A pair of state legislators are seeking to provide public high school coaches with some stability.
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Bergen/Passaic, and Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, introduced bills last month that would require varsity head coaches to receive three-year contracts and assistant coaches two-year contracts.
Currently, coaches are appointed by their respective Boards of Education on a year-by-year basis.
The Assembly Education Committee advanced Wimberly’s legislation last month in a 10-0 vote with one abstention. The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to conduct a hearing this fall.
“I think it’s a major protection for coaches when it comes to being unjustly fired,” Wimberly, who is also head football coach at Hackensack High School, said in a statement.
“In many cases, guys are being fired because they didn’t play a school board member’s child, or a (student-athlete) didn’t play a position they wanted to play, so you have parents go to the school board and make an issue out of it.”
A few local coaches have been involved in similar controversies over the years.
Last November, the Atlantic City Board of Education voted not to reappoint boys basketball coach Gene Allen after a parent of a former player complained about a text message Allen had sent to the 2017-18 team that indicated the Vikings did not deserve a postseason banquet.
Allen, Atlantic City’s coach since 2003, had guided the Vikings to three state championships — the first titles in program history — during his tenure.
He filed suit seeking to get his job back, and Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Michael Blee reinstated him just days before last season.
Allen, who has pending litigation against the Board of Education, declined to comment on the proposed bill Wednesday.
“If the goal (of the bills) is to prevent parents from complaining, it’s not going to help much,” Absegami athletic director Steve Fortis said. “You can give coaches lifetime contracts and it won’t stop it.”
In summer 1998, the Ocean City High School Board of Education initially voted 5-4 not to reappoint John Bruno as boys basketball and girls softball coach prior to the 1998-99 school year.
One board member complained that he “didn’t think the (basketball) program was moving in a positive direction” and “didn’t see the discipline on the court.”
Bruno was appointed after former players and fellow coaches came to his defense.
That season, Ocean City upset Middle Township in overtime to win the South Jersey Group III title, its first sectional championship in 27 years.
Last spring, the Red Raiders softball team won the South Jersey Group III championship under Bruno.
“I have mixed emotions about this (legislation),” said Bruno, who is entering his 31st season as boys basketball coach and has stepped down after 20 years as softball coach. “I guess it gives coaches some job security, but for how long? Whether it’s one year or three years, no coach deserves to lose his or her job if they are doing it right.
“I despise when someone tells a high school coach that they want to go in a different direction. What does that mean? What direction do you want to go? Unless they do something egregious, there’s no reason to let a coach go. I think they should be able to leave under their own terms.”
Outside pressure has increased on high school coaches in recent years, particularly in football and basketball.
Parents wonder how their son or daughter is going to earn a college scholarship and land a lucrative contract in the NFL or NBA if they are role players or backups.
“Putting high school games on TV is the worst thing that could have happened because it gives parents false hope,” said Middle Township football coach Frank Riggitano, who is also the school’s former principal. “We’ve been lucky enough to see some of our kids go on to play college football, but for 90% of them, their careers are ending after high school. It’s our job as coaches to make sure they get the most out of their high school careers.”
Riggitano, who is in his 19th season, was quick to point out he’s received outstanding support from school officials and parents but has heard of situations where coaches were criticized and even dismissed because of personal agendas.
He’s not sure multi-year contracts would quiet the complaints.
“If people grumble loud and long enough, there’s going to be a forum for them,” he said.
Teresa Cunniff, Wildwood High School’s girls basketball and softball coach, said she receives similar support from her administration.
Although basketball is considered the school’s biggest sport, she doesn’t feel pressure.
“Even though I have to formally apply for my coaching positions each year, I’ve always gotten so much support from the school community that I’ve never really felt like I’ve worked on a one-year contract,” said Cunniff, who replaced legendary coach Dave Troiano in 2018. “I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to be evaluated each year on performance as long as that evaluation takes much more into account than just wins and losses.”