WACO, Texas (KWTX) During an unusual weekend gathering, a Baylor official seemingly exonerated longtime athletic department staffer Tom Hill, who was fired in the wake of the scathing review of the school’s handling of sexual assault reports involving football players, but stopped short of an expected public apology.
Tom Hill. (Photo by Madison Adams/file)
“I was told one time 'don’t try to swim away from a boat with too much gold in your pockets that you can’t swim,' so my pockets were full today and I think that’s as much as I can swim away with is what we got," Hill told KWTX at his home Sunday.
"Every step of the way my whole intent was not to be bitter and to take the high road, I wanted to end on the high road."
On May 26, 2016, the Baylor Board of Regents released its 13-page findings of fact following the months-long investigation by the Philadelphia based Pepper Hamilton law firm and fired head football coach Art Briles, Director of Football Operations Colin Shillinglaw and Hill, who had worked for the university for 28 years and at one time oversaw seven sports, including volleyball.
None of the three was ever given a reason for the termination and Hill was the only at-will employee fired in the wake of the scandal.
“Everybody who is anybody has agreed that he got the rawest deal of all," said Broadus Spivey, the Austin-based attorney representing Hill.
Sources earlier told KWTX that Hill’s firing was based on bad information relayed by Pepper Hamilton lawyers to university leadership following a 15-minute interview of Hill by the firm’s two lawyers who suggested Hill was lying about what he knew about an alleged gang rape involving a volleyball player and football players.
“They had to find a scapegoat, and only in that report that they will not release is what happened, what actually is going on," said longtime Baylor donor Nell Hawkins. “I don’t think Baylor realized the backlash of any of this that would happen to do with Art Briles or any of the guys they really tried to destroy their lives.”
“I think Tom was just caught, innocently caught, in the web of all this conflict," said Lyndon Olson, Jr., Baylor graduate and former U.S. Ambassador to Sweden. "It just goes to show that this has got to be settled soon, it’s been going on way too long, it’s done institutional damage to Baylor.”
"It got completely out of hand when a small group of regents took over the board nine years ago," said Gale Galloway, who served as Chairman of the Baylor Board of Regents from 1994-1995. "The cover-up took place on campus once the athletic department had notified the main campus of any transgressions."
“He (Hill) had nothing to be vindicated for, nor do any other members of the athletic department," said Galloway.
On Sunday afternoon Baylor’s General Counsel Chris Holmes addressed a group of about 60 of Hill’s friends, family members and supporters in the living room of Hill’s Austin Avenue home.
“This was about friends, family, my family, understanding who their Dad was and moving forward with it, and letting them see what the right way to pursue something when you’ve been wronged is," said Hill.
KWTX obtained a copy of an audio recording of the meeting that one of Hill’s supporters made.
“If it’s helpful I can confirm some information that I have. Tom, according to the information the university has…never met with a sexual assault victim or discouraged her from reporting a sexual assault,” Holmes told the gathering.
“…On the one instance that Tom Hill did receive information he understood that other coaches and the athletic director had that same information,” Holmes said.
“We also have no reason to believe that Tom Hill was personally involved in any of the player discipline issues involving the football team,” Holmes said.
A Baylor spokesperson issued a brief statement Monday explaining the meeting.
“Baylor General Counsel Chris Holmes and Tom Hill have a long-time relationship as family friends. Mr. Holmes was there to help provide healing and closure for Mr. Hill’s family and many of his friends.”
What the crowd that gathered in Hill’s home didn’t hear Sunday, however, was an actual apology and according to the recording KWTX obtained, at least two people present confronted Holmes wanting to know why.
“Was there an apology there? I'm sorry but I didn't hear it,” a man said.
“It was not the university’s intent for Tom’s name to ever be released,” Holmes responded.
“It was not the university's intent…for Tom's person to be brought up in this issue. It was an employment decision that we needed to make.”
“So after a 15 minute investigation of two attorneys who are now discredited, you're not apologizing?” the man asked.
