Dec 23, 2013 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
This was getting all too familiar.
Again a successful, accomplished high school coach in Central New York was getting scrutiny from his employer. Again the coach’s future was put in jeopardy. Again a large part of the community organized itself in support of the coach.
Except that, this time around, the story did not end in removal, but renewal.
South Jefferson girls basketball coach Pat Bassett, he of the 300-plus wins, eight Section III titles, five state final four appearances and two state Class B championships, is still on the job after getting put on administrative leave for a week.
That means the folks in Adams did not follow the script. Whether at Marcellus with Pete Birmignham, or at Cicero-North Syracuse with Kerry Bennett, or at Utica-Notre Dame with Byron Abraham, the story was turning into an alarming trend that threatened to undermine the authority of coaches in the scholastic ranks.
Someone accuses the coach, or the players, of bad behavior. Regardless of the viability of those accusations, school authorities act quickly and, ultimately, dismiss the coach. Regardless of the behavior, a bad situation is made much worse.
All of these situations were different, of course. With Birmingham, it was simply about who got playing time, and who didn’t like it. With Bennett, it centered around a serious accusation of bullying and vandalism, though the coach’s involvement has always come under fierce dispute.
Moving to the Abraham situation, it seemed even more absurd. Four players on his football team took a week of ROTC classes and missed practices, so Abraham sat them out of the next game. Some parents flipped, and the school, under pressure from them, forced Abraham to sit out the next game. Perhaps because of this saga, Abraham stepped down at season’s end.
Put together, these situations spoke to a growing trend of schools undermining the authority of coaches, perhaps because they were afraid that the aggrieved parties might take some sort of legal action to air their grievances, leading to legal fees and other entanglements.
That Pat Bassett entered this new maelstrom might not prove too much of a surprise. Anyone who’s gone through the South Jefferson program knows about how tough Bassett’s practices are. No one disputes that point.
In one drill, he’s said to use blocking pads to simulate the contact that takes place under the basket during a game. Maybe it’s unusual, but the results have proved stunning. South Jefferson is, year after year, one of, if not the best, defensive teams in the area.
At issue is whether that hard work crossed over into something darker. Since, as the school board admitted, the issue wasn’t about actual physical or sexual abuse, Bassett was allowed to continue to teach physics while the dispute played out.
Then, last Monday, nearly 200 people jammed the South Jefferson School Board meeting. Every one that spoke publicly supported Bassett, many of them former players testifying to what they had learned and gained from his coaching.
After a long executive session, the board decided on no further punishment and a meeting the next day with Bassett to try and resolve matters. That meeting went well, and he started coaching again, allowing everyone at South Jefferson to move on, humbled, but proud of their problem-solving efforts.
Will this signal a turning point? To be sure, some were out there attacking Bassett, saying that if something did go wrong, he had to be punished, regardless of all the good he had done. They were a minority, but they were quite vocal.
Yet in this case, something sane happened. Instead of putting a torch to a successful program (current players were ready to walk out if Bassett was dismissed), the concerns were addressed, apologies were made and the season resumed. Imagine that – resolving a potential conflict, rather than making it worse with a rash decision.
It’s just another salvo, though, in what has turned into a constant battle for control over local scholastic sports. Who should have the most pull – school boards, superintendents, athletic directors, coaches, or parents?
We’re in the process of figuring out the answers, and it could take years. In the meantime, Pat Bassett is back at the helm at South Jefferson, to the delight and relief of many and the consternation of a few. And it’s just a matter of time before someone else faces that same relentless scrutiny, with no guarantee as to whether they’ll make it through.