Time was running out on the 2020-21 University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team when its large group of veteran players asked to meet with coach Greg Gard and his staff.
UW had dropped a double-digit decision at home to Iowa the previous night, leaving only four games remaining in the regular season. It had been a disappointing campaign for a team that began the year ranked No. 7 in the country, but the Badgers still felt like there was time to salvage the season.
They first needed to get some things off their chest. What followed was an emotional Feb. 19 meeting in the Kohl Center media room that, according to some accounts, lasted about two hours. There were 11 people in the room — Gard, his three assistants and the team’s seven seniors.
A secretly recorded 37-minute audio file from that gathering was sent to the State Journal via an anonymous email account late Monday afternoon. While it provides only part of what was said during the meeting, the recorded portion is filled with pointed criticism directed at Gard by the seniors.
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Among the seniors’ grievances: that Gard didn’t care for them or have their backs. One player said he’d have a hard time recommending the program to potential recruits because of the culture within it.
“I just feel like, coach, we don’t have a relationship,” said Nate Reuvers, a four-year starter. “In my mind, it’s too late for that. I personally don’t think or feel like you care about our future aspirations.
“I can’t talk to you. I just don’t want to talk to you. After this, coach, I don’t know what type of relationship we’re going to have, if we have one.”
The recording cuts off after each of the seven players has addressed Gard at least once. What followed, according to multiple people in the room, was a dialogue between players and coaches. Gard listened to the players vent without interrupting and addressed their concerns later in the meeting.
The State Journal attempted to contact all 11 people in the meeting. Some were unable to be reached or didn’t respond to messages, while others declined to speak on the record or at all.
Gard, when reached late Monday night, was upset that the privacy of those in the room had been violated.
“It’s so disturbing that somebody would take a private family meeting and make it for public consumption,” he said.
Gard said many times during and after the season that playing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic put a great deal of stress on everybody in the program. Not helping matters was that UW, after returning nearly every key player from a team that earned a share of the Big Ten title the previous season, failed to live up to expectations.
“Coaches have to be able to respond to adversity, just like players do,” one senior said Monday. “They have to try different things, and that’s what coach Gard did. Is it something that us players reacted well to? No. And that’s why we confronted him about it.”
The same player said he walked out of the room that day feeling as though something had been accomplished, that getting everything out in the open would help. He was impressed by the way Gard handled the situation.
“He sat there, he listened and there was not one dry eye in the entire room at the end of everything,” the player said. “The biggest thing that he did at the end was he apologized again and he was in tears and he said, ‘It’s not your fault, it’s my fault.’”
‘Not here to build your resume’
The recorded portion of the meeting begins with guard Brad Davison talking about how the seniors had discussed their time at UW coming to an end and how important it was to speak up then with the hope the Badgers could extend the season as long as possible. He later mentioned a “disconnect,” a word that was used several times over the course of the meeting.
“We desire a relationship with you where you know who we are, that you care for us, that you value us more than just on the basketball court,” Davison said. “We want that and feel like we’ve lacked that in certain areas.”
All seven seniors had another year of eligibility to use thanks to the NCAA not counting the 2020-21 campaign against players due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but only Davison chose to return to the program for next season.
Reuvers, Aleem Ford, Micah Potter and D’Mitrik Trice are pursuing professional careers, while Trevor Anderson (Valparaiso) and Walt McGrory (South Dakota) chose to transfer.
In addition, the coaching staff had a makeover when Gard replaced Alando Tucker with another former UW player, Sharif Chambliss. Tucker, an interim assistant coach for two seasons, applied for the permanent job but was passed over.
Next to speak after Davison in the meeting was Trice, who referenced the previous season. The 2019-20 campaign was a turbulent one in many ways, starting with an offseason car crash in Michigan that killed two members of Howard Moore’s family and left the UW assistant on medical leave.
The inconsistent Badgers were on the NCAA Tournament bubble in late January when Kobe King, the team’s second-leading scorer, abruptly left the program and told the State Journal that his issues with Gard had been brewing for a while. Strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland was forced to resign a week later after he admitted to using a racial epithet in front of a group of walk-ons in early January.
The season looked to be in jeopardy of spiraling out of control, but the Badgers rallied. They beat Michigan State at home despite playing without Davison, who had been suspended by the Big Ten for one game. After losing the next game at Minnesota, UW reeled off eight consecutive victories to share the regular-season title with Maryland and Michigan State.
Gard was named Big Ten Coach of the Year, but UW never got a chance to build on that momentum because the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments were canceled due to the pandemic.
“Last year we were playing for one another, but we were also playing for you,” Trice said in the meeting. “I feel like the disconnect (this season) is we’re not playing for you right now. We’re not here to build your resume, so to speak, with all respect given.”
Potter referenced the 2019-20 season as well, alluding to the fact Gard had changed his approach after King’s departure but returned to his old ways this past season.
