Pepperdine Coach Vance Walberg resigned abruptly Thursday for what he and Athletic Director John Watson called personal and family reasons, although Pepperdine recently questioned the basketball players about Walberg's treatment of them.
Watson said Walberg had made "mistakes in judgment" that included derogatory remarks toward players and last season made a player suck his thumb during practice for acting like "a baby."
Watson called that situation "inappropriate" but said he did not believe Walberg's actions rose to the level of abuse and said he had not been facing action by the school.
"Vance said he is dealing with family issues and he simply couldn't deal with both," Watson said. "I can assure you part of his frustration was trying to bring the team together."
Pepperdine is 6-12 this season and 0-2 in the West Coast Conference after a 92-57 loss to Gonzaga on Monday. Walberg finished 8-23 in his first season at the school last year.
Assistant coach Eric Bridgeland will take over the team as interim coach.
"I think it's a complete shock," said Bridgeland, previously the head coach at Puget Sound and UC Santa Cruz, both Division III schools.
Bridgeland called the players "resilient young men" and said none had told him they planned to leave the program. He had not yet met with Walberg's son, Jason, a senior on the team.
Watson said Walberg's decision took him by surprise Thursday morning, although Watson had met with players recently after receiving a phone call raising questions about Walberg's treatment of them.
"I took it very seriously," Watson said. "I talked to the coaches and I spoke with every player."
According to Watson, players said Walberg had made "a couple of derogatory comments toward players" and had apologized. The player involved in the thumb-sucking incident is no longer at the school, Watson said.
The basketball staff also committed two minor NCAA violations, considered "isolated or inadvertent" under NCAA guidelines, but Watson said the violations were unrelated to Walberg's resignation.
Walberg did not return messages to his cellphone but issued a statement.
"It just comes down to what I need to do personally and what's best for my family," he said. "We've got some really good kids on this team and I wish them well."
Pepperdine players were not at the news conference and a spokesman said they would not be made available.
Terry Tucker, the father of players Rico and Tyler Tucker -- and the high school coach of freshman players Tyrone Shelley and Malcolm Thomas from San Diego Crawford High -- said he had been concerned about the situation.
"I just know my boys were unhappy with some of the things Coach Walberg said," said Tucker, now coach at San Ysidro High. " . . . Just from a coaching standpoint, you just don't hear that anymore. Nobody wants to send their children to Bob Knight, other than the 800 wins."
Former Laker Mychal Thompson, whose son Mychel is a freshman on the team, said he had been "unaware of any turmoil or dissension."
"He was disappointed because he liked Coach Walberg," Thompson said. "I've been on teams where the players and coach feuded. Guys get mad. To me, that's part of being a team."
Walberg, who had great success at Fresno City College, is widely known for the offensive system he called Attack- Attack-Skip-Attack-Attack, which has been adapted by Memphis Coach John Calipari, among others. Yet since arriving at Pepperdine, Walberg had dealt with player defections and the team's struggles.
"The last three or four weeks, he just said, 'It's not what I expected it to be,' " said Calipari, who spoke to Walberg by phone Thursday. "I said, 'You've got to give it time.'
"He was just so unhappy with how it was all playing out."