Under the influence of a mercurial coach and a sluggish Athletic Department, Duke’s baseball team has endured coaching misconduct that has led to a collapse of morale and hampered its ability to win, The Chronicle has learned.
Head coach Bill Hillier brought consensus top-20 recruiting classes to Duke during his first two seasons, but the program has been rattled by a 116-201 record, 12 players who transferred and 22 total who have left the team. Even as players have accused Hillier of implicitly encouraging steroid use and dissatisfaction with his coaching has mounted, the Athletic Department renewed his contract after each of his five losing seasons.
Although the University and several players said steroids are not currently a problem in the program, two players who have since transferred, Aaron Kempster and Grant Stanley, both told The Chronicle they injected themselves with steroids during the summer of 2002.
“It was a nod and wink kind of thing: You need to get bigger, stronger, faster by any means necessary—wink, wink,” said Kempster, who attempted suicide in his dorm room in November 2002.
Of the three current and 12 former players interviewed over the past seven months, several confirmed that players on the baseball team used steroids while they were on the active roster. Six estimated that between four and 12 teammates took performance-enhancing drugs at some point.
Kempster said he and three teammates confidentially admitted to an Athletic Department official in Fall 2002 that they had used performance-enhancing drugs. After Stanley was arrested for possession of testosterona Sept. 29, 2002, the Athletic Department increased its drug testing of baseball players. According to a statement the University issued to The Chronicle Wednesday, no baseball player has tested positive for steroids since then.
The same statement said the University and the Athletic Department are aware of concerns about baseball coaching techniques, morale, attrition and substance abuse among players.
“Probably 40 percent of the team was using steroids,” said Justin Calliham, who transferred to South Carolina after the 2002 season following two tumultuous, injury-riddled years at Duke. “It is so rampant that some people don’t realize. It is almost so normal that it was just normal kind of stuff: ‘You need to get on that juice.’”
Hillier denied the allegation. “No one to my knowledge has taken steroids,” he said. “Without a doubt, I’ve never encouraged my guys.”
Athletic Director Joe Alleva said he first learned of steroid use in the baseball program when Stanley was arrested but said it was an “isolated incident.”
“We didn’t see any kids that were getting huge or hitting monstrous home runs. We didn’t see any occasions of that,” Alleva said. “There was no outward evidence of steroid use on the baseball team. We just thought we had one get caught, so let’s check it out.”
Officials, including Executive Vice President Tallman Trask, said that through interviews with the Athletic Department and observations from the trainers, they found no evidence that a substantial percentage of the team was using steroids.
Alleva and Hillier agreed prior to this season that Hillier would not return unless “the situation improved significantly,” the University statement said. The Blue Devils are currently 9-27, and players say Hillier’s misconduct has continued.
The University administration also received a letter from a concerned parent in Spring 2002 detailing her son’s experience with Hillier’s abrasive style and irresponsible coaching.
In response, Chris Kennedy, senior associate athletic director, interviewed team members about their experiences. He said he also asked if any coach encouraged steroid abuse. “My conclusion based on what the players told me is that they did not,” he said.
Suspicions of steroids
Larry Broadway was a .324 hitter in his three seasons at Duke before becoming the school’s highest Major League Baseball draft pick since 1976. Players described Broadway, now a top prospect for the Washington Nationals, as the leader of the team, emotionally and on the field.
Several players also said his weight gain from a 200-pound freshman in Spring 2000 to a 222-pound sophomore to a 230-pound junior led them to believe steroids were being used, but none of them saw him using steroids.
“I could never figure out why it was Larry would be hitting change-ups off the plate opposite field for home runs,” said one current player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I was like, ‘This guy must be inhuman.’”
Broadway, who left Duke for the minor leagues in 2002, said he never used steroids. He said he gained weight and strength through an intensive workout program combined at times with high protein shakes Hillier told him to use in order to get bigger and advance his career. “There’s no denying that me gaining weight, working out and eating right helped me stay healthy, helped me perform, helped me improve my draft status and hit it harder and for more power,” Broadway said. “Hard work paid off. Just because I gained weight doesn’t mean I did steroids.”
