Chuck Boerger, a fixture on the Seward High School boys basketball team bench since 1991, was asked -- make that forced -- to relinquish his post as head coach at the conclusion of the 1999-2000 season.
Never mind that Boerger was treated as unprofessionally as it gets -- Seward Principal Malcolm Fleming informed Boerger that he would no longer be coaching the Seahawks just after the team finished its last game of the season at the District 3/3A tourney, and, ironically, shortly before Boerger was named the district coach of the year.
Certainly any coach, and especially one with 27 seasons of coaching under his belt, deserves to be treated with more respect than that. No matter how egregious the transgression, it should have been handled in a formal review, with both the principal and athletic director present.
There was plenty of time after the tournament to have that discussion, whether it be later that night or after the awards were presented and the other teams had gone home.
Or even more appropriately, it could have waited a week, giving both sides some time to put the season in the past before starting to focus on the future.
Instead, Boerger had the administrative equivalent of a full-court press thrown at him with the game already decided -- a classic show of poor sportsmanship.
Fleming chose to flex his administrative muscle and ax a coach who had represented the school well for nine seasons in the middle of what should have been a moment of reflection on a season well-played by both the coach and the team he was charged with leading.
At the root of Boerger's dismissal is what Fleming called a "philosophical difference" about the purpose of varsity athletics, a dispute that's been brewing for several seasons.
Fleming wants to see more participants included in varsity programs -- and there's certainly nothing wrong with that idea. Get kids involved in something good, and they're less likely to become involved in something bad.
Fleming said that he would like to see Boerger carry from 12 to 15 players on varsity -- note that the Alaska School Activities Association sets a roster limit of 12 for the state tournament -- and just as many on the junior varsity and C teams. That's anywhere from 36 to 45 kids on a basketball team, impressive involvement numbers indeed, particularly when the fact that the Seward football team started the season with 16 players is taken into consideration.
Unfortunately, that theory of participation just doesn't work out in varsity competition -- at least in basketball. At any given time, a team can put just five players on the floor. If every player on the team were to receive an equal amount of playing time, it would work out to just 10 minutes and 40 seconds of playing time per player in a 32-minute game.
That's not quite fair either -- training several hours each day, giving up vacations, working out over the summer -- just to get 10 minutes a game.
Somebody's going to sit on the bench for an extended period of time. That's part of varsity athletics, but it's a situation that never works. Kids with nothing to do will find something to do. And it's not always productive, as Fleming has pointed out.
Yes, there are role players in basketball, as in any sport, but a team generally does not need 10 of them.
So Boerger chooses the eight or nine or 10 players he thinks deserve varsity playing time -- something well within his realm of discretion as a coach -- and molds them into a team he thinks has the best shot at success.
Most good coaches -- and Boerger qualifies as good, if not great -- are perfectionists by nature. They demand more of their athletes than just showing up and going through the motions. They set high standards, and when players don't live up to expectations, they don't play.
Not every kid can be a varsity athlete, just like not every kid can be the class valedictorian. Hard work and dedication are part of the formula, but there's a certain amount of natural talent that makes the difference between an athlete and a participant.
If participation is what Fleming wants his varsity athletic programs to emphasize, that's fine. That's his prerogative.
Unfortunately, Boerger's dismissal undermines all of those life lessons that varsity athletics, at their best, can teach. Hard work and dedication, sticking to one's guns and striving for excellence got a positive role model fired -- at least that's the message it sends.
And that just doesn't seem right.
Will Morrow covers sports for the Peninsula Clarion. Send e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
CREDIT:Photo by M. Scott Moon
CAPTION:Chuck Boerger, coach for the boys basketball team at Seward High School for nine years, was forced to give up his position at the end of this year's season. Boerger had a career record of 127-100 for the Seahawks.
HEAD:Principal drops Seward coach
HEAD:Administrator Fleming, coach Boerger cannot reconcile philosophical differences
BYLINE1:By JEFF HELMINIAK
Due to a conflict regarding the way a high school varsity basketball team should be run, Seward Middle-High School Principal Malcolm Fleming will not allow Chuck Boerger to coach the boys basketball team in Seward next season.
Boerger completed his ninth season at the helm of the Seahawks and his 27th season of coaching basketball March 18 by leading his team to a third-place finish at the District 3/3A tournament in Seward.
This season included an incident where Boerger kicked a player off the team for drinking, but was forced to take the player back after it was discovered that Boerger's rules regarding drinking were harsher than the ones spelled out in the handbook of the Kenai Peninsula Schools Activities Association.
Fleming said Boerger would have been forced out eventually if there had been no drinking incident, but he said the affair further cemented the differences between him and his coach.
The end of the third-place game began a roller-coaster evening for Boerger.
After a teary locker room farewell to the seven seniors on the team, Boerger got a resignation request from Fleming about 30 minutes after the game ended.
