Hometown Report

Removal of longstanding football coaches a troubling trend

Elk Grove High School football coach Chris Nixon was relieved of his duties last week. Here Nixon looks on before a high school football game against the Jesuit Marauders on Oct. 9, 2015, in Elk Grove.
Elk Grove High School football coach Chris Nixon was relieved of his duties last week. Here Nixon looks on before a high school football game against the Jesuit Marauders on Oct. 9, 2015, in Elk Grove. jvillegas@sacbee.com

It happened to Norm Ryan earlier this month.

He was summoned to the principal’s office at Casa Roble High School, where he had coached football and taught U.S. history for 34 years.

Expecting to offer updates on the football team’s progress during its winter program, Ryan instead was dismissed as head coach, a position he held for 14 seasons. He was told the school was ready for a change.

And it happened to Chris Nixon last Friday, his coaching life turned upside down.

Elk Grove’s football coach for nine seasons, Nixon was ordered into the administrative offices to meet with representatives from Elk Grove Unified School District. At the meeting, Nixon was told of the district’s findings in a monthslong investigation into the construction of a team shed built next to the football field and given an option: resign as coach or face termination.

He quit.

This is a troubling trend. The one-year contracts generally signed by coaches, who implore their athletes to push and compete against tough opponents, give them little ammunition to fight such dismissals and make them easily disposable. The ripple effect, however, can be immense, with capable assistants often choosing to move on after the head coach is released, thus creating more uncertainty among the team and parents.

Ryan’s removal was based on the Rams’ on-field struggles in recent years.

After winning 10 or more games in 2006, 2007 and 2008 and 2011, Casa Roble won three games in each of the past two seasons. After the junior varsity went 9-0 last fall, some parents sought a change on the varsity. Ryan, who retired as a teacher last academic school year, wanted to coach one more season.

“After 34 years, this is what I get? ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the way out?’ ” Ryan said. “I turned in my badge and keys, and it was over. I hurt for our kids. They worked hard. I’m upset, angry, and it feels wrong.”

Casa Roble athletic director Aaron Marlette would not go into details about Ryan’s dismissal, but did offer a statement: “Casa Roble football will be moving in a new direction. Coach Ryan’s service is commended. We wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

Nixon’s exit was more complex. The EGUSD had been investigating for months the construction of a shed near the school’s stadium. The building project was hatched by Elk Grove’s parent-led booster club with the intent of erecting a dressing room for the team, which usually changed into its practice gear on the field’s sideline. The EGUSD concluded that mistakes were made in the process, and Nixon was a casualty of the fallout. Nixon says he is stunned and hurt, and dozens of Thundering Herd fans have used social media to vent. Meetings are scheduled this week at the school and district office, where parents and community members will ask for clarification.

“There were issues about a permit and soil samples, but those aren’t my areas of expertise,” said Nixon, whose teams have won at least 10 games for six consecutive seasons. “I don’t have a background in construction, and I don’t sign off on permits. I’m just a football coach. There were allegations that we were trying to build this shed behind the back of the administration, where everyone could see it.

“It’s become a living nightmare. Coaching is an at-will job. That’s the finality to it. I can’t go through hearings or anything (to save my job). I feel bad for the players.”

Coaches in the district not only feel bad for Nixon, but realize they too can lose their coaching jobs just as easily. Some say capable individuals won’t apply for coaching positions – such as the football opening at Elk Grove High – because of the district’s administration.

“The district is taking a reputation hit with this sort of thing, and they’ll find out that coaches won’t apply for jobs,” said one district coach who spoke on the condition anonymity in fear of retribution. “It’s become a clown show. Totally embarrassing. The area can’t afford to lose good coaches and people like this.”

District staff told Elk Grove athletic director Seth Boyle that he will have his AD title stripped at the end of the academic year in wake of the investigation. He was instructed to refer any questions to the district office.

EGUSD communications director Xanthi Pinkerton would not elaborate on the investigation but said, “Construction of the building was halted because the facility was not authorized ... not granted.” As for why Nixon was offered resignation or termination, Pinkerton allowed only, “Personnel matters are confidential.”

Disgruntled parents also can influence school districts. A faction of parents had criticized Nixon about play calling and playing time, which is common even for the most successful teams.

Coaches have been squeezed out before, and it’ll happen again. Nixon’s father, Marshall, was let go as coach after a long stint at Nevada Union in 1983. Chris played on his dad’s last team. Marshall Nixon, devastated, never coached again.

“He told us on the ride home from school,” Chris Nixon said. “I felt it. With this, I feel for my own kids. I get home to tell my (eighth-grade son) Sean, and he said, ‘I stay positive, Dad.’ He handled it better than I did.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD