Friday, May 25, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

High School

Time, championship season defuse concerns over coach

5 Whitmer families filed complaints with NAACP last year


Whitmer head coach Bruce Smith shouts instructions to the boys basketball team, which beat St. John's Jesuit for the City League title and finished the year with a 19-1 record.

Enlarge | Buy This Image

After the healing elixir of time plus a championship season, Whitmer High School basketball coach Bruce Smith's once-fractious team and unhappy parents gave the appearance this year of a unified squad bent on competitive glory.

It was a contrast from the spring and summer off-season. Twenty-six parents signed a petition in April requesting a "town hall-style" meeting to discuss the basketball program's "future."

Early the next month, five families filed detailed complaints with the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that accused the coach of racially insensitive and offensive remarks and of dividing players by race for segregated basketball drills, creating black-versus-white competitions.

After a Blade story about the accusations, several former players contacted the newspaper to say they considered Mr. Smith a father figure and important mentor.

About 100 people attended a rally on the Whitmer grounds to show support.

After the article, parents, the NAACP's WilliAnn Moore, and school officials met at the district's central administration building, where school officials assured parents and the civil rights organization the coach would be monitored this year and that he had been counseled about his choice of language.

"All the feedback we are hearing is that it's going great this year," said Nancy Brenton, human resources director for Washington Local Schools.

Whitmer recently beat St. John's Jesuit for its first City League championship, finishing the season with a 19-1 record. Its only loss was to St. John's earlier in the season.

Contacted on Thursday by The Blade, Coach Smith declined to comment for this story.

In an interview last year, he said he meant nothing racial by any of his comments, and he said he was not a racist.

The coach also denied a report he called a black player "Curious George" and that he asked the player if he wanted any bananas. Coach Smith said the parents were on a "witch hunt."

The coach said he didn't know the segregated drills had offended any players and would have stopped them immediately had he known. He said the players liked the drills and said it was fun for them. The coach denied a report from parents and several players that he told at least one multiracial student to pick a side -- black or white -- to join in those drills.

One player left the school over the controversy. And one of the complaining players, a senior who had played on the varsity and junior varsity squads during the 2009-2010 season, was cut from the team this year.

Ms. Moore, who was president of the NAACP's Toledo chapter at the time of the meeting last August, said Friday that she was planning a follow-up meeting with school officials to make sure they had corrected the situation.

She had not yet set up the meeting, she said.

Ms. Moore is now state district coordinator for the NAACP, but said she would see the local case to its conclusion.

The coach was verbally reprimanded for the segregated drills -- which he told The Blade happened three times at the most over an entire season of more than 100 practices.

Officials said last week they did not reprimand him for the alleged comments -- including referring to black players as monkeys after one dangled from a basketball rim. The comments were deemed to be in a gray area because they could be interpreted in several ways, Ms. Brenton said.

She said the coach was asked to consider his phraseology: "The whole thing is to think about how others might interpret what you're saying."

"There was nothing concrete, nothing verified where we could say whether or not they were racist comments or just interpretation by kids," she said in an interview last week. "[Superintendent] Patrick [Hickey] talked with some of the parents about how things were going this season, and they said they were satisfied."

The controversy occurred last summer against the backdrop of a changing school district as West Toledo has become more diverse over the years.

Last school year, the district was about 80 percent white, 9 percent black, and 5 percent Hispanic.

Four parents and four players detailed allegations in face-to-face interviews with The Blade last year.

The 2009-2010 basketball season was disappointing for some parents and players because of a first-round exit from the City League playoffs.

After that season, school officials heard parent complaints, through a third party, about the coach and the drills.

In response, the coach wrote in a June 7 letter to his boss that he divided players into black and white groups for some basketball drills and said that it was fun for the players, not demeaning.

He also said in the letter that he referred to players once collectively as "monkeys" simply because one of them was hanging on the rim and he wanted to start practice on a positive note.

After an investigation, the coach received a verbal reprimand in early June for the drills.

After the Blade's Aug. 1 story, about 100 people convened for a rally outside Whitmer to support the coach. Former Whitmer sports stars Kevin Koger and Jeremy Jones, who had moved on to play college athletics, showed up at the rally to support him.

Some people close to the program and who know the coach said the allegations were overblown gripes from parents about Mr. Smith's aggressive and vocal coaching style. They said some parents were upset that the contract of an assistant coach was not renewed.

They also blamed the tension in high-level high school programs between coaches and parents over playing time and their children's potential futures in college sports.

The school district, meanwhile, said it would investigate The Blade's report because it contained some fresh allegations.

That resulted in the meeting with parents and the NAACP, Ms. Brenton said.

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at: or 419-724-6134.

Click to comment

Quis autem vel eum iure reprehenderit qui in ea voluptate velit esse quam nihil molestiae consequatur, vel illum qui dolorem?

Temporibus autem quibusdam et aut officiis debitis aut rerum necessitatibus saepe eveniet.

Copyright © 2018 Toledo Blade

To Top

Fetching stories…