Pedersen on Sports

Did a successful high school volleyball coach lose her job due to parental interference?

Amy Johnson has never coached a high school volleyball team to a losing record. In 26 seasons roaming the hardwood sidelines of gyms throughout Southern Arizona, she failed to send her boys or girls squads to the playoffs only once, almost eight years ago.

There have been state title game appearances, trips to the semifinals, countless league titles and a laundry list of scholarships earned by players under her tutelage, including four this past year. This even includes men's volleyball, a sport so unpopular collegiately only about 80 schools even offer it.

But none of those accolades will stand out on her resume as much as one unfortunate statement:

Fired May 22, 2013.

Her 13th season as boys volleyball coach at Salpointe Catholic High School had ended two weeks earlier when her Lancers were ousted from the Division I state tournament in the quarterfinals. And preparations were already being made for the 2013 girls' slate, her 14th at the school, which was set to start in August.

But instead of trying to keep thoughts of the upcoming campaign from interrupting a family vacation to Chicago last week, Johnson found herself dwelling on how it all came crashing down.

She's still not completely sure.

"I just can't believe it; I still can't believe it," said Johnson, 41, who had been the longest-tenured active volleyball coach in Tucson prior to her dismissal. "I still love that school; there are just some administrators I'm not real fond of."

The official explanation for Johnson's termination is "parent issues," a vague cop-out of an excuse if I've ever heard one. Johnson wishes there was more to it, but it really looks like it came down to an as-yet-unidentified selection of parents who decided they wanted her out, and most likely threatened to pull their kids (and their tuition) from the school if it didn't happen.

Johnson first heard the rumblings of parental unrest in April, when she was called in to a series of meetings with Salpointe administrators, including athletic director Phil Gruensfelder and school president Kay Sullivan. She was told there were some parents that were 'unhappy,' but just exactly why was never made clear.

She was told one girl on Salpointe's varsity squad—yes, this involved an issue from the fall but wasn't addressed until five months later, so there's that—felt she was being bullied by teammates and that Johnson had either ignored the situation or chosen not to do anything about it.

The coach's reaction? Utter shock. Not just that she'd allow something like that to happen on her watch, but that it took so long for the issue to be brought to her attention. What kind of a parent would sit on something like that for nearly half a year, she (and I) wondered?

"If your kid is being bullied, you would be in my office the next day," said Johnson, who has categorically denied the claims.

She does recall a time in the fall when two players were arguing on the court a little more than normal—"they're girls; they argue," she said—and Johnson says she pulled them aside the first chance she had in order to clear the air and allow everyone to move forward.

All seemed to be fine, she thought. "That's happened probably every season," she said.

Then the meetings came around. Apparently the unhappy parents went over the AD's head and went straight to the president, though Johnson says she was never told who specifically was complaining about her.

"If you had an issue, you should go to the coach, not the administration," she said.

Gruensfelder, himself a former coach who led Salpointe to a state title in softball, appeared to have his hands tied on the issue, Johnson felt. This jives with what I know about Gruensfelder, a fair guy who does his best to manage parents and their often outlandish expectations, but this time he seemed to have no say in what happened.

The result of the meetings was that a few days after the boys' season ended, Johnson was informed she would not be asked back—as the girls coach. The boys gig? That's fiiiiiiiiiine.

Insert WTFs and other forms of incredulity here.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "I was like, 'either you think I'm a good coach or a bad coach.'"

This subtle ultimatum apparently was taken to heart by the decision-makers at Salpointe, who on May 22 showed Johnson and her illustrious track record at the school to the door for both positions.

When I first saw this mentioned on Twitter last month I did an actual double take, especially when 'parent issue' was cited as the reason for the dismissal. Granted, I haven't been around the prep sports game on a full-time basis in several years, but I have enough time under my belt in that arena to quickly read between the lines: Somebody wasn't happy with their playing time.

More specifically, somebody's parents weren't happy that their precious little girl wasn't getting utilized as much as mommy and daddy felt she should, especially considering the $9,000 or so that family was paying for her to attend Salpointe.

There's no way Johnson was so disconnected from her players that she'd let something like bullying go unaddressed. She was a player's coach, 100 percent. How many other coaches would've just smirked and shaken their heads when, on a van drive back from an Arizona Interscholastic Association banquet and in the presence of the AD and this reporter, some male players from her 2001 team joked they wished her soon-to-be-born first child was a boy instead of a girl so he could be named Maximus Johnson?

It sickens me to no end when parents become so overbearing, so vicarious that they feel they know what's best for their kid from an athletic standpoint; especially when it comes to a scholastic team. Two of my three kids are getting into sports now, and the mantra I've uttered to myself-since the days of watching dads pull their daughters out of the dugout to warm them up as a way of showing the coach it was wrong for their girl not to be pitching—is that, when my kids are on that field or court, their coach is their parent. I'm just there to cheer them on.

It saddens me even more to see the dilemma Johnson now faces. Her oldest daughter, Jenna, is entering 7th grade at St. Cyril's, a main feeder school to Salpointe. And Jenna is, not surprisingly, a volleyball player who wants to go to Salpointe. This was a signed, sealed and delivered certainty until last month.

Now, Johnson wonders if she'll have to crush her daughter's dreams to save her from the possibility of institutional ridicule.

"I put everything into that school and now, how do I send my daughter there?" Johnson wonders. "Will they give her a fair shake?"