Hill’s attorney, Broadus Spivey, responded: “There is a written apology. It’s not for public revelation, it’s for the satisfaction of Tom and we’re satisfied with it.”
Holmes can then be heard saying, “I think it would be best if we left,” as he and David Iler, the deputy general counsel at Baylor, exited Hill’s home.
Hill's brother Stephen, a doctor who flew in from North Carolina, said he was the one on the audio recording questioning Holmes.
"My little brother Tommy was treated very unjustly and I was hoping Baylor University would apologize, that didn't happen, but I came here to support him and here what they had to say officially," said Stephen Hill. "I hope the world knows that this is a travesty and we need to tell the truth."
Meeting resulted from ongoing talks
The meeting Sunday came as a result of ongoing talks between the university and Hill after the school released a statement in November of 2016 saying that Hill, Briles and then Athletic Director Ian McCaw knew of at least one potential gang rape while employees of Baylor and did not report it properly, evidently referring to the volleyball case.
Sources told KWTX, Hill originally approached Baylor with a petition shortly after his 2016 termination to seek reasons for his firing.
An agreement was reached then between Hill and Baylor, though Hill was still given no reason for the firing and a non-disclosure agreement was signed.
In December of 2016, Hill sued Pepper Hamilton for negligence and defamation, although the case was eventually tossed out because a judge ruled that Pepper Hamilton had immunity because Baylor was the client and not Hill.
Holmes’ statement Sunday was consistent with a sworn affidavit that KWTX obtained in 2016 by former Baylor volleyball coach Jim Barnes in which Barnes said he informed Hill of a potential incident involving a volleyball player, but did not provide details and did not expect him to act on the information because Barnes had already informed McCaw.
Hill is now executive director of the Waco Bluecats baseball team.
Prominent Baylor supporters joined Hill Sunday
Among those at the gathering Sunday were Alice Starr, the wife of former President Ken Starr who was demoted and later resigned in the wake of the scandal, former U.S. Ambassador to Sweden Lyndon Olson, Jr., former Baylor Board of Regents Chairman Gale Galloway, Sue Getterman, the donor whose name is on the Baylor softball stadium, Nell Hawkins, who helped the university fund the Hawkins Indoor Tennis Center, former Baylor Athletic Director Tom Stanton for whom Hill worked for years, and dozens of other friends as well as members of Hill’s family, some whom traveled from out of state to attend.
Sources say Hill wanted those who have supported him since his termination to hear firsthand that he had no involvement in the scandal that rocked the University.
Art Briles got a letter, too
In May 2017, Holmes wrote a letter for Art Briles to use with potential employers in which he said the school was unaware of any cases in which Briles failed to report an alleged sexual assault or fielded a player found responsible for a sexual assault.
The letter leaked out in September 2017 after Briles was hired and then fired in the span of a single day by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League.
In the letter, Holmes wrote: “As you speak with others regarding these issues, you can be assured you may make certain statements without fear of contradiction from Baylor based on the information currently known to us. In particular at this time we are unaware of any situation where you personally had contact with anyone who directly reported to you being the victim of sexual assault or that you directly discouraged the victim of an alleged sexual assault from reporting to law enforcement or university officials. Nor are we aware of any situation where you played a student athlete who had been found responsible for sexual assault.”
Holmes, however, did not back off from the joint statement Baylor and Briles issued when they formally parted ways in June 2016 in which Briles and the school acknowledged “there were serious shortcomings in the response to reports of sexual violence by some student-athletes, including deficiencies in university processes and the delegation of disciplinary responsibilities with the football program.”
Shillinglaw sued, but later dropped the action
Colin Shillinglaw who was also fired in the wake of the scathing law firm review of the school’s sexual assault scandal, filed and then later dropped a libel suit against university officials, members of the Baylor Board of Regents, and Pepper Hamilton LLP.
Shillinglaw, who had been with Briles for almost 30 years, was told on May 26, 2016 that he was being fired, but then was later suspended with intent to terminate.
He dropped his lawsuit in April 2017 in order to resolve the dispute through arbitration.