When Stanley came into his freshman year as a 6-foot-3, 185-pound third baseman, he said he felt Hillier expected him to be the next Broadway. After struggling to produce in the 2002 season, Stanley remembered Hillier telling the team after the last game in May “everybody needs to get bigger and stronger.”
Stanley said the coaching staff never explicitly told him to take steroids, but he ultimately did to advance his own career. He said Hillier’s speech was an example of expectations in the program that some players came to accept. “People pretty much took that as an invitation to get bigger and stronger—one way or the other,” he said.
Hillier said he did not remember what he told his team in the locker room at the end of the 2002 season, but he said that as a coach who preaches “consistent, intense” strength training, he “had that conversation of getting bigger, stronger, maybe faster.”
The coach said he encouraged his players to push new boundaries with their strength training during the summer. “If it’s not important enough in the summer to go out and play and get bigger and stronger and faster and add some arm strength, then give the game up. You’ll be replaced,” Hillier said.
Five current and former players—including Kempster, Stanley, Calliham and former outfielder Drew Jerdan—said Hillier went so far as to implicitly suggest to his players that they use steroids.
“After my freshman year, he said, ‘You saw what Larry did. You need to gain 30 to 40 pounds like Larry did.’ But you can’t do that on your own,” said Jerdan, who left to play baseball for a year at Georgia but returned to Duke to finish his degree. He said he has never taken steroids.
“He’d tell ’em you need to get bigger or he’d cut ’em in the fall,” the unnamed current player said. “So I can do steroids or transfer—break the law or transfer.”
Hillier denied the allegations. “Without a doubt, I’ve never encouraged my guys,” he said. “I think my guys are too smart to do steroids.”
The summer of 2002, Calliham, Kempster, Stanley and the unnamed current player said, was the height of steroid use on Duke’s baseball team.
Although Duke tests a selection of its student-athletes about five to six times a year, the University has never employed drug testing over the summer or off campus, said Brad Berndt, assistant athletic director and Duke’s testing coordinator. And until August 2004, the NCAA only tested in baseball during its playoffs—which Duke has not made in Hillier’s tenure. The timing of the tests left a loophole for college players to take performance-enhancing drugs with minimal risk of getting caught.
The unnamed current player, who played in summer leagues with other ACC players, estimated that steroids were so widespread across college baseball during that time that most other teams had more players taking steroids than Duke did.
In Durham, Kempster said he injected several of his teammates with steroids while working with them that summer at Duke-run baseball camps; he returned home for the second half of vacation, when he used steroids himself.
Kempster and Stanley both said they took steroids before the 2002-2003 school year without fear of being caught by drug testing. Furthermore, all four players interviewed who left the team to play at other schools said they were drug tested significantly fewer times at Duke.
“I went to another program where if you get caught doing it, you’re done,” Kempster said of the steroid policy at Fresno State, where he played after leaving Duke. He said Duke was never so explicit: “If they said you would be kicked out if you did it, I would have never done it.
The Athletic Policy Manual, which was updated in September 2003, says students who test positive for a prohibited drug “may be denied permission to represent the University in intercollegiate events or to participate in team practices.” The University can also dock athletically-related financial aid, but the manual lists no mandatory consequences in the drug-testing section. That section also states that if coaches or Athletic Department officials have “a reasonable and articulable suspicion” of substance abuse, the suspected student must be tested.
In 2002, Stanley was playing summer ball in Ohio, where he said he experimented with testosterona—a synthetic form of testosterone—that was sent to his East Campus address the previous spring by a friend from home. Seeking to gain speed to improve his draft status, Stanley estimated that he took 2 to 2.5 cubic centimeters twice a week over a two-week span, alternating injections to his arm, shoulder and buttox. Stanley said he got a minor boost from the drug, but he found the process disquieting. “Just the fact that sticking a needle in my body was weird to me, I just didn’t feel normal doing it,” he said.
