George Washington’s men’s basketball team started its 2018–2019 season with two ugly home losses. First, the Colonials blew a 22-point lead to Stony Brook, then they came back two nights later and got rolled by Siena. Neither squad would have been expected to beat a GW team just two years removed from an NIT title.
But unexpected losses have become commonplace for the Colonials, whose program has been in turmoil since firing its head coach more than two years ago. The two disastrous home games marked the start of the program’s first year since the loss of athletic director Patrick Nero, who left for no obvious reason in the middle of last season, further roiling a university where hoops is the only sport that matters.
Nero issued a short goodbye statement on December 18, 2017, saying he was heading off to “pursue the next phase” of his career. But Nero, 53, had no other job lined up. He still had three-and-a-half years left on a contract that paid him in the mid–six figures annually. He’d just been hailed as “Athletic Director of the Year” by a trade association. He was by many accounts far more popular with the student body than the typical college administrator: The school’s communications department put out a press release in the spring of 2017 partially about members of the senior class giving the athletic director “a collection of hand-written notes about their most special memories” of their days at the school, “[i]dentifying Nero as a guiding force not only in competition, but also in life.”
“You all make it a joy to come to work,” Nero told the students, mere months before he left that joyful workplace for good.
Nero answered no questions from the media about his abrupt departure, and GW officials didn’t even try to explain the disappearance. The Hatchet, GW’s student newspaper, reported a month after Nero left that the move was so unexpected that the administration remained unsure when the search for a replacement would begin. Eventually the school promoted Tanya Vogel, previously GW’s deputy Title IX coordinator, to be its next AD, but Nero’s name was nowhere to be found in the hiring announcement, and he did not attend the ceremony introducing his successor.
But now comes some clarity.
School records obtained by Deadspin show Nero fled Foggy Bottom just as GW officials were investigating the latest batch of misconduct accusations against him. An anonymous tipster had shared social media posts showcasing lewd, sexually aggressive behaviors from Nero in front of staff and recent graduates. The tipster claimed to have contacted the school after an incident in which Nero made a potential GW recruit “feel creepy.”
And given the shady circumstances surrounding his departure, Nero’s downfall can now be seen as the final chapter in a Machiavellian and largely clandestine squabble between the athletic director and the decorated and now-former basketball coach, Mike Lonergan.
Lonergan was another of GW’s unexpected losses. He was fired amid a tidal wave of bad press in 2016, at a time the basketball program was riding highest. Lonergan was run off just after the Colonials beat Valparaiso 76-60 to win the NIT, giving the school its first postseason championship and capping what the student newspaper hailed as the “winningest team in program history.” On his way out, Lonergan told anybody who would listen that Nero was behind the campaign that did him in.
Deadspin talked to dozens of people familiar with the Nero-Lonergan feud, many of whom requested anonymity because of fears about retribution and/or job-security concerns. Taken together, their stories paint a comprehensive picture of an athletic department’s implosion just after its greatest success.
“I was thinking can’t you guys just get along, for the program?” says Bob Tallent, a former GW player and head coach who has remained close to the program for half a century.“But they never did. It never got any better.”
The beginning of the end of Lonergan’s run at GW came when the Washington Post ran an investigative piece by reporter Adam Kilgore that painted the coach as a bully and a homophobe and linked Lonergan’s treatment of players to a spate of GW transfers. The story’s biggest bombshell was “five current and former” players saying that Lonergan told his team that Nero masturbated to videos of their practices. Several players also told the Post that Lonergan said the AD had “engaged in a sexual relationship” with an unnamed GW player.
All the sources accusing Lonergan of hateful and abusive behavior in the Post piece were anonymous.
Lonergan was originally hired at GW by Nero, and they were viewed as allies by the outside world. But the coach had become the AD’s top antagonist, and vice versa, long before Lonergan was bounced off campus. The coach complained on multiple occasions to both the GW administration and the NCAA about Nero’s attempts to establish social relationships with GW players, a pattern that others in the athletic department agreed was strange.
“Mike did not like Nero socializing with some of the players, and he made that known,” says Tallent. “And went to the president.”
In turn, according to several people close to the GW athletic department, Nero decided that the best way to save himself was to get rid of Lonergan first. Lonergan’s allies say that after years of fighting between the coach and AD, school administrators were forced to choose a side once and for all—and they picked Nero.
