'You put me through hell.' Allegations of emotional abuse at Iowa State under three soccer coaches
A former women’s soccer player at Iowa State had such a terrible experience with her coach there several years ago that she decided to share her feelings in writing.
The coach was Tony Minatta, who left Iowa State in 2019 but is now coaching women’s soccer at Stephen F. Austin State in Texas.
“Meeting you has got to be one of the worst things that has ever happened to me,” wrote Tavin Hays, a former Cyclones team captain. “Unfortunately, I will never forget you, but I will also never forgive you for what you did to me. You have to be one miserable person to continuously ruin a girl's college soccer experience. I wish I never met you.”
Several other former women’s soccer players also felt so strongly about this coach that they agreed to submit similar letters about him to a family that wants him fired from his new job for similar reasons – emotionally abusing players, as they describe it.
Not physical abuse, they said. They instead said he beat them down emotionally with demeaning and profane language, bullying and unfair treatment.
Former Iowa State player Bailey Heffernon wrote that Minatta made her feel so bad about herself that she developed anxiety and severe depression. She said he dismissed her concussion as “mental weakness” and called her a waste of space and scholarship money.
Another former player, Brianna Curtis, said Minatta tried to demoralize her with gaslighting, cussing and dismissing her medical condition as imaginary. She also said he told her that her mental weakness would have gotten her killed by now if she had been serving in the U.S. Marine Corps like he once had.
These weren’t isolated allegations – at Iowa State or elsewhere in women’s college soccer. Since 2011, at least 19 former members of the Iowa State women's soccer program under three consecutive head coaches told USA TODAY Sports and the Des Moines Register that they experienced mistreatment by the coach or witnessed it in part.
Old-school coaching or abuse?
Minatta’s attorney, Russell Smith, described this all as a "witch hunt" being led by the parents of a disgruntled former player of his at Stephen F. Austin. He generally said the ex-player allegations contained "untruths" and noted school-commissioned investigations found no wrongdoing by Minatta at SFA. Most SFA soccer players interviewed for that also supported the coach.
At the same time, the school confirmed the investigations did not look into the Iowa State allegations. The only women's soccer players interviewed for them were from the SFA team in 2020-21, Minatta’s first year there.
Iowa State declined to address specific allegations, saying concerns from players “are taken seriously” and are responded to “appropriately.”
But the players say the coaches crossed a line – and that this kind of behavior has been going on for too long in women’s soccer under the notion that it’s tough “discipline” and “old-school” coaching.
Depending on the viewpoint, perceptions of emotional abuse and coaching styles have changed dramatically in the past 25 years. Some grumble that today’s players are so coddled that they cry foul whenever coaches so much as raise their voices. Others note how society in general has better recognized the importance of mental health, making old ways of coaching less acceptable to many.
The Yates report
Last October, an independent investigation by former U.S. Attorney Sally Yates found widespread misogyny and pervasive abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League. Her report noted that abuse in the league is “rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players.”
The former Iowa State players said it’s a cycle that needs to be stopped – but hasn’t stopped there or elsewhere for several reasons:
They say their concerns haven’t been taken seriously enough. Or they say too many players haven’t dared to speak out for fear of retribution. Or the coach moved to another job without being properly vetted and then repeated the same damaging behavior, as they allege in the case of Minatta.
“No player should be subjected to emotional and verbal abuse from an adult who is tasked with developing you as a player and person,” Heffernon wrote in her letter. “Tony Minatta altered the course of my life, and I am determined to not let what happened to me happen to any young woman ever again.”
The letters from the former Iowa State players were rounded up by the family of Lauren Pirotte, a former player under Minatta at his current job at Stephen F. Austin. She and two other former players at SFA allege similar abuse and mistreatment his first year there in 2020. The Pirotte family even hired an attorney, Martin Greenberg, who submitted the letters to SFA and said the school didn’t do its due diligence on him before hiring him. He demanded Minatta be fired.
