Head coach Rich Rodriguez talks to the media about Arizona playing against Purdue in the Foster Farms Bowl on December 03, 2017 at the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort.

Rich Rodriguez was fired Tuesday after his former assistant filed a $7.5 million notice of claim with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, alleging years of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.

The claim says that Melissa Wilhelmsen was forced to cover up Rodriguez's longtime relationship with his girlfriend and that eventually, Rodriguez began sexually harassing Wilhelmsen by brushing up against her breasts, talking about his underwear, and at one point grabbing his penis after calling her into his office. Rodriguez denies all claims, and said he passed a lie detector test. A third-party investigation did not find enough to fire Rodriguez for cause; Wilhelmsen did not participate in the review.

The following narrative of events is based off the claim, which was filed Dec. 28 by Wilhelmsen’s attorney, Augustine Jimenez.

Wilhelmsen began working for the University of Arizona in 2001, and after leaving briefly to try a career in real estate, returned in 2007 and took a job in the football team. She worked under coach Mike Stoops until his firing in October 2011, after which she became Rodriguez's assistant.

2013: The Hideaway Book and the Triangle of Secrecy

In 2013, Wilhelmsen was introduced to “The Hideaway Book” which was intended for coaches and some operations employees and intended to “establish secrecy within Rodriguez’s inner circle and establish complete control of the group.”

Along with The Hideaway Book came “The Triangle of Secrecy,” which consisted of Wilhelmsen and two other employees who were forced to lie to Rodriguez’s wife to cover up his affair and “coerced to shield Rodriguez” from anything that could damage his reputation.

2015: Rodriguez's volatility and a near-miss on the sidelines

By the summer of 2015, Rodriguez became more demanding of Wilhelmsen, calling her at all hours of the night to deal with issues “that were only emergencies to him.” The claim say that Wilhelmsen felt she “had to walk on eggshells at work,” due to his volatility and “supreme power over the department.”

Wilhelmsen said that around the same time, football players text messaged her screenshots of their genitalia and made “illicit overtures,” but when she asked Rodriguez to intervene, he ignored her requests.

In November, 2015, Rodriguez asked Wilhelmsen to get a sideline pass for his girlfriend for the USC game, during which Rodriguez’s wife was also on the sideline. Wilhelmsen said that at one point, she had to stand between Rodriguez’s wife and girlfriend in the hopes of avoiding a confrontation and when she later told Rodriguez how uncomfortable she’d been, he laughed it off.

Early 2016: A recruiting trip, an unwanted apartment and a three-hour interrogation

In January 2016, while Rodriguez was in San Diego on a recruiting trip, Wilhelmsen received a phone call from his hotel regarding a barking dog in Rodriguez’s room. The dog belonged to Rodriguez's girlfriend, who had accompanied him on the trip.

The claim says that a short time later, Wilhelmsen caught Rodriguez “ogling her” as she left the office, confirming her prior suspicions that he may have been staring at her.

“She simply responded, ‘no, you can’t do that… that’s not cool,’” hoping that would be the end of it, but Rodriguez’s “bad behavior only became more egregious,” the claim says.

In February 2016, Wilhelmsen’s husband was being considered for a job in Phoenix and when she told Rodriguez she needed to quit her job, he offered to have a friend set up an apartment in Tucson for her to stay in several nights a week so that she could keep working for him.

In May 2016, Rodriguez’s wife invited Wilhelmsen out to lunch and interrogated her for three hours about Rodriguez’s “flirting and promiscuity,” but she told his wife she knew nothing, despite her growing discomfort.

After the lunch, Rodriguez had another employee call Wilhelmsen to make sure that the “Triangle of Secrecy” hadn’t been broken.

Late 2016: Inappropriate comments, over-commitment and chance shirtless encounters

By September 2016, Wilhelmsen’s treatment at work had continued to deteriorate, with coaches making inappropriate comments about her clothing and saying that her daughter — who also worked with the football team — was “laying down on the bed for all those guys.”

Wilhelmsen says that whenever Rodriguez called her into his office, he always had her close the door, which wasn’t necessary and prompted suggestive comments by other members of the football staff.

Wilhelmsen says that her relationship with her husband began to suffer due to the secrets she was keeping about Rodriguez, and one day at work, Rodriguez found her crying and attempted to comfort her by saying that if she needed “anything at all” to let him know. Wilhelmsen found the “level of over-commitment from a boss” who she said never comforted anyone, to be “somewhat disconcerting.”

Shortly after the incident, Rodriguez asked Wilhelmsen to get him underwear from the equipment room downstairs. Finding the request to be “degrading and out of line,” the woman asked another employee to get the underwear, hoping to avoid the situation.

“Nonetheless, Rodriguez made incredibly inappropriate comments to Wilhelmsen afterwards about how his preferred style of underwear ‘visibly enhanced’ his genitalia when worn,” the claim says.