“Mike was a whistleblower,” says Steve Bonavita, a former assistant coach on Lonergan’s staff early in his career, and one of his most aggressive public defenders since his firing. “If you’re a whistleblower, you’re supposed to be protected. I don’t think that happened at GW. He turned in a guy who was doing something wrong, and he’s the guy who gets run out. Nero ruined his life. It’s disgusting.”
If Nero indeed concocted the plan to oust Lonergan, it succeeded beyond his meanest dreams. Lonergan won’t or can’t talk about GW; friends attribute the silence to a non-disparagement clause in a settlement deal between the university and its former coach.
But while the reasons behind Lonergan’s exit were extremely public, even hardcore GW hoops observers were mystified by Nero’s hush-hush disappearance. The suddenness certainly fueled rumors: Lonergan loyalists pushed the story from the start that Nero’s resignation announcement was bunk, and that his departure was the result of a university investigation. Lots of those same loyalists have whispered to anybody who would listen about a video of Nero flaunting the boozy misbehavior he had been accused of for years.
But no such clip had ever surfaced, making it the basketball equivalent of the Trump pee tape among Nero haters.
But this one is definitely real.
Deadspin obtained a copy of the video, plus screenshots from social media of Nero captured at a bar near the GW campus. The visual evidence shows him making obscene gestures, straddling a then-very recent GW graduate (Class of 2017), and generally behaving in a way no school would tolerate for one of its most visible and highest-paid officials. And it finally provided the kill shot that Lonergan’s supporters had been dreaming of.
Nero arrived at GW in 2011, after a six-year run as commissioner of the America East Conference (AEC). He’d previously been an athletic director at the University of Maine, and an associate athletic director at the University of Miami (Fla.).
Before he’d even officially assumed day-to-day responsibilities, Nero personally fired GW’s then-head coach, Karl Hobbs, and just days later brought in Lonergan. Nero couldn’t have gushed more about his first hire. He outlined the four qualities he wanted in a coach—academic success, reputation, ties to Washington, and a winning track record—and said Lonergan had them all in spades.
Lonergan’s coaching credentials and history in local hoops made him a great catch. Lonergan came from the University of Vermont (a member of the AEC, where Nero had been commissioner), where he’d put up the highest winning percentage in school history. Lonergan took Vermont to the NCAA tournament the previous year, and shortly before taking the GW job had been named the AEC’s coach of the year for the second time in five seasons. Nero also cited Lonergan’s “wonderful reputation” in the coaching ranks and his players having a “100 percent graduation rate” at Vermont.
The GW job was also a homecoming for Lonergan, who grew up in the area and went to high school at Archbishop Carroll, a legendary D.C. basketball program. He’d been an assistant coach under Gary Williams at the nearby University of Maryland, and had won an NCAA Division III national title as head coach at Catholic University in 2001.
In 2014, after Lonergan led GW to the NCAA tournament, the university extended his contract through 2021 and boosted his salary to nearly $800,000 a year. “Mike has succeeded in bringing high quality young men to GW, and we are proud of how they have developed both on and off the court,” Nero said in a statement announcing the extension. “He has done everything we have asked of him in building a strong community around our team, and our alumni, students and fans in Washington, D.C., and around the world have responded with tremendous support for the program.”
The GW roster that year included three guys who would go on to make the NBA—Yuta Watanabe, Tyler Cavanaugh, and Patricio Garino—and Lonergan appeared happy in his job: He turned down a higher-paying job at Boston College to stay in D.C.; he later rebuffed Rutgers, which he told friends was offering him $1.6 million a year.
In 2015, a year after GW extended Lonergan’s deal, the school did the same for Nero, locking him down through the 2020–2021 school year.
Neither would come close to finishing out their contracts.
Appearances aside, whatever partnership existed between the athletic department’s two most important figures was rotting well before their contracts were extended.
Friends of Lonergan say the relationship started going downhill during a 2012 basketball trip to Italy. Three witnesses say Nero acted drunk and loutish throughout the voyage, in front of GW players, staff, alumni and students. One said he saw Nero “inebriated beyond control” while with GW staff on a party barge in Rome.
Ken DeMatteo, whose company, Sports Travel International, arranged GW’s European tour, says Nero “made my life miserable” and embarrassed the school with his “bizarre” comportment. “He was drinking all the time,” says DeMatteo. “I’ve been to Italy 22 times with different teams, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there and get away from him.”
