Walt Ker, one of the most successful women's volleyball coaches in NCAA Division II history, built his success at Cal State Northridge on coaching acumen and the warm, personal relationships he developed with his players.
Through the force of his magnetic personality, Ker attracted outstanding athletes to Northridge. He helped them choose their classes, apartments and roommates. He counseled them, often holding long one-on-one meetings after matches.
In the off-season, Ker shared meals with players and chatted with them in bars. He was considerate and comforting, and he gained their admiration, trust and loyalty.
But Ker's 18-year coaching career ended Jan. 7 when he abruptly and inexplicably resigned, saying only that he wanted to spend more time with his family. A few weeks later, it emerged that two members of the 1992 team had filed a written complaint accusing him of sexual harassment.
Ker's abuse of his position has gone beyond that, according to some women he has coached. They say that on various occasions since the early 1980s, Ker had consensual sexual relations with players.
Ker denied the allegations of sexual harassment and declined comment on charges that he had relations with players.
"I've resigned from Northridge to prioritize my life with my family," he said in a prepared statement this week. "I have a deep sense that being a good father and good husband are the most important jobs in my life. We have new goals in our lives. I'm currently studying for my real estate license."
Northridge officials have declined comment other than to say that they accept Ker's reasons for his resignation.
Nevertheless, the allegations have cast a pall over the successful Northridge women's volleyball program, throwing recruiting efforts into disarray. After five candidates for Ker's job either turned down the position or an opportunity to be interviewed, the school last week selected John Price, the men's volleyball coach, to direct the women's program for one year.
The Ker case also puts a spotlight on a fine line that coaches must tread--the line between close, compassionate coaching and abusing the trust that athletes and their parents often confer on coaches.
"If you make an impact and you have trust, you have the opportunity to develop a relationship and that's good as long as you don't cross the line," says University of Arizona Coach Dave Rubio, one of Ker's closest friends in the coaching fraternity and one of the coaches who spurned an offer to replace Ker at Northridge.
"In the long run, maybe the profession is better off for it," said Rubio, who played for Ker at Northridge and was one of his assistants. "Through tragedy, in a sense, things are already happening. I'm a very affectionate person and I have a new awareness about it."
When he resigned, the 39-year-old Ker said that he wanted to spend more time with his wife, the former Cathy Miceli, and their three sons. Ker coached Miceli, an All-American, at Northridge in 1978-80. The two were married in 1984.
Ker also denied assertions by two current players--Heather Anderson and Ana Kristich--that at a postseason team meeting he acknowledged his misconduct, apologized for it and told players he would seek counseling.
Those who played for and coached against Ker describe him as an excellent recruiter, powerful motivator and a superb tactician. He was viewed as a charming, gregarious, self-confident coach who went the extra mile for his players, whether they had academic or personal problems.
Heather Hafner, a three-time All-American in the early 1980s, said she was unaware of any misconduct by Ker. She credited him with helping her develop as a player and person.
"Without his level of compassion and patience, I would have been out of there," Hafner said. "He was personable. He cared about his players. If you had a problem, you could go to him."
Yet Ker also drove players from the program because of his unwelcome sexual advances, according to two players who transferred out of Northridge. One of the former players who had a sexual relationship with Ker said she felt hurt, used and betrayed by him.
"Mentally it was not (consensual), physically it was," she said. "The advances were unwelcome and the advances were turned down at times."
That player said she tried to repress memories of her encounters with Ker because she was haunted by confusing emotions. Within the past year, however, when a current team member told her that Ker was making advances, painful memories--coupled with anger and disgust--surfaced.
"You don't know exactly whose fault it was," she said.
"You feel used and taken advantage of. It's hard because Walt Ker is a very articulate person. He's very good at telling you what you want to hear. And he's very influential. He has power over people and he uses that power over people.