Anabolic steroids provoke the body to produce abnormal, synthetic versions of testosterone, expanding muscle mass regardless of changes in diet or activity; proper eating habits and strength training boost their effects. Studies published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine have shown that side effects may include heart disease, liver tumors, testicular atrophy, sudden death and, in adolescents, the premature shutdown of skeletal growth. Under the influence of steroids, the body’s muscles grow without comparable strengthening of tendons—a disparity that can increase the risk of severe muscle injuries.
Steroids remain in the body for several weeks, clearing the system after an average of five half-lives—or somewhere in the vicinity of a month, said Dr. William Roberts, president of the American College of Sports Medicine and associate professor of family medicine at the University of Minnesota.
In Fall 2002, Stanley brought his unused testosterona back to Duke without the intention of using it again. But Sept. 29 a resident adviser suspicious of marijuana in the room alerted the Duke University Police Department. After finding marijuana and continuing to search the room that Stanley shared with teammate Tim Layden, a regular Duke starting pitcher now in the Chicago Cubs’ farm system, officers found the unfinished vial and packaged needles among Stanley’s belongings.
At that point, Athletic Department officials seriously questioned steroid use in the baseball program. The University increased its drug testing of student-athletes, with baseball players receiving extra attention.
“I didn’t suspect anything prior to that point,” Berndt said. “Obviously when that came about, then there were some suspicions.”
Kennedy, who was officially overseeing the baseball team at the time, noted that when a player is arrested for possession of steroids, “you can certainly be suspicious” of the rest of the team.
Alleva said he was not suspicious that members of the team were using performance-enhancing drugs. “But I thought it was propitious of us to increase the educational process and increase the testing process,” he said. Because Alleva had two sons on the baseball team at the time—and during most of Hillier’s tenure—he was removed from the daily operations of the team, said Trask, who oversees all non-academic aspects of the University, including athletics. Still, Alleva, as director of athletics, said he spoke to the team about steroids and “a problem with some players.”
Hillier picked Stanley up from jail Sept. 29, and Stanley said he dismissed him and Layden from the remainder of fall practice. Alleva later suspended Stanley and Layden for the first six games of the season because of marijuana possession; he suspended Stanley an additional six due to his possession of illegal—and NCAA-banned—steroids.
Employing an amnesty clause in the Student-Athlete Drug Policy, Kempster said that during that fall semester he and three of his teammates told Kennedy in a confidential meeting that they each had used steroids. Kempster could not recall whether this happened before or after his teammate’s arrest. He declined to reveal the names of his teammates because they are all still involved in baseball at some level.
Athletic Department officials said they could not comment on specific cases; Kennedy said he did not recall this particular meeting. During the next University-scheduled drug test Nov. 11, Duke records show that four baseball players—Kempster, Stanley, Layden and Blake Walker—were tested.
One shortstop’s nightmare
Kempster came to Duke out of Foothill High School in Palo Cedro, Calif., a slick-fielding Baseball America top-100 prospect in a top-tier recruiting class. He was batting second for a team hovering around .500 until a shoulder injury limited Kempster’s playing time by April 2002.
After an incident at N.C. State that April, though, Kempster was frustrated with his coach and ready to quit. Going into a three-game series with N.C. State, Kempster had missed the bus and gotten a ride with Hillier. Because he was playing with an injury, Kempster said, he did not participate in pre-game drills. Hillier said Kempster was sitting out because he was cut from the line-up for being late.
The conflict between the two escalated. Several players, including Kempster, recalled Hillier grabbing Kempster and knocking the glasses and hat from his head before Hillier was restrained.
Hillier recalled the altercation with Kempster but said it ended differently.
“I never touched him,” Hillier said. “Did I want to? Oh yeah, I was heading to get him. I was going to get a piece of him—and knew that if I’d done that, I probably wouldn’t have been coaching the next day.”
Kempster, unable to raise his arm above his shoulder and struggling academically, said he was fed up with a coaching staff that rolled its eyes at his injury. He would have been the ninth player to quit in Hillier’s first two years on the job.
