Tuesday night, the Park County School District No. 1 board of trustees approved the recommendation of superintendent Kevin Mitchell to terminate the basketball coaching contract of Mike Heny. The move comes months after the Panthers made an appearance in the state championship game, after two of the three most prolific scorers in Panther basketball history had graduated under his tenure and after he built the program up from a 3-23 beginning.
Suffice to say, those aren’t the usual circumstances in which someone gets shown the door.
Before I go any further, full disclosure — not only am I the sports editor for this publication, but for the past two academic years I have also had the privilege of serving as a coach for Powell High School. It is my hope to have the chance to continue in that capacity for a number of years, and because of that the current situation gets my attention on multiple career levels.
It is natural at times like this to stop and ask the question why. Unfortunately, that’s a question that will never fully get answered. The district is legally prevented from discussing personnel issues.
So, for those hoping for an answer to the question ‘why?’ I have bad news. We’re unlikely to ever know the answer to that question.
Instead, it might behoove us to focus on a question that we can discuss and answer — what now?
Heny noted in an email to the newspaper that the chain of events leading to Tuesday’s decision originated because a “difference in philosophy has arisen.” Personnel issues might be off limits for conversation, but matters of district philosophy not only can, but should, be prominently and vigorously discussed.
The district absolutely has the right to take the basketball program in a different direction. The public, however, has the absolute right to ask where that direction leads and to question why that direction is preferred over the one we’ve been traveling in. Not only that, but since the board exists to represent the public, they have a right to expect that question to be answered.
At some point, someone is going to have to step onto the sideline of the Powell High School gymnasium as its next head boys’ basketball coach. That person will need to know what’s expected of him/her. If it isn’t success in the win-loss column, if it isn’t providing student-athletes the opportunity to have at least a portion of their college education financed through their skill on a basketball court, then what is it that the district is asking for from this position?
That’s a question that can be answered without reference to specific personnel. It’s a question that anyone serious about coaching will want answered. Any employee is going to be concerned with what it takes to keep their higher-ups happy.
Coaching is not an area one gets into with the expectation of career stability. Most of us are here because we enjoy sharing our personal area of expertise with a younger generation. We know it’s a fickle business. In 2004, I coached an international champion, only to learn weeks later the program was being axed as a cost-saving measure to the university.
It took seven years, a determined number of former students and an inquiring member of the PHS coaching community to coax me out of self-imposed retirement after that lightning bolt.
Decisions like this don’t just take their toll on the coach, though. They also linger like a dark cloud over a program if not handled correctly.
A decade ago, the University of Nebraska fired then-head football coach Frank Solich, despite the fact he had won 58 of his 77 games at the school and having played for the national championship less than two years prior to his dismissal.
The sports world was aghast. Many questioned who in their right mind would want to take the position given Solich’s treatment. It was no surprise when the ensuing search for a replacement dragged on and one candidate after another declined the position.
It can be argued that Nebraska football has yet to return to the level it was at during Solich’s last season at the helm. Hopefully student-athletes and fans of Panther basketball will not be saying the same thing a decade from now.
We don’t need to know why. We just need to know where we’re going now.