The complaints about Nero got louder when he showcased the same boorish behavior a year later at the athletic department’s holiday party at Jack Rose Dining Saloon, which he’d arranged. Staff parties became less bacchanalian after that function, one veteran of the school’s athletic department said.
Multiple sources say the relationship reached a point of no return by 2015, when players told Lonergan that Nero was inviting them to dinner at his house and offering them use of his home. Lonergan also told friends that at least one player, Danish center Kevin Larsen, told the coach that Nero was regularly giving him cash, usually $60 at a time, whenever he stopped by the AD’s office (which happened almost every day, sources said). Sources said Larsen confessed to Lonergan that Nero instructed him not to tell the coach about the home dinner, the office visits, or the petty cash payments.
The coach complained to friends when a photo of the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Larsen picking up the diminutive Nero in Smith Center began circulating on social media; Nero had run onto the court to jump around with players in a postgame victory celebration, which Lonergan considered an embarrassment to the program. The coach was even more peeved when Nero’s department commissioned a roughly 30-foot-high action photo of Larsen to be draped over the front of the Smith Center. Lonergan told friends it made the AD’s alleged pet look like the team leader, when coaches saw Argentinian Olympian Patricio Garino in that role.
Lonergan wasn’t the only one on campus who saw Nero’s fraternizing with Larsen as an odd look for the department. One veteran athletics department staffer, who claimed to have no affection for either the former coach or former AD, said Nero’s involvement in Larsen’s personal matters made an already weird workplace even weirder.
“I remember once Kevin Larsen and his girlfriend were having problems,” the staffer said, “so Patrick says he’ll call the girl in for a meeting and Kevin will be there with her and he’ll have flowers. An AD getting in the middle of a lovers’ quarrel among college students? You can’t make this shit up.” (Larsen graduated from GW in 2016 and now plays for Bilbao Basket of LEB Oro, Spain’s top professional league. He did not respond to Deadspin’s requests for comment made through that team.)
Lonergan told friends he had reported Nero’s cash payments and dinner invites, as well as the fraternizing with players, to GW president Steven Knapp. The athletic department conducted an investigation, according to a veteran employee, but it did not result in any disciplinary action.
“So many of us had to go to the general counsel’s office, answer questions about alcohol and [Nero’s] relationships with students, which were different than anybody had seen with any other administrator,” the athletic department staffer said. “The way college athletics works is that these things make it to the highest desk, so that meant somebody at the highest desk at GW was okay with this. Nobody would address it!”
When Knapp declined to act, Lonergan’s friends say, the coach had surrogates anonymously rat Nero out to the NCAA for the alleged illicit benefits he was providing players. Neither the NCAA nor the school ever announced any punishment. But, the coach’s friends say, Nero had begun regarding Lonergan as an adversary.
Lonergan, in turn, knew somebody wanted him out. Just as Nero was being investigated for gifts to players, Lonergan was informed that someone had reported him to the NCAA for showing film on the team bus after a game, a violation of NCAA rules.
Lonergan also told friends in 2015 that he had been anonymously reported to the GW administration for allegedly directing abusive and humiliating language at his players and referees during games and practices. He was told he’d specifically been accused of telling a player he “should play for a transgender team.”
When Nero asked for videotapes of the men’s team’s workouts, sources say, Lonergan believed the AD was fishing for other reportable offenses. That request ended up providing the biggest bombshell in the Washington Post piece: the allegation that Lonergan had told players Nero was planning to masturbate to the footage.
Lonergan told friends that he’d never said a word about Nero and masturbation. Rory Muhammad, GW’s director for diversity and inclusion and Title IX coordinator, asked Lonergan about the masturbation line in the spring of 2016, according to sources, and when Lonergan denied saying it, Muhammad told him not to worry and that no investigation would follow. Lonergan had recently been cleared in a separate Title IX investigation of his language toward players. Friends say that while Lonergan never knew for sure whose anonymous emails inspired that investigation, he assumed Nero was behind that complaint.
Muhammad did not respond to Deadspin’s requests for comment. Tanya Vogel, who served as the school’s deputy Title IX coordinator at the time, and who later replaced Nero as AD, also did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
After the Post story was published, friends say, Lonergan suggested that the masturbation comment was an attempt at a joke by a former GW basketball assistant. Asked if he’d ever used the masturbation line, the former assistant—now an assistant coach at another D1 hoops program—said he would “neither confirm nor deny” Lonergan’s version of events. “Mike’s really gotta get on with his life,” the former assistant said.
