Column: Board must address firing of LHS coach Mike Lewis
School board members will hear from parents of ousted Lawrence High basketball coach Mike Lewis’ players at 7 p.m. today at 110 McDonald Drive.
But will they listen or pretend to listen, affecting that expression that’s meant to underscore how seriously they are taking in the words? You know the look: head slightly cocked, index finger just above the lip, thumb under the chin, eyes squinted, a slow nod here and there.
My hope is the seven school board members will open their minds and leave their rubber stamps at home for tonight’s meeting. My guess is they know what Superintendent Rick Doll wants them to do and will do it.
In most cases, that’s probably the smart way to go. This case is different. This is the polar opposite of most interactions involving parents and school boards regarding coaches. Most of the time, mom and/or dad want the coach fired because he’s too blind to see that Junior is the greatest talent to grace the planet since LeBron James burst onto the national scene looking and playing like a 30-year-old man in a high school game telecast by ESPN.
The last thing a school board wants to do is undermine authority figures and empower helicopter parents determined to control everyone in the path of their precious, gifted children. Totally understand and support that approach, 99.9 percent of the time.
However, this case is different. This time the parents want the coach unfired. This is not a parent-driven issue. The coach went 17-5, was fired, and no player or parent has been told why.
“It’s hard to understand why a coach would be let go when we have a winning season, we have happy players, happy parents, good turnouts,” said Shelly Morgan, whose son, Price Morgan, played center for the Lions. “It was all a positive program, and they said they want to go in a new direction. What possible direction could you go in?”
“The only other direction would be negative,” she said.
Lian Rajewski, mother of sharp-shooting guard Ben Rajewski, a 4.0 student, struck a similarly puzzled tone. Neither woman sounded the least bit whiny, just extremely bewildered.
“One of the things that concerns us is why we were not told what has caused the dismissal because we have seen coach and worked with him for several years,” Lian Rajewski said. “We have seen his whole family supports not only LHS basketball — all of his children, his wife his parents go to every game away, home — they attend all of the football games, and they’re just supporters of LHS.
“Everything we see him do on the court and off the court seems to be above-board. We have no questions on his behavior and his actions, so it was a shock to us as parents that he was let go. Our kids are really not understanding the situation at all.”
So they turn to their parents, who have no answers.
“This is not just about a coach and a team and a winning or losing record,” Shelly Morgan said. “This is about boys and true feelings and emotions and a coach that has poured his heart and soul into this team and what was done to him and the reasons he was let go. I feel like that’s what the board needs to give us, the chance to get that understanding of what’s really going on here.”
Both moms praised Lewis for the way he helped to guide their sons through the loss of their respected mentor Kermit Aldridge, an assistant coach who died on the season’s final day.
“Mike’s leadership during the whole process not only showed the boys that you can be a strong person and a strong competitor, but you can be a compassionate person and you can show genuine care for people,” Lian Rajewski said.
Added Shelly Morgan: “Coach Aldridge was such a good man, and the boys … the day they found out they were going to lose coach Aldridge was probably the hardest I’ve ever seen my son cry. And them for them to lose a coach for no apparent reason on top of an already tragic loss just shows true insensitivity to the situation.”
Lisa Shields, Aldridge’s fiancee, shared her thoughts with me in an email.
“I am devastated that the administration didn’t think about the students when they made this decision,” Shields wrote. “Having their hearts ripped out once obviously wasn’t enough, so they had to do it again. … Many people have asked what they thought he would say to all this, and I tell them he would be upset with the decision, but mostly he would be strong for his players. They always came first.”
People all over town are trying solve this puzzle, and nobody can make the pieces fit.
“I don’t feel like we have a true understanding of what’s really going on,” Shelly Morgan said. “I know the coach received a positive evaluation at the end of the season and something prompted a re-evaluation. That’s part of what we want answers as to why there was a re-evaluation process. What prompted that?”
Athletic director Bill DeWitt said the decision was his, not that of principal Matt Brungardt. Both men explained that because Brungardt has a son at the school, he removed himself from having anything to do with the sports his son plays. But unlike in the business world, where such potential conflicts of interest result in moving up the chain of command to find a replacement supervisor, Brungardt moved down, forming a committee of the four assistant principals.
Brungardt’s son was one of two freshmen to dress for varsity basketball games. As it turned out, Jackson Mallory was the only of the two to earn a varsity letter. Am I stretching in trying to say that could have something to do with Lewis’ firing? Probably, but therein lies the problem with potential conflicts of interest. They lead to speculation.
It seems to me that at the very least the school board needs to strongly and sincerely consider a stay of execution until the matter of Mike Lewis’ firing can be more thoroughly and transparently investigated.