WESLEY CHAPEL — The woman clapping on the bench, with her silver-gray hair pulled tightly in a ponytail, is more than just a new volleyball coach at Wesley Chapel High.
She has an impressive resume: high school state champion, played at Ball State, assistant on two national championship teams at University of the Pacific. She also turned USF into a perennial NCAA Tournament team during the 1990s.
But it has taken Perri Hankins 10 long years to get from USF to this high school gymnasium.
To this day, one question lingers: Why?
Hankins was fired by USF in December 1998, seemingly out of nowhere and with little explanation other than the school wanted to move in a new direction.
Hankins filed a civil lawsuit against USF, alleging her dismissal was in retaliation for voicing her objection to the "disparate treatment of female athletes and those employed in women's sports at USF."
Though she tried desperately, Hankins could not land another top-flight job. She bounced around a few lesser-known programs.
Ten years later, she is back in Tampa and the pain still lingers.
"It's still a sore spot," Hankins said while keeping score of a Wesley Chapel junior varsity match. " … It's hard for me to get that right in my mind. I like to support the Bulls. I heard (Brett) Favre say: 'I never hold a grudge on anything.' But I'm thinking if you're a competitive athlete and you work your butt off for something and someone does something that's just so classless and inappropriate, it's part of that forgiveness stuff."
Great success at USF
When Wesley Chapel athletic director Steve Mumaw introduced Hankins to parents and players last month he simply said, "former USF coach Perri Hankins."
"That was enough to impress them," he said.
Hankins, hired by USF in 1991 after helping guide UOP to a pair of national titles, took a program that was 18-24 and third in the Sun Belt Conference with a 158 national ranking to No. 22 within three years. She became the winningest coach (189-72) in USF history, guiding her teams to four Conference USA titles and five NCAA Tournament berths in her final six seasons. Since 1998, USF has made the NCAA Tournament twice (2000, '02).
"It was awesome," Hankins said. "We went up so fast. … We were in the NCAA Tournament where they wouldn't have had a chance to be in it before."
Hankins built her foundation walking the recruiting trail of the nation's top athletes. From Day 1, she instilled a mind-set of treating USF like a national power.
"I got lucky on a few really good athletes just knowing the recruiting game," Hankins said. "We treated each practice the same, we worked out the same and I recruited the same. I went after the top kids and tried to find some Florida players."
Contract not renewed
The end came rather swiftly.
Three days after USF lost to San Diego in the first round of the 1998 NCAA Tournament, Hankins was notified by letter that her contract would not be renewed.
She was devastated.
Hankins had been praised for turning USF into an NCAA Tournament team. The majority of her athletes had grade point averages of 3.0 or higher.
Documents obtained by the Times revealed few other clues other than Hankins had been reprimanded for secondary NCAA violations in 1994-95, and her superiors felt she had not done her job as an administrator of the program.
After 10 years it still hurts, but Hankins thinks she's ready to move on.
"I think it's been long enough," Hankins said. "You think of the 10 years and everything in between. That's was my number (as a player). It's an important thing for me."
D-I interest dried up
After USF, Hankins got right back into coaching with stops at the Olympic Training Center, Division II Florida Tech, Campbell (Buies Creek, N.C.) and Virginia Commonwealth. She applied for almost every major Division I opening in the immediate aftermath, but told the Times in 2000 that no major program would hire her because of her pending lawsuit against USF; the lawsuit was settled for $20,000. Barbara Sparks-McGlinchy, associate athletic director when Hankins was at USF, and former athletic director Paul Griffin declined comment.
"I've missed so many opportunities that would be more equal to my career and what I did at South Florida," Hankins said in 2000. "I don't want to knock Campbell, but … I was solicited every year by top programs — Big Ten, Pac-10, the big programs — before this happened. After this happening, I can't get anybody to call me back. That's part of the animal of athletics. You get hurt if you talk."
Hankins ultimately decided she wanted to live in Tampa and always held onto the Pebble Creek home she had purchased while coaching USF.
She was a volunteer assistant for the University of Tampa's 2006 national championship team and has helped out at the school's volleyball camps the past two summers.
Hankins even helped coach River Ridge over the summer while coach Heidi Castelamare missed time for followup appointments after a hysterectomy.
"She had to do a lot of my work for me because I had a lot of appointments," said Castelamare, who helped make Hankins aware of the Wesley Chapel opening. "We coach a lot alike. I was real comfortable having her work with my girls."
UT volleyball coach Chris Catanach said it's rare for a high school to land a coach with Hankins' qualifications.
"I told the guy he would be nuts if he didn't hire her," Catanach said. "You can go get a JV coach or go get your kids an accomplished college coach. … She's overqualified. Anyone in the area would be fortunate to have her."
Times staff writer Greg Auman contributed to this report. Izzy Gould can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-5315.