Another former athletic department employee says he told GW investigators that he heard Lonergan yell “Faggot!” at a referee from the bench during a 2014 game at Rutgers. The comment was not reported at the time, and the box score from that game shows no technical fouls called on GW. The former employee, who requested anonymity because of job security concerns, and who remains friends with Nero, says now that Lonergan likely hadn’t yelled the slur loud enough for the referee to hear, and that he doesn’t remember how close he was sitting to the bench.
The animosity between the AD and coach was so intense that GW president Steven Knapp called a summit between the men before the 2015–2016 season in an attempt to quell the disharmony.
Lonergan came out of the meeting feeling like a winner. He told several people that Knapp ordered Nero not only to stop socializing with players, but also to avoid any interaction with the team without Lonergan’s pre-approval. Knapp, who stepped down as president in late 2017 but remains on the GW faculty, declined to answer questions about the meeting or about the Lonergan/Nero relationship, citing a personal policy to not comment on “personnel matters.”
That season ended well for GW: The Colonials rose into the national rankings with wins over three top-25 teams, got bounced out of the polls with a late-season 4-4 slump in conference games, then saved face in the postseason with the only face-saving finish in the NIT: a championship.
By that time, though, the Lonergan-Nero feud had reached full boil.
Lonergan told friends that Nero tried to order him to reject GW’s NIT invitation. Lonergan said at the time that Nero relented only when the coach, in what was by then a rare face-to-face encounter, threatened to tell the media that the AD kept GW out of the postseason. Then, Nero held court at a pregame reception for donors and VIPs at Madison Square Garden, but didn’t tell Lonergan about the event, much less invite him. Nero and Lonergan scrapped over whether prime tickets behind GW’s bench at MSG would go to Nero and his friends or Lonergan’s family. (Lonergan’s crew ultimately won out.)
Lonergan noted to friends after the big win that Nero did not appear in any of the photos released by the university from the NIT championships, pointing out that even student managers were invited to pose with the team—but the AD wasn’t. Nero also wasn’t anywhere to be seen at the reception for Lonergan and the team thrown by GW president Knapp at his residence.
Athletic department staffers say the efforts Nero and Lonergan exerted in trying to screw each other over made for an emotionally and morally draining workplace. “I was constantly being asked questions about both of them,” a former department employee says. “Non-stop investigations.”
The employee said Lonergan generally seemed depressed and acted like a jerk to everybody in the athletics department. Meanwhile, the employee said, he lost the last of his respect for Nero when an internship applicant reported that the AD made inappropriate personal comments during a career-planning session and in a follow-up email.
Even the NIT title could be viewed as a massive underachievement given all the talent Lonergan had recruited to GW. “If you’ve got three NBA players on your roster in the Atlantic 10, you’re not supposed to be in the NIT,” says the former staffer. “That’s the most talent ever on a GW team. You’re building for the NCAA tournament, not the NIT. That’s too good a team. The sputtering in the midseason, that kept them out [of the NCAA tournament], and you have to wonder how much was because this dysfunction was playing out between [Lonergan and Nero].”
The employee said he left GW after that year “without any job waiting” because of stress caused by the department’s dysfunction.
Yet even with a constant stream of internal investigations, the war being waged by the athletic department’s top two employees was fought largely in secret. Then came the Washington Post’s extensive investigation on Lonergan in July 2016, and all of GW’s ugliness suddenly became a very public concern.
“We thought everything was fine,” says former GW player and coach Bob Tallent. “With the NIT, Mike had a big recruiting year, everything’s on top of the world. And then the article came out. And, man...”
But in fact, only half the ugliness had come out.
Lonergan’s friends say the coach frequently accused Brian Sereno, GW’s associate athletics director and the athletic department’s primary spokesman, of helping Nero in what Lonergan perceived as a conspiracy to destroy his career. Sereno says now that any insinuation that he or anybody on the communications staff worked against Lonergan while he was at the school is “ludicrous.”
Yet GW’s behavior after the Post story appears to lend credence to Lonergan’s contention that the school wasn’t on his side. There’s no evidence that Sereno or anybody else in the GW sports communications office did anything to defend Lonergan, the highest paid and most visible employee of the athletic department.
