Off the Sidelines

Salpointe basketball coach Brian Peabody is out of a job--despite a winning record.

Last week, at the confluence of passion and pettiness, sustained excellence ran headlong into unrealistic expectations and Brian Peabody was fired as boys basketball coach at Salpointe Catholic High School.

Peabody is arrogant, driven and obsessed. And, as the joke goes, those are his good points. While I have always liked him (a lot), he's one of the least-popular people I know, and believe me, I know some real stinkers. The average lawyer probably has more friends than Brian.

But he doesn't really care. His life is basketball, always has been. After only 13 years of coaching, Peabody is almost a third of the way toward 1,000 victories, a mark reached by only three other people in U.S. prep-coaching history.

My favorite coaching motto, and the message I try to impress on kids, is that the good is the enemy of the great. Being good is fine if that's the best you can do, but if you have a chance to be great and you settle for good, shame should follow you around like body odor follows Kid Rock. For decades, Salpointe boys' basketball had been good--sometimes very good--but it had never been great. Peabody made it great, but in doing so, he stepped on more toes than the remedial class at Arthur Murray's.

His first Salpointe team, liberally sprinkled with sophomores (he had kicked off several disruptive seniors), struggled to reach the regional playoffs. His next nine teams all went to state; two of them reached (but lost in) the championship game. Along the way, he ran up staggering win totals. His average record in his 10-year run at Salpointe was 24-6, and that includes the shaky first year. All the while, he used to say that coaches who win too much or lose too much draw negative attention, but those who manage to stay around the .500 mark in these politically correct times can keep their jobs forever.

It is the nature of sport that winning tends to generate superficial friends and substantial enemies. Peabody's single-mindedness added a double-digit exponent to the end of that truism. Let's just put it this way: Will Rogers never met Brian Peabody, and if Dale Carnegie had been a contemporary of Brian's, the book How To Win Friends and Influence People would have had an asterisk on it with the addition * Won't Work For Everybody. You could probably count the number of coaches who genuinely like Peabody on one hand and have enough fingers left over to pick the noses of all three Corr sisters.

But it didn't matter to him. He knew that, in this era where the Stage Mother has been replaced by the Playing Field Parent, his support was a mile wide but only an inch deep. He figured it didn't matter as long as he kept winning (last year's team went 27-4) and his program kept turning out good kids. (His best player ever, Brian Smith, had a great playing career at the University of New Mexico and is now pursuing a doctorate in sports psychology.)

In a way, he became a victim of his own success. His program got so well known, kids flocked to Salpointe to try to be a part of it. Every year, dozens of kids would get cut after tryouts, and that certainly fostered hurt feelings among the kids and hard feelings among the parents. His hyper coaching style and year-round regimen didn't go well with coaches from other schools that actually let kids live lives outside of the gymnasium.

He ran afoul of other coaches at Salpointe who resented the fact that the school was known almost exclusively for its boys' basketball team. And there were accusations that he illegally recruited athletes, although those claims have never been substantiated.

This past summer, the rumor mill was set abuzz by the presence of Andrew Berryhill in the Salpointe gym. Berryhill is the former Sahuaro High student involved in the ugly situation a couple years ago where a teacher took out a restraining order against him. (You've got to see this Berryhill kid. He's 17 going on 30, with a chiseled, athletic body on a 6'4" frame. In fact, you can see him in a recent issue of Tucson Lifestyle magazine, where he's shown posing with omnipresent UA assistant coach Josh Pastner at the 12th Annual Lute Olson Celebrity Chefs Dinner and Auction. I'd love to know how a transient prep hoop-star-to-be came to be standing next to Pastner at an A-List charity gig.)

One Salpointe parent, who asked not to be identified, told me that the situation had been building over the years as Peabody became more and more demanding of kids' time and efforts. Peabody had recently remarked that, in just the past few years, he's seen a marked difference in the way kids approach the sport. They're more selfish and less willing to do what's necessary to be champions.

Peabody had been there long enough for parents and kids to know what to expect and to avoid his hard-charging style if they found it objectionable. In the end, Brian got blindsided by the paradoxical combination of unrealistic expectations and an unwillingness of some to work toward a goal.

Salpointe quickly hired Green Fields' Michael Steward to replace Peabody. I hope the administration will at least let Stew know which parents carried enough clout to dump Peabody so he'll know to whom he must bow down.

As for Brian, he'll land on his feet. I think he'd be a perfect fit at Buena in Sierra Vista, a blue-collar town with great facilities, a rabid booster club hungry for a winner and a steady supply of military kids who are used to discipline. But I don't know if he would want to relocate or make that commute.

Wherever he goes, the folks at Salpointe had better hope it's not a 5A school. I get the feeling that, on top of all his other faults, revenge will be a powerful motivating tool for our boy Brian.

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