The money was there and then it wasn’t.
Coahulla Creek High School’s new head football coach was there — and then he wasn’t.
Less than a week after agreeing to lead the Colts, former South Pittsburg (Tenn.) High School coach Vic Grider changed his mind about taking the job when a promised $15,000 incentive package — that would have been on top of an estimated salary of $100,000 — was withdrawn by Whitfield County Schools.
The $15,000 was to have come from the school’s football booster club, according to Superintendent Judy Gilreath. It was an amount offered by Coahulla Creek Principal Stanley Stewart without consulting his supervisors.
Stewart said he planned to work with the booster club to raise the money through donations, but he hadn’t been in contact with the boosters beforehand.
“When I made that commitment to Vic, I knew there was a provision that gifts through booster clubs were OK, and then I found out it said that the limit was $200,” Stewart said. “I swear that I didn’t know that there was a limit. I hadn’t even run it past my booster club. I was going to raise the money myself. I don’t want anyone blaming anyone else. It was just me. I did some assuming, and it was my fault.”
Gilreath said such a package could not be given under the school system’s athletic policy.
Gilreath announced Grider’s decision to remain at South Pittsburg, where he is athletic director, in a press release Friday morning.
“Evidently in the offer — Dr. Stewart is a new principal — he had offered a supplement which would have been — somebody evidently was going to donate the money — it was going to be run through the boosters club,” Gilreath said. “We can’t do that. Our athletic handbook says we can’t do that. We don’t allow that.
“Once that was gone, that extra supplement, (Grider) was no longer interested in the job. I was not aware that the offer had been made, and when I became aware, I talked to Dr. Stewart and felt like we needed to call coach Grider and let him know.”
Stewart said the confusion surrounding the extra money offered to Grider was an honest mistake on his part to get a coach that he thought could help build up the athletic program at the Varnell school, which is in its third academic year.
“I was going after the best coach that I could possibly get for our school,” Stewart said. “I wasn’t trying to deceive anyone. If there is anyone to be upset with, it is me. All I care about is Coahulla Creek improving academically and athletically.”
Asked how Stewart, who is in his first year as principal at the school, could make an offer above what Whitfield County Schools policy dictates, Gilreath said Stewart wasn’t authorized to make any extra offers.
“That is a good question,” she said. “You tell me the answer. That concerned me. People can do lots of things, but I can guarantee you that nobody at the central office was aware of it. I started hearing rumors, and that is when I started asking questions. If you are asking how much he was authorized to go above the supplement, it wasn’t discussed.”
Coahulla Creek football booster club president Richard Hargis said he was disappointed that Grider wouldn’t be coming to the Colts and said that Stewart didn’t approach him before the hire about covering the incentive package.
“We never had that discussion,” Hargis said. “I think that it was just not knowing the policy. Other places do that, but not Whitfield County. I think that it was truly an honest mistake. At the end of the day, it would have been a great hire.”
“I am kind of disappointed,” Hargis said. “I think he was a great pick. We kind of got our wires crossed somewhere, but it is what it is. I think that we could have made him happy, but it just didn’t work out. I think that Dr. Stewart was just trying to get us the best coach, and the boys were excited.”
Coahulla Creek school council member Rich Brock, who was listed as a member of the 15-person panel that interviewed the four finalists for the job, declined to comment.
Coahulla Creek Athletic Director Rhett Parrott said he regretted that mistakes were made and added that the search for a new coach will begin again.
“It was a mixup,” Parrott said. “It was something we wished we could go back and redo. We are going to move forward in a positive manner. The school system is simply looking out for us and have our best interest at heart as well. We are confident that we are going to go out and make a good hire.”
Gilreath also was confident that a quality coach would still be available.
“We’ll open it back up and make sure that we cover all of our bases,” she said. “We are not going to rush to any decision. We will look at all of our options again and make sure that things are done correctly and the best coach available is hired.”
Grider served as the head coach of South Pittsburg’s football program for 16 seasons and resigned from the position in 2012 after compiling a record of 162-43, a successful tenure that included three Class 1A state championships and five trips to the state championship game.
Grider was one of four finalists for the job along with Forsyth Central assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Travis Ellington, Hixson (Tenn.) High School head coach Jason Fitzgerald and Coahulla Creek assistant coach Chip Fleming.
In answering an earlier open records request by The Daily Citizen, Whitfield County Schools listed 36 applicants for the position.
Grider was offered the job by Stewart on Dec. 2 and turned it down. Stewart reached out to Grider later in the week, and by this past Sunday night, Stewart had informed Gilreath that Crider had accepted the position and Stewart wanted to make an announcement the following night at the Coahulla Creek football banquet.
Gilreath said she called school board members individually to inform them of the choice, and after speaking with them allowed Stewart to introduce Grider at the banquet, saying his hire was dependent on board approval. Stewart said at the banquet that the board “voted and approved your new head coach.” The board isn’t scheduled to have another public meeting until Jan. 6.
