Whitmer basketball coach Bruce Smith faces accusations of bias

8/1/2010
BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Whitmer standouts Nigel Hayes, left, and Kenny Hayes told their parents, Talaya and Al Davis, of Coach Bruce Smith's alleged behavior after Mrs. Davis met with other parents who made accusations against the coach.
Whitmer standouts Nigel Hayes, left, and Kenny Hayes told their parents, Talaya and Al Davis, of Coach Bruce Smith's alleged behavior after Mrs. Davis met with other parents who made accusations against the coach.
Former player Kevin Koger (No. 32 in this 2008 photo) says, 'I have the utmost respect for Coach Smith ... I really don't understand where all this is coming from.'
Former player Kevin Koger (No. 32 in this 2008 photo) says, 'I have the utmost respect for Coach Smith ... I really don't understand where all this is coming from.'

Washington Local Schools officials and the local NAACP are investigating allegations from some players and parents that Whitmer High basketball Coach Bruce Smith has made racially insensitive remarks to players and has been verbally abusive.

According to the complaints and interviews, the coach has referred to some black players as "monkeys" and racially segregated the team on several occasions for practice drills, telling multiracial students they'd have to choose which side to play on.

"When we'd run, he'd split up the black and white kids, and he'd make the biracial kids decide which team to be on. He'd make us choose," said Chris Wormley, a junior whose mother is white and father is black. "During two or three practices, he'd say, 'Blacks over here and whites over there.' I just thought it was kind of stupid. I went to the black side. I didn't really think about it at the time. He's a smart guy in basketball, but the things he says and does aren't right."

Mr. Smith told The Blade on Thursday that he's not a "racist" and had been advised not to comment further.

Saturday night, he said he "categorically" denied various accusations from players and parents and said he never made racially charged remarks.

He called the complaints by some parents and the resulting media coverage "character assassination," and a "witch hunt," and referred to the parents as "a lynch mob."

"I know the parents who are trying to stab me in the back and I have not taken any action against their kids," Coach Smith added.

In a June 7 letter to his boss, he admitted he used the word "monkeys" once to refer to his players, but said it wasn't racial in nature.

He also admitted in the letter to dividing the team by race for basketball drills.

He told The Blade Saturday night that he did this three times at the most over a four-month season that included more than 100 practices. He said he never asked any multiracial player to choose sides. Had he known any player was "sensitive" to the drills, he said, "I would have immediately remedied that situation."

Several former players and students, both black and white, have lined up to defend the coach, saying they've never heard such remarks from him and do not believe the allegations. Some said Mr. Smith, as a coach and math teacher over several decades, has been a father figure to them and an important role model.

The local NAACP says it's investigating the allegations. At least five families submitted written complaints to the civil rights organization in early May.

Williann Moore, president of the Toledo branch of the NAACP, said the parents had filed complaints, but she would not release the documents. She referred The Blade to the parents.

Washington Local Schools Superintendent Patrick Hickey and his human resources director said the district fielded complaints about the coach in early June and conducted its own investigation.

In the June 7 letter to his boss, Mr. Smith described a single incident when he called his players "monkeys," simply because one of them was hanging on the rim, he said.

In the letter, Mr. Smith admits separating players by various categories, including by race, for "free-throw shooting challenges at the end of practice."

He wrote: "In the past they have been split by race and it has never been a problem. In fact, we have found that it has been fun for the players - never has it been biased or unfair or demeaning in any way."

Mr. Smith received a verbal reprimand and was told not to separate the players by race, said Nancy Brenton, director of human resources for Washington Local Schools.

"That was a concern to me and others, and he was told not to do it," she said.

Mr. Hickey, whose son Luke plays on the team, said some of the allegations of racial remarks relayed by The Blade last week were new to him: "You're telling me stuff that's brand-new to me. … We can't investigate something we don't know about."

He said parents should come to his office and tell him about all the issues. He said the complaints investigated in early June came through a third party.

Some parents also allege inappropriate behavior and comments during practices and games - using four-letter words and crudely inappropriate metaphors to drive home points, several players and parents said.

"He would use vulgar language and inappropriate comments, like talking about protecting your mother's virtue in the paint [3-second lane]," said Jacob Gorney, a white player on the team who said he also has witnessed the racial remarks and segregated drills.