One example: The university had internal documents that could have mitigated at least some of the damage caused by the anonymous players’ allegations against Lonergan. Several months before the Post story, Lonergan received official word from the school that its investigation of the verbal abuse charges was complete and that he had been cleared of all Title IX-related charges. GW provost Steven Lerman sent letters to the coach on school letterhead in the fall of 2015 declaring Lonergan formally cleared.
Yet the school made no effort to publicize these documents, even after Kilgore’s story.”
“After the Post story ran, the university did nothing to support Mike when he was under siege,” says Chris McManes, who was sports information director at Catholic University when Lonergan coached there and later helped him run GW’s basketball camp from 2014 to 2016. “The athletic communications office could have released the letters that cleared Mike of any wrongdoing. It leads me to believe that some people in the office were working in concert with Nero to make Mike look bad and get rid of him.”
Asked why GW’s sports information office kept those letters to itself during the negative media blitz against an employee, Sereno says he was unaware any such letters existed, or that the school had even conducted any such investigation of Lonergan. After Deadspin sent him copies of the letters from Lerman, however, Sereno did confirm they were authentic.
For a time, it looked like Lonergan might survive.
His defenders argued that as bad as the transfer rate and verbal abuse allegations looked in print, neither were aberrations in big-time college basketball. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in 2015 that more than 500 D1 players had transferred each year for the past five seasons. Transfer activity at some big basketball schools in GW’s proverbial backyard shows rates not dissimilar to Lonergan’s 13 in five years: A 2014 report in Sports Illustrated said five Maryland players left Mark Turgeon’s program just that spring, while the University of Virginia saw seven players leave in Tony Bennett’s first two seasons.
And even after he was fired, Lonergan boasted that he left with his 100 percent graduation rate intact, one of the attributes Nero cited as a key factor in his hiring. (Also: By my count, seven Colonials players with remaining eligibility have left GW in the two years since Lonergan’s firing.)
Lonergan’s chances of survival were bolstered when several of his players came forward after the Post story to say the coach was tough but fair, with their names attached to the endorsements.
Patricio Garino tweeted that he was “shocked” by the allegations against Lonergan. “Coach is very old-school and he’s gonna push you to the limits to reach your potential,” he wrote in part. “Even though we went at each other a few times I know he did it because he knew I was able to perform better, and that’s something that I appreciate now because it got me to where I am today.
“I have never felt that he crossed the line,” Maurice Creek said during an interview with DC sports radio station WJFK.
“This is 100% bullshit,” tweeted Isaiah Armwood after the Post’s story. “Verbal and emotional abuse. Are you serious? Players are soft.”
Tallent, perhaps the most influential individual in the Colonial sports universe, was among those who didn’t find the abuse allegations sufficiently damning. Tallent had transferred to GW in 1967 from the University of Kentucky, where he played alongside Pat Riley and Louie Dampier under Adolph Rupp, the legendary taskmaster and winner. “If you wanted to play [for Rupp], you put up with things,” Tallent says. “I think people are naive if they think [the verbal abuse ascribed to Lonergan] is something you don’t hear at basketball at any level. Things are said sometimes that don’t make people happy. There’s obviously an edge, a line you can’t cross, but I don’t think that was crossed.”
The charges of homophobia, however, weren’t so easily overcome. Inclusiveness and tolerance were taken extremely seriously within GW sports. Early into his run as GW’s AD, Nero’s department produced a public service announcement for the You Can Play Project, a national campaign calling for inclusion of LGBTQ athletes. Nero appeared in the PSA, saying that his school is “committed to celebrating and supporting LGBT athletes everywhere,” and pledging to GW athletes that they won’t be “judged by your sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression, but by the spirit you bring to the game.” Just before the start of the 2013–2014 school year, Nero wrote a column calling for greater LGBTQ safety measures and inclusion in college athletics for The Blade, an influential D.C. newspaper focused on the city’s gay community.
After the Post piece, The Blade covered the alleged masturbation comment as key evidence against Lonergan. Subsequent stories from CBSSports.com and other national sports websites reported that Lonergan had referred to Seton Hall’s Derrick Gordon, the NCAA’s first openly gay men’s basketball player, as “the gay kid.”
Yet in August, one month after the bad press had begun, the school sent Lonergan with the basketball team on a trip to Japan. Nero, who had gone on previous foreign hoops junkets, stayed home this time. Lonergan believed that his presence on the trip meant GW’s decision makers had determined the anonymous allegations weren’t enough for him to lose his job, according to friends.
