Column: Thoughts on Pioneer-Huron Melee

Coaches should learn lessons from students, athletic directors
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last week, the Ann Arbor Pioneer High School football team went across town to play long-time rival Ann Arbor Huron. It wasn’t the players’ performance during the game that made news, however, but the coaches’ behavior afterward. And the news wasn’t good.

Pioneer came into the annual rivalry with Huron sporting a solid 4-3 record and a good chance to make the playoffs. Huron hadn’t won a game all year, and was simply playing out the season. The only stakes were bragging rights – and even those weren’t much in question.

With a minute left, Pioneer enjoyed an impressive 35-6 lead. At that point, it’s customary for the winning coach to tell his team to run out the clock by taking a knee, instead of trying to score again. But Pioneer threw a pass, and then another, and then another – one of them to the endzone – in a clear display of poor sportsmanship. That was the night’s first mistake.

This made Huron head coach Cory Gildersleeve apoplectic. He yelled across the field to Pioneer head coach Paul Test to knock it off. That was the second mistake made by the men that night. If your team is getting crushed, and you’re the head coach, you don’t worry about the other guys. You get your team to the locker room, and start working to get better.

When the game ended the players had no problem shaking hands, and saying good luck. But not the head coaches. At mid-field, Gildersleeve started pointing his finger and yelling at Paul Test – a coach I’ve known and admired for years. Test told Gildersleeve he didn’t call those pass plays – and that was the third mistake. That answer simply doesn’t fly. When you’re the head coach, you’re responsible for everything that your coaches and players do – and that certainly includes the plays your staff calls.

It turns out Test has a history of running up the score, and leaving bad feelings behind. Just ask Dexter, which Pioneer beat 69-0 this year. After the game, Pioneer’s players put one of their assistant coaches – who had been released as Dexter’s head coach, but still teaches there – on their shoulders, and marched him right in front of the Dexter bench, as if to ask, “How do ya like me now?” Dexter’s answer: Not very much, thank you. But no fights broke out.

The Huron-Pioneer game probably would’ve ended the same way – with some hard feelings, but nothing more – until an unnamed Pioneer assistant coach saw the two head coaches arguing, broke from the handshake line and ran up to Huron’s head coach. It’s not clear whether he pushed Gildersleeve or punched him, but there’s no question he made contact. A Pioneer player pulled his coach away, but the coach jumped right back in – and just like that, a bench-clearing brawl broke out. Call those mistakes four and five.

That’s the bad news. The good news is just about everything that followed. No students rushed the field. The players, with only a few exceptions, tried to break things up. The schools’ athletic directors – both women – bravely jumped into the middle and helped end the melee. Since then, everybody’s apologized, and both teams’ captains have met to mend the fences.

Both head coaches received two game suspensions – one from the state, and one from the district. A few players will also be suspended for the next game – which, for the Pioneers, could be costly, as they push for the playoffs. Perhaps most important, the offending Pioneer assistant coach, who seems to have absolutely no idea what high school sports are supposed to teach, has been fired. Good.

But when I take a step back, I’m struck most by who started it, and who ended it. I can only hope that the men who run these teams start acting more like the women who supervise them and the teenagers who play for them.

On Friday night, it was women and children first. The men finished last.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” He also co-authored “A Legacy of Champions,” and provided commentary for “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game.” 

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  1. October 19, 2012 at 4:41 pm | permalink

    Thank you for a thoughtful contribution to this discussion in the media.

  2. By David Canter
    October 22, 2012 at 2:40 pm | permalink

    I agree with just about every point John Bacon has written but one. And it’s an important difference because it’s the point that seems to have triggered the entire episode.
    Bacon refers to running up the score as a mistake describing it as “a clear display of poor sportsmanship”. Not so, for several reasons. One, backing off from an opponent is patronizing and demeaning maybe even arrogant. Treating an opponent as a threat until the very end of a game is a mark of respect. Second, the players should learn to give their all until the final whistle, both the winning and losing sides, not expecting some early reprieve. Third, strange things happen in sports, not often, but often enough to humble a side that backed off too early. A quick internet search reveals some magnificent comebacks.
    I would add one other point, towards the end of a winning match the coach often allows a team’s second string players their one and only chance to demonstrate their ability and perhaps win a starting position. Would you ask these players to back off and take a knee as an act of sportsmanship? Why would you take away their only chance? Maybe the defending coach should have given his second line defensive players an opportunity to play if he had conceded any chance of victory.

  3. October 23, 2012 at 1:26 pm | permalink

    It is physically impossible to score 4 touchdowns in a minute. Therefore, it is not patronizing or demeaning to back off in that situation.
    “Giving your all until the final whistle” = “rubbing it in” if you happen to be the team losing by 29 points with one minute left. Exactly what virtue is a winning player “learning”?
    The fact that “strange things happen” and comebacks can be accomplished does not justify the attempt to run up the score. In fact, running the football would better protect against turnovers than passing, don’t you think?
    And if the only practice that second-stringers get is at the end of romps vs. weaker teams, the coach needs to reassess his program.
    Sportsmanship is defined in Webster’s dictionary as respect for one’s opponents and graciousness in victory or defeat. How would you define it?

  4. October 23, 2012 at 6:55 pm | permalink

    They say that hindsight is perfect, but that is only true if you care to look back. The key thing for me is evaluating what happened, could it have been prevented, if it happened again should it be handled differently? I hope that now the incident has been “handled,” that the district will look back and try and answer some of these questions.

    Here are a few things I’ve been wondering about:

    1. Did this happen because it was football? Could we imagine this happening in baseball or track or swimming or field hockey? (I admit, I’m having a hard time imagining that, but maybe I’m wrong.)

    2. Were there warning signs involving either the coaches or the players in the weeks leading up to this match that, if they had been responded to (or responded to differently) would have changed what happened?

    3. At what point should the next game have been forfeited–if 10% of the players were involved? 20%? 50%?

    4. Did it make any difference in the district’s response that the coaches are technically not hired by the district but by an outside firm?

    5. Would it have made a difference if the district had only a single athletic director? Better, or worse?

    You may have your own questions. . .