In 2000, the coach, who is known for animated coaching on the sidelines and having a temper, received a warning letter from then-Whitmer Principal Casey Reason for screaming a profanity and extending his middle finger at the opposing team's fans after a December, 1999, game at Fremont Ross High School. The commissioner of the Great Lakes League, of which Whitmer was a member at the time, reported the incident to school officials.

"What concerns me the most is the fact that at least a portion of your response to these fans occurred in the presence of one of your players," Mr. Reason wrote in a warning letter that was placed in Mr. Smith's personnel file. "As successful as you have been as a coach throughout the years, you are well aware of your impact as a role model."

Mr. Smith returned a call to The Blade on Thursday and said he was "advised" not to discuss the allegations from parents. He declined to say who was advising him or to answer any questions about the parents' - and players' - allegations.

In a second phone call to The Blade, he said: "The only comment I have, other than this morning's no comment, is that I am not a racist, period, that's all I can tell you."

Several players said they fully supported the coach and didn't believe any of the allegations.

Kevin Koger, a black athlete and multisport Whitmer star, said when he played on the team, black and white players intentionally separated themselves by race on occasion for competition and fun.

"I have the utmost respect for Coach Smith. I played with his son. He opened his doors to all of us," Mr. Koger said.

"We split the black and white players up. We did it to ourselves. We put ourselves in that category. There was nothing ever derogatory, racial, or crude. I really don't understand where all this is coming from."

Mr. Koger, a 2008 Whitmer graduate, plays tight end for the University of Michigan football team.

Some people close to the program and who know the coach say the allegations are overblown gripes about Mr. Smith's aggressive coaching style. They also say some parents are upset about the nonrenewal of the contract of a popular assistant coach. They also point to traditional tension in high-level high school programs between coaches and parents over playing time and their children's futures in college sports.

The controversy has mushroomed against the backdrop of a changing school district that has increased its minority student population over the years as West Toledo becomes more diverse.

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

As with many high school sports teams, there are parents who become involved, some would say too involved, with their children's sports teams. They watch practices and coaches closely and report their concerns to school administrators.

Talaya Davis is one of those parents. She has spearheaded the push to investigate Mr. Smith. And she and her husband, Albert Davis, confronted an assistant coach at a gas station after a game last season to complain about coaching. The assistant coach reported the incident to school officials.

Mrs. Davis' sons, Nigel and Kenny Hayes, are standouts on the team. Nigel, a 15-year-old who will be a sophomore, is one of the best basketball prospects in the city.

Kenny plays center and is on his way to Ohio State University to play football after his senior year.

Mrs. Davis and some other parents formed a group to talk about the program and the coach after the basketball season that ended March 5 with a loss to Rogers High. The Whitmer team finished 15-6 last year.

The program has excelled in recent years under Mr. Smith, making the state final four in 2008 and the City League playoffs last year.

After the season, about a dozen parents met at a West Toledo restaurant, said Janet Gorney, whose son Jacob is part of the basketball program.

"Coach Smith had been verbally abusive to the boys over the season, and we were just tired of that," Mrs. Gorney said.

The racial allegations came out during the meeting attended by the Davises, Julie Wormley, Dawn Hartman, Karen Ricica, Deb Barnes, Jamie Miranda, Tanya King, and other parents.

"We started asking them questions," Mrs. Gorney recalled. "Why didn't our kids tell us? I went home and asked our child."

Her son confirmed some of the alleged comments as did other students. The Blade later interviewed several players and parents.

Ms. King said she went home and asked her son, who is black, if any of the accusations had merit. He said that some of the basketball drills had been segregated and that the coach had made some inappropriate racial remarks over the season, she said.

"He was worried how this was going to affect him," she said, adding that none of the racial comments involved her son, who will be a junior.

Kenny Jones, father of incoming senior Dareon Jones, who is black, also said he asked his son about the allegations.

"I've basically found out about these things over the summer. I asked my son about the comments and the allegations the other kids were making, and he said they were true," said Mr. Jones. "It was a little on the racist side, some of the things that he has reported to me."

Mr. Jones said he's assessing whether to keep his son at Whitmer.

