Norfolk State Fires Football Head Coach Amid Inquiry

By Paul White
Updated: December 17, 2004

NORFOLK, Va. — For the fourth time in seven years, Norfolk State is looking for a football coach. This time, the Spartans are looking for an athletic director, too.

In a shake-up of the school’s athletic department Thursday, Norfolk State fired football coach Willie Gillus for alleged NCAA violations and reassigned athletic director Orby Moss.

NSU president Marie V. McDemmond, who announced the changes at a news conference, would not elaborate on the alleged infractions or their severity, but provided the citation numbers in the NCAA Division I Manual. They concern illegal inducements to recruits and their families and friends, out-of-season conditioning and failure to provide a day off per week for the players.

Moss said the allegations came to light after exit interviews with players after the season.

McDemmond said the school has already reported itself to the NCAA.

Gillus denied committing any violations and said he has his attorney preparing “ several lawsuits” for wrongful termination. He also said uncovering the violations was part of a plan by Moss to get rid of him, a plan that backfired on the athletic director.

“ He was in a witch hunt for me, but he got caught up in the mix himself,” Gillus said in a phone interview Thursday evening.

The Spartans went 2-19 in two seasons under Gillus, including a 1-8 mark in 2004. But McDemmond said the alleged infractions, not the team’s record, sparked her decision to fire Gillus, a former Norfolk State quarterback in his first college head coaching job.

“ Norfolk State will not be embarrassed by rules violations that could have been avoided,” said McDemmond, who described herself as “ furious” upon learning of the potential violations. “ The won-loss record was not a factor in my determination.”

The president added that had the school not uncovered what it deemed violations, Gillus would still be the coach.

Because the school is firing Gillus “ with cause,” the university will not have to pay him the final two years of his contract, McDemmond said. Gillus was to earn $95,000 per year for the next two seasons.

“ That’s what this is all about,” Gillus said. “ This was something started by Mr. Moss in an attempt to free up some money so they wouldn’t have to pay me the rest of my contract.”

McDemmond said Moss, who had been Norfolk State’s athletic director since 1999, made the decision to vacate his position.

“ Orby decided it was time to step away,” McDemmond said. “ He feels that athletics needs a fresh start.”

Moss, 61, who has been an athletic director for 26 years, will become a special assistant to the president and continue some of the work he had started on football funding issues and scholarships.

During Moss’s tenure, Norfolk State teams won 10 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles and the 2001 MEAC men’s all-sports trophy.

However, his track record with coaches in the high-profile sports has been less successful .

In 1999, Moss hired Wil Jones as the school’s men’s basketball coach despite Jones having no Division I coaching experience. Jones was fired after two seasons.

Moss’s disagreements with football coach Mo Forte led to Forte’s resignation in 2002 after four years. Forte led the Spartans to five victories in each of his last two seasons – NSU’s highest victory total since moving to Division I-AA in 1997 – and went 6-3 this year in his debut at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

Moss introduced Tuskegee’s Rick Comegy as Forte’s replacement, then ignored subsequent reports that Comegy was still considering other jobs. Four weeks later, Comegy announced he was staying at Tuskegee.

A chagrined Moss then turned to Gillus.

“ I’m proud of the work we’ve done, but football remains a problem at Norfolk State,” said Moss, whose contract with NSU runs through 2007. “ I figure if I remove myself from the issue and let someone else tackle it, maybe I can help out by looking at things from a different angle.”

The Spartans have not had a winning football season in their eight Division I-AA years. Their record under Gillus marks the worst two-year stretch in the program’s 66-year history.

Marty Miller, the Spartans’ baseball coach whose connection to Norfolk State spans nearly 40 years, steps in as the interim athletic director and will be responsible for hiring the new head football coach. Meanwhile, McDemmond will be conducting a search for the new athletic director.

Miller planned to meet with the assistant football coaches Thursday afternoon before formulating an action plan. He said he doesn’t have a timetable, but acknowledged that he needs to move quickly.

“ This is a critical time,” Miller said. His task is formidable. In addition to funding and facilities questions that have continually surrounded NSU football, Miller must now woo a candidate in the middle of football recruiting season to a program that may be facing an NCAA investigation.

“ It’s a difficult challenge,” McDemmond conceded. “ But when you look at the options, this was our only option.”

Spartans linebacker Kevin Talley, who has earned several All-America honors in the past week, said he knew nothing about possible NCAA violations.

“ Players play and coaches coach,” Talley said. “ We just do as we’re told.”

However, Talley said some of his teammates became unhappy with Gillus, and stopped playing hard for him. He also said, given the team’s record, he wasn’t surprised that Gillus is no longer the Spartans head coach.

“ He was a good coach for me, but when you win two games in two seasons, it might be time for a change,” said Talley, a senior who earned his degree in psychology on Saturday. “ Business is business. And this is a business.”