Coach spins tough exit into 'learning tool'
STANFORD – It was an appropriate end to an eighth-grade championship basketball game that was tight all the way through two overtimes.
A Franklin Middle School player fouled, a Morton Junior High School player made two free throws to move ahead two points and, with two seconds on the clock, Franklin player Verdell Jones III pulled off a perfect Hail Mary shot, hurling the ball 80 feet into the basket to clinch the championship.
That basket in the Olympia High School gym marked the explosive end of Todd Anderson's career as the team's coach.
Superintendent Arthur Culver sat in the stands, cheering the team on.
Stories about Culver's clash with Anderson have swept through the community since a seventh-grade playoff game Feb. 4 when Anderson and Culver's son, a player on that team, had a confrontation. Anderson was suspended first thing the next day, then reinstated Feb. 7 for the rest of the season when he agreed to resign at the end of it.
Anderson said his initial reaction to his firing was depression.
"I was very depressed," he said in an interview Thursday just before he and his team left for the title game. "It was very, very hard for me to deal with the kids. And then to go to an (eighth-grade) regional championship game as a spectator that Thursday night was very hard."
Anderson hadn't counted on the school's and the community's backlash to that series of events, however. He said the protests at the school, at a school board meeting, on talk shows and other media attention "put everyone in a tough situation" because they couldn't speak out without worrying about their jobs or violating confidentiality rules.
"I knew the firefighters would be there for me because they're a tight group, a family," said Anderson, who is a full-time firefighter. "What was unexpected was the reaction of the public. I'm at the grocery store, and people say, 'Are you the coach?' It showed me what a wonderful community this is. The interest and the kind words helped me get through it.
"I'm blessed, we're still playing and let the chips fall where they may," he said. "If this is my last game, what a way to go."
At an hourlong assembly Friday at the school to celebrate the victory, Anderson said the victory "means everything to me." He introduced his 13 players, who all wore crowns, and thanked everyone who made the success possible, including members of the administration, several of whom, including Culver, quietly stood in the back of the gym watching the celebration.
Anderson sees at least one positive outcome from the controversy: It called public attention to middle school basketball.
"I've been trying for years to get more people interested in it," Anderson said. "The Lord works in mysterious ways."
Parent Larry Jackson, whose son plays basketball at Edison, said his family follows Franklin basketball because family friends play ball there.
"It's all about basketball at Franklin this time of year," he said.
"It was awesome," said Willie Johnson, whose son, Bryson, is one of those seventh-grade team members, of the conclusion of the season.
"My son's played basketball since he was very young. He played on Coach Anderson's summer team last year. He's had a very positive experience. These kids have a lot of heart."
Darcie Fox's 12-year-old son, Jordan, played this year on Anderson's seventh-grade team.
"It will be hard without Todd next year," Fox said. "He's like a father to the kids. My son's experience has been excellent. He thinks his coach is a great guy."
Anderson coached for six years at Franklin.
"It was hard for me to resign, but it was the best decision for the kids," he said. "I wish the seventh-grade season hadn't ended with a loss. I thought they were good enough to win. But you learn a lot from both winning and losing."
Anderson also tried to turn the coaching uproar into a lesson for his team. The day the news of his dismissal broke, he warned his players that none of them, including Culver's son, was to blame for the
"He made a mistake and apologized," Anderson said. "I said, 'Let it drop. This is an adult thing.' I'm trying to make it a learning tool for the kids. They need to know there are certain rules you must follow. They learned situations aren't always black and white, that there are a lot of gray areas.
"They learned there's a correct way to approach things, and they learned there are certain times you need to stand up."
The disagreement with Culver focused on Anderson's use of physical force against the superintendent's son, who swore at him when he took him out of the game. Divergent stories about what happened have not been resolved.
Anderson has carefully defined his philosophy about middle school basketball.
"It should be a positive experience for everyone, although everyone's not going to play in every game," he said. "When you're in seventh grade, you're no longer playing park district basketball where everyone plays."
At a meeting at the beginning of the season, Anderson tells parents how things will work.
"It's my team, and I run it," he said. "I say I take the blame for losses, and the kids take the credit for wins, but there has to be a leader. I don't play politics, and I've never felt pressure from outside to play certain kids."
Anderson said he has still not ruled out applying for the Franklin job next year, although current politics make that seem unlikely. But he would like to move up to coach at the high school level. And he'll continue to work at summer camps, likely with many of the kids who will still be playing at Franklin next year.
"It will be sad not to be around on a regular basis to keep these kids straight," he said. "They fought through a lot of adversity and had success."
Superintendent fired son's coach before – in Texas
LONGVIEW, Texas – Nine months into his tenure as superintendent of Longview Independent School District, Arthur Culver fired two Longview High School head coaches, one just as his season was beginning.
That coach, Marvin Graham, was Culver's son's basketball coach at the time he was dismissed in November 1999, effective immediately. The other, Robert Bero, was dismissed the same day from his job as head football coach. Both continued to teach at the school until the end of the year.
A third man in the athletic department, the school's athletic director Doug Cox, also left his job, but Culver said he resigned in protest.
"Cox resigned, and he did that on his own because he wasn't supportive of the firing of Robert Bero," Culver said Wednesday.
Graham, now a girls basketball coach and teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas, said he had an encounter with Culver's son, Arthur Culver Jr., the weekend before he was fired.
"We were playing the crosstown team," Graham said. "His son came out, and I tried to talk to him, and he just walked by me, ignored me. It was very disrespectful. So I didn't play him the rest of the game. Monday morning, that was it."
Bero, who is now a teacher and coach at Spring Hill High School at Longview, and Graham were given the same reason for their firing as coaches, but not as teachers.
"The only thing I was told, and I'd worked at the school for 26 years, was that they wanted to go in a different direction," Bero said. "There was no explanation to either of us about why."
Bero's record in his 12 years as head coach was 93-38 and three ties. He led his team to the Class 5A Division 1 Texas Bowl state championship in 1997.
Graham, in his fourth year as head basketball coach, had won 51 games with one district title and two playoff appearances.
Culver said his action was nothing personal.
"It was nothing they did," he said. "Based on everything I had to consider, those programs had to go in different directions. Sometimes it's not just about winning; it's about are you taking those kids as far as they can go."
Culver started as superintendent of the Longview district in March 1999. Bero said "word was floating around that I was out" while the football season was in full swing, so he asked to have a meeting with Culver when the season was over.
"I talked about things that needed to be done, concerns I had, and I also wanted to know my status," Bero said. "It was a top district with a top football program, and the team was expected to win. I said what was going to be done should be done quickly for the sake of the kids."
After he was fired, Bero finished out the year at Longview then moved to the Spring Hill district.
Graham said Culver was a vigilant fan who kept close track of playing time.
"I'd had a meeting with him the week before about playing time for his son," Graham said. "Both the point guards were sophomores, and he thought both should get equal playing time. He attended every game. I was more familiar with the other point guard because he'd been here, and the Culver boy was new."
Culver said his decision to fire Graham as coach was based on his observations.
"With Graham, I had watched the team's early games and a lot of practices," Culver said. "I looked at the program and how it had advanced, and it was clear to me that I was going to make a change in coaches. It had nothing to do with any incidents. It was a judgment call based on data, leadership, practices and early games."
Culver's son now plays on the Rice University basketball team.
After Graham finished out the school year, he left the district, too. He said he thought Culver could have handled the situation more diplomatically.
"He didn't say anything to me," Graham said. "Even the morning I was reassigned, he was there, but he never said a word.
"I can't play those games."
You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.