It was warm and muggy, but that didn’t matter, for opening night is always special for Alabama high school football teams. Walker hosted Cullman at Gambrell/Ki-Ro Field in Jasper, Ala. The rivals battled through four quarters before Cullman rallied from a 10-point deficit late in the game to pull out a heart-stopping 13-10 victory. Too bad the story about the game didn’t end there.
What had been a splendidly played season opener turned into something ugly, something that will carry negative ramifications for the rest of the year. Maybe longer than that.
As the exhausted teams began walking off the field, without the traditional postgame handshake, a Cullman assistant coach, Matt Hopper, walked by the Walker sidelines near the 30-yard line, where a TV clip shows Coach John Holladay taking a step or two toward Hopper and launching a punch with his right hand. The men fell to the ground and battled until separated by other coaches and police. Hopper seemed to get the worst of it, showing a bruised and bloody face and a ripped shirt.
It was another moment where sportsmanship was benched in favor of mayhem. But this flare-up was different. It was two coaches, men who should have known better, and not teenage athletes still learning to control their emotions.
What precipitated the fight remains unclear. What is clear is the quick action taken by the Alabama High School Athletic Association and its executive director, Steve Savarese. Both coaches drew season-ending suspensions. Walker, partially because of a football incident last year, has been disqualified from this year’s playoffs. Each school was fined $1,500.
Earlier in the week, Holladay, who led his team to a region championship last year, had been placed on administrative leave and an interim coach was named. He resigned the next day, ending a seven-year career there having won two-thirds of his games.
Eliot Hopkins, director of educational services for the National Federation of State High School Associations, said coaches are considered an extension of the classroom. “They are the teachers, so this is quite concerning,” he said.
With nearly 8 million boys and girls participating in sports across the country, things happen – the ugly ones become big news -- but most are usually dealt with swiftly and resolved. Hopkins doesn’t see an uptick in violence in high school sanctioned sports, although it could be more pervasive in travel team or club sports, where there is less game supervision and oversight. School boards and administrations normally step in and address negative issues quickly.
The two Alabama schools have also had to deal with harsh publicity, both inside and outside the state. Some sportswriters had called on the two schools to be suspended from the state playoffs. That would have been harsh, especially for the players who weren’t involved in the melee. Then again, outrageous acts deserve strong sanctions.
Both Cullman and Walker had to know severe penalties would be forthcoming. In August, the AHSAA issued a stern report about the growing prevalence of poor sportsmanship. The survey noted an increase in fines and ejections among coaches and players in 2012. According to the report, in the 2012-13 school year there were 684 ejections – including 50 involving coaches – compared to 153 the previous year. The AHSAA’s Savarese said reducing those numbers was a priority.
Clearly, there was growing tension between the two schools. Cullman Times sports writer Rob Ketcham wrote that the “brouhaha was not all that surprising considering the bad blood that has arisen between the rivals in recent years.” Last season’s 30-0 playoff victory by Cullman produced a “near brawl” late in the game. Given all that’s happened, maybe the time has come to shut down this rivalry, at least for a while.
The tragedy in Alabama is that the damage has been done and the schools must live with the shame and embarrassment. It’s now part of their history, a chapter it would rather not publicize.
The federation’s Hopkins said the lesson to be learned is that it takes “only a moment” to tarnish 30 or 40 years of outstanding work. Coaches must follow their better instincts. “Don’t walk through that door,” he advised.
For those who do, there’s no turning back.
Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.