SAN FRANCISCO -- USF's basketball team had lost two games in a row when tempers flared at a Nov. 19 practice and senior Cody Doolin and sophomore Tim Derksen engaged in a brief scuffle.
How did USF coach Rex Walters respond?
"Walters said, 'You can either practice or you can fight,' " a source said. "Then he gathers the players and coaches in a circle, and a boxing match ensues."
The exchange lasted barely 30 seconds, and neither player was hurt before teammates and assistant coaches broke it up.
Three days later Doolin -- a team captain, honor student and the No. 2 assist man in school history -- returned to his family's home in Austin, Texas, and quit the team. This past week, he transferred to UNLV.
"I was in shock when he left," said Perris Blackwell, who transferred from USF to the University of Washington two years ago. "Cody was kind of like the golden child, the point guard Coach Walters really wanted in his program."
Doolin is the 21st scholarship player to leave the school before his basketball eligibility expired since Walters was hired on April 7, 2008. In just the past 23 months, 11 players -- all recruited by Walters -- transferred, quit or were dismissed. Six of them left on the same day.
The stream of departures is not restricted to players. Six assistant coaches have left Walters' staff.
USF will not discuss the situation. Walters, athletic director Scott Sidwell and university president Rev. Stephen A. Privett declined multiple requests for interviews, as did Doolin.
Former players and coaches paint a consistent portrait of Walters, 43, who grew up in San Jose, carved out a seven-year career in the NBA and came to USF after two seasons as head coach at Florida Atlantic: nice enough fellow off the floor but uncomfortably intense.
North Carolina's Roy Williams, who coached Walters at Kansas, once called him "one of the three best competitors I've ever coached."
As a player, that temperament served Walters well.
"One of the things that got Rex to where he was as a player was his intensity, his toughness, his fight. That's how he coaches," a former USF assistant coach said. "You can't turn it off when your playing days are over."
Another former assistant wonders how Walters kept his job less than a year after Rutgers fired coach Mike Rice for shoving and throwing basketballs at players and using gay slurs during practice.
"I don't understand the reason he is still in place," the former assistant said of Walters, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Shortly after the Doolin-Derksen fight, Sidwell reportedly met with Doolin and his family.
Michael Glazier, a college sports attorney based in Overland Park, Kan., who was retained by USF to look into the Doolin incident, said through his secretary he could not comment and referred calls to the university.
The university's only response came from its media relations offices.
"We looked at it from all sides and there were a couple people making a decision on something like this," said Jim Young, spokesman for the athletic department. "We're focused on the remaining games on the schedule and preparing for the (WCC) tournament. Given some other factors, we're going to respectfully decline."
Doolin's exit is hardly an anomaly. His departure caps a six-year exodus that far exceeds the norm during an age where transfers are more common than ever. By comparison, Santa Clara University has had 11 players transfer in coach Kerry Keating's seven seasons.
Through 51/2 seasons, Walters' record at USF is 97-92. His teams have not made an NCAA or NIT appearance, but that could change this season. The Dons are 20-10 overall and third in the West Coast Conference at 13-5 after a 65-61 win Saturday at Loyola Marymount.
Walters is signed through the 2015-16 season, thanks to a contract extension he received from Sidwell in November 2011, six months after the athletic director was hired.
Four months later, six players left the program on the same day.
One of those was Michael Williams, who averaged 11.1 points for the Dons in 2011-12 before transferring to Cal State Fullerton. Williams said playing for Walters was no fun.
"Coach Rex always has his game face on," said Williams, who is averaging a team-best 17.5 points for the Titans. "You feel like you have to be serious all the time. That's what players wanted to get away from."
Williams said he doesn't dislike Walters.
"I just couldn't play for him," he said.
Blackwell, also part of that group defection, said he got along well enough with Walters to sometimes baby-sit the coach's kids. It was Walters' demeanor on the court that convinced Blackwell to move on to Washington.
"There's nothing wrong with being intense, but I felt like he rubbed people the wrong way," said Blackwell. "It was too hostile all the time. It didn't feel like home when we were practicing, and some people were really uncomfortable."
One former assistant said Blackwell's assessment is on the mark.
"It wasn't a very comfortable situation," he said. "Rex is a nice guy. He does a lot for people. But Rex can be tough to deal with."
Two other ex-players were less critical.
Avery Johnson, now at UC Davis, said, "I needed different scenery."
Joe Edmonds, who a year later transferred to Wesleyan, a Division III program in Middletown, Conn., said he opted for a situation where his focus was more on academics.
'No longer a unit'
Justin Raffington, another participant in the mass defection, is averaging 9.9 points and 8.7 rebounds at Florida Atlantic this season. He is among those who felt he was pushed out of the program, which was business as usual, according to an ex-assistant.
"The formula has been put the players on a chopping block," he said. "Can we get someone who appears to be better than what we have? That's with coaches and players. And you get into this spiral where you get 21 transfers."
None of those interviewed regrets leaving USF.
Williams said the instability of the coaching staff hurt the team.
"You could tell by how the locker room was," he said. "It was no longer a unit."
All three of Walters' current assistants are in their first or second seasons at USF. One former aide suggests greater continuity on the staff might have prevented the incident involving Doolin.
"Something like that would have never happened when we were there," he said. "We would have said, 'Coach, this is not a good idea.' With the young guys there, they let it happen."
The second ex-assistant said USF's administration also shoulders blame.
"Rex has to answer to someone," he said. "People can change, but I don't think it occurred to him to change. There's no consequences."