“Ultimately coach, we just want the guy that came to us last year and apologized in tears,” Potter said. “I’m not saying you have to cry and apologize. But that was honestly the biggest turning point last year. We felt, ‘Wow, we can play for this guy, we can relate to this guy.’”
Reuvers was a third-team All-Big Ten pick as a junior but struggled as a senior.
“At this point, it’s probably too late to fix that,” he said about his relationship with Gard. “It’s not too late to win these games and go on a run together. But it’s also for the people behind us. I don’t want to have someone deal with the same (expletive) that I’ve felt I’ve had to deal with.”
Reuvers wasn’t the only player to say his relationship with Gard likely was fractured beyond repair.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever talk to you again after this,” McGrory said during the meeting. “We don’t even talk here. I’ll avoid talking to you here, so why would I talk to you after I leave? I can’t hold a conversation with you.”
Anderson criticized Gard for calling out certain players after losses, making it seem like the loss was entirely on their shoulders.
“You always ask, ‘Why is everybody getting so defensive? Why can’t anybody take it?’ (Because) I think that’s what you do to us, you’re always pointing the finger,” Anderson said during the meeting. “I think the defense mechanism is everybody’s pointing the finger at somebody else — I’m pointing at Brad, Brad’s pointing at Aleem — I think that comes down to a lot of, like, what you do to us.”
Potter called out Gard for not having players’ backs, specifically Davison’s. Players — and some fans — felt Davison was being treated unfairly by Big Ten officials.
“Actions speak louder,” Potter said during the meeting. “You say you’re going to do all this stuff, you say you’re going to fight, you say you’re going to do whatever. But in reality, you don’t back it up with your actions. You look like a hypocrite and that makes people not trust you even more.”
That critique seemed to hit home with Gard: Just over two weeks later, after Davison was issued a Flagrant-1 hook and hold late in a loss at Iowa, Gard passionately defended his player in his postgame news conference.
Potter also wondered aloud during the meeting whether he should have returned to UW for his senior season.
“Did I waste a year of my life to come back here?” he said. “I was planning on coming back, having a great year and making a Final Four run, all this kind of stuff and then this crap happens. And it’s like, no one knows what to do and it’s all this rut and it’s because of a disconnect with you.”
Ford complained to Gard in the meeting that UW promotes a family atmosphere in recruiting but doesn’t live up to that promise, calling it “kind of a lie and show because that’s not truly how we feel in the program.”
Ford added: “After I’m done here, I don’t know if I would want to come back. It doesn’t feel like home even though I’ve spent the last five years here. I’m from Georgia, I barely go home and this doesn’t feel like home away from home.”
Another criticism from Ford, who had an up-and-down career, was that Gard didn’t instill confidence in his players.
“When I started playing well here was when I was like, ‘I’m not listening to you anymore,’” Ford said during the meeting. “That’s how I succeeded here was to prove you wrong. It wasn’t to play for you or win games for you. It was to show myself that you’re wrong. …
“I don’t know if I would want my son to come here or if I would tell people to come here and play for this program because I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through what I went through.”
UW senior associate athletic director Justin Doherty, who oversees the men’s basketball program, said Monday night he couldn’t comment on the meeting because he wasn’t present.
Doherty said student-athletes are given the opportunity to provide feedback in exit interviews but added those conversations are confidential.
One senior said he expressed many of the same concerns he had in the meeting during his exit interview. Gard’s contract was extended by a year after the season, and he is scheduled to make $2.65 million in the 2021-22 school year from base salary and an agreement with the UW Foundation, according to the most recently available contracts.
Davison said his relationship with Gard has had ups and downs over four seasons at UW.
“Our relationship, yeah, it’s not always perfect,” Davison said late Monday. “I don’t think any player’s relationship is perfect with their coach, but it’s one that I value and I cherish and I’m thankful that he’s my mentor for my coaching career that I want to start someday.”
Davison added he was thankful “to have an environment in our program where we’re able to have tough conversations and hold team meetings where we can bring some things to the surface.” He also expressed disappointment that someone chose to go public with that conversation.
“I think a locker room is a sanctuary,” Davison said. “And every locker room that you are in, you are with individuals that you’ve cried with, that you’ve bled with, that you’ve sweat with and that you’ve worked with. When you have tough conversations, the reason why you have tough conversations in the locker room is because you care for the people in the locker room and because you love them and want what’s best for them and ultimately you want to grow with them.”
Trice said late in the recorded portion of the meeting that it wasn’t too late for these Badgers to turn around their season, build on their legacy and do something special.
But Trice said to Gard, “it’s going to take a big change with how you approach things.”
UW won 68-51 at Northwestern two days after the meeting. But the Badgers ended the regular season with three consecutive defeats and split two games in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments to finish 18-13.
“To be honest, I think he still didn’t hear us,” one senior said about the meeting back in February. “He still didn’t get it.”
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– Colten Bartholomew and Todd D. Milewski contributed to this story.