Column: LHS administration should take mulligan, rehire coach Mike Lewis

Lawrence High coach Mike Lewis talks with junior Anthony Bonner (15) on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, at FSHS.

Normally, I’m not a big fan of mulligans. You pull three consecutive shots from the first tee box into the pond, you’re lying six, hitting seven. That’s life. Deal with it or go back inside and run up your bar bill.

But in the case of this week’s ridiculous firing of Lawrence High boys basketball coach Mike Lewis, I’m all in favor of granting a mulligan to the administration. Give the guy his job back before you end up losing yours over it, would be my advice to the decision-makers at 19th and Louisiana.

Parents are mobilizing. Athletes are stunned. Teachers at Lawrence High are looking over their shoulders, tiptoeing on eggshells, asking themselves the obvious question: If a terrific family man/role model like Mike Lewis can lose his coaching job after a 17-5 season, how safe am I?

My sense is, anger boils inside many in town, and they aren’t going to take this one sitting down. Instead, they’re going to stand up, grab their car keys and drive to 110 McDonald Drive early enough to get a seat for Monday’s 7 p.m. school board meeting.

I didn’t feel like waiting that long to ask questions, so I took a mid-afternoon drive Thursday to LHS, and the first two people I saw upon walking through the front door were Ted Juneau, who helped out with the basketball program this past season, and Bill DeWitt. Who? He’s the athletic director taking responsibility for the firing and refusing to do anything but chase his own tail every time he is asked why he sacked the popular, low-key coach.

I wondered, if community outrage reaches a certain level, might DeWitt reverse his decision?

“I would not reverse my decision,” he said.

DeWitt said he did not think it necessary to explain his reasons for firing Lewis and repeatedly said he didn’t think it was a story.

The community doesn’t deserve an explanation for a firing that significant?

“I think they want an explanation, and they’re trying to make up their minds as to what that explanation is, but there isn’t a story there,” DeWitt said.

Good thing Ben Bradlee and not Bill DeWitt was editor of the Washington Post back when Woodward and Bernstein got a call from Deep Throat.

Again, why did DeWitt do what he did?

“I wanted to make a change,” he said. “There isn’t a story there.”

Why did you want to make a change?

“It was my opinion after evaluating all phases of the program that I wanted to do something different,” DeWitt said. I guess changing the drapes in the office wouldn’t have been enough.

At which phases of the job did Lewis fall short?

“I’m not going to go into the specifics of coach Lewis,” DeWitt said. “I like the guy. He did a nice job here. That’s where I’m going to stay.”

Do you have somebody lined up who you think will do a better job?

“No, I don’t,” DeWitt said. “I know that’s the flames that want to get fanned. I mean, I just, I don’t sit around capriciously and hatch things up. And again, I’m an outsider coming in new, and I made a decision. And that’s where I’m at.”

DeWitt didn’t seem to get that the people who packed The Jungle during a season of unusually large crowds turning out to see talented guards Justin Roberts and Anthony Bonner and the rest of the fast-paced, scrappy Lions deserve an explanation for why a 17-5 season resulted in a coach’s firing.

“I think they’re just looking for a smoking gun,” DeWitt said. “They’re just trying to go down a path that isn’t worth going down.”

Who is trying to do that?

“People that kind of want to flesh out some kind of story that I don’t think is there,” he said. “He did have a good season. I’m new. I have a new perspective. I consulted with some people I work with. I didn’t go blind into the night, but at the end of the day, this is my decision.”

LHS principal Pontius Pilate, check that, Matt Brungardt, explained that his role with the athletic department has changed now that his son is a freshman at the school and plays football, soccer, basketball and golf. The coaches of those sports take any issues to the four assistant principals (DeWitt and three others), not to him, the principal said. Brungardt said he had veto power but decided not to exercise it to save Lewis.

“Bill does his evaluation, builds his case, takes it to the administrative team, the administrative team makes a recommendation,” Brungardt said. “Then, as I told coach Lewis, when they came back, the decision I have is, do I go ahead three-quarters of the way through the first year of this process and short-circuit the process, or do I honor the process and allow it to work?”

Still, he must have been shocked that the AD wanted to fire the 17-5 coach, right?

“You know, I’ve known some issues, so, so, I was a little surprised, but I knew there had been some concerns along the way,” Brungardt said.

Now I’m confused. Here I believed him when he said a process had been set up to totally remove himself, yet he was kept abreast of the “concerns along the way.” Sounds like the process had been short-circuited long before the principal signed off on the firing that put a heretofore anonymous AD on the local map, even if he is wearing a dunce cap for his first 15 minutes of fame.

Any time a parent is involved in any way in his son’s high school athletics, playing time forever is in the foreground. Brungardt assured me he had no issues with his freshman son’s playing time on the JV squad, and I believed him.

Could it be then that the LHS administration is overcome with greed, wanting to upgrade from 17-5 because there is a coach available who could do even better? Ken Darting, one of the most accomplished coaches in the state, resigned from Highland Park High in Topeka. I asked Brungardt if he had talked to Darting about the job.

“Who’s Ken Darting?” he said.

I asked DeWitt if had talked to Darting about the job.

“No,” DeWitt said. “I have had no conversation with Ken Darting. I don’t have a connection back in Western Kansas that I’m going to bring with me. I don’t have some old dude up my sleeve. I don’t. I’m just a guy coming in putting fresh eyes on a program, analyzing it, going through some conversations. I know Mike felt like he was blind-sided. I don’t see it entirely that way.”

Lewis, who continues to teach at Southwest Middle School, has had his spirits propped up with encouraging phone calls from the likes of Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self and his assistant, Norm Roberts, father of Lions star Justin Roberts.

Kudos to Lewis for not letting anyone talk him into spinning this as a “resignation,” when it was a firing.

It’s been enjoyable watching the friendly Lewis grow into the job, staying humble yet becoming more confident with each year. Not surprisingly, he’s trying to stay upbeat, and he’s not hurling stones.

So why did he get fired?

“Mike Lewis knows the reasons,” Brungardt said. “You can ask Mike Lewis, and he’s at liberty to tell you. We’re not.”

Did Lewis get a specific explanation, other than the tired, “going in another direction”?

“I know for a fact he did,” Brungardt said.

I asked Lewis the same question.

“Specific is a strong word,” Lewis said. “There were categories I was given, but how specifically those categories were broken down and evaluated, I do have some concerns with that. Overall, I’m sleeping well at night knowing that the administration at Lawrence High wanted to take the program in a different direction.”

DeWitt said there was no specific incident that triggered his decision. Here’s a specific reason to reverse the decision: It’s the right thing to do.