Southern Lee launches search for new head football coach
After three seasons without a winning record, Southern Lee High School has started the process of parting ways with head football coach Tom Paris.
Paris, who was hired in the summer of 2010, led the Cavaliers to a 2-9 (1-5) record last year, including a 49-0 loss to crosstown rival Lee County High School in the Brick City Bowl in August, continuing a string of lopsided losses to the larger school.
Paris was 10-24 in three years at Southern Lee, with a 6-6 record in 2011 sandwiched by two 2-9 seasons. MaxPreps, a national high school sports website, ranked the team 305th in the state and 10,636th in the country after the end of this past season.
Paris, who is also a tenured weightlifting teacher at Southern Lee, was reached on campus Monday and said that if he had a choice in the matter, he would have remained head coach. He said he was caught off guard when Principal Bonnie Almond told him she wanted to go in another direction.
"I'm proud of what we've accomplished," he said Monday. "Yes, we did have a 2-9 season. I knew it was going to be a rebuilding year and prepared everyone for that inevitability as best I could, and I'm proud of what our kids did and how hard they played, and I'm proud of how they conducted themselves in the wake of defeat."
The move is technically unofficial until tonight, when the Lee County Board of Education meets for its monthly meeting and will vote on whether or not to approve this and any other personnel matters in closed session, said Chairman Lynn Smith.
Since his teaching position isn't contingent upon his coaching job, Paris could remain at the school next year as a health and P.E. teacher as long as the school board doesn't also vote to remove him from that position. But when asked Monday if he could see himself staying at the school if he is let go from the football team, he said, "I don't foresee that being a realistic likelihood."
However, the job opening has been advertised online since Thursday, said Southern Lee Athletic Director Mike McCauley, and the district's head of human resources, Glenda Jones, confirmed that even ahead of the board's meeting, the position had been listed as vacant and Almond has been preparing a search.
Almond didn't respond to a request for comment, and McCauley declined to say whether Paris was fired or asked to resign, citing the same personnel rules that require the vote to be held in closed session.
And even though the development is still unofficial, messages started pouring in from Twitter accounts apparently belonging to Southern Lee student athletes on Sunday after the news began to leak out. Many voiced their discontent with the situation.
Star quarterback Aaron Blockmon, a first-team All-Conference player for the Cape Fear Valley Conference who will be a senior next year, tweeted that Paris was like a father to him and that he was considering transferring, a move encouraged by an account belonging to Jarod Kehagias, the school's high-profile baseball standout who wrote, "Southern Lee will always be a joke" in addition to the conversation with Blockmon.
Blockmon's tweets included messages like "#richmondcounty class of 2014," "Im foreal my mom asked me did i want to go to a better school," "My life seems to be falling apart right now" and "Wish i could wake up from this nightmare."
After school Monday, he confirmed he is indeed behind the account and said his plans to transfer are more than just talk, motivated partly by his desire to switch positions to wide receiver and partly out his frustration with the loss of the coach he credits for his success.
"Without Coach Paris, I probably wouldn't be playing football because he talked my mom into letting me play," he said. "And without football, I wouldn't be going to college. I'm getting looked at by some colleges for football, but without it, I'd probably not be going at all."
Blockmon said he approached Paris last week after the coach missed school one day, but he said Paris told him everything was fine. Blockmon said he didn't believe him then and now knows why.
"He hasn't told us, but most of us found out online," he said. "... I'm just really upset (about the decision) because he was the best coach we've had at Southern, and it just really wasn't fair."
Accounts belonging to several other players sent out tweets lending support for the coach, criticizing the school and debating the merits of transferring schools. Blockmon explained that he and others were frustrated by the prospect of learning a whole new offense and finding chemistry with a new coaching staff next year.
Regarding those messages, Superintendent Jeff Moss said he thinks it will all blow over with time.
"Typically, if you have some student athletes that have strong feelings toward a coach, when they find out that coach will not be a coach in the upcoming school year, there's that whole, I guess, grieving process," he said. "... I think it follows those same stages where you have some initial reactions but then come to find that your life is not over."
Paris said Monday he hadn't spoken to any of his players personally and wasn't sure if he would be able to put together a team meeting, or what he would say if he did.
"I can't explain it to them — I don't know what else I'm going to tell them," he said, adding that he's trying to stay positive despite the sudden and unwelcome news: "... I'll be fine. God's got a plan. I don't know what it is yet, but I'll be fine."