatum.

“Next year it better be better,” Luck said and repeated it.

“It doesn’t matter what you say,” Turnbull says he replied. “I will continue to do the same job I’ve done for the last 30 years.”

That, Turnbull said, was when he tapped him on the chest with his hand.

“That did not play too well with me,” he said.

Turnbull said Luck told him the expectations were higher now, to which he replied, “No, not higher. The expectations have always been high.”

During this meeting, Turnbull informed Luck that he was thinking about retiring in the not-distant future.

He told him he did not want to be one of those coaches who hangs on too long, and expected to retire following the 2015 season, allowing an orderly progression. At the time he mentioned that his assistant Greg Jones, a three-time national champion, would be as good a coach as he was a wrestler if he became his replacement.

Turnbull said the second meeting with Luck, who he said never attended one of his practices and attended only a couple of wrestling matches, came in January, shortly after he had been elected to the Pennsylvania Wrestling Hall of Fame.

At that time a number of coaches called to congratulate him and, in so doing, a few of them asked him if he was retiring.

Perplexed, he asked why and said they informed him that Luck had contacted three people about taking his position and interviewed two of them, implying that Luck’s mind was already made up.

When he walked into the second meeting, he confronted Luck about the contacts. Luck, according to Turnbull, admitted contacting people but claimed he had interviewed no one.

At that time Turnbull explained to Luck that things were on the upswing in the program and that he was confident it would be a Top 15 or 20 program quickly.

Luck said no decision had been made if he would be allowed to coach another year, to which Turnbull replied, “That’s disrespectful.”

“You’re not Bobby Bowden or Joe Paterno, and do not get to choose when to step down and who will take your place,” Turnbull quoted Luck as saying.

This year the program did show marked improvement, the record jumping from three wins to 11-7, although it was 0-3 in the Big 12, and with four NCAA qualifiers, up from one a year ago.

The third meeting came last week when he was summoned to Luck’s office, where he was accompanied by Lewis. Turnbull was taken aback when he walked in to find Luck, associate Athletic Director Terri Howes and a representative from the legal department and human resources.

Turnbull sat down and Luck said to him, “Craig, you’ve done a nice job, but we’re not going to renew your contract. We need new leadership.”

With that he was told he would be paid through September, that he would be allowed the use of his university automobile through June, that he would be given “home work” to do and when asked what “home work” was, he was told he would not be allowed back in the facility.

They took his pass key and his cell phone.

At this time Turnbull made an impassioned plea to coach through next season so the transition would be orderly for the school and for the athletes and recruits, noting that involved in such a dramatic change is not just the athlete but his family.

He noted that they trusted him to lead their sons through a process not only of becoming better athletes but also people, and that he had succeeded at doing that, offering as proof that eight wrestlers who had brothers who wrestled in college, seven of the brothers also were sent to WVU to wrestle for Turnbull.

In a letter to Luck, Lewis said, “I applaud the comments of Coach Turnbull to justify to you the significant benefits to the future of the wrestling program to allow him to announce this year his intended retirement in 2015 as opposed to the immediate termination of his contract” and asked Luck to do more to evaluate the situation.

Lewis also said, “I did not hear a justification or the basis for the immediate decision rendered regarding this issue in the meeting this morning — only that ‘we have decided not to renew your contract for another year and you will be terminated as head coach of the wrestling program effective today.’”

Turnbull has not decided whether to take any legal action at this time, but is weighing his options.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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