Eric Filipek, an assistant coach who was fired after the 2002 season and declined to comment for this story, convinced him to stay. Kempster was still burdened with a shoulder impingement that team doctor Laurence Higgins, an orthopedic surgeon at Duke University Medical Center, said needed surgery. But Kempster said Hillier was unsympathetic.
“He didn’t really give a shit about the rest of my career. He wanted to use me as a pinch hitter and runner for the rest of the season,” Kempster alleged. “That is not why I was playing college baseball.”
Hillier did not respond to requests to confirm or deny this accusation.
Not wanting to jeopardize his career by playing through a major injury, Kempster underwent shoulder surgery in early May and sat out the remainder of the 24-34 season.
Even though Kempster said he was around steroids earlier that summer at Duke, the undersized shortstop waited until he got back home to California that summer to spend more than a month simultaneously taking two anabolic steroids: Equipoise, a veterinary steroid injected to increase muscle mass, and Winstrol, a version of the steroid Stanozolol popular among track athletes and swallowed to stimulate fast-twitch muscle fibers. Kempster started his steroid cycle at 175 pounds and ended at 200.
In addition to the physical effects, anabolic steroids alter a user’s mood. Steroids are anti-depressants, but when users stop their cycles it takes about a month for natural testosterone levels to return to normal. During that time, users are susceptible to depression, according to numerous studies.
While Kempster was using steroids, he noticed an amplification of his moods.
“I am a pretty emotional person as it is. I would wear my emotions on my sleeve,” he said. “It wasn’t ’roid rage all the time. I fought more with my girlfriend but nothing to the extreme.”
The oil-based Equipoise likely lingered in his bloodstream into the school year, but as the steroid left his system, it left Kempster with low levels of testosterone in his blood. He was not expecting the depressive side effects of stopping the drug, and when academic troubles mounted, he said he felt like he had nowhere to turn for help.
Duke’s “domineering” coach was “pretty stoked” about his weight gain, Kempster said, but he was “an absolute joke” advising him on his studies.
University administrators said coaches are not meant to be student-athletes’ scholastic support, even though many coaches choose to be closely involved with their teams’ academics. The University runs an academic advising and skills center specifically for athletes.
By Fall 2002, the infielder’s arm was back at 75-percent strength, and he said his career seemed to be back on track. Kempster’s teammates noticed the difference in his size. “Aaron came back, and he’s huge—there is nothing more you need to say,” Stanley said.
But Hillier said he did not suspect Kempster had taken steroids that summer. “If he was a steroid abuser, he sure didn’t look like it,” he said.
With Kempster’s growing academic troubles, he tried to look to the baseball diamond as an outlet, but the stress came from there, too. “The one place I could go to forget about anything wasn’t any better than the rest of my life,” he said.
The night of Nov. 13 Kempster had had enough. Alone in his dorm room, he said he swallowed a bottle of 800-milligram Ibuprofen pills and a bottle of Motrin, all chased with a fifth of 151-proof rum.
“You just lose all interest in what is going on in your life,” he said. “You feel like you hit rock bottom and have nowhere else to go. Some people deal with it in different ways, and I picked the wrong one.”
When he came to, Kempster was lying in the inpatient psychiatric ward at Duke University Hospital. Hillier spent several days with Kempster at the hospital, and the two talked. Less than 10 days after that Kempster was back in California for good, fighting to get on the field again.
Doctors have not conducted full studies on the connection between anabolic steroids and suicide, but strong anecdotal evidence and biological explanations support a link. Studies have shown it can take several months for testosterone levels to bounce back, leaving the brain susceptible to mood swings, said Dr. Kirk Brower, an addiction-treatment specialist at the University of Michigan.
“That information is definitely consistent with steroid-induced depression,” Brower said when asked about Kempster’s specific case. He added that numerous studies have shown that there is a direct link between discontinuing steroid use and suicide.
