Resignation of varsity football coach sparks discussion of vision for athletics department

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In a letter sent to the Boston Herald, Kevin Mahoney announced his resignation as the head coach of the varsity football team, citing a “vision for the football program that is not the same as the athletic director’s (Pete Rittenburg)”. Mahoney was hired in April 2010 and coached the team to a 6-27 record in the Bay State Conference during his three-year tenure, according to statistics from Boston.com.

The difference in vision between Mahoney and Rittenburg has prompted discussion about the state of the athletics department and the culture surrounding sports at the high school.

Brookline’s winning percentage over the last two school years displays a lack of success in terms of wins and losses. According to standings posted on Boston.com, in 2011-2012, Brookline posted a .432 winning percentage across all sports, ranking 8 out of 12 in the Bay State Conference. For the fall and winter seasons in 2012-2013, Brookline posted a .335 winning percentage across all sports, ranking 10 out of 12. Newton North, which has a similar student population and demographic, had the highest Bay State winning percentage in 2011-2012 (.657) and in 2012-2013 (.648 so far).

Despite the 4-27 record posted by the team during his tenure, many players felt that Mahoney was a good coach. Senior Ailson Carvalho was recruited to play football by Mahoney when he was in 8th grade at Driscoll School.

“Him coming to talk to us made it much more exciting,” Carvalho said. “Since that day, he has played a huge role in my football career because he helped mold me to the football player and young man I am today.”

Jonah Morganstern-Gaines ‘12 played his freshman, junior and senior years under Mahoney.

“He really gave me my football career. Without him and his coaching staff, I would never have gained the fundamentals and general mindset needed to perform well on the football field,” Morganstern-Gaines said. “Mahoney taught me what it meant to be disciplined and showed me what a real strong work ethic looks like.”

Senior AJ Levine played football freshman and senior years. Despite not playing football for two years, Mahoney kept in contact and tried to recruit him to play football.

“Coach Mahoney and I always maintained a good relationship. He would always check in on other sports. He would come to basketball games. A big supporter of basketball and baseball teams, so I knew the support was there and he definitely pursued me,” Levine said. “To know that we had a coach that supported that and was a part of it, made me want to come back.”

After Mahoney was hired in 2010, Rittenburg told the Brookline Tab that he thought Mahoney had a strong vision for the program and that his strengths are “history and determination and grit.” However, in his letter of resignation, Mahoney stated that there was a difference in vision.

“Difference in vision for the program is the light way of saying that we don’t see eye-to-eye on things. The clearest example of that is the handling of the appeal,” Mahoney said.

Rittenburg, on behalf of the high school, recently appealed to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to either move down to Division II football or move to Division I North to avoid playing Thanksgiving day rival Newton North more than once during the season.

In his letter of resignation, Mahoney stated that he made numerous requests from the day he was hired to move the football program to an independent schedule in order to “give the current players scheduling relief” and to address the low number of players on the team and the problems in youth program. An independent schedule, which functions outside of the Bay State Conference, would allow the team to play fewer games and choose which schools they would play over the course of a season.

Mahoney felt that moving the team down to Division II or operating on an independent schedule outside of the division would highly benefit the team.

“It’s not so much the division that is going to save the program. The division is more about giving the kids a chance to compete because we’ve been having trouble competing,” Mahoney said. “We have a very good case to go down to Division II. The manner at which we approached the MIAA board didn’t sit right with me. We should’ve been approaching saying that we can’t compete.”

According to Danny Ventura of the Boston Herald, “Rittenburg has no problems with being a Division I school.” The appeal ultimately focused more on the potential move from Division I South to Division I North rather than a move to Division II South, although a move to DII football was also considered. In an interview with the Brookline Tab, Rittenburg stated “going to Division II wouldn’t be a step down.”

Mahoney does not believe the football program should be at the Division I level.

“I think you would be hard pressed to find someone that argues that we do. Natick and Walpole are both Division II, and those are both good teams. Xaverian and St. John’s Prep and Brockton, those are great teams,” Mahoney said. “There’s a difference between playing a good team in football and playing a great team in football. There is a big difference and that speaks to playing at the most appropriate level to achieve optimal personal growth.”

Laz Mitjans, now an assistant football coach at the Rivers School, also does not believe Brookline is qualified to play Division I football. Mitjans resigned as head coach of the varsity football team after the 2009 season.

“Drop them down one level, drop them two levels and if they succeed, then you bring them up. If they start winning, kids will come out,” Mitjans said.

Rittenburg, however, believes that the success of a program has a lot to do with the coach.

“There are many things that can be learned as a coach. Educational athletics we call them at the high school,” Rittenburg said. “The coach, in a role model capacity and a teaching capacity, has to be always looking for the positive, needs to be patient, needs to be mature and hopefully those things come off in a program and would give any student-athlete in a program a positive feeling coming out of that program. So, to me, that’s the more important thing, to be learning things. Maybe that comes out in wins and losses, maybe that doesn’t, over time.”

In the mission statement of Brookline High School Athletics, it is stated that “all teams will be qualified to participate in their respective leagues.” Since 2008, the football program has been 11-75.

Rittenburg said that the athletics department seeks to attract and offer participation opportunity for as many Brookline High students as possible.

Several former coaches and players believed that a losing record might contribute to low recruitment numbers.

