What seemed a perfect basketball marriage for 16 years is ending in a nasty divorce at Northmont High School.
Jim Brown, one of the best-known and most successful coaches in the Miami Valley, will not be the T-Bolts’ head coach after June 30.
Northmont — for absolutely no reasons of malfeasance, misdeed, or “anything of real consequence,” one school official said — has decided not to renew his contract for next season. Instead, Brown said he has been told by principal George Caras that he will be replaced by his top assistant, Collin Abels.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think my career at Northmont would end this way,” the 68-year-old Brown said. “Every time I think about what’s been done here, it’s like a bad dream.”
In 1997, Brown took over a struggling program that had won four games the year before. After two near break-even campaigns, he’s had 14 straight winning seasons. He compiled a 237-122 record, went 17-8 last season and even now is drawing praise from Northmont administrators as he is being let go.
Brown said he was told in late March by Caras that his contract wouldn’t be renewed. Although he was surprised, he said he knew the school had the right to decide who coaches its teams.
But what has angered him — and others in the Northmont community — is how the changeover has been handled.
In early April the school board received a five-sentence letter of resignation said to be from Brown. At the time, superintendent Sarah Zatik knew nothing of the move to change coaches.
The resignation letter began:
“After 16 years of coaching basketball at Northmont High School please accept this as my formal letter of resignation effective today. I have been coaching many years and I feel after this year’s successful season, this is a good time to move to another chapter in my life…”
Brown’s name was typed at the end of it.
The problem is, he didn’t write it, didn’t approve it, didn’t know it had been sent and didn’t sign it.
And that’s been part of the issue that’s now causing this situation to unfold in a messy and public way.
In a four-page letter written last week to the parents of his players — all of whom he had told at season’s end that he was coming back next year — Brown explained why he now would not return.
He described the manufactured resignation letter, authored by athletics director Robin Spiller and approved by Caras, as “unethical, unprofessional and to a degree … somewhat criminal.”
Caras admitted the letter was a “mistake at the building level.”
He said, “We followed the same process we do with all extra-curricular contracts. They are all one-year contracts and when they expire they can be renewed or not. But the letter was a mistake on our part — me and Robin — but there was no malicious intent. Nobody was trying to pull the wool over Jim’s eyes.
“But now … this whole thing has been absolutely abhorrent in the way it has gone.”
Sixteen years ago, Brown came to Northmont after coaching 27 years at Wright State , 26 as an assistant and one season as the head coach.
When he took the T-Bolts job he said he asked then-principal Gene Klaus if there would ever be an issue because he was not a teacher there. He said he was told it would not and the issue never came up again, not even when Klaus retired and Caras took over three years ago.
Brown built Northmont basketball into one of the top Division I programs in the area and several of his players have gone on to college careers.
Kenny Hayes, after a successful career at Miami University, became a pro. He’s starred in the NBA Developmental League, made it to the final preseason cut of the Cleveland Cavaliers and currently is playing in Israel, where his Hapoel Gilboa Galil team is in the playoffs of the country’s Premier League.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Coach Brown,” Hayes said by phone from Israel. “When I was a 14-year-old kid, I didn’t make the team at Trotwood, so my mom moved to the Northmont district and Coach Brown gave me a chance.
“He always believed in me, even when I didn’t always believe in myself. He’d never let me settle. When people told me I couldn’t play high school basketball, he said I could. When people said I wouldn’t make it as a D-I player in college, he told me I would, and I had a good career at Miami. He’s still there for me now.
“He always gave me confidence. He changed my life and I think he’s done that with a lot of other kids, too.”
When this season ended, the six Northmont seniors had a surprise for Brown at the team’s awards banquet. They had gotten a Northmont No. 1 jersey made up. They each signed it, wrote “Thanks Coach Brown!” at the top and had it framed.
It hangs in the basement of Brown’s Beavercreek home. Yet he worries those kinds of memories are getting tainted by the way his removal is playing out.
“At the end of the season I sat down with Robin to talk about the year,” he said. “I asked her if anything happened that I needed to know about or if there were any issues with parents and she said, ‘No, not at all.’
“Then George calls me in on March 20. He went on and on about what a great job I had done and told me what a role model I was … and then told me they weren’t renewing my contract. Several times he told me the only reason they were doing this was to name Collin Abels the coach. They worried he might leave Northmont and take a different job if they didn’t name him.
“I told George that now, no matter what I say or what they say, people are going to think I did something really wrong. In today’s society if a very successful coach leaves suddenly people automatically think you did something wrong.”
On Wednesday, Zatik, Caras and Spiller all said repeatedly that was not the case. “No, no, no, there was absolutely no incident, no single issue at all,” said Caras.
Spiller agreed but wouldn’t go into detail: “By law I’m not allowed to speak about personnel issues anyway, but that puts us at a disadvantage with the stories that are going around. All I’m going to say is that there are two sides to every story.”
Casas said once he informed Brown he would not be retained he told the coach he and Spiller would craft a release, give it to him to make changes and then make the news public. Instead Spiller sent the “resignation letter” straight to the school’s human resources office.
“I never would have signed that,” Brown said. “It says I resigned, and I didn’t resign.”
When Zatik finally found out what was going on, she refused to accept the letter and met with Brown. He said she was so upset she offered him his job back: “She said that’s not the way we treat people at Northmont.”
He told her the situation would be untenable with Spiller and Caras and eventually agreed to let his contract run out on June 30.
But as rumors began to circulate in the Northmont community, he decided to write the letter to the parents. In it he is especially critical of Spiller and Caras.
“I know he is angry and I understand,” Zatik said. “It sounds like people here were trying to pull something on him. I don’t think they were, but the process could have been a lot better.
“Jim Brown is a great guy and I really respect him. This gives us a little black eye. When most people leave the district they rave about their treatment. That’s not the case now and it saddens me.”