Kempster hasn’t experienced the same feelings of depression since he attempted suicide. By the spring he was playing at Fresno State, where he mostly pinch hit there for three months before undergoing major elbow surgery, effectively ending his big-league hopes and his baseball career.
He cannot pin his suicide attempt on any one factor and is unsure exactly how steroid withdrawal affected his depression. He said, however, the overall baseball situation at Duke “played a major role.”
“It wasn’t the only thing, and it wasn’t 100-percent them,” Kempster said of the baseball program and Hillier. “There were other issues going on. It was definitely a contributing factor.”
Kennedy said the incident raised concern within the Athletic Department. “Coach Hillier and I had a long talk about the incident afterwards and he told me what had happened and, you know, what it looked like going forward, but without being specific, I don’t think that anybody identified baseball as a primary cause.”
Jerdan said Kempster’s story was an example of the way the baseball program affected the lives of many of the players in his recruiting class.
“He was one of the best players in the country coming in,” said Jerdan, who would stay through the turbulent 2002-2003 season before transferring to Georgia. “He had a few psychological issues, but the coaches just rode his ass and broke him down. Rather than develop talent, the coaches just broke people down. No one ever got better at Duke.”
A lost coach
Over nearly six sub-.500 seasons, Hillier has lost not only games but also his players—at least 22 players have left the program during the six years Hillier has coached. Numerous current and former players said Hillier’s demeanor and often blatant negativity directly contributed to the Blue Devils’ low team morale, personal doubts and losing record.
All these are issues that the Athletic Department has acknowledged and is considering. “We’re not pretending that the transfers are not a source of concern. They are—they absolutely are,” Kennedy said. “They’re high nationwide in baseball. We don’t think they should be as high here as they are nationwide, so the fact that we’ve had kids leaving is a real thing we’re thinking about.”
Many of the morale problems in Duke baseball pre-date Hillier, said Kathleen Smith, professor of biology and faculty athletics representative. “That’s one of the reasons the coaching change was made. And it improved, certainly in terms of the interviews we had,” said Smith, who conducts exit interviews with student-athletes.
Although some players praised Hillier’s care for their personal lives, several former and current players told stories of how Hillier’s moods would suddenly shift and how he belittled them on and off the field.
“When you have people saying, ‘Man I need to find something that I can injure so I don’t even have to play anymore the rest of the season’—I mean, people want to go home,” said a second current player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They want to get out of this.”
Hillier’s players said he is a traditional coach who demands punctuality, hard work and continual improvement. When he was hired, he expected to turn the baseball program into a conference championship contender.
“My expectations were much higher than Joe Alleva’s, and I don’t think I’ve met them,” Hillier said. “Not even close.”
Duke baseball has not been a top ACC program since the early 1960s. Under head coach Steve Traylor from 1988 to 1999, the Blue Devils went 356-286, but only once finished better than .500 in the conference. Alleva and the Athletic Department knew Hillier from when he had been a Duke assistant, and then associate, baseball coach from 1987 to 1994.
After Hillier served as head coach at UNC-Asheville and went 97-175, Duke brought him back to Durham as head coach in 1999 based partially on the reputation he had for bonding with his players when he was an assistant coach.
“He had inherited a program that was down, and he was trying to build the program,” Alleva said. “He had some tough luck with some injuries, and I was giving him a chance to build a program.
“I think I’d much rather err on the side of being fair,” he added, “than being too quick.”
Hillier’s first season the team went 17-41, the losingest season in Duke baseball’s history. Although the team had broken .500 in seven of the previous eight seasons, Hillier has not had a winning season during his entire tenure.
Part of Hillier’s initial strength was in his ability to recruit players. By the time Hillier had one season behind him and a full year to survey the country, he brought in one of the top recruiting classes in the country. That class looked as though it could spark the turnaround of Duke baseball. But only one of those nine players, who would currently be seniors, remains on the traveling roster.
Even with those recruits, the team has been wracked by injuries. Approximately 20 arm surgeries alone have been performed during Hillier’s tenure, players said, and several players have had multiple major surgeries.
