Sunday, July 18, 1999

Little Miami asks, is winning everything?


Residents rally around fired coach

BY MIRIAM SMITH
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[martin]
Tim Martin
(Thomas E. Witte photo)
| ZOOM
        MORROW — There are no strip malls, chain restaurants or multiplex theaters here.

        But there is high school football.

        Little Miami football and bas ketball games are the top social draw of the week, and barbershops and restaurants are abuzz with weekly highlights.

        “I think we're very stereotypical rural Ohio. We have ourselves, our neighbors and our schools,” said Russ Alford of Maineville. “Our schools are our largest employer and it is the social center of where we live out here.”

        But for the past few weeks, some residents in the Little Miami district — including Butlerville and Maineville — have been in an uproar over the board of education's decision not to renew the contract of long-time varsity football coach Tim Martin.

        It's caused a still-simmering debate over what the priorities should be in high school sports, in a district also confronting the pressures of explosive growth.

        The football team finished 0-10 last year, the same year that cross-county Fort Ancient Valley Conference rival Lebanon took the state championship. Little Miami has the smallest enrollment in the conference.

        But Mr. Martin's backers, about 150 of whom packed a board meeting last month to protest his ouster, point out that he led the

        1992 team to a conference championship and to the state playoffs.

        The decision spurred seven football coaches from the 7th grade up to quit. Three petitions have been circulated about the coach, and coaches and teachers submitted letters to the board on Mr. Martin's behalf.

        “This was the most emotional issue this district has dealt with in the 14 years I've been in this district,” said Mr. Alford, a former board member.

Is winning everything?
        In a small community, this is high drama.

        “The board wants a football season obviously with no losses regardless of the message they're sending young people: that the only thing that matters is winning,” Mr. Alford said.

        Vince Lombardi's mantra that winning is “the only thing” shouldn't trickle down into high school athletics, said Don Davies of the Institute for Responsive Education at Northeastern University in Boston, which promotes family and community participation in children's education.

        “Some places obviously go overboard on the winning side. It's a very common problem in lots of towns,” he said.

        Yet Board of Education President Debbie Holliday maintains the decision was made for good of the youngsters. She said the number of students joining the team has declined in recent years.

        “It's not easy to go through a decision like this,” she said.

        She and board Vice President Mike Dane — both of whom have sons playing on the team this year — and member Bobbie Grice voted not to renew the contract. Board member Joyce Sanker abstained and Gary Stringer voted in favor of keeping the coach. The administration recommended Mr. Martin's contract be renewed at the May 18 board meeting.

        Mrs. Grice said Mr. Martin is a fine teacher and girls' track coach: “We just needed a change in our football program.”

        Rocky Wagers is playing for the team this fall regardless of the coach. But the sophomore said he's sad to see Mr. Martin go.

        “He was a pretty good coach,” said Rocky, who played under Mr. Martin last season as a freshman.

        “He just put in a lot of his time and I don't think it was right what they did to him. He made sure everybody got home after games and stuff.”

        The dust has settled some since the district hired a new varsity coach, Eric Bauman, the former offensive line coach at perennial football powerhouse Cincinnati Moeller.

        Yet residents upset by the decision say Mr. Martin was more than just the varsity coach for eight years — he was a role model and educator who truly cared about the kids he coaches.

        They say he's the kind of leader who kept after kids about their grades and even drove across the country to see one former player graduate from college.

        Two petitions were circulated in his support; one backing the removal.

        Some say that nice guy aside, winning still counts and it was just time for a change.

        James Bishop of Morrow said it's simple: “Everybody likes a winning team.”

        “If you don't win, you don't keep your job in coaching, do you? If you don't win, you don't keep your job, no matter if you're good or not,” said Mr. Bishop, who has two children in the district.

        Bruce Cunningham, a senior on the team this fall, agrees with the change.

        “As a teacher, he's great. I don't feel his coaching ability is up there,” Mr. Cunningham said.

Changes all around
       
It's not just a new coach. Residents here also are dealing with the growth in this rural district nestled in green hills of the Little Miami River valley.

        A year from this fall, students will file into a new high school built to help ease crowding in the district, which last fall had 2,538 students.

        Little Miami is facing the explosive housing buildup that Lakota, Mason and Boone County schools have seen the past 10 years.

        Thirty subdivisions have been approved for development in the district — with the potential for 8,408 houses. A recent study projected the district could almost double in the next 10 years, Little Miami Superintendent Michael Virelli has said.

        All this growth will someday help Little Miami on the gridiron. Unfortunately for Mr. Martin, that wasn't the case last year when the team had only 32 players to work with, because of injuries, he said.

        “For a sport like football, you need numbers to compete,” said Mr. Martin, who has taught at Little Miami for 22 years. “Maybe eight, 10 years down the road, our numbers will probably be similar to some of those schools we're competing against.”

        He isn't bitter and promises to support the football team this year. He will continue to coach track.

        Mr. Martin will also be thinking about players.

        “You just hope it doesn't pit player against player. They're not going to accept losing. That's the message they've sent,” he said.

"We have to move forward'
        Mr. Bauman is upbeat about the team and his future at Little Miami. Players have already begun conditioning for the season and he has met with their parents.

        “I have a lot of respect for what Tim Martin did as a coach and a person,” Mr. Bauman said. “From this point on, we have to move forward and forget about what happened in the past. And we've got to get together as a team and not let this be a distraction.”

        But like a good old fashioned small-town grudge, the board's decision is likely to linger in the minds of some residents.

        Linda Scott, a Hamilton Township resident whose son will be a senior on the team this year, says she will back the team. But Mr. Martin's non-renewal “devastated those of us who live in each town and village.”

        “Their (the board's) actions are unconscionable,” she said.

       



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