Schools – Coaches = Lawsuit

Hanson Field, the home of the Western Illinois Leathernecks.

College coaches, for what’s it worth, may consider the 2009-2010 sports calendar (August ’09-July ’10) to be a tough one.  In college hoops, Penn, DePaul, and Army, to name a few dumped their coaches in mid-season.  In football, we know all too well about Mark Mangino, Jim Leavitt, Mike Leach, Pete Carroll, and Lane Kiffin.

In the cases of Mangino, Leavitt, and Leach, all three were accused of mistreatment of players.  The respective schools didn’t waste time to relive them of their head coaching duties.  An argument can be made that schools are drawing a line in how coaches handle their players.

But what happens when a school let a coach go for reasons that are unclear, and in certain cases, unwarranted?

It’s funny how national outlets like ESPN seems to miss or ignore stories like the one today, which hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity.

Former WIU coach Don Patterson. He served as assistant coach under Hayden Fry at Iowa, and is the winningest coach in WIU history.

Consider the case of Don Patterson.  Patterson was the head coach of Division I-AA Western Illinois University.  They play in the Missouri Valley Football Conference with UNI.  In September 2008, Patterson was diagnosed with tonsillar cancer.  He took a leave of absence for the final seven games to receive chemotherapy and later was deemed healthy to return coaching the Leathernecks.

Several games into the 2009 season, Patterson resigned as head coach, citing continuing health problems relating to his cancer.  It appeared to be a cut-and-dry story.

It’s not.

WIU Athletic Director Tim Van Alstine called Patterson into his office for a meeting with him and another administrator.  Van Alstine informed Patterson to resign that afternoon.  Van Alstine pointed out that the team has doubts whether or not Patterson was capable enough to continue coaching with respects to his health.  Patterson rebutted and informed his boss that he has been cancer-free for a little over a year.  It was public knowledge on campus and to Van Alstine that Patterson was cleared to resume his duties from the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics.

Patterson excused himself and called a team captain meeting to verify if what the A.D.’s claim was true.  The captains told Patterson that it was not true and they were never approached by assistant coach Mark Hendrickson (currently the head coach) or by A.D. Van Alstine.  Patterson returned to Van Alstine and said he would not resign.

Before Patterson could stop it, a press release was sent out with the news that he had “resigned.”

Patterson earlier this month has begun the process of suing Western Illinois for forcing him out without cause.

Eddie Sutton built and maintained great programs like Creighton, Kentucky, and Oklahoma State. He was named "interim" coach at USF in 2008.

This isn’t the first time a school has resorted to “questionable” means and tactics to remove a coach.  The University of San Francisco placed men’s basketball coach Jesse Evans on “medical leave” and then replaced him with former legendary Oklahoma State and Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton.  The accusation was that the athletic director was trying to make a big splash by hiring a “big-name coach” to help boost interest in the program.  Evans has sued the school for forcing him out.  There has been no word if the suit has taken place or will take place soon.

On the heels of the impending civil suit that former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach will bring against his former employer, coaches are now doing more than defending themselves in the court of public opinion.  They are defending themselves in the courtroom and fighting for their reputations.  I’m not here to say that “all” coaches are being wronged.  Some of them, like former Baylor hoops coach Dave Bliss, is the greatest example of unethical choices and behavior among college coaches in all sports.

I do believe in due process, as transcribed by law.  There is a sense that Mike Leach wasn’t given the chance to present his own side of the Adam James story to Texas Tech administration.  Tech expected and demanded that Leach signed an apology to James and his family (which includes ESPN football commentator Craig James).  When Leach balked, he was fired.

Don Patterson, all things considered, was a class act on and off the field.  WIU reached #1 ranking status in the polls during his 10 years at the helm in Macomb, Illinois.  Western has been a consistent winner in the MVFC and Division I-AA.

The question is how did athletic director Tim Van Alstine come to the conclusion that a football team had lost confidence in a coach who had endured surgery and chemotherapy in order to return and coach a team?  Did Van Alstine feel that he needed to “make a big splash” or is there something broken in the administration as some sources and critics are alluding to?

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard out here to be a coach today given that you have to handle student-athletes, parents, boosters, fans, and administrators breathing down the back of your neck if a win wasn’t good enough or losing a close game.

Chuck Amato, former North Carolina St. coach and long-time Florida St. assistant got a little help from popular Raleigh News and Observer cartoonist Grey Blackwell on this subject.  Enjoy!

“Hate the game, don’t hate the ‘playa’!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s