Kempster and Calliham both recall their arm surgeon, Higgins, telling them the number of surgeries was abnormally high and that the team’s lifting and throwing schedule may have contributed to the problem.
Higgins said he may have said with “some exacerbation” that there was a rash of surgeries at certain times but the number of injuries at Duke is not higher than that of other elite athletic programs. The surgeon said throwing and lifting consecutively could cause injury, and the team of doctors and trainers continually evaluate training practices in an effort to increase the workout’s focus on flexibility.
By mid-May 2002, five starting pitchers were injured, and Hillier was forced to send inexperienced underclassmen to the mound, only making winning more difficult in one of the nation’s toughest conferences.
“I probably didn’t do my homework well enough and signed some kids who were injured coming in or who got injured after the fact,” Hillier said.
He added that training and medical staff now take more steps to be aware of existing vulnerabilities to injury. They also concentrate more on preventative training when players arrive.
Even with the new precautions, current players Greg Burke and Danny Otero are the top two pitchers in the ACC in games started, combining to start 24 of Duke’s 35 games so far this season.
Hillier said Burke and Otero generally throw fewer pitches per outing than their conference counterparts, and his other starters are considerably less talented than his top two, necessitating the high number of starts.
Although injuries certainly played a part in the Blue Devils’ losing record, the players’ frustrations may have been both a cause and result of the team’s losses.
“When guys get recruited to go play baseball in college, we are all used to being the guy who gets all the playing time and notoriety,” said Ryan Sember, the remaining senior on the traveling roster. “When you are not playing, you look for excuses. I think a lot of guys have taken that out on coach and blamed their problems on him.”
Stanley and other players credited Hillier with standing up for them and forging off-the-field bonds. Hillier has worked to help secure jobs for some of his players once they have left the program, Sember noted.
But many players said the jovial man who recruited them to Duke is unpredictable on the field. Jerdan said Hillier often implemented game strategies that “nobody understood.”
Off the field, Hillier sometimes employed unconventional tactics to understand his players’ personal problems.
In Spring 2003, just months after Kempster’s suicide attempt, Stanley’s arrest for steroid possession and Layden’s citation for marijuana possession, Hillier distributed a questionnaire to the entire team. Players were asked to identify teammates who had the highest propensity for behavior detrimental to the team, who had the most talent and who worked the least. Players said the questions were meant to target specific individuals.
Hillier said the players were never forced to call each other out. “They could have turned it in blank if they wanted to,” he said.
The questionnaire was just one example of what players said is the intensely competitive climate on the team.
“When you are practicing it is every man for himself. There is no team concept at all,” Calliham said. “Our team motto was ‘Fuck your buddy.’”
But other players said Hillier was simply trying to motivate a team that sometimes showed less than 100-percent effort when morale dipped.
“He’s just competitive. He wants to win; we all wanted to win,” said Kevin Perry, who became a volunteer assistant coach during his senior year in 2003 after an injury shortened his career. “I never had a problem with his tactics or styles.”
“If he thinks you’re not working hard enough, he’s going to chew you out,” Broadway said. “That’s good. You needed that when you’re a young player who needs to learn discipline. Even in regular life, when you’ve played for him, you feel you’ve got a natural pressure to everyday life.”
Hillier expected so much on the field, players said, that he repeatedly suggested players put baseball before their academics. Hillier said he told his players that academics and baseball should have “equal importance” in their lives.
Brent Reid, who left the program in 2000 after two and a half seasons, said he was mocked when he asked Hillier to accommodate his studies. He said Alleva preached “balance” between the two primary realms of a student-athlete’s college life, but the baseball coach straightly ignored this message.
Other players echoed Reid’s sentiment, emphasizing lackluster advising that fell short of the Athletic Department’s promises.
“At Duke it was fuck school, fuck this—all we care about is baseball,” Jerdan said.
Hillier said he took interest in his players’ academic lives. “They can do both,” he said. “I have a lot of guys who we adjust our practice schedule to, because of academics. I think I understand what a good education is worth.