After one year as the interim head coach and one season as the head coach of the Fort Lewis College women’s basketball team, Durango’s own Orlando Griego was fired by the Skyhawks on Wednesday.
It was a seemingly perfect match. Griego was an up-and-coming coach who played Division I college basketball at Southern Utah and returned to his hometown to coach high school girls basketball before elevating to the college level. But an issue that split the coach from his players was investigated and led to his departure.
“I am very grateful for my opportunity and grateful to live out my dream of coaching at Fort Lewis,” Griego said Friday in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “I created relationships with staff and faculty and people around the conference, and I had a good experience.
“A postseason interview was conducted, and Fort Lewis and myself just didn’t seem to be on the same page, and they had to make a decision.”
FLC Director of Athletics Brandon Leimbach declined to comment beyond a brief statement he included in a news release Wednesday.
“I appreciate the effort coach Griego invested into the program for the past three years and two years as our head coach,” Leimbach said. “We wish him and his family the best during the next chapter of his career.”
Leimbach said assistant coach Cydney McHenry, a 2013 graduate of Dolores High School, is also no longer on the coaching staff.
Players organized a formal complaint against Griego, citing issues going back to the 2019-20 season, when he first took over as head coach on an interim basis after being promoted from assistant coach when Jason Flores transitioned from the women’s basketball coach to assistant athletic director. Griego was hired as Flores’ assistant away from his assistant coaching job with the Durango High School girls varsity program under head coach Tim Fitzpatrick. During that time, Griego coached Katrina Chandler, who went on to play at Colorado Mesa University but transferred to FLC to play for Griego and the Skyhawks for the last two seasons.
FLC went 15-12 during the 2019-20 season and finished ninth in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, one spot out of making the conference tournament. FLC lost its final seven games of that season.
During the COVID-19-altered 2020-21 season, the Skyhawks went 6-9 in conference games and again missed the conference tournament by one spot. FLC had three different COVID-19-related quarantines. The second led to a forfeit of a game, and the last saw the Skyhawks have to cancel the final three games of their season.
“People are commenting on the situation assuming that (Griego) being let go had to do with the team’s record and a lack of time for program building,” said former FLC player Jordan Carter in a message to the Herald. “He was handed a full roster of talented players. Out of the first 20 games of the 2019-2020 season, the team won fifteen of them. We beat the No. 1 team in the conference and were ranking in the top five in the RMAC. Out of the last seven games of the season, when things started to fall apart, we had to win one game to make it to the tournament. The way that our coach treated the players was manipulative, and it started to show in the way that we performed.”
Carter, who still had eligibility to play during the 2020-21 season, opted not to return to the team for her final season, though she remained enrolled at FLC to complete her degree.
“The way (Griego) acts with the public is not who he is behind closed doors. He spent months building up trust with each of his players, but once the season came around, he used what we said in confidence against us,” Carter said. “The morale of the team was nonexistent by the end of the 2020 season. His behavior would change in a split second. Playing for him felt like walking on thin ice. (Griego) ruined a team that should have been contending for an RMAC title.”
Griego and the FLC athletics department did not comment on the details of the internal review conducted by the college.
Griego said he does not know what he will do next or if he will return to coaching.
“My family and I are going to take some time,” he said. “We’re definitely a faith-based family, and we’re going to put our trust into our higher power and see what comes about. This has been a very difficult few days for myself and my family. The biggest thing is processing through my emotions. Right now, my focus is spending time with my family.”
Leimbach said a national search would be conducted to find a new coach. FLC sophomore forward Jordan Vasquez, a First Team All-RMAC forward from Farmington who averaged 19.1 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, entered the NCAA transfer portal before Griego’s firing was announced.
“Whoever we hire will need to come in pretty quickly and identify the talent on our roster,” Leimbach told the Herald. “We don’t have 12 returners right now. We have a smaller roster and will need to do a good job filling it with talent as fast as possible.”