Coach Roger Merritt

Roger Merritt, head football coach for Sidney High School, speaks at a special board meeting to consider reinstating him and his staff on Tuesday, Jan. 28.

The Sidney School Board voted on Tuesday, Jan. 28, to reinstate its entire Sidney High School football coaching staff including head coach Roger Merritt. The vote comes two weeks after the board of trustees agreed not to rehire Merritt and his coaching staff, including assistant coaches Guy Melby, Chad Quilling, Dan Corvell, Ty Graves and Jerome Hoffman.

Why? That was the question asked repeatedly by people who spoke on behalf of reinstating the coaches at the Jan. 28 Sidney Public Schools Board of Trustees special session. More than 50 community members attended the meeting. Of the dozen or so who spoke, nearly everyone asked the trustees for an explanation of why the Sidney High School football coaches were not rehired two weeks ago.

The Tuesday night decision to reinstate Merritt and his full coaching staff was based on a 4-3 vote in favor of rehiring all six coaches. The three trustees who voted on Jan. 13 against a motion to rehire the high school’s football coaching staff again voted not to reinstate Merritt and his assistant coaches. Two weeks ago, the vote resulted in a 3-3 tie, effectively failing the motion to rehire the full staff of football coaches.

Tuesday’s special session was called because of community concerns that the board had acted without giving Merritt and his staff sufficient reasons for its decision two weeks ago, according to several people who attended the Jan. 28 meeting.

In addition to the eight committee members in attendance at the meeting, one trustee participated via phone conference. More than 45 local citizens, teachers and high school coaches participated. About a dozen people stood up and spoke at the meeting.

Ben Thogersen, trustee president, opened the discussion. He prefaced that the school board did not fire the coaching staff, but rather decided not to reinstate their contracts. He said the decision was based largely on answers to a student survey that called into question the abilities of the coaches’ to effectively oversee the football program at Sidney High School.

Two weeks ago during the meeting that resulted in the decision not to rehire the football coaching staff, Thogersen noted that some of the students’ survey statements were “alarming.” He also pointed out that the students’ feedback on surveys was similar, even during winning seasons.

Most of the people who spoke at the Jan. 28 meeting expressed opinions that reflected a general belief that Merritt and his coaching staff were not rehired two weeks ago because of the football team’s recent losing season.

Athletic director Chris Lee was the first person to speak at the Tuesday night meeting. He reiterated his initial position and recommendation that the school’s football coaches should be rehired.

“What happened last meeting was wrong,” Lee said, adding that he was advised not to take it personally. “I had zero notice. I take it very personally because that’s my job.”

Lee pointed out that the long-term success of the Sidney High School football team under Merritt’s direction is impressive.

“The history of the football program speaks for itself,” he said, noting that the decision not to rehire the football coaches affects every sports program at the school. “That decision that you guys made impacts every sports program at our school right now.

“How we treat our coaches,” Lee continued, “I do take it personally.”

Jason Schrader pointed out how the trustees vote resonates throughout the local community when it’s time to vote.

“One of my concerns is that one of your jobs as board members is to listen to our community,” Schrader said. “As elected officials, you have to listen to the community.”

Speaking on his own behalf, Merritt thanked the board of trustees for the opportunity to address them in the follow-up meeting. He spoke at length about his 35 years as a football coach at Sidney High School, noting there is more to coaching than producing winning seasons. The school’s Eagles football team finished the 2019 season with a 3-5 record.

“There’s several ways to evaluate a program,” Merritt said, adding that no one should be judged based on one year’s performance. Rather, they should be evaluated over a period of at least five or six years. Merritt pointed out that he has coached several championship football teams during his decades-long career at Sidney High School.

“Every year, we’re in the hunt,” Merritt said.

“We didn’t get done what we wanted to do this year,” he added, noting he is not a “big fan” of basing firing decisions on student surveys, which Merritt said has a negative influence on coaching staffs.

One of Merritt’s assistant coaches, Dan Corvell, pointed out he “uprooted” his family to come to Sidney.

“Whether you call it firing or renewing, it’s all the same to me,” Corvell said, addressing the trustees who voted two weeks ago. “What the board is doing is setting a dangerous precedent. I’ve never had a single conversation with you.”

One parent who spoke pointed out that her “kid” was thrilled to have a chance to play football under Merritt and his coaching staff.

“When I told him about that [no reinstatement] decision that was made, it nearly brought that 15-year-old to tears,” she said. “Why mess with a system that has served so many, so well, for so long?”

Deb Prevost, who taught for 34 years at the high school and coached its girls basketball team, noted she had first-hand experience on the evaluation and rehiring procedures for the school’s coaches.

“This process is so flawed,” she said, adding that she had to go through it when she was a coach. Although Prevost was usually rehired, she was fired 15 years ago as the high school’s girls basketball coach, she said.

“I feel so strongly that this process is ruining our reputations as a school and sports program,” Prevost said.

Although the meeting was orderly and the audience members who spoke up were polite and respectful toward the committee members, the atmosphere was somber. Everyone who spoke up was passionate and supportive of the football coaches.

The overall consensus was not necessarily disillusionment about the board’s decision not to reinstate the coaches to their positions, but concern that they were not given sufficient opportunities to defend themselves.

As the school’s athletic director said in a follow-up statement, it’s all about the evaluation process. The major question, said Lee, is “how coaches are being evaluated and why they’re being let go.”

For their part, the trustees wasted no time readdressing their decision two weeks ago. After everyone in the audience was given ample time to speak, they voted 4-3 to reinstate Merritt and his full staff.

After the vote to reinstate was announced and the meeting was adjourned, Merritt said he was pleased with the decision. However, he reiterated his concerns about the process.

“Still frustrated that it wasn’t a 7-0 decision to reinstate,” Merritt said, “but I’m happy they voted to reinstate, for us, for the kids and the program.

“I’m excited for the kids,” he continued. “The winning and losing comes from the hard work before the season.”

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