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Why the Revolving Door at the SHS Athletic Department?

Coach WrightWhat's going on with the coaches at Scarsdale High School? Are the departures a string of unrelated incidents or part of an organized shift in policy? It's hard to know.

In the past few weeks, the SHS Athletic Department has undergone a major upheaval. On February 8, SHS Boys Varsity Basketball Coach Billy Murphy was dismissed suddenly with only a few games remaining in the season. 

That same day the community learned that sisters Genette and Gail Zonghetti, who coached the girls' lacrosse team, had also been fired. Head Field Hockey Coach Sharon Rosenthal, who coached for 18 years and attended the Scarsdale School herself, resigned in protest as the Zhongettis served as assistants for field hockey. That left the lacrosse team with no leadership for the spring season and the future of the field hockey team in question. With lacrosse coaches in demand all over Westchester, the Zonghettis received multiple offers to coach and accepted positions at Bronxville just a few days later.

And if that wasn't enough, on Tuesday February 20 we learned that head ice hockey coach Coach Kevin Wright would not be returning for another season. Did he resign for personal reasons or was he pressured to do so?

Why the revolving door? We asked some SHS parents whose children have been involved in the athletic program for their views on the reasons behind the departures.


Kathy Coleman, a former President of sports booster organization Maroon and White answered our questions about the situation:

Why do you think that the school is losing so many coaches in such a short period of time? What are the issues that are arising?

I believe each situation had its own unique circumstances and its unfortunate, from a perception standpoint, that the changes happened in two clusters. Some of these terminations may have been justified but I believe the root of this is parent complaints. When I say parent complaints, I am not referring to someone who makes one call. I am referring to people who continue up the chain of command in an effort to get their way. By itself, parent input is not a bad thing; parents should have the opportunity to provide feedback. While I was co-president of M&W, we worked with Ray and the district to establish an evaluation system for coaches. It was designed so that the students could send an evaluation and the parents another. We strived to avoid having the parents completing the students' form. I'm not sure this has been followed through on but I could be wrong. I recall that some coaches were hesitant about putting this in place but we argued that you would now hear about the positive experiences as well as the negatives. Typically, all anyone hears are the negatives. We felt this would provide Ray with good data for evaluating and training coaches and we certainly didn't expect any changes based on the initial set of reviews. I don't believe any of the actual changes were based on these reviews but I mention them because I think it is important that this be put in to place and used in the future to avoid the circumstance we now find ourselves in. This would set exceptions for coaches and for parents and students, as well. If a termination happened following the system, it wouldn't be a surprise to everyone.

As far as you know, are there new rules or policies regarding the conduct of coaches?

Nothing new that I'm aware of. I will say that in the past, it seemed that coaches were just renewed for the most part when in reality, they are on one year contracts. I don't think the general public realizes this when reacting to the changes. But you can appreciate that a coach with several years of service would expect to be renewed absent of any feedback about their performance.

Do you think these decisions were made by Ray Pappalardi or the school administration? Do you think that the coaches were given the opportunity to state their side of the issues?

Based on what I read from some of the coaches, no, they weren't given the opportunity to state their side but what employee is during a termination? By the time you get to that conversation, there is no turning back which is why its important to have feedback, evaluations and expectations going forward. And, no, I don't believe this is all Ray's doing.

Has the school given answers as to why so many were terminated?

No, and they don't have to and I support that. Again, just because they all seem to have happened at the same time, doesn't mean they are all identical circumstances.

Are parents assuming a more active role in evaluating the coaches and supervising teams?

Yes, I believe there are too many parents too involved in influencing and the district needs to draw a line in the sand on this. Set a policy of expectations and stick by it. The district has a very qualified and capable Athletic Director, let him do his job.

David Stafford is the father of a Varsity Soccer player and a keen observer of the SHS atheltic program. He said, "In my view a high school coach should try to meet three objectives – create a positive environment for the players such that they enjoy their experience; treat all team members respectfully and fairly; and get the most out of the talent on the team in the pursuit of wins. Sometimes these three objectives can conflict. High school sports are competitive – it's not rec league anymore and especially in a place like Scarsdale where sometimes parents get directly involved, reconciling these three objectives can be difficult. I don't have any insight on the circumstances of any of the recent departures, but stability within leadership is important. The recent spate of coaching departures is unsettling for those of us in the community who view high school sports as an important aspect of the academic experience."

Bob Koch is a Scarsdale dad who played football and lacrosse as a Scarsdale student. He is passionate about high school sports and has been a coach and is a founding board member of the Scarsdale Youth Lacrosse Association. His son is on the Varsity Hockey Team. Koch had much to share; here is what he said:

"The school is not losing any coaches. The school has decided that the coaches who are re-hired each year are not good fits for our programs. Despite the coaches claims that they were not given any reasons for their dismissals I believe the comments and complaints over the years were likely communicated to the various coaches. Perhaps not at the time of firing but as I stated the school can decide to go in another direction just as the coaches can make that same decision. This happens in any business. You need to believe that these decisions were either made because of some major action or because of a pattern of behavior not consistent with what our AD believes represents our schools. The timing of some of the decisions might be called into question but I believe easily justified. The administration isn't trying to fire coaches."

About the role of parents in the program, Koch said, "I don't think Scarsdale parents are more active than other towns. If there are constant complaints from starting players, bench player and upper and lower classmen and you can see a pattern of behavior there should be a venue to voice those grievances. Issues about playing time, strategic decisions and cuts are sometimes hard to deal with for our kids but when the other parts of the coaching seems to be working we don't hear that much about it. If you couple consistent bad behavior with these player issues than parents will get more vocal.

I would also like to add that prior to any parent involvement, players should advocate for themselves. Especially when it relates to playing time, cuts and feelings of being singled-out. Our coaches should have honest and constructive answers to help our players develop and improve our sports programs. Some of these decisions may not end up changing a player's status but players, parents and the administration need to respect the coaches. This assumes the coaches are assessing players on skill and attitude and not other personal issues."

I do think coach turnover occurs and when there is a new Athletic Director it can become acute. I think Harrison had a new Athletic Director a few years ago and turned over several coaches.

With that said, I think there were many things at play in Scarsdale that can be improved. I only have parts of stories but I think many would agree that some of the coaches actions warranted dismissal (pay to play, 1on 1 coach "tutoring", drinking while driving (whether 1 or 5 beers), players being called out to play with mono?

At what point do we cross the line? It's not all spelled out and it can't all be spelled out. I do believe our coaches were dismissed for reasons far more egregious than the issues mentioned here. With Hockey Coach Wright, I think he wanted to try out coaching high school hockey and realized he could not give 200% to the players and the program. Despite the drama about his ejection, it was the right call for all involved.

Our sports programs should be designed to create winning teams but all players should feel supported and receive the tremendous life lessons from their athletic participation. That sometimes means persevering through tough choices. Kudos to our basketball players who bounced back and finished the season on a strong note. There were life lessons from that experience for sure."

What are your thoughts on these unexpected exits. Are parents too involved? Are coaches not receiving adequate support? How will the district attract top rate talent in the future?

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