Hours later, Boerger, who has a 127-100 record at Seward, was voted the District 3/3A boys coach of the year. The coach said it was the fourth time in the past eight seasons that he earned the honor.
Boerger refused to resign and contacted a union representative regarding the situation. He said he was told by the representative that the principal had the power to determine who coaches at his school.
"He will not be coaching at this school next year," Fleming said.
Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Donna Peterson said since Boerger's dismissal as coach is a personnel issue, she cannot comment on it.
A difference in philosophy
Fleming said he and Boerger had been butting heads about how the program should be run for at least four years.
"I definitely gave him four years of chances," Fleming said.
According to the principal, the root of the problem comes from the philosophy statement regarding high school activities in the KPSAA handbook.
The statement reads as follows: "The primary goal of the high school cocurricular program is to involve students in district-sponsored activities that serve their interests and talents. These programs should promote positive attitudes through active participation, individual improvement, healthy competition, and involvement of the community.
"High school cocurricular programs focus on interscholastic competition as appropriate. Emphasis shall be given to skill development, principles of sportsmanship, team work, commitment to a goal, and 'having fun' in a safe and healthy environment."
Fleming said Boerger did fine when it came to competition and winning, but that he wasn't as interested in involving a lot of students.
"Chuck is more interested in putting his time into five to nine players who have the talent and skill to make a winning team," Fleming said. "He did an excellent job with those five to nine kids, but it was a very select group."
Fleming would like to see 12 to 15 kids on the C team, junior varsity team and varsity team. He said a senior who has been playing basketball for four years should not be forced off the varsity by a more talented freshman.
He said he does not expect every varsity player to get playing time in every game.
"A team can still be competitive while involving a lot of numbers," Fleming said.
He pointed to Seward's cross country and wrestling programs, which have both won state titles. He said the cross country team involves 20 to 40 kids, while the wrestling team involves 20 to 30.
"You learn more from sports than just winning a game," Fleming said. "You can learn a tremendous amount by just sitting on the bench.
"You learn things like being a part of something that is bigger than yourself."
Boerger agrees that high school sports is a great place to teach life lessons, but he said players won't learn those lessons if they just participate in a sport.
"To me, it's more than just a game," Boerger said. "In order to learn lifelong lessons, kids have to make sacrifices.
"You can't just say, 'I paid my activity fee, so I feel I should play.' I don't think kids get anything out of it that way.
"If sports aren't teaching lifelong lessons, they shouldn't be in school at all. If it's just playing a game and having fun without a whole lot of hard work, then I don't think it's worthwhile."
Boerger, who said he has never had any other administrator question his coaching methods, said he wanted his players to go to camps, attend open gym and lift weights in the off-season in order to improve their game.
"We had some players that didn't play," Boerger said. "They weren't as skilled. They didn't work that hard in the off-season."
How other coaches feel
A group of high school coaches last week contacted by the Clarion had no detailed knowledge of what went on between Boerger and Fleming, but all had respect for Boerger as a coach.
"Chuck Boerger is an outstanding man," said Reid Kornstad, the boys coach of District 3/3A school Nikiski. "He's obviously an outstanding coach.
"He's flat out good for kids. It's really the Seward program's loss."
Kornstad said the topic of Boerger's dismissal came up at this year's state tournament, and none of the coaches had a bad word to say about Boerger.
"I'm shocked," said Soldotna coach Ron Becker upon hearing the news. "I'd probably say he's the best coach on the peninsula. He understands and knows the game as well as anyone."
Becker, who is in his fifth year at Soldotna and 30th year of coaching, said he has no hard and fast rule on how many people he can keep on a team for participation's sake.
"It changes from year to year," Becker said. "There's not going to be any room for a participant if you have 12 to 15 seniors.
"Next year, we'll have a lot of seniors, and if you want to be on the team, you'd better be able to play."
Nikiski girls coach Ward Romans has known Boerger since he began coaching at Seward nine years ago.
"I respect him tremendously," Romans said. "I would feel proud to have my children play for him."
Romans said basketball is not an intramural activity, so he has made cuts in the past, although he has not made any recently.
"There's only a select number of people who can play at that level," Romans said. "My philosophy is to try and teach life lessons.
"Life isn't about rolling out the ball and everybody getting to play. That's not the way it works in life."
Grace Christian boys coach Nate Davis was Boerger's assistant coach in 1991.
"He's in coaching for the right reasons," Davis said of Boerger. "He's trying to teach kids life lessons like character and integrity, both on and off the court.
"He's been doing this for 27 years. Every person I know of has nothing but respect and admiration for what he's done."
However, Davis also has been the principal at Grace for the past four years, so he knows how tough that job can be, too.
"There are sometimes you feel like you have to make a tough decision," Davis said. "Even if there are people who will disagree, you've got to do what you think is best."
The players' view
Seward seniors John Hamilton, Blake Varnell, Clint Draper and Ryan Lewis were interviewed regarding Boerger's dismissal before last Thursday's Senior All-Star Games at Skyview.
