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Former coach, Fresno State squaring off in court

In a civil trial that begins this week, former Fresno State volleyball coach Lindy Vivas hopes to convince jurors her contract was not renewed in 2004 because of her outspoken advocacy for gender equity in university sports and for her "perceived sexual orientation."

She's seeking at least $2.8 million in damages and attorney fees.

Vivas said rumors about her sexual orientation -- which she declined to elaborate on -- and a decade of devaluing female athletes and coaches prompted her to fight back against the athletic department administration for much of her 11 seasons with the Bulldogs.

"Over the years, it was very wearing," Vivas said in an interview Tuesday during a break in the jury selection for her trial in Fresno County Superior Court. The winningest volleyball coach in school history said that instead of solving problems of gender equity, university officials "killed the messenger -- and that was me."

But Dawn Theodora, the attorney representing Fresno State in the trial, says Vivas' contract was not renewed because she failed to earn her team a championship in the Western Athletic Conference and didn't schedule enough games against Top-25 teams.

Theodora said there is no evidence that Vivas' sexual orientation was ever a subject of conversation within the athletic department. She also said Vivas had an attitude problem.

"She was belligerent and she wouldn't cooperate with any of her supervisors," Theodora said.

But Vivas noted that since she started her career with the university in 1991 as the head volleyball coach, she went 263-167 and led the team to three NCAA Tournament appearances. Three times she was named WAC Coach of the Year.

Theodora said Vivas, who had a $95,400 salary, was the second-highest paid volleyball coach in the WAC.

Vivas is one of three women in the athletic department who have filed suits against the university for sex discrimination.

Stacy Johnson-Klein, the former women's basketball coach, filed a lawsuit in 2005 that likely will go to trial later this year.

Former associate athletic director Diane Milutinovich was reassigned to the Student Union director post in 2002 and fired from the school last August. She says both moves were prompted by the school's frustrations with her advocacy for gender equity. A lawsuit she filed in 2004 is scheduled to go to trial in September.

In 1994, after a two-year investigation, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights concluded that Fresno State's athletics program had violated Title IX laws, which were established as part of a 1972 civil rights statue prohibiting sex discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds.

The school implemented a corrective action plan that would, among other things, increase funding for women's athletics programs. Vivas said she believes the school has made some progress over the years, but it never intended to fully comply with the required changes.

Most significantly, she said, her team was not allowed to regularly play at the Save Mart Center after it opened in 2003, even though that was part of the agreement to better promote women's athletics.

"When they took that advantage from my program, that was an indication they did not want us to succeed," Vivas said.

But Theodora said Vivas never was promised she could play all her games at the Save Mart Center.

Opening statements in the trial, which is expected to last three to four weeks, likely will begin either today or Thursday.

Siegel said Vivas has declined the university's offer to settle for $15,000. In turn, the university has turned down a deal to settle for $1.75 million.