By November 2016, Rodriguez changed his workout schedule so that he could walk back to his office shirtless in front of Wilhelmsen.

That same month, Wilhelmsen received a voicemail from a local resort complaining that Rodriguez had made sexual advances towards a massage therapist. “Per Rodriguez’s instructions and the overarching rules of the Triangle of Secrecy, the complaint never made it past Wilhelmsen’s voicemail,” the claim says.

Early 2017: Breast touching, penis grasping and "the predator"

In January 2017, Rodriguez began telling Wilhelmsen about his marital problems, saying that he needed to be with someone who is passionate. He grabbed Wilhelmsen, “embraced her, touched the side of her breast and tried to kiss her,” but she pulled away and moved her head.

Two weeks after the incident, Rodriguez told Wilhelmsen he wanted to “take care of her” and tried to give her $300 cash, which she refused.

On February 22, Rodriguez called Wilhelmsen into his office and had her close the door, after which she saw that he was “grasping his penis beneath his basketball shorts.” Rodriguez continued to carry on a normal conversation with Wilhelmsen, who said that she “just looked down until he was through talking.”

Wilhelmsen recalled thinking to herself after the incident, “what the (expletive) just happened?”

She told another employee about the incident, after which they began referring to Rodriguez as “the predator.”

Rodriguez’s behavior intensified after the incident, with him beginning to stand “skin-to-skin” with Wilhelmsen and “constantly glaring at her thighs” when she would wear skirts. Wilhelmsen said that at the time, there were continuous jokes in the department about how “Title IX doesn’t exist in this office,” the claim says.

Title IX is a federal law that protects students and faculty against sex discrimination, including sexual harassment.

In April, Wilhelmsen, who had been trying to transfer to another department, was told that she couldn’t leave her job because “Rodriguez would be pissed” and realized she was trapped.

Over the next several weeks, the sexualized behavior at work intensified, with Rodriguez openly flirting with Wilhelmsen and another employee making a comment that Wilhelmsen raised funds for football camps by rubbing her breasts against donors.

Wilhelmsen says that she began suffering migraines that were sometimes debilitating and that a doctor attributed the headaches to stress from work.

Late 2017: A trip to the airport followed by a confession

In June, Rodriguez gave Wilhelmsen $1,500 and asked her not to tell her husband or his wife about it, saying that the money was for her to use for “outside costs” like food and gas. At the end of the conversation, Rodriguez asked her to take him to the airport the next day, whispering that he had more cash to give her.

“She recalls him being so close to her face that she could smell the BBQ chips on his breath. He then grazed her breast with his hand as he awkwardly reached towards her for a hug,” the claim says, adding that Wilhelmsen left the office feeling violated.

When Wilhelmsen arrived at Rodriguez’s office the next morning to take him to the airport, he walked by her desk shirtless and said he needed to take a shower in his office. He asked her to stay in his office and keep his dog calm while he showered, but Wilhelmsen took the dog for a long walk to avoid interacting with Rodriguez and seeing Rodriguez naked.

A few weeks later, Wilhelmsen told her husband the truth about everything that had happened and they decided she needed to look for another job, regardless of the financial fallout or the risk to her daughter’s job with the athletic department.

Wilhelmsen decided against reporting the behavior to the athletic department because she feared that “many other coaches and staff members would probably lose their jobs” as a result.

“Although she didn’t care about some of the coaches that made comments, even they had families to support,” the claim says.

In July, Wilhelmsen accepted a job at an insurance agency owned by a major UA donor, and gave Rodriguez her two weeks' notice.

During an exit interview, when asked about Rodriguez, Wilhelmsen said, “a lot of (expletive) happened. I need to remove myself from this situation.”

The claim says that she didn’t say more because she didn’t want anyone to be adversely affected if Rodriguez was fired as a result of her accusations.

After Wilhelmsen an left her job with the UA, she was subject to reminders of the harassment, including a conversation with a football booster who said that he knew what Rodriguez did and respected the woman for leaving quietly.

It was then that Wilhelmsen realized how widespread the rumors had become and that “her good name was now slandered through the university,” the claim says.

“Tucson is a small community and rumors, especially salacious ones, spread fast,” the claim says. “Although Wilhelmsen has a new job, she constantly runs into old acquaintances and wonders whether they think she was nothing more than Rodriguez’s concubine all those years.”

While the claim says that Wilhelmsen’s migraines have subsided, she’s still having nightmares and has recently entered counseling to deal with the “ongoing stress of being in such an abusive work environment and help her move on from it.”

“If this case were to go to trial, in the current climate where #MeToo is in the headlines on a daily basis, neither male nor female jurors would have any sympathy for a public figure who used his authority and power to oppress and degrade his female assistant in such ways,” the claim says.

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191


 

I'm a watchdog reporter covering local government, the University of Arizona and sports investigations.