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Who really is coaching at JFK?

May 10, 2009
By ED PUSKAS Tribune Chronicle Sports Editor

So is John F. Kennedy High School the new Niles McKinley when it comes to running off coaches for no good reason?

It looks that way, now that school administrators are about to hire the Eagles' third boys basketball coach since 2007 and fourth since 2004. John Condoleon, Shawn Pompelia and Bruce Timko have come and gone. How long will the next guy last?

Niles has long had the reputation as the area's graveyard of coaches. Bill Bohren, who coached the Red Dragons' football team to two playoff appearances, once said people in Niles will name a street after you one day and run you out of town on it the next. Football or basketball, it didn't seem to matter in Niles.

JFK's Tony Napolet seems secure as the Eagles' football coach for as long as he cares to do the job and as long as his health will permit, but the school's basketball program has been in a state of flux for a while now.

Condoleon, who was successful, was replaced by Pompelia.

Then, Pompelia soon wore out his welcome and his contract was non-renewed after the 2006-07 season. That's just a polite way of saying he was fired. JFK officials never gave a solid reason, aside from their wish to move in a new direction. That's code for, "We have some issues with the coach, and they may or may not be entirely legitimate, but we're not going to tell you what they are anyway."

Then came Timko, who was the best basketball player JFK has ever had and a former Youngstown State standout. But the honeymoon didn't last long. The Eagles went 9-12 in his first season, and despite a 16-8 record, having the area's best all-around player not named Sheldon Brogdon (Nick Brown) and the school's first district championship in 20 years this season, Timko was routinely pilloried by a segment of JFK's own fan base.

We're still waiting for a legitimate explanation for that. Which brings us to the world of Internet message boards, where disgruntled fans, athletes and even parents can anonymously rip anybody and get away with it. But that's a column for another day.

JFK officials can hire and fire at will. We're not disputing that. But how is a guy who wins a district championship gone less than two months later?

Coaches are hired to be fired, someone once noted. But at some point, swapping out coaches and their staffs damages a program's continuity and credibility.

You want an idea of what continuity will do for a program? Look at Warren G. Harding's boys under Steve Arnold and a solid group of assistants. Look at Howland's girls under John Diehl and his staff.

Howland's boys program had a revolving door of coaches until Don Andres took over four years ago. He recently announced his retirement from the bench. I'm not sure I believe he retired on his own accord, but that also is another column for another day. Andres once said his "dream team" would be a group of orphans. He reiterated that upon announcing his retirement.

That comment came to mind when we learned of Timko's resignation.

Whatever the real reasons behind the "philosophical differences" between Timko and JFK principal Brian Sinchak, the coach's exit raises some questions.

How will JFK attract a capable replacement for Timko when school officials have a clear track record of souring quickly on successful coaches? What happens when the next guy runs afoul of the wrong people?

But that's how the game is played now. God help a coach who annoys the wrong parent. Sometimes, those parents even end up on school boards. It's bad enough when they're in the stands.

Maybe the game has passed by men like Andres, Timko and others.

Well, not so much the game. On the court, it's still about shooting, rebounding, ballhandling and defense. But coaches today must deal with behind-the-scenes factors our coaches - and we're speaking to the over-40 set - didn't seem to have to confront.

The coach used to be in charge. The coach used to run the program. He never was a glorified babysitter for parents who lived vicariously through kids with an inflated sense of entitlement, and he wasn't a lackey for other school officials.

Can you imagine what Gene Hackman's Norman Dale would say to today's spoiled athletes and their meddling parents?

Nobody asked, but we'll say it anyway:

The coach is not your friend. His respect must be earned. Just showing up at practice and having the right last name will not guarantee anything, including a roster spot or playing time. The coach's job is not to coddle players. His job is to develop them - sometimes with tough love - and put the best team he can on the court. It's varsity basketball, not intramurals or recess.

That's how I always thought it worked, anyway. Maybe I'm just a dinosaur. Maybe the coaches JFK has run off in recent years are dinosaurs.

In fact, maybe "The coach" isn't even necessary anymore. Add up all those supplemental contracts, and it's clear school districts could save a lot of money by tearing them up and installing a rotating group of parents as caretakers of their sports teams.

Go to a game. If you didn't realize parents know far more about basketball and football than coaches, it will quickly become apparent to you. It's times like these when I wish I had a sarcasm font.

Let the parents coach. That way, everybody's kids will play sooner or later, and nobody's feelings get hurt because the coach arbitrarily puts the players he feels are the best on the court.

And while we're at it, let's give everyone's self-esteem a boost and just stop the nasty habit of keeping score, so everybody wins.

Of course, we'll need more nets because every team will be cutting them down at the end of the season.

JFK is not the same school it was when Timko and Pompelia played basketball, and high school sports is much different than it was when we were teenagers.

Different, sadly, isn't always better.

There are always exceptions, but for the most part, the days of parents backing a coach are gone.

An old coach once told me a story about his playing days.

"I was 1 minute late for practice and the coach sent me home," he said.

The future coach had stopped on his way out of the locker room to tie a shoelace. It didn't matter.

"I was mad," he said. "When I went home and told my parents, they said, 'You better show up 15 minutes early next time.' ''

Today, they'd be ripping the coach on the Internet or complaining to his bosses.



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