Starting center Kenny Hayes, 18, who is the son of Mrs. Davis and will be a senior, said the coach has made some racial remarks over time and that he has "gotten used to it."

When he was a freshman at a practice, a white player finished first during a running drill and the coach pointed out that a white player shouldn't have been faster than a black player, he said.

"I thought, What? I was just a freshman.'"

He also described an incident last season: "I was jumping and grabbing the rim, and he told me to stop being like Curious George, 'Stop hanging on the rim, Curious George,' he said. Then he asked me if I wanted any bananas," Mr. Hayes said. "I really don't feel anything because I've gotten used to it. He says toward us black players, 'Put your hands up on defense like the cops are behind you.'•"

Mr. Hayes said he hopes the coach would "stop all the racial stuff, coach us, teach us how to play defense."

Coach Smith Saturday night denied making the remarks attributed to him by Kenny Hayes. "That's categorically not true. I never said anything like that."

The player, contacted by The Blade Saturday night, stood by his statement, saying the comments were made in front of other players.

After the Northview basketball game in January, Kenny Hayes said the coach commented on a dunk and how several players followed up for a possible rebound but ended up hanging from the rim.

"I have never seen so many brothers hang on the rim," he told his mother, Talaya Davis, according to her complaint to the NAACP.

In mid-March, there were e-mail exchanges between Ms. Davis and Whitmer Athletic Director Tom Snook and the coach.

Mr. Snook and the coach offered to meet with parents to discuss their unspecified concerns, but only in individual sessions and not in a "town hall-style" format.

Mrs. Davis sent a letter dated April 13 to Steve Zuber, the school board president, and attached a separate sheet with more than 20 signatures from parents.

The signatures included 10 parents with children in the basketball program. It didn't list any specific allegations but asked for a meeting with school officials "to discuss the future of the boys basketball program."

It stressed confidentiality for those who signed their names for fear of reprisals from coaches and school administrators against their children.

Mrs. Davis left her phone number as the contact number on the document.

Mr. Zuber replied with a certified letter to Mrs. Davis saying the group could air their grievances at the April 21 school board meeting, but he cautioned the meeting would be public and their names would get out.

He also said in the letter that he and Mr. Hickey would meet privately with the group of parents to ensure confidentiality. They never met, and the parents didn't show at the school board meeting.

In early May, five families filed grievances with the NAACP.

School board member Thomas Ilstrup also received several phone calls from anonymous parents about allegations of racial comments toward some of the players, Mr. Hickey said in a memo to school board members.

He passed the information on to Mr. Snook, he said.

Mr. Hickey said students were interviewed, but they didn't confirm the allegations. The matter was dropped because the parents were anonymous and could not be called back, he said in a memo to school board members last week.

When asked if he ever discussed the allegations with his son, Mr. Hickey said: "As part of any investigation, we would talk to players, parents, and anyone associated with the program."

Mr. Ilstrup also met with a group of parents on May 18 in a conference room at the Washington branch of the public library.

He met with the Davises, Mrs. Gorney, Tanya Ridley, and Mrs. Hartman. The parents outlined their specified allegations against the coach, including some involving racial remarks, and then waited for the school to respond.

On June 2, Mr. Hickey received a call from a broadcast news reporter asking about the team and some of the allegations from parents, according to an e-mail Mr. Hickey sent to school board members last week.

Mr. Hickey, who said he was unaware of the allegations at this point, asked Mr. Ilstrup to write down his recollection of the meeting with parents at the library.

Based on Mr. Ilstrup's memo, there was an investigation led by several administrators. Mr. Hickey said administrators talked to parents who regularly attended practices and to students and players.

The investigation prompted the June 7 letter from the basketball coach to Mr. Snook, according to school records.

The coach said he referred to a player once as a "monkey," but only because, "out of the corner of my eye I noticed a player was swinging from the rim with his arms and legs flailing. I asked if we could stop acting like monkeys and start practice on a positive note," he wrote in the letter.

"I didn't even pay any attention to who the player was until after I was done speaking so to conclude that it was racially motivated is incorrect. I believe my job performance at Whitmer High School the last 19 years should be enough to refute these allegations."

"There was never any racial intent, whatsoever," Mr. Smith said. "How they take it I'm not responsible for."

Contact Christopher D.

Kirkpatrick at:

ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.