“If the school really believed Mike was an out-of-control lunatic who bullied players, why did they send him to Japan with the team?” McManes said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Yet Lonergan’s level of job security began waning while he was overseas, even though his team went 4-0, including three wins over Japan’s national team. Just months after celebrating Nero’s exclusion from NIT celebration photos, Lonergan told friends he noticed he wasn’t in many photos being used by the school to promote the Japan trip, which he took as a sign of trouble back home.
His intuition was proven correct. Lonergan’s supporters now say they believe Forrest Maltzman, who took over as GW’s provost only weeks before the Post story was published, led the movement to get rid of the coach. Maltzman initially didn’t have enough sway to bounce Lonergan or even stop the Japan trip from happening. But after a couple months on the job, Maltzman won out, sources say.
On Sept. 16, 2016, just a few weeks after Lonergan had returned stateside, university security guards approached the coach at work and walked him off campus without even letting him clean out his office.
Maltzman released a vague statement a day after the firing saying Lonergan was dismissed because he had “engaged in conduct inconsistent with the university’s values.” He didn’t provide any details about Lonergan’s behavior, but the message read to insiders as attributing the firing to the coach making homophobic remarks.
“We value inclusion and diversity and will not tolerate conduct that runs counter to those principles,” Maltzman wrote.
GW had announced after the Post’s story that it had hired “outside counsel” to investigate the accusations against Lonergan. Yet no report was ever made public, and no findings to support or refute the accusations against the coach were ever released to bolster the firing. (Deadspin’s request to Sereno for a copy of the full investigative report was denied, and Sereno says he never saw any summary of the investigation.)
An editorial in the school newspaper blasted GW’s handling of Lonergan’s investigation and dismissal, echoing the coach’s supporters in saying the process was so opaque that nobody could know whether the coach was guilty of the very serious charges that had been made against him.
Lonergan wrote a private Facebook post begging longtime acquaintances in national and local hoops media to look into his story and publicly vouch for the content of his character.
But the lifelong coach later told friends that those he’d counted on for support were shunning him, which he attributed to the allegations of homophobia.
As soon as Lonergan was gone, Nero returned to prominence within the athletic department. Before the GW/Maryland-Eastern Shore game on November 11, 2016, the first home game since Lonergan was run out of town, Nero stood at center court at the Smith Center and handed out NIT rings to Lonergan’s former players.
Mere months after Nero had been excluded from the NIT victory celebration at Madison Square Garden, Lonergan was nowhere to be found.
Lonergan was also left out of Nero’s year-end essay on GW sports for 2016. Nero praised the school’s cross country team “who earned a regional ranking this semester for the first time” and the water polo squad, which “posted its best-ever finish at their conference tournament.” But the athletic director made no mention of the men’s basketball team, which had put up the winningest season in school history and had notched GW’s first-ever national tournament win.
While former co-workers and university officials treated him like he was radioactive, Lonergan learned he had allies outside GW.
One of the only media members to suggest withholding judgement on Lonergan was Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of Outsports, a pioneering gay sports publication. Zeigler wrote that while he was willing to be convinced that Lonergan was a homophobe, the stories that got Lonergan fired didn’t prove any such thing.
“[I]t is important to remember that comments like ‘the gay kid’ don’t necessarily equate to ‘I hate gay people,’” Zeigler wrote in a column for Outsports that September. “It’s entirely possible that there was much worse said and more information to come out. This story isn’t over by a long shot. We’ll keep monitoring it.”
Zeigler tells me he did stay on the GW story after writing that column, but he never heard anything that rose to the level of homophobic, emphasizing again that the Derrick Gordon comment and masturbation line, if true, wouldn’t be enough to label Lonergan as anti-gay. Zeigler says he drew these conclusions after personally talking with the coach and others about what happened in Foggy Bottom. “I have no reason to believe that Mike Lonergan is homophobic. In fact, I have reason to believe that he is accepting of LGBTQ people,” Zeigler said. Zeigler says he was particularly swayed by learning that Lonergan had recruited Derrick Gordon to come to GW in 2015, after Gordon came out publicly as gay.
