January 18, 2014

Chris Whitfield: Mistakes during Coahulla Creek football hire filled with lessons

— Former Sequatchie County (Tenn.) High School football coach Chad Barger has taken over the Coahulla Creek program, and his hiring seems to be a good fit between a team looking to build a tradition and a coach who has had success doing just that.

Barger has done a good job at previous stops where winning was not yet the defining characteristic.

It is just a shame we had to drive in so many directions before we got to the final destination up there near Prater’s Mill.

The last two months for the school have certainly been a circus — complete with three rings. Maybe even a few more, but they couldn’t afford the seal show with the bouncy ball on its nose.

It has been a public relations nightmare, as well as an embarrassment for the school system and the community, so let’s start from the beginning.

Jared Hamlin was fired after the season after going 4-16 in the school’s first two years of varsity competition. Debate what you will about that, but in our “gimme-the-information-of-the-world-on-one-app society” if you aren’t showing significant improvement as a football coach in a hurry, you will get fired. To my knowledge, no one in Varnell was terribly upset by Hamlin’s firing, but school administrators acted like they had done something wrong when they initially refused to answer questions or return phone calls.

Athletic director Rhett Parrott said on the day the firing was announced that the system would put out a release, he wasn’t answering any questions and the school was “going in another direction.” Which direction, no one would say. When a coach is fired, there are legitimate questions about the timeline, the reasoning and what is next for the school. These aren’t questions about a scandal.

The release from the system amounted to four sentences and was headlined, “New Playbook for Colts Next Year.” Why Parrott wasn’t talking and why Principal Stanley Stewart wasn’t returning phone calls, I don’t know. I had to go up the chain of command to Superintendent Judy Gilreath, and she couldn’t really answer any of the questions because it isn’t her job to know the answers to those questions.

“We put out a statement,” she said. “Did you not get it?”

“Yes, ma’am. It doesn’t say anything except that coach Hamlin has been fired. There are other questions that I have.”

Why Stewart, Parrott, Gilreath and I had to all gather at the central office on the south side of Dalton to discuss this matter, I will never know. I live five miles from Coahulla Creek and I had no questions for the superintendent. Once we all sat down and talked, the questions were answered, but why did we have to do that little square dance to begin with?

In the following weeks, the search for a replacement was ongoing and then the big news hit that Stewart had thrown a Hail Mary and connected with the hiring of Vic Grider, a state-title winning coach from Tennessee. But even that announcement was mishandled.

No matter what the reasoning for Hamlin’s removal, he should have been able to look his players and their parents in the eye at the season-ending football banquet and thank them for all of their hard work. Instead of the night being about the seniors and all they had been through since starting the school, their thunder was taken away from them with the announcement that Grider had been hired. (In fact, he spoke at the banquet.) Even then, Stewart made a big faux pas by saying that the school board had “voted and approved your new head coach.” That would have been against Georgia’s open meetings laws, because the board didn’t have a called meeting for such a purpose.

Grider’s hiring was seen as a major coup for the school and left many people asking, “How did Coahulla Creek get Vic Grider to come to Varnell?”

Then we found out how — and Grider wasn’t the coach anymore. According to Gilreath, Stewart violated county policy by promising Grider what amounted to a $15,000 “signing bonus” (Grider’s camp said it was actually $20,000) and eight slots for assistant coaches. Neither of those were going to happen. Stewart said he wasn’t using school funds and that he was going to raise the money through the booster club and private donations. He said he did not know of the school system policy forbidding such gifts over $200, but when Grider’s money was off the table, he was out the door.

Grider would have been a great hire, but there is a reason why Northwest Whitfield head coach Josh Robinson was an assistant coach before getting his job and Southeast’s Sean Gray has a losing record as a head coach. Whitfield County Schools won’t get coaches like Grider unless it offers under-the-table bonuses.

That isn’t a knock on either Robinson or Gray, nor is it a knock on Barger, who has a losing record as a head coach. It is what it is. All of the county schools have the same supplement scale, so the head coach at Northwest is paid the same athletic supplement that the coach at Southeast is paid. This isn’t a one-school county where the administration can do whatever it wants.

You want to pay a coach $17,000 on top of his teaching salary and give him a new F250 every two years? Then you better be living in south Georgia or middle Georgia or in a one-school system. You aren’t going to do it in Whitfield County unless there is some change in board policy.

At the announcement of Grider’s hiring, Stewart said he wanted a coach “who had run a clean program ... won region championships, and perhaps won a state title.”

“It almost sounds like a dream,” Stewart said.

The nightmare comes from a lack of reality.

Coahulla Creek is a $45.2 million house of learning on the north end of the county and is something to be very proud of, but the 3-year-old institution isn’t an SEC school. Heck, it isn’t even Dalton or Ringgold if you are talking about high school football. There is a reason why Nick Saban is not going to be the next head coach at Georgia Southern. That school can’t afford the best college coach in the nation.

And state championship coaches aren’t going to come to Coahulla Creek unless they are getting paid or they have some skeletons in their closet. Former Texas coach Mack Brown was available. Did anyone reach out to him?

Coahulla Creek may have great facilities and $150,000 worth of weight room equipment and virtual classrooms and scenic views, but you can only put so much lipstick on a pig, and reality gets in the way of big dreams when you overestimate your appeal. You just aren’t going to get that much value when you pay a head football coach $7,500 and an extra $1,500 on top as “weight training coordinator.”

During the second round of the hiring process, many of the things that were revealed after Grider’s hiring proved to be just for show. Current defensive coordinator Chip Fleming was obviously granted a “show” interview because if he was really in the top four finalists, as was claimed when Grider was hired, then why wasn’t he given any consideration the next time around?

Barger’s hiring was announced on Monday, but there were problems with the second hiring process as well. On the Friday before, Stewart had taken the name of another coach — this one a state title winner in Virginia — to the central office for approval. The approval was denied. While not offering any details, Gilreath said, “We didn’t think he was a good fit.”

Gilreath asked if the situation with the Virginia coach had to be in the paper, saying “I would hate for (Barger) to think that he was our second choice.”

Actually, he was at least your fourth choice. Grider had turned the job down once before he was hired, and according to sources, Hixson (Tenn.) coach Jason Fitzgerald was offered the job and turned it down before Grider said yes. Those are just the three coaches we found out about because no one wants to discuss the hiring process.

It’s hard to imagine why, isn’t it?

With the announcement of Barger’s hiring, the Whitfield County Schools public relations machine tried to dress it up as much as possible. However, pointing out that a man who is 37 has 30 years of “football experience” seems kind of odd. I have been talking in coherent sentences since I was 2. I guess that means I have 39 years of “communications experience.”

It doesn’t have to be this hard, and you burn a lot of capital with the general public when such a glaring light is shining on a school and the system for a lot of other issues. With Smarties being smoked and kill lists being written and the school vastly underperforming on the College and Career Ready Performance Index, the last thing you need is a public relations nightmare over athletics.

I have a vested interest in Coahulla Creek. My sons will go to school there one day unless something changes, and I do not dislike the people who work there. But this was wrongly handled from the start, and there is only so much spinning that you can do to make it look any better. Mistakes have been made, and we can only hope that the people who are in charge learn from them.

Mistakes and educators are, after all, supposed to teach lessons.

Chris Whitfield is a sports writer for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at chriswhitfield@daltoncitizen.com