Thursday, April 3, 2003

Cape super allegedly berates then fires hoop coach

Published in the Current; co-written with Rich Obrey

In a Wednesday morning meeting at Cape Elizabeth High School open only to boys varsity basketball players and their parents, Superintendent Tom Forcella explained the process that led to the seemingly abrupt firing of longtime basketball coach Jim Ray.

Though no one contacted by the Current could confirm any details, the central issue of Ray’s dismissal appears to be an intense and demanding, sometimes harsh, coaching style that has alienated some players and parents.

At the same time, some Ray supporters are questioning Forcella’s objectivity.

After the meeting, parents and players unhappy with the firing of Ray told the Current that Forcella, a basketball coach himself with two sons on the varsity team, was openly critical of Ray during the season, which ended Feb. 15 with a quarterfinal playoff loss to Greely, 50-37, at the Augusta Civic Center.

According to parent Dave Reid, with Cape behind by a dozen points late in the playoff game, Ray took out two players who had been in most of the game, substituting with two seniors who hadn’t played much. “Dr. Forcella was heard by many fans in the stands, some players and our coach,” swearing, Reid said, and “asking (Ray) if he was quitting.”

“Forcella was livid,” said Reid, “and openly called (Ray) a quitter, yelled at him so that many people heard.”

One of those people, who requested anonymity, corroborated the swearing allegation.

Another parent, John Doherty, said he also saw Forcella after the Greely loss “from 10 yards away” and “he was out of control, I’ll just say that, out of control, livid.”

“Quite frankly,” Reid said, “I was appalled that a man in his position would be so publicly raking over the coach, prior to the end of the game. He continued it after the game, which is when (Forcella) spoke to me.”

Forcella denied swearing during any game, or ever. “I don’t swear. You can call my wife,” he said.

Cape Elizabeth School Board member Kevin Sweeney supported Forcella. “I have never heard a complaint” about Forcella’s behavior, Sweeney said. “If there was any intimation that that had happened, I think (the School Board) would have known about it.”

Sweeney also said that if Forcella had been misbehaving, parents should have alerted the board. “Were they going to let this slide?” Sweeney asked.

Forcella is involved in the story on many levels. His son, Dan, has been a varsity starter for three years, since he was a freshman, and without too much argument is the best player on the team. Another son, John, is the only freshman to make the varsity squad this year. Both boys play for AAU basketball teams in the summer, and Superintendent Forcella is their coach. All three went to national tournaments last summer.

In addition, Forcella coached a team of Cape underclassmen who took the YMCA league championship in Portland last year, a prestigious accomplishment that led to the Cape boys team being ranked high in pre-season polls. Despite the championship, Forcella was not asked to coach this year’s YMCA team, a decision made by Ray.

Firing surprises many
Ray’s firing caught many in town by surprise. Apparently, most people heard about Ray’s dismissal the same way, by reading the advertisement in the classified section in last Sunday’s Maine Sunday Telegram announcing a “coaching opportunity.”

Contacted at home Monday, Ray was reluctant to say much. “I’m not supposed to talk about this,” he said, “so let me just say this. I’m still interested in coaching at Cape Elizabeth. I’d like to talk about it, but I’ve been instructed by my principal and superintendent not to do so.”

“I did not resign,” he added, “and I do want to coach. I’m not pleased, as you can probably tell.”

A group of parents and players showed up at the high school Monday morning and demanded a meeting with principal Jeff Shedd and Forcella. Forcella was unavailable, so the meeting was scheduled for early Wednesday.

Attendance at the meeting was restricted to varsity players and their parents. Junior varsity players were turned away, as were the media and other interested parties.

“I don’t know where they get off doing that,” said School Board member Sweeney when told the doors were closed. “It’s a public building.”

Forcella told the Current “it’s like a parent conference,” and was therefore confidential. He promised another session with non-varsity players and parents “within the next couple days.”

For the most part, according to Reid, the 40-minute meeting was mostly calm. After Forcella explained the process that led to Ray’s dismissal, he fielded questions from the parents, many of which he wouldn’t answer because it concerned a “personnel issue.” According to Reid, Forcella indicated that there were a lot of “issues” with Ray even before the season, issues “that you all know about.”