Hamilton had two years on varsity, Varnell had three, Lewis spent some time on varsity as a freshman before playing varsity full time for three years, and Draper played on varsity four years.
All four said they would not have fired the coach.
Fleming said the support the players showed for the coach is not surprising because he never said Boerger did not do an excellent job with a select group.
Varnell said Boerger was fair when dealing with his athletes and playing time.
"I think it's just part of varsity basketball," Varnell said. "You're only going to play your best players. You had to earn your spot."
Varnell said Boerger encouraged his players to be more than three-month players, but he never made them to do off-season training.
"He was pretty equal with everybody," Varnell said. "But you had to be able to play to play for him."
Draper, who noted how much time Boerger put into the job by opening the gym in the off-season for workouts, said he liked that Boerger demanded a lot of a varsity player.
"It was good because it made us sacrifice something during the season," Draper said. "That makes you work a lot harder, and it's a good feeling to put that much into it."
Hamilton said there was some discontent in the community with the job that Boerger was doing.
"There was a lot of talk about it, like people saying he doesn't get enough out of his players," he said. "I didn't know if anything would be done about it.
"He was a good coach. He was doing a good job."
Drinking incident cements differences
Player Chris Eastman, 18, was arrested for driving while intoxicated on New Year's Day, a charge that he eventually pleaded guilty to.
Eastman was kicked off the team by Boerger.
"I had a rule," the coach said. "Once a kid is caught drinking, he's done for the season."
The coach said he has the players sign training rules before the season that spell out his drinking rule. Hamilton said Eastman never signed the rules because he was late coming out for basketball due to wrestling, but he added that Eastman was fully aware of Boerger's rule.
The KPSAA handbook says that students caught with alcohol are suspended 30 consecutive school days or the rest of the season, whichever is greater.
However, students that self-report prior to any school investigation will receive a 20-day suspension with the last 10 days waived for practice purposes only. Boerger's rule against drinking has no such provision.
Fleming said Eastman self-reported before a school investigation.
When Eastman pointed out to Fleming the provision regarding a self-report, Fleming said he wanted to force a KPSAA vote on whether a coach can have rules that are stricter than KPSAA's on an issue that is specifically addressed in the KPSAA handbook.
KPSAA voted a coach cannot make rules that are stricter than KPSAA's on topics that are already covered in the handbook, such as drinking.
"Coaches can make rules on things not in the handbook, like curfews," said Dave Spence, executive secretary of KPSAA. "Rules in the handbook are already covered.
"There's no need for coaches to make rules there. The school board has already voted on those rules."
Eastman was back on the team by the second week of February.
"Chuck announced to anybody who would listen that Chris Eastman might be on the team, but that he would never play for him again," Fleming said.
Boerger said Eastman did not play much.
"I felt it sent the wrong message to have a kid who had been caught drinking on a team representing Seward High School basketball," he said.
Soldotna coach Becker, whose players fall under the KPSAA handbook, said he has a rule like Boerger's that says if a player is caught drinking, smoking or doing drugs, that player is gone with no discussion. He said he meets with players and parents to let them know of this rule.
He said as a coach with 30 years of experience, he understands where Boerger is coming from.
"Most coaches I know of would say, 'You're not going to tell me how to run my program,'" Becker said. "Especially old coaches, like he is, or I am -- coaches that have been doing it since 1970."
Fleming said the incident played a small part in Boerger's dismissal.
"It cemented my feeling that Chuck has his way and I have mine," the principal said. "He was committed to his way of doing things, which I don't fault him for."
Joy Eastman, who is the mother of Chris, was out of town from mid-December to March attending to a family matter, so she said everything she heard about the incident involving her son is second-hand.
She said she never complained to Fleming about Boerger, but had heard other parents complaining in the stands during games.
"It was just nitpicking stuff like you hear all the time with all the coaches," Eastman said. "I really never paid much attention."
Eastman, who has had four sons go through Seward, did say she heard more parents complain about Boerger than any other coach.
Boerger said he generally had a good relationship with parents, but also said parents do complain when their son is not getting enough playing time.
"I think a lot of parents want it more than the kids," the coach said.
Fleming said parents had come to him to complain about Boerger, but he added that parents had come to him to complain about other coaches as well.
"This issue is between Chuck and I, it's not about parental complaints," Fleming said. "I could have weathered parental complaints."
Fleming added that he will probably hear some complaints about Boerger's dismissal.
In addition to coaching basketball, Boerger also teaches social studies at the high school. He said he intends to keep his teaching position.
"I can work with people that I don't share philosophies with," Boerger said. "I think it is the same thing with (Fleming)."
Fleming said he has no problem with Boerger teaching at his school.
"I like Chuck," Fleming said. "I think Chuck is a good teacher."
Boerger said the thing he will miss most about coaching basketball is the kids.
"It's going to be a void," he said. "I'm going to have to find a different passion."
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