In response, SFA said it had tapped “neutral" investigators to examine the situation. Those investigations found no wrongdoing by Minatta. One of them found Pirotte and one other player were the “only students who provided information regarding alleged mistreatment,” according to a copy of the report obtained by USA TODAY Sports. Both players had been forced off the team by Minatta after lying about their whereabouts during a COVID-19 quarantine in 2020, which they admitted but said was just a pretense to get rid of them.
“As the Pirottes have been told on numerous occasions, the university considers this matter closed,” the school said in a letter to Greenberg in September.
The university echoed this statement when contacted by USA TODAY Sports and declined to make Minatta or athletic director Ryan Ivey available for comment.
Several former ISU and SFA players agreed to speak to USA TODAY Sports in hopes of ending what they describe as a destructive cycle. Others sided with Minatta and said the problem was with Pirotte.
But many also said just because some players had good experiences doesn’t mean others were not verbally or emotionally abused by the same coach. It can be both, particularly if the abuse is in a private setting or the coach pits players against each other and treats some differently than others.
“While he boasted about his military background and how important it was to have mental toughness, none of us knew we would need that mental toughness to survive his coaching,” former ISU player Anna Frerichs wrote in her letter. “I will always be grateful for the opportunity to have played college soccer but our program failed us. We had little to no success under his guidance and the emotional damage he caused to so many players will never be forgotten by us.”
Other cases of mistreatment claims brought forward by players
Other college players in recent years dared to speak out about mistreatment claims for the first time after previously fearing retaliation for doing so. In some cases, the coach got in trouble, such as at Florida, where coach Tony Amato was fired last year after one year on the job. An exodus of players and complaints about his conduct preceded his departure, including from players at his previous job in Arizona, where one tried to warn Florida players about him, according to the Arizona Daily Star.
At Southern Illinois last October, the school placed coach Craig Roberts on administrative leave without giving a reason for it – a move that was closely followed by his former players at Ball State, who made similar allegations about him in online forums, two of whom confirmed their identities to USA TODAY Sports.
It’s not just soccer. The cycle was similar on the women’s basketball team at Texas Tech, where coach Marlene Stollings was fired in 2020, a day after USA TODAY Sports published complaints from players about abuse. Players from her previous job at Minnesota then told the Star Tribune that they had similar bad experiences but didn’t dare speak up and questioned whether Tech properly vetted her before hiring her.
Amato denied wrongdoing. Stollings sued Tech after her firing and won a settlement. Roberts didn't return a message seeking comment.
Former soccer players at Iowa State say their concerns were brushed off by the administration as a matter of “coaching style” until Minatta lost too many games on the field. Hays was glad to see him go.
“You put me through hell, and I had to learn how to fight for myself,” she wrote. “I'm proud of who I am with you gone, I can breathe again. I pray you never get the opportunity to coach women's soccer ever again.”
Iowa State announced in October 2019 that Minatta was stepping down from the job without saying why. His record in six years there was 33-71-6.
“We appreciate Tony's committed service and dedication,” said a statement from ISU senior associate athletic director Calli Sanders. The announcement didn’t mention that ISU team captains had complained to Sanders about Minatta’s conduct shortly before that.
According to Hays, a team captain who was there, ISU responded to their concerns with a question:
“Is there any physical abuse?”
Their answer was no.
“We left (the meeting) kind of feeling defeated,” Hays told USA TODAY Sports. “They were like, `Every coach has a different coaching style. We’re so sorry. Thank you for coming.’ I think they already planned to fire him. They just needed more ammunition.”
Stephen F. Austin then announced Minatta as its new head coach about six weeks after his resignation from ISU. He was taking a pay cut, down to $65,000 at SFA, compared to $120,000 in base salary at ISU, according to his contracts.
SFA declined to address whether it knew about the ISU allegations before hiring him.
Three players at SFA soon alleged similar verbal or emotional abuse in his first year on the job.
“I love the game of soccer but being there for that short amount of time made me not want to play at that level of soccer ever again,” said Landrie Young, the other SFA player who was forced off the team by Minatta in 2020.
“He deteriorated you,” said Young, a friend of Pirotte’s.
