Turmoil spells trouble behind scenes at K-State

In journalism school 20 years ago, I heard the theory that if a story is really difficult for you to write, it's probably a good indication that you need to make yourself do it.

On Sunday in my newspaper, The Kansas City Star, we published a story that has been the hardest I've ever had to write. It was done because I believe it was very necessary.

I specifically cover the Kansas State, Kansas and Missouri women's basketball teams for The Star. But we've focused more attention -- much more, in fact -- on K-State the last five years because of the Wildcats' success and their fan support.

In the 2002-03, '03-'04 and '04-'05 seasons, I covered every K-State game. In 2001-02 and this past season, I covered the majority of games.

This summer at K-State, two players transferred and two assistant coaches left. That might not sound like a huge deal, but one of the players was a fan-favorite senior-to-be and another was a sophomore-to-be native of Kansas who'd started throughout her freshman year and was expected to anchor the center position for the next three seasons. So that set off some alarm bells for Wildcat fans.

And in terms of the assistants, they were the eighth and ninth people to resign from coach Deb Patterson's staff in the past two years. One of them left without having already taken another job. Again, more alarm bells.

Having been around the program as much as I had, I thought these departures were indicative of larger overall issues concerning Patterson and needed to be put into context of what had happened in the program in recent seasons.

I heard from fans/readers who were curious and wanted an explanation. And that's what I embarked on. That was in June, and over the next several weeks, I talked to more than 30 people who are or have been involved with the program.

A few were very brief conversations, others were very long. Many did not want to go on the record. That's how it often is in situations like this. People might be dissatisfied with something but don't want to publicly air their feelings.

College athletics is a relatively insular world, and women's athletics in particular is then a subset of that group. Many people told me they felt that to even publicly question an established head coach would potentially harm their future career options. Others thought that it wouldn't help to make their doubts or concerns public. Some did not have issues and were supportive of Patterson. And still others were torn in both directions.

Sorting through what I was told, what I'd seen and heard myself in covering the program and then trying to make deductions from there -- plus securing enough people actually on the record and getting approval for any anonymous sourcing -- all that takes time.

This was not a column as I typically write for ESPN.com. I'm not a columnist, per se, at my newspaper, even though I sometimes write analysis-style columns during the NCAA Tournament. For this story, I needed to have a narrative, obviously, but had to let those involved explain their views of what happened.

There were diverse and complicated issues, some involving communication and power. There was the issue of the prevalence of religion in Patterson's program -- something that is difficult to write about, in part because people are especially reluctant to talk about that to a member of the media.

And then there was this very big factor: I considered Patterson to be a friend -- as much as a head coach can be with a journalist. She'd always been gracious, generous and kind to me. We didn't communicate a lot outside of the season and we talked very little about our own personal lives at any time. But, obviously, in season we interacted a great deal and Patterson allowed me to get much closer to her program than any other reporter.

I enjoyed talking to her about many issues. I respected the difficulty of achieving success in this sport and managing all the things a head coach has to be in charge of. I encouraged her when she seemed down and she did the same for me. Those involved in women's sports often do feel a kinship because of the shared long-term experiences in both frustration and joy watching things grow. I won the Mel Greenberg Award in 2003 because Patterson had taken the time to nominate me.

But I realized that other people had very different experiences with Patterson, their viewpoints were valid and that was at the heart of what I needed to write about. I also knew that what I was writing would permanently change how we interacted with each other. That was not easy, but I fully accept it. Ultimately, my job is to cover the program -- the good and the bad.

Patterson answered all the questions I had. I also spoke to athletic director Tim Weiser on more than one occasion. K-State knew the nature of the story I was doing. There was nothing in it that I had not asked them about.

This past Wednesday, I called Weiser to ask some additional questions about a couple of issues I'd come across in continued reporting and that would result in a sidebar to the main story. I left a message in which I also told him that all this would run Sunday, Oct. 1.

Friday morning, Weiser returned a call and said he would check into the issues I asked about and get back to me later in the day. He asked why the story was running this weekend. I explained that I'd first filed it in August and this was the kind of piece that needed a lot of time in the editing process. I was out of town a lot during August and early September covering golf and the WNBA.

Then the principle editor went through it very carefully. Other editors also looked it over. We worked it into shape. And the story was very lengthy, so we needed to run it at a time we had enough space in the paper. All of that added up to Oct. 1.

Roughly six hours after my conversation with Weiser, K-State sent out a release that Patterson had agreed in principle to a new five-year contract. As of early Sunday morning, I'd yet to hear from Weiser again.

I wear two hats, if you will, as both a beat writer for my paper and national columnist for ESPN.com. I've written for ESPN.com for a decade now, and obviously voiced many, many opinions about a lot of things.

In this case, at this time, I'm not writing an opinion piece about what has gone on at K-State. But I did think I needed to do this explainer.

Will it be different covering that program now? In a way, yes. It's not an uncommon situation in journalism when writers do stories that might alter the cordiality of the working relationship they have with a team or individual.

But that has been pretty rare for me. It became the case to a certain degree a few years ago near the end of Marian Washington's career at Kansas. Who knows? Maybe my alma mater, Missouri, is next.

Yeah, that was a very small attempt at gallows humor. I tend to write a lot of light-hearted if not downright goofy stuff, but this hasn't been that kind of week. It's not pleasant when this happens, but it's something you must accept in this business.

Ultimately, then you keep writing stories about kids playing basketball.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Click here to read her story in The KC Star.