What a mess.
The reality is Gilbert fired football coach Leland Rodgers. The fiction, realistic-fiction, fantasy and fodder is everything else being heard and said surrounding his dismissal.
Rodgers told his side of the saga to media outlets (and, based on conversations from players, parents and formers of both, it qualifies as a real saga). Other than an email of generalities sent by Gilbert principal Christopher Stroud, the school and district have said nothing about their side of the story; some of which they’re not allowed to discuss, other parts might not offer any benefit of discussing, and still other parts which they owe the coaches — Rodgers and some assistants claimed they weren’t given specifics as to what they did to warrant dismissal — players and parents at least a few detailed explanations.
Until that happens, we’re all left in the dark, not unlike most coaching changes which occur at the high school level. It’s also left us with rampant rumor-mongering, debates and arguments. Lines have clearly been drawn in the sand. Parents, current players and former players have come out with phone messages, emails and message board musings in support of Rodgers and his staff.
“I give a tremendous amount of credit to Coach Rodgers and his staff for helping my son not only improve in football, but in teaching him to become a leader, a positive role model for his school and his community,” wrote Bob Somodi, who has a son on the football team. “In my conversations with these coaches, I have heard nothing but positive thoughts and encouragement regarding my son and his fellow students and teammates. Perhaps more importantly is that I have heard many students praise Mr. Rodgers as a teacher.
“Certainly coach had made mistakes like anyone in their first year in charge often as a consequence as his eagerness to excel Gilbert High football. For example, many players were intimidated by his fast start and subsequently quit, he angered some boosters in not appreciating some of their long-standing traditions, and other parents have complained to me regarding his blunt personality. I thought these were issues that would be easily resolved with experience and guidance but I am disappointed that principal Stroud and athletic director Daniel Haasch could not develop young talented coaches in their program, I certainly hope this does not bode the same with developing up-and-coming educators.“
This excerpt of an email came from former Desert Vista quarterback Hunter Rodriguez from Rodgers' days as an assistant: “I can personally testify on (coaches’) behalf with the utmost confidence,” Rodriguez wrote. “I played and trained under Rodgers for two years and was the teammate of a coach on staff for three. I have personally seen Gilbert play and practice. Rodgers was, and still is, one of the best coaches I have ever had and he would never do anything like this. I am a better man because of coach Rodgers and I know all the Gilbert kids would say the same. He was motivational and dedicated to making his players better on and off the field. I can not believe the injustice that has occurred as he should never have lost his job. The coach I had the privilege of playing with is without a doubt one of the best men I know.”
Plenty more have come out against Rodgers and his staff. Critics say it started last spring when football fees went up significantly. It grew during offseason workouts, 5:30 a.m. regiments and attendance requirements significantly more strict than during the Dan Dunn era. Cited were a few acts of discipline used on the kids during summer camp, notably vandalism which occurred at another school where the team was staying, in which parents and kids claimed they did exhausting workouts in the middle of the night. A group of parents were unhappy and pulled their kids out of the program.
It continued during the season, with a couple kids having to do extra physical exertion for missing practice times for things beyond their control (slow-healing injury and a family member’s funeral, for example). Then the strength and conditioning coach was let go during the last regular season week of the season, and didn’t know why. A divide formed amongst the team and parents regarding Rodgers and his assistants.
None of this, however, explains the “why?” And even if that answer was made clear, more questions would arise.
A program which craved more discipline from the previous era thought it had that someone in Rodgers (who was in his first year as a head coach and young by coaching standards), yet when he enacted such discipline it caused some to run for the hills. Was it egregious? We don’t know. But it’s football, and it’s not like two dozen kids quit in spring or summer.
Where’s the line drawn in the sand between “rigorous” and “egregious”? It doesn’t always exist.
Was Rodgers given a fair shake to change some of his approach? Was he warned to stop doing certain things? Did administration kowtow to a group of upset parents just because they threatened to go to the media?
It’s all the same questions, back-and-forth banter, agreements and arguments that occur when such changes occur, and we’re again left with the same answers as most of the others which came before it: None.
We’ve heard one side of the story. We haven’t heard the other, and probably never will.
Which brings us to one oft-forgotten reality: Without facts and authoritative perspective, the difference between “right” and “wrong” is fuzzier than ever.
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.