The Pirotte case
The Pirottes said their daughter, then 18, was bullied and unfairly singled out by Minatta, including being cussed at and told that she was a “waste of space” and “worthless.” She sought therapy because of it and ultimately was forced to quit the team in 2020 for not being truthful about her whereabouts at one point during a COVID-19 quarantine even though she said COVID protocols had been flouted by Minatta and others at SFA without such a harsh penalty.
USA TODAY Sports contacted Lauren Pirotte and four former Iowa State players who submitted letters for the Pirottes' complaint against Minatta. All confirmed those letters and agreed to be named in this story. Parents for some of them also related the emotional harm their daughters were enduring at the time. Young’s father, Danny Young, a former Texas Ranger, spoke of the emotional damage from her brief time under Minatta after watching her grow up dreaming of playing college soccer.
“Now she wants no part of soccer in any way shape or form,” Danny Young said. “It’s horrible.”
USA TODAY also contacted other players of his from ISU and SFA, where Minatta’s teams have gone 26-25-5 in three seasons, including 6-11-1 in 2022. Two other team members from ISU said they witnessed the negative emotional effect Minatta had with players but didn’t want to be named for fear of retribution. One former player from SFA also confirmed she submitted a letter in the Pirotte’s case against Minatta but didn’t want to be named.
Minatta's supporters at SFA
Some from SFA blamed the Pirottes.
In early 2021, a report by one of the law firms that investigated the matter said players “nearly unanimously described positive feedback with respect to the coaching staff’s ability to support and motivate the players.” According to that report, many acknowledged that Minatta could be “tough” or “hard on us” at times, but that “he was pushing us to be better.” Players in the report “nearly unanimously stated that any allegations that a player was singled out or treated disrespectfully were untrue.”
A former SFA player, Caylon McMillan, described her experience with Minatta as positive and said he “definitely helped me” get to where she is now, playing professionally in Norway. She said she never heard him cuss and didn’t witness any mistreatment.
Former SFA team captain Madeline Talbot also told USA TODAY Sports that she’s “never seen anything that would make me speak bad on his character" and “never saw him directly yell at someone.”
She instead said she had a good experience with him and blames the ousted players for dishonesty, not being prepared for major college soccer and trying to get back at the coach in retribution for their dismissals from the team.
The Pirottes dispute this, noting Lauren Pirotte took a lie-detector test about what happened between her and Minatta and passed it without any problem, according to a copy the polygraph exam report from November 2020.
“I think I come across as a very kind of sensitive person, and I come across as someone who can’t really hold my ground, and I think he took advantage of that,” Lauren Pirotte said. “I didn’t use to be a very outspoken person. I used to never really fight back. I think he liked that and felt he could walk over me in that way.”
They also said the investigation into Minatta wasn’t “neutral” because the two law firms used to investigate were on retainer with the university, implying that the firms were acting as the university’s attorneys, not as independent investigators. The school disputed this, saying the law firms were hired to conduct a "hands-off" review that was arm’s-length from the institution’s general counsel.
Young, Pirotte’s friend, told USA TODAY Sports she witnessed Minatta berating Pirotte and cursing at her.
“People that mentally abuse players don’t always abuse players out in the open,” Pirotte’s mother, Betsy, said. “Tony would pull Lauren aside, tell her she’s worthless, a waste of space, etc. … This player (Talbot) has no idea what went on between Tony and Lauren.”
At Iowa State, the Pirottes found more examples of alleged mistreatment. They reached out to former players there after Lauren Pirotte left the team at SFA, hoping to learn if others had similar claims against the coach.
One day, Heffernon, the former Iowa State player, received a message on Facebook from Lauren's father, Jay.
“Even seeing (Minatta’s) name in a Facebook message made my anxiety spike,” Heffernon said. “The Pirottes have been the only one really brave enough and persistent enough to go after him.”
ISU’s history of allegations
Players under three consecutive head coaches at Iowa State have made these sorts of allegations during the tenure of athletic director Jamie Pollard – against coach Wendy Dillinger, followed by Minatta, followed by current coach Matt Fannon.