After going 8-2 against junior varsity competition in 2011, when its only full class was the freshman class, Coahulla Creek had back-to-back 2-8 records against varsity competition as a member of Region 5-3A the past two seasons. Head coach Jared Hamlin was fired by Stewart on Nov. 11, three days after the season.
“Everyone was excited about getting (Grider), but the offer was no longer on the table,” Gilreath said. “The booster club didn’t even know that the offer had been made. I know that the offer had not been formally discussed with the boosters.”
Gilreath did not say if there would be any consequences for Stewart going outside of the policies of Whitfield County Schools.
According to school board policies regarding personnel adopted in 2001 and listed on the school system’s website (wcschools.drupalgardens.com), “Employees of the Whitfield County Board of Education shall not accept any gift in excess of $200 in value from any booster club, parent organization or group, student or parent of a student. In addition, employees shall not accept payment from booster clubs, parent organizations or groups, students or parents of students for moving or other relocation expenses without the express prior approval of the board of education.”
Gilreath said the board could revisit the policy in the future. It has been common practice at various systems across the state for booster clubs to provide incentives for coaches, including vehicles leased by the booster club and postseason bonuses given to coaches.
After Grider was told that the initial package offered by Stewart was off the table on Thursday, Gilreath, Stewart, Assistant Superintendent Kerrie Williams and Director of Personnel Rhonda Yim came up with a package to pay Grider as much was allowed within the set athletic supplemental budget, but Grider rejected the offer.
Along with his teaching salary paid by the state, the local teaching supplement from Whitfield County Schools and all of his athletic supplement, Gilreath estimated Grider’s salary would have been close to $100,000 per year. According to the state website Open Georgia (open.ga.gov), Northwest Whitfield coach Josh Robinson made more than $91,000 and Southeast Whitfield coach Sean Gray made more than $56,000 during the 2012-2013 school year.
Messages left on Grider’s cellphone Friday were not immediately returned, but it was reported by other media that he had been offered eight coaching slots to bring staff with him to Coahulla Creek. In an interview at the time of Grider’s announced hiring, Stewart said he expected Grider to bring in at least four coaches.
Gilreath said she had no idea how the school could fill eight new coaching slots.
“I don’t know anything about that. I don’t know where that came from,” she said. “What you have is what you have. He had been given two positions simply because Coahulla Creek has two fewer coaches than the other two schools. You can’t hire them unless you have (teaching) slots available. I am as puzzled as you are on that one.”
The head coach vacancy has been reposted on the Whitfield County Schools’ website. Gilreath admitted that the school’s reputation with potential coaches has taken a hit.
“I am as disappointed as anybody in the community,” she said. “I was very excited that we would be getting this coach. When I talked to Vic, I told him this is what we can do, but I understand if you can’t do this because that is not what you were coming for. We tried to do what we could do. It makes me sick. I hate he was put in that situation.”
The announcement sent waves throughout the Coahulla Creek community, rippling across social media as news of Grider’s decision spread.
Varnell Mayor Dan Peeples had a post on Facebook criticizing the school system for taking back the offer and there were more than 25 comments in less than an hour before the post was taken down.
“(The post) wasn’t rude,” Peeples said. “I was asked by someone with the schools to please take it off. They are trying to be positive. Their jobs are on the line, so they have to be like, ‘Oh, we support the decision.’ But you know they don’t.”
Peeples said his family, through the family business Julian Peeples Funeral Homes, has given more than $10,000 to support the various athletic booster clubs at all three of the county’s high schools. Julian Peeples Funeral Homes is listed on the Coahulla Creek website as an “Elite Sponsor” and on the Northwest Whitfield football website as the program’s “Title Sponsor.” Southeast Whitfield doesn’t list any sponsorships on its website.
Peeples said the handling of Grider’s hiring was poorly done.
“I don’t know who to blame,” Peeples said. “You shouldn’t announce that you are getting a new car if you aren’t getting a new car. Unless it is sitting in your driveway, you don’t tell people that you have a new car. If they didn’t 100 percent have everything lined out, they embarrassed themselves.”
Parrott said he understands the community reaction.
“I know it is tough because the community was really energized by this hire,” he said. “(Grider’s) potential and credentials were outstanding, and I do understand that people are disappointed and upset. Nothing was done with a malicious or ill intent. It was a mistake, and we hate that mistakes happen. We are going to go back out and find a new coach for these young men to be successful on the field and off of the field.”
Peeples said he believes the school’s athletic program will suffer as parents look for alternate programs in which to enroll their children.
“If you knew the amount of people who in the last three days were saying, ‘Hey, I might not send my kid to Dalton. I may go to Coahulla Creek and let him play for this legend,’” Peeples said. “I had a guy call me (Friday morning) and tell me he had decided last night that his kids weren’t going to Christian Heritage, they were going to Coahulla Creek. He said, ‘Not now.’”