Paul Doherty is a shell of himself. His voice is hoarse, his emotions raw.
He trudged to Whitney High School on Monday morning from a nearby house he recently purchased, bearing half of his campus title and a great deal less of his spirit. Doherty is a physical education instructor at the Placer County school but is no longer the head football coach, which pains him and the players he still calls his own.
Because Whitney football has been cited for its fifth CIF infraction of contact/practice rules in 2 1/2 years, the Sac-Joaquin Section office delivered a swift ruling. The Wildcats are not eligible for the playoffs this season. The section had no influence on Doherty’s status as coach. That was up to Whitney principal Justin Cutts, who made a change that has rocked a campus and community.
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It’s a double-whammy blow to a program that anticipated a section championship run. The violations appear minor on the surface – using hand-held pads for instructional drills during a “dead period” for example – but the section deemed that it was the totality of the infractions that led to this decision. The latest occurred with the football program on probation. Cutts said asking for Doherty’s resignation was difficult but that it was “the right thing to do,” though scores of player parents don’t agree.
This saga is not to be confused with the Franklin of Stockton football scandal from last decade with the blatant import of out-of-country transfers, nor was there any hazing of players that sullied the Napa program in recent years.
And none of this suggests that Doherty is not a good coach. He is a terrific coach, one who regrets not adhering or fully recognizing simple rules posted on the section site and long discussed in the coaching community. I have observed Doherty work his magic, first at Sacramento High where his influence helped keep students eligible and some off the streets, and at Whitney, where he energized the Wildcats since arriving before the 2015 season. Doherty blames himself here though he badly wants his football gig back, adding, “I’m crushed.”
Section commissioner Mike Garrison is not the bearer of bad news here. He is the enforcer of the rules. He met with Whitney administrators Friday. On Saturday, Cutts and athletic director Jason Feuerbach accepted the coaching resignations of Doherty and defensive coordinator Mark Rubalcaba. They would have been terminated by Cutts otherwise. Assistant coach Jesse Armas is now the interim coach.
On Sunday night, parents met with Cutts on campus to share concerns. The consensus was they want their coach back. The playoff ban they can begrudgingly accept. Players marched in, united as one. They wore game jerseys, the season opener just days away, their coaching leader holed up at home. The athletes also pleaded for the administration to reinstate their coach, and they went to social media with #BringBackDoherty.
“It’s really hard,” Doherty said Monday. “I love it here. These people have been great to me. Cutts has been good to me. Feuerbach has been good to me. It’s supposed to be our year. It’s a great group of kids. I love them. I wanted to be the coach here for 25 years.
“I can’t believe I lost my job. I don’t blame anyone but myself. We used bags on the wrong days, a drill. Trust me, I own it. I didn’t know the rule. I want to fix it.”
Doherty paused, then continued, “Jason Cutts is made out to be the bad guy here. Had I done my job better, this wouldn’t have happened, but I don’t think it was worth losing my job for.”
The section learned of Whitney’s latest infraction from cellphone images, and this is what high school sports have become now. Someone – a disgruntled parent, a rival coach, someone within the Whitney circle? – forwarded a July dead-period drill that included bags to the section office, and the section acted.
“I feel like someone is after us, taking pictures, snooping around,” Doherty said. “If it’s really about the kids, then come to us first.”
Said Jeremy Kraft, father of two-time Bee All-Metro receiver Justin Kraft, “It was a setup to get (Doherty) out. There’s a mole here. Why? I don’t know. I’m so sad for my son and his teammates.”
“Our football field is in a fish bowl,” Cutts said. “We’re not hiding anything. People can see what we’re doing. I’m not mad that someone filmed us. We shouldn’t be doing those drills in the first place. There’s no gray area. We made mistakes and we have to deal with it.”
Cutts recognizes that timing is terrible. The academic year just started. One of the section’s top football programs – and one of its tops coaches – has been floored.
“It would be a lot easier if I didn’t like Paul Doherty, but I do like him, and he’s handled this first class,” Cutts said. “It’s tough. It sucks. It’s going to be a distraction and it’ll be chaos. I feel bad for the kids and for Paul. But this is the right thing to do. There is no other option. It’s hard to argue the infractions. Rules are rules. We can’t argue that it happened. We’ll appeal and see what happens.”
Garrison doesn’t relish in any of this. He has been a high school teacher, coach and administrator before becoming section commissioner. He appreciates the value of athletics and its broad reach. An appeals decision could occur in the next month.
“First of all, it’s the last thing we ever want to do because kids are affected,” Garrison said of a playoff ban. “We feel terrible. But we were backed into a corner when they continued to break the same rules. The infraction itself in isolation is minor, but the totality of it over two years is not minor.”
The Bee’s prep football top 20
(With last year’s record)
1. Folsom 12-2
2. Jesuit 9-4
3. Granite Bay 4-7
4. Oak Ridge 10-3
5. Del Oro 13-3
6. Elk Grove 11-2
7. Inderkum 11-3
8. Grant 8-4
9. Rocklin 4-6
10. Capital Christian 11-3
11. Franklin 5-5
12. Sheldon 8-4
13. Sacramento 10-2
14. Antelope 12-1
15. Cosumnes Oaks 8-4
16. Christian Brothers 11-3
17. Whitney 6-5
18. Del Campo 6-6
19. Placer 7-6
20. Vista del Lago 8-4
Bubble teams: Monterey Trail (5-6), Roseville (9-2), Cordova (7-4), Burbank (7-5), Davis (5-6), Yuba City (8-4), Colfax (9-4), Woodcreek (4-6), El Dorado (8-3), Center (8-4), Marysville (9-3), Bear River (3-7), Bradshaw Christian (12-1), Liberty Ranch (8-3), River City (6-5).
All games kickoff between 7-7:30 p.m., unless noted:
Union Mine at Amador
Nevada Union at Antelope
Mesa Verde at Argonaut
Kennedy at Bradshaw Christian
Casa Roble at Bella Vista
Oakmont at El Camino
Inderkum at Elk Grove
Colfax at Golden Sierra
Jesuit at Granite Bay
Del Campo at Merced
Vista del Lago at Oak Ridge
Natomas at Pioneer
Pleasant Grove at Placer
Lincoln at Ponderosa
Center at Rio Linda
Liberty Ranch at River City
Cosumnes Oaks at River Valley
Grant at Rocklin
Woodcreek at Sheldon
Whitney at Davis
Orland at Bear River
Clovis at Burbank
Service at Capital Christian
Cathedral at Del Oro
Coeur d’Alene at Folsom
Portola at Foresthill
Las Plumas at Marysville
Irvington at Lindhurst
Woodland Christian at Maxwell
Wooster at Rosemont
Monterey Trail at Wilcox
Pleasant Valley at Yuba City
Sacramento vs. Mitty at Foothill College
Cordova vs. Rio Americano at Del Campo
Roseville vs. Chico at Pleasant Valley
Encina vs. Valley at Cosumnes River College
Franklin vs. McNair at Cosumnes Oaks
Foothill vs. Mira Loma at El Camino, 1 p.m.