COMMENTARY

Case of Messalonskee football coach shows that swift reaction not always the right one

Posted Oct. 01, 2012, at 12:10 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 01, 2012, at 1:07 p.m.

A football coach has lost his job, his reputation bruised for as long as the word Google is part of the American vocabulary.

An undefeated team on the way to its school’s best season in years is forced to conclude that campaign under different leadership; good coaches without experience managing that workflow.

The community at large, already recognized in the region as a place that eats up coaches, takes another shot to the chin.

Who’s in the wrong? Who loses out?

All of us.

How much do a majority of us know about what exactly happened at a Sept. 19 football practice in Oakland? Somewhere between zero and not much, which is enough these days to make us err on the side of alarm.

At some point in the middle of otherwise standard midweek preparations for a game against the Oxford Hills Vikings, former Messalonskee coach Wes Littlefield became embroiled in an incident with a player.

The confrontation was significant enough that it wound up in the hands of the local police department. Littlefield was suspended with pay, and he subsequently resigned the day before the Eagles’ 41-0 road rout of the Vikings.

When the investigation concluded Tuesday, Littlefield — Messalonskee’s coach for nearly a decade — was charged with simple assault.

It’s a cautionary tale, but the teachable moment isn’t restricted to the guy holding the summons.

Yes, it is true that the days of the spitting, stammering football coach from central casting (think Jon Voight’s character from “Varsity Blues”) are over.

It is no longer acceptable to slap a player in the helmet for any reason except affirmation for a great play. No longer permissible to grab and twist his facemask. No longer OK to literally kick his butt while he’s in the three-point stance.

We’ve moved on. I know too many successful coaches who cast a shadow as successful authority figures without ever behaving like a belligerent fool. Mike Hathaway of Leavitt, Gary Parlin of Mt. Blue, Bill County of Lewiston and Dick Mynahan of Lisbon immediately come to mind. There are others. The tri-county schools are blessed.

But I guarantee you all those guys have self-evaluated at the end of a rough day and wished they had handled something differently. Football is an emotional game, one in which society’s rules of personal space are violated on every play.

You might not be shoved or yanked around by your coach, but the odds are good in a four-year career that you’ll be slapped with words that hurt just as much. And you’d better get used to it, son, because that’s an element that pervades every nook and cranny of the real world.

Among the unanswered questions for most of us is how this incident spilled over from the practice field to the dinner table and to the local authorities in the first place.

Did the athlete immediately run home and vent to his parents? I’m all about family communication, but schools have an athletic director, a principal and a superintendent in place for a reason. There doesn’t seem to have been sufficient time for all of them to be involved before law enforcement was.

Was an eyewitness to practice responsible for the swift reaction and rush to justice? I’m all for community involvement in high school athletics. It’s a nice system of checks and balances. But some things look and sound differently and carry a different context at arm’s length than they do from a hillside.

And what of Littlefield’s record and character references? I’m not saying that a stellar reputation is always an automatic sign of innocence (see “Penn State”), but on the surface the coach doesn’t appear given to random fits of rage.

Former players have characterized Littlefield as hard-nosed but fair and an outstanding teacher of the game and its life lessons. Current players are said to be heavily involved in his local gym, a pretty good sign that he hasn’t done anything to make himself universally despised.

Littlefield could have, probably should have, I’m betting would have, behaved differently if he had the opportunity for a second take on those five seconds of his life.

I also know from experience that the people who filed the complaint likely wouldn’t change a thing, and that’s what bothers me.

Unless blood was drawn or stars were seen, “assault” appears to be an overreaction. This is something that could have been hashed out in an office among the good people of Messalonskee High School and the parties involved.

But our society wants satisfaction, and we demand it now. Which is pretty much the No. 1 reason we struggle to keep good coaches, isn’t it?

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