Gordon confirmed to Deadspin that Lonergan had aggressively recruited him. Gordon tells me he regarded Lonergan as an ally during his days at UMass, when word got out that he wanted to transfer and the GW coach was among his earliest and most enthusiastic suitors. Gordon says he was leaning toward going to play for GW, an Atlantic 10 rival of UMass, until he was told that intra-conference transfers are required to sit out an extra year. Gordon says he developed a friendship with Lonergan that withstood his deciding to spurn GW and instead transfer to Seton Hall, and so he was shocked to learn that a story about him was being used to paint the coach as homophobic and justify his firing.
“It just doesn’t add up that he’s this homophobic guy,” says Gordon. “There were no names used with these allegations, so you don’t know what player or players said that, so, I don’t know what that player knows. I’ll say what I know: I’m an openly gay player. He tried to recruit me. And I’ve met with him and chatted with him and it just makes no sense. I’ll say what I know: Mike’s a great guy. I like the way he coaches and I wanted to play for him, and it sucks that he lost his job over being called homophobic. It doesn’t add up. He’s been labeled. It sucks.”
Gordon says that he stayed in touch with Lonergan even after GW fired the coach: “He’s still a friend.”
Anybody looking for evidence to support Zeigler and Gordon’s assessment of Lonergan as an ally to gay athletes can find it. Lonergan posted a note on his personal website about attending an LGBT college athletics summit in April 2016 produced by the University of Maryland, and tweeted about the impact of his attendance: “I will be a better coach/person tomorrow!”
And in June 2016, just a month before the Post’s story, Lonergan got public kudos from a GW assistant coach for donating his speaking fee from a coaches summit to Equality Florida, an LGBT advocacy group that was collecting money in the wake of the mass killing at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.
The support of Zeigler, Gordon and other players likely informed Lonergan’s public threats to sue GW for wrongful termination. Lonergan still had more than four years left on his contract, which according to The Hatchet had brought him $797,446 in his last full year at the school.
But Lonergan settled with the school without ever filing suit on September 13, 2017, a year after the firing. Terms of the settlement were not announced, but friends say he told them that in exchange for the money, he could no longer criticize Nero.
Others on his side have no such restrictions, though. Steve Bonavita, his former assistant, frequently showed up on social media and news site comment sections after Lonergan’s firing to predict that Nero would “eventually get what he deserves,” among other things. When GW tweeted out congratulations to Nero for winning his AD of the year award, Bonavita responded that it was “absolutely disgusting” that Nero was still around students, and that “when truth comes out he’ll [be] fired so fast.”
What would turn to be the final investigation into the accusations against Patrick Nero began just one month after Lonergan had settled and likely signed away his right to discuss the AD or GW. Records obtained by Deadspin show that on Oct. 17, 2017, an anonymous tipster contacted the university via an online whistleblower clearinghouse to say that Nero had become the talk of the recruiting world for being a sexually aggressive creep.
Logs from GW’s compliance office show that the dialogue between the tipster and school officials lasted for months. The office immediately told the tipster that the matter had been referred to GW’s general counsel’s office. GW officials, having heard similar charges against Nero for years without much proof to back them up, asked for proof of Nero’s misconduct.
The tipster offered a description of what he or she had seen on social media post. (“He” in the following description refers to Nero, while the names of a GW coach and former student contained in the compliance office logs have been redacted by Deadspin):
He appears to be celebrating with students and staff, including XXXX. He makes several vulgar signs (fingers V-shaped to the lips while tongue flipping in and out of his mouth, reference to sexual acts). He also walks over to a male student (XXXXX)who is sitting alone in a chair. P. Nero mounts/straddles the student and simulates sexual act. The original video has a label that says “Call the police”.
On Oct. 25, 2017, the compliance office asked if the tipster could provide investigators with the described visuals. The tipster originally claimed to not have access to the videos, reporting that the social media posts of Nero that had creeped out the recruit had since been deleted. But the tipster also promised to look for copies of the materials that, according to the tipster, had been circulating among recruits and recruiters and were being used against GW.
The tipster subsequently claimed to have obtained the requested evidence, but demanded that the general counsel’s office guarantee anonymity, protection from reprisal from Nero, and a commitment from the school to follow up on the accusations. Those assurances were given by GW, and the tipster agreed to provide corroborating materials.
Then technical difficulties related to the transfer of large digital files prevented the tipster from following through for several weeks. But on November 17, 2017, the general counsel’s office messaged the tipster with big news about the video: “We were able to access it.”