In the latter case, ISU gave Fannon a contract extension less than two weeks after the Des Moines Register reported last year about allegations of Fannon mistreating players, including body shaming and verbally berating players. The Register cited two former players by name and eight other former team members who verified parts of the claims.
The newspaper also noted some players came forward in support of Fannon, who has not commented about it.
Dillinger served as ISU's head coach from 2008 to 2013. In her case, four members of her teams told USA TODAY Sports she demeaned and mistreated players. Some said it led to the development of eating disorders and caused the exodus of a number of players because of the exhausting, negative environment she created.
One former player, Addison Nokels, agreed to be named. Three others requested anonymity because they feared retribution or other negative blowback. Nokels said she developed an eating disorder under Dillinger after being body-shamed by her. Asked if she endured emotional and verbal abuse from Dillinger, Nokels replied, “1,000%.”
At one point, she said she went home for Christmas break and had a conversation with her mother about how much weight she had lost.
“It was in that moment, I was like, `I have to leave,'” said Nokels, who transferred to Creighton. “`I can’t go back. This woman is going to kill me if I stay for another two years.'”
Dillinger hires Minatta
Nokels said she wanted to report Dillinger’s conduct during an exit interview at ISU but “nobody wanted to sit down with me.”
Dillinger didn't respond to a follow-up message seeking comment after initially indicating a willingness to discuss the allegations.
As head coach, she hired Minatta as an assistant coach at Iowa State in 2012 but was dismissed in 2013 after she posted a six-year record of 48-58-11. Iowa State then replaced Dillinger with Minatta, who often invoked his Marine background when demanding toughness from his players.
Hays, the former team captain, said Minatta berated players using profanity. She and others also recounted situations with him that left them uncomfortable.
One came after a golfer at Iowa State, Celia Barquin Arozamena, was stabbed to death by a homeless man at a golf course in Ames in September 2018. Hays said Minatta then tried to use the tragedy as motivation during a speech at a subsequent game, noting that the golfer had fought back against her assailant.
“Did you see the scratches she put on that man?” Minatta asked the team, according to Hays. “You guys need to go out there and fight like she did.”
The team “started bawling” in reaction to that, Hays said. “It was so uncalled for.”
Heffernon said she filed an anonymous complaint about him in 2019 but said it didn’t go anywhere because she was told she needed to attach her name to it first.
Why they’re speaking out
Hays said she believed the allegations have been brushed off by the ISU administration because it’s women’s soccer and not a big-money sport such as football.
“I just don’t think they take it as seriously,” Hays said.
Others see too much downside in coming forward.
“Not many people are going to come out of their comfort zone to tell something if there’s a possibility that somebody’s not going to believe them and could say that they’re just making up allegations and just saying things just to get the coach in trouble because they don’t like them,” said Landrie Young, the former SFA player.
But others are motivated to talk about it because they say it’s the only way to break the chain.
“I finally decided to write the letter (about Minatta), because it felt irresponsible not to,” Heffernon said in an interview with USA TODAY Sports. “It felt like I would be opening the door for him to keep doing this if I didn’t.”
Nokels, who played under Dillinger, said she is motivated to talk about it publicly now after learning of the suicide of a female track athlete at Jacksonville University in 2021. That athlete, Julia Pernsteiner, claimed she had endured emotional abuse from her college coach, Ron Grigg, who stepped down last year amid additional similar allegations.
“That really catapulted my own thinking,” Nokels said. “I thought I needed to speak up.”
Lauren Pirotte said she wanted more people to know about these experiences because of the importance of mental health for college athletes.
"It shouldn’t happen, and it needs to stop – and he needs to be stopped," she said. “Girls including myself deserve some sort of validation because throughout their entire time with Tony and after, they’re told that what happened didn’t actually happen because nothing’s been done about it."
Contributing: Lindsay Schnell, Nancy Armour, Tommy Birch, Des Moines Register
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Iowa State soccer players allege emotional abuse by three head coaches