When Forcella was interrupted by parents who “didn’t have any idea what he was talking about,” Reid said, Forcella declined to elaborate. Instead, Forcella told the group “this is a personnel issue, this is a school issue, it will be handled internally.”

Controversy stirred
Forcella told the Current after the meeting that he had expressly told interested School Board members not to attend, so that the meeting could take place behind closed doors.

He said the decision to fire Ray was based on a formal evaluation by high school Principal Jeff Shedd, who had developed pre-season goals and objectives with Ray. “(Shedd) did not recommend him for rehire,” Forcella said. That was just a recommendation, however. “The final say is with me,” Forcella said.

Shedd said he had recommended Ray not be rehired. “I didn’t feel able to recommend him at that time,” Shedd said. He would not say why. Shedd said the arrangement under which he evaluates Ray is “unusual,” and said he has not evaluated any other coaches.

Shedd said the arrangement is in place because Athletic Administrator Keith Weatherbie, who evaluates all other coaches, has a possible conflict of interest because Ray’s wife, Susan, works in Weatherbie’s office.

Ray said he received his postseason evaluation just before the McDonald’s all-star games in Bangor last month, which he attends as president of the Maine Association of Basketball Coaches, a post he’s held since 1999.

Ray said he took the evaluation with him to read and consider, “but didn’t sign (it) because I couldn’t agree with it.”

Controversy swirled publicly around Ray this season after he identified to two newspapers (including this one) a player suspended from the team for violating school policy. Colin Malone, 18, a starter and one of the team’s key players, was suspended for the season after attending a party at Sugarloaf on New Year’s Eve.

Forcella said a one-hour closed-door meeting between the School Board and Malone’s parents Jan. 16 “had no bearing at all” on the decision to fire Ray.

Malone himself spoke to the Current in support of Ray. “He knows more about basketball than anyone I’ve ever met,” Malone said. “He’s always treated me with a lot of respect.”

Students and parents who were excluded from the meeting Wednesday expressed frustration at being left out, with one asking why parents of JV players, “who were looking forward” to playing under Ray, were kept out. Ray himself was not in the meeting, either.

“I am definitely not happy now,” said Allie Knight, a senior. “Dr. Forcella shouldn’t even have a vote on this issue because he has two kids on this team.”

“(Ray) would have been the girls (basketball) head varsity coach if it weren’t for Dr. Forcella,” said Margie Reid, a senior on that team, which was coached by Ray for two weeks before the season began.

Forcella said Ray can appeal the decision to the School Board.

Ray a true Caper
Cut Ray and he’ll probably bleed maroon instead of red. A 1980 Cape graduate, he was a star on the basketball team himself.

He is third on the school’s all-time scorers list, with 966 points, and is the career leader in assists, with 420. He achieved similar success at USM before graduating in 1984.

He’s 18th on the all-time scorers list, and the career leader in assists with 624. In 1999, Ray was inducted into USM’s sports hall of fame.

Ray was an assistant coach for John Casey before taking over the girls program at Cape for two years. In 1994, Casey resigned after eight seasons, and Ray transferred to the boys program, where he’s been ever since.

“It was always my goal to become a varsity coach,” said Ray, in a Portland Press Herald article about his hiring. “I was anxious to get my own program.”

It’s been a tough year for basketball coaches in Maine. First, the boys varsity coach at Traip Academy, Matt Mitchell, was fired early this season when 10 of 13 players on his 5-2 team quit over their unhappiness with his methods.

Next, Bonny Eagle’s boys basketball head coach, T.J. Hesler, was suspended in mid-season while school administrators investigated complaints from parents and players. After sitting out two games, Hesler was reinstated, but resigned after the season.

Ray’s situation was a hot topic on a web site devoted to Maine basketball. More than 60 messages on the topic have been posted at since Monday night, generating over 6000 “views” by people reading them. Little of the information was more than speculation or second-hand, however, and all of it delivered from behind anonymous user names.