Deadspin obtained copies of videos and screencaps that match the descriptions given to the general counsel. One video shows Nero looking into the camera and saying “Let’s get Brian!” Seconds later, Nero walks over to young man sitting on a chair near a staircase and straddles him. While atop the much younger guy, Nero looks back at the camera and wags his tongue between his index and middle fingers, the international gesture among cads for cunnilingus. Another photo making the rounds, likely from same night based on Nero’s clothing, shows Nero sitting at a table making the same tongue-between-the-fingers gesture.
After receiving the video evidence, GW’s general counsel informed the tipster there would be no further updates from the school on the investigation.
The tipster clearly didn’t like being booted out of the loop, and warned GW that if the school didn’t act, the story about Nero would break elsewhere.
“There is a lot of talk at high school games and holiday tournaments,” the tipster told investigators on November 27. “This will not stay off widespread internet/media for much longer. People have started to follow Pat Nero on twitter and could see he is still traveling with teams of young people - not good. If the investigation is not handled soon, could be too late to do the right thing ahead of public outrage.”
Two weeks later, on December 10, 2017, the tipster was further perturbed by the lack of activity in the investigation. That day, the tipster messaged GW’s general counsel for the last time, complaining that Nero was still on the job and was scheduled to be “meeting with alums this week.” “Not what was expected after getting video to you,” the tipster wrote.
Eight days later, Nero was gone.
Regardless of what he said while resigning, Nero sure wasn’t acting like a guy ready to “pursue the next phase” in his life up to that point. The only project Nero was pursuing at that time was party planning. Doug Winkler, who has been a fixture with GW basketball since his days as a student manager for the team in the late 1970s, says Nero approached him at a reception in the Colonial Club at the Smith Center on Saturday, December 16. Before a matchup against nationally ranked Miami, his former employer, Nero asked Winkler for help gathering older players for a party the AD had scheduled to hold at his home not far from campus.
Winkler soon learned that Nero wouldn’t be needing his help after all. “I’m driving home from work that Monday and I hear on the radio that there’s breaking news, and I hear Patrick Nero resigns,” he says. “That’s two days after he’s asking for my help.”
According to public records, Patrick Nero sold his home in D.C.’s pricey DuPont Circle neighborhood for $1,795,000 shortly after leaving GW. Records indicate he is now renting a home in Northern Virginia.
Deadspin reached Nero by text and asked specific questions about his tenure in Foggy Bottom, his relationship with Lonergan, his giving money to players, the relationship between the social media posts and his abrupt departure, whether he has a non-disparagement agreement with GW, and what he’s up to these days.
Nero said any answers would “need to be coordinated with GW,” and specifically suggested questions be directed to associate athletics director Brian Sereno. Sereno declined to answer Deadspin’s questions on Nero’s behalf, saying Nero is no longer employed by the school and that he doesn’t know why Nero left.
Told that Sereno wouldn’t answer questions for him, Nero said he was attempting to “work with the University” to come up with responses. “It is likely going to take a couple of days,” Nero texted on October 16. Sereno later said Nero was working with other unidentified members of the GW administration to answer Deadspin’s questions.
But neither Nero nor anybody from GW ever followed through with any answers until just before this story’s publication. Informed of Deadspin’s reporting for this story and possession of the video shortly before publication, Sereno responded with a two-sentence statement: “When accusations are made of inappropriate conduct by a university staff member, those allegations are taken seriously and addressed as appropriate. It is university policy to not discuss individual personnel actions.”
In the statement announcing the settlement with GW a year ago, Lonergan’s attorney said the coach “looks forward to resuming his coaching career when the right opportunity presents itself.” That opportunity hasn’t yet come knocking.
Lonergan now spends his days as assistant gymnasium manager at the City of Bowie Recreation Center, a public gym in Prince George’s County, Md., where he grew up. He runs the gym’s basketball camp during the summer; the rest of his job is organizational.
In an effort to solicit comment from Lonergan, Deadspin showed up at the Bowie gym unannounced recently and found him in the parking lot in his car. Lonergan declined to answer questions, however. Instead, he pulled out a crumpled piece of paper from the car’s console and mumbled something about being satisfied.
The bio on his Twitter account now simply reads “Basketball Coach.” The last real game Lonergan coached came in Madison Square Garden when his squad won the NIT, more than two years ago.
Lonergan still pays attention to his old team. In July, he tweeted out the Atlantic 10's preseason “power rankings,” showing that GW was picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams.
“Sad to see,” Lonergan commented.