Gorch on the Porch: Wells was told 'it's just time'

Photo by Steve T. GorchesA packed La Porte School Board meeting room listens to president Mark Kosior talk about the process of not renewing boys basketball coach Tom Wells' contract.

La PORTE — Far be it from me to supersede the words of someone as important and accomplished as La Porte High School Athletic Director Ed Gilliland when it comes to the non-renewal of Slicers’ boys basketball coach Tom Wells that was made official on Monday night at a packed, standing-room-only school board meeting.

Instead, let Gilliland’s words in a statement he handed to reporters after the meeting speak for itself …

“Coaching high school sports can, at times, be a very thankless and unappreciated profession. Coaches work a tremendous number of hours, not only during their season, but also in the offseason, and the compensation is not congruent with the effort put forth. There are also unrealistic expectations of some people that add to the pressures of coaching. The goals and motives of those individuals are not in line with education-based athletics and the true values of participation in high school athletics.”

He went on to thank Wells for his 15 years as head coach, his dedication and how classy Wells has been. But it’s those first 81 words of a release from a former athletic director of the year that resonate loudly.

What’s that you say? You aren’t able to read between the lines? Let former Michigan City Rogers basketball coach Rick Commers explain as one of those allowed to speak on Monday.

“People with agendas and vendettas is a big problem in education,” the La Porte resident of 37 years said. “We don’t do what’s right. We don’t abide by our regulations or evaluations. We always base things on short-term goals. Authoritative people base it on what’s politically expedient. You don’t look at the long-term ramifications of getting rid of a basketball coach.

“Every parent now has the right to go to a school board member and say, ‘I want this done, I want that done.’ You’ve undermined every principal, athletic director, every teacher who makes a decision in the building, but what’s the school board going to say? Are they going to get involved in my business?”

So what’s it mean when two of those parents of players are actually on the school board?

Wells’ non-renewal was made official five days before at a special meeting of school board members, and the vote was 6-0 with one abstention. That abstention was Gilliland’s wife, Marie, for obvious reasons since, according to Wells, her husband gave the coach an “exemplary evaluation” back in April.

My problem is that the vote should have been 4-0-3 if all involved were ethical. How can two boys basketball players’ mothers elected to a school board not abstain in a vote that directly affects their kids? That’s the epitome of a conflict of interest.

As for why Wells was let go after winning 19 games this past season … well, he doesn’t know.

“I’ve never been told why,” he said after the meeting in which multiple people spoke in support of him. “All I was told is that ‘it’s just time.’ That’s all.”

Unbelievable. Fifteen years of dedication to a school and program, being a mentor and father figure to myriad players and all you get is ‘it’s just time?’

I’m betting Marie didn’t say that to Wells. On Monday, she was the only school board member to speak about the incomprehensible situation.

“Coach Wells, I’m looking at this room and there’s a lot of loyalty here,” she said while getting emotional.

That resulted in a standing ovation during which I held back applauding only because I’m supposed to be objective.

Marie added how much Wells has meant to his players over the years, which includes teaching one of them how to drive and living at his house for a period of time. That player was Jerome Vann, who played on the 2004 sectional championship squad and was standing right next to me at the meeting.

“Yeah, that was me,” Vann said about the educational moment during which Wells said they were pulled over by a police officer because Vann was having trouble with driving a stick shift. “When Coach Wells came to La Porte, I wasn’t going to play. But he took me aside and convinced me. We had a mutual respect for each other. Tom is like my father. Him and his wife (Laura) are godparents to one of my twin daughters (Paige and Skylar).”

Vann added another example of their mutual respect. In his junior year, the team voted to wear suit coats to school the day of a game, but Vann refused. Wells took him aside before the game and told Vann that the team voted to do it, so he had to sit the first two quarters.

“I took my punishment … Coach was right,” Vann said.

As Ed Gilliland implied and Commers said, that’s not the way entitled kids roll nowadays.

“This is a typical millennial answer for if little Johnny doesn’t get his way, mommy and daddy will take care of it,” said Marvin Jurjevic, a longtime official and father of a former La Porte basketball player. “I know these people and I like these people, but I’m extremely disappointed in them.”

Some blame Superintendent Mark Francesconi for the decision, but Wells defended him.

“I’m not mad at him,” he said. “He’s been put in a very tough spot. He has the authority (to recommend renewal), but it would be a very tough stand.”

Sure would, especially since the board approved Francesconi's own renewal with a $3,000 raise. But with conflicts of interest on the board leading to ethics being tossed out the window, it would have been refreshing for the superintendent to stand up and do the right thing.

Reach sports editor Steve T. Gorches at sgorches@thenewsdispatch.com or (219) 214-4206. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTGorches.

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