Superintendent Malcolm Thomas refused to listen to the pleas and requests of his school board and an overflow crowd of Escambia High students, teachers and parents, as well as ministers, civil rights leaders and representatives from the teachers’ union.
Over the course of four hours, they asked the superintendent to use progressive discipline in how he dealt with Escambia High Football Coach Willie Spears and to keep the coach at the school. After all, some argued that he showed such leniency in the past by allowing a principals and teachers with DUIs, who had misused school funds to decorate their offices and other serious offenses stay on the job.
Their arguments didn’t matter. Thomas told the crowd, many dressed in the blue and orange of Escambia High, that Spears wasn’t being fired because of any recruiting violations. No, he was firing Spears for insubordination–something that he said he could not tolerate.
“I love Willie Spears,” said Thomas. “I don’t love what you did Saturday, August 30.” (On August 30, Coach Spears played the players under investigation after being told by his principal not to do so.)
“If all this was about was recruiting violations, we would have found a way to fix that,” said the superintendent. Thomas claimed that he had extended two opportunities for Spears to come to his office. The coach, sitting in the front row. shook his head and said, “That’s not true.” The superintendent changed his story to “Well, Mr. Scott, was supposed to contact you.”
Before Thomas spoke, the school board listened to dozens of people speak in favor of Spears – black, white, young, old. They talked about the man being a great role model who placed education and character above sports. They talked about how he had helped turn the school around in the two-three years he had been on the campus.
Phillip Childers said, “Coach Spears is a great guy, an amazing Christian. He looks out for the safety and best interests of the students. Since he arrived, there have been less fights, higher grades and more team spirit.”
Coach Spears was praised for being a leader that put academics and character above sports. One parent said, “Academics are his No. 1 priority. He gives hope to the hopeless. Coach is what my son needs.”
Several of the parents whom the school district said their sons were recruited by Coach Spears stood before the board and said that did not happen. They did say however that other coaches threatened them when they transferred to Escambia.
Other speakers questioned why Escambia High was the only school singled out for investigation. They claimed that other coaches had been recruiting athletes away from Escambia High for years. One person asked the investigation itself be investigated.
One impressive highlight was Rev. Joseph Marshall, pastor of St. John Divine, and 17 other ministers delivering a resolution from the Baptist Ministers Union in support of Coach Spears and the players. “We ask the school board, superintendent and the district exhaust every remedy on behalf the players and the coach,” said Rev. Marshall.
Near the end of the public forum and discussion over his future with the school district, Coach Willie Spears spoke — this was about three hours into the meeting.
He placed his hand on a Bible and said, “I did not recruit anyone.”
He admitted his mistake in not following orders and asked for a second chance. “I agree I should be punished. I’ve not been allowed to work for two weeks and I will pay $5,000 out of my pocket for the fines. Put me back to work. I’m sorry for being insubordinate. I want to work in this school district.”
Spears found two allies on the school board –Gerald Boone and Linda Moultrie. Boone pointed out the lack of administrative oversight over the football program and the numerous grammatical errors in the official district report. He was also upset that the board wasn’t given time to discuss the issue fully in a workshop. “I believe that this could have been avoided,” said Boone.
Moultrie was impressed with the turnout and believed the coach deserved a second chance. “This is a historic moment in Escambia County. This is not a black issue or a white issue. This is a community issue.”
Boone and Moultrie failed to persuade the other board members to join them. Spears’ termination was approved by a 3-2 vote.
There was an odd but revealing moment during the meeting.
When Malcolm Thomas started to answer a question from School Board member Jeff Bergosh over whether he would consider any other recommendation for the coach, there were few murmurs from the crowd, which had been sitting there for nearly four hours. Thomas got angry.
“If you guys are going to snicker at me, I’ll stand where I am,” said Thomas. Even though the audience quieted, the superintendent stood by his original recommendation and offered not other solutions.