Despite praise for coaching staff, the football team has had trouble getting students to come out to play. According to Mahoney, the largest number of students that he had was 46. The lowest was 27 in part due to injuries on the team.

There was not a lot of help from the administration to garner support and participation from the students, despite the lack of attendance on the football team, according to Mitjans.

In a conversation with Boston Herald high school sports writer Danny Ventura on Twitter, Mitjans tweeted, “Hard place to win #brookline” and “I agree, no support for the football program from the hierarchy when I was there #noneatall. Headmaster, AD and Asst. AD.”

Players under Mitjans also felt frustrated with the lack of support from administration.

Irvin Scott ‘10, who now plays football for the College of Holy Cross, said he was frustrated with having to go out of his way “to encourage people to play for or support the football team.”

“That’s something that administrators should work together and accomplish on their own time. I definitely felt like there was little concern for the team, like we were a lost cause,” Scott said. “Just a lack of enthusiasm in general. No push to make changes: our coach did that all himself. Same thing with Mahoney.

Scott also noted that, “from a personal standpoint, Rittenburg had always been an honest man and hardworking AD.”

Shaquille Brummitt ‘10, who plays football at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth agreed that there was a lack of support for the team.

“I feel like by the end of my run on the team, Rittenburg was losing faith and therefore putting less and less into the program,” Brummitt said. “That’s just the way it seemed. I have no real examples of this, but I think everyone felt this way.”

Players under Mahoney expressed similar feelings towards the athletics department as those who played under Mitjans.

“Mahoney only ever wanted what was best for the football program, and I just think Rittenburg passed on his ideas to avoid doing extra work on the football team’s behalf.” Morganstern-Gaines said. “When it comes down to it, Brookline hasn’t been a football town in years, and Rittenburg is just another member of the group who doesn’t care either way. Just disappointing.”

Carvalho felt that there could have been more done with the middle school program.

“Any great football program starts with a successful and consistent middle school team, and we have not been consistent with even having a middle school team due to, I believe, the lack of advertising it,” Carvalho said.

Some athletes, however, felt that Rittenburg has given support to their programs.

“Mr. Rittenburg was always supportive of our program morally even though he was rarely present at our games. Our schedule got changed a lot throughout the three years that I was on varsity. Mr. Rittenburg worked with Coach Katz to get us playoff games at Parsons Field,” said Ari Zimmet ‘12, a captain of the boys soccer team his senior year.

“I think that the athletics department definitely gives their full support of the program. I think they did an amazing job keeping the program alive and doing everything possible to make the team better,” Sydney Karnovsky ‘12, captain of the girls hockey team her senior year, said via email.

While some athletes have felt that Rittenburg has given his support behind their programs, others on losing teams have felt that there was a lack of attention behind their teams.

Dani Lantos ‘12 wishes more support was given to the softball program, which went 0-16 in 2012.

“All of our uniforms have been a combination of old basketball and lacrosse uniforms. We’ve had the same uniforms as our coach, and she is 23 years old. She was at the high school almost ten years ago,” Lantos said. “We don’t play based on our uniforms, but it affects the feeling that ‘we matter.’”

Senior Claire Meyerovitz is a member of the gymnastics team, which went 1-12 in league play over the last two years. Meyerovitz does not feel that the athletics department has gone out of its way to support the program, despite the team’s struggles.

“They did allow us to practice at an outside gym instead of in Tappan after my freshman year, which was definitely needed since our equipment at the school was terrible and not very safe. However, we have had some issues with transportation,” Meyerovitz said. “A couple weeks ago, we were waiting for the bus to come to take us to our meet, but when our coach called we discovered that someone had forgotten to order us a bus. The program has definitely improved with the change of practice location, but we are still definitely low on the department’s list of priorities.”

Rittenburg said that he “would speak more to the decision to move off campus” for the gymnastics team rather than the missing bus.

“It’s a trend that we see almost everywhere else in the league. Outside gyms offer much better and safer training equipment. It’s an expensive sport, so though I’ve felt that it’s not ideal to be having to bus kids off campus to practice when we could potentially house them here,” Rittenburg said. “The move off campus was judged to be a good one. I apologize if we somehow missed a bus, but it’s not the only sport that it has ever happened to.”

Headmaster Deborah Holman, formerly the assistant headmaster at Newton North, says that there are challenges facing Brookline High that do not affect Newton North.

“Some of our challenges are geographic in that we have limited field space here on campus so we go out into the Brookline community for fields. So it’s a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. In my experience at Newton North, the fields, baseball, softball and tennis courts were right there,” Holman said. “When we were building the new building, we lost all of our fields and we had to do what Brookline High School does and attendance at our sports events did go down, so I know what that feels like.”

“We know that we have at least more than half of the student body doing at least one sport and we have a wide offering of sports, more than any other high school,” Rittenburg said. “It’s great for our kids and frustrating for coaches, but it essentially develops a competition between sports in the high school. You can argue whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.”

Despite the criticisms of the department, Rittenburg is trying to do what he believes is best for the athletics program. However, if there are any issues with anything, he wants to hear it.

“I’m not always available, but you can find me, one-on-one. I feel like I hear it; we’re responding to things all the time,” Rittenburg said. “It’s difficult to make every single person happy one hundred percent of the time, but take Irvin Scott’s word. I think I’m going at it honestly and in a hard working fashion.”

Joon Lee can be contacted at [email protected]