Fairness in firing a high school coach
Early in my sports writing career, I was talking to a former high school assistant coach about the firing of a basketball team’s head coach that happened two years prior. The coach had just led his team to a state championship, but a group of parents, irate over their children’s playing time, banded together. They successfully persuaded the school administrators to fire the coach. His assistants all resigned in protest.
“If you hear that a coach who has just won a state championship has been fired by the school, aren’t you going to think he must have done something really bad?” the assistant asked. Indeed, the first though I had when I’d heard of the firing is that coach must have committed a felony or something, but coaches don’t get fired after winning championships. Sadly, they do in high schools where parents force administrators to make illogical decisions far too often. The result: A high coach holds one of the most thankless and tenuous positions in the world.
I was reminded of this recently when I read of the dismissal of Gordon Dotson, the boys basketball coach at Hurricane (UT) High School. Dotson turned a dormant program into a contender. He was fired last month after the school district investigated complaints regarding allegations involving Dotson’s excessive yelling and an athlete’s playing time in a summer tournament. The issue, though, is that the investigation may have been one-sided. Dotson claims the witnesses interviewed were chosen for their testimony against Dotson. Meanwhile, his assistant coach was not interviewed. Dotson’s attorney says his client was not permitted access to the complaint and the grievance file and was not permitted to respond. The school district responds that a coaching position is an extra-duty assignment and is an at-will employment.
Far from being an “extra-duty assignment,” a coach is an important position in a high school. The football and basketball coaches are often the face of the high school to the community. Every well-established high school seems to have one coach who has become a legend at that school. Many individuals are drawn to the teaching profession for the opportunity to coach. Many high school coaches, like their college counterparts, are looking to move up in the profession–whether to a larger high school or to the college ranks. Dismissal over a feigned misconduct allegation may seriously damage such an individual’s career. To dismiss such a position as a mere “extra-duty assignment” is disingenuous.
All of this raises an important question: Should a high school coach accused of misconduct be afforded a hearing before being dismissed from a coaching assignment? Fairness dictates that a coach should be given such an opportunity. With the attention their positions demand, coaches frequently find themselves in the crosshairs of critics. It is one thing for a coach to be dismissed for a poor win-loss record; it’s another thing for a coach to be fired for misconduct following a skewed investigation. It is for the latter situation that the fairness consideration must trump all other concerns. The crusade against Hickory High coach Norman Dale in Hoosiers mirrors the reality many high school coaches face—they are targeted not so much for what they have done but because they occupy a position someone else covets. Hearings may be a badly needed safeguard against such vendettas. While it is true that every level of procedure adds cost, the indispensable elements of due process—notice and an opportunity to present one’s case—seem to be a minimal requirement. It ensures that investigations are not one-sided and that decisions are informed.
In my view, Dotson, from what little information is publicly available, was unfairly dealt with. If so, he is hardly the first high school coach who will be treated this way, and he definitely won’t be the last. Fair procedures are needed here.