“I’m one parent away from being unemployed.”
That from a longtime local high school coach, when asked for reaction to the school board’s April 27 decision to open the Capital High girls head soccer coaching position -- effectively firing Nan Brisko after just one season on the job.
The route taken in order to reach that result was far removed from what had been standard procedure, and it has coaches concerned about future job security.
Former JV coach Alex Nyland -- who, along with assistant coach Lindsey Gilstrap, resigned immediately following the school board’s decision -- has been out of high school for nine years. She played soccer for Capital High for four seasons, and then served on the coaching staff for eight.
“I played fairly recently, and that’s why I’m so taken aback with everything,” she said. “This was not the way, when I was playing, anything would have been handled. Ever. When I would tell my mom what was happening, she was in awe. She could never fathom skipping straight from not even talking to the coach, not listening to what the principal had to say, and going straight to the school board.
“I’m in complete and utter shock by it. Because they skipped the majority of the steps in order to get what they wanted. They kept getting answers they didn’t want to hear, and continued until they got the one they did.”
The established procedure in the Helena School District calls for complaints and concerns to first be brought to the coach. The chain of command after that goes to principal to athletic director to superintendent.
In this instance, parents with both specific and general complaints about Brisko did not make an appointment to meet with the coaching staff during the regular season. Three weeks after the State AA Tournament had concluded, they set an appointment with Capital principal Brett Zanto. Their goal, according to a letter they would later send to the school board, was “that the contract of the current head coach not be renewed.”
Meeting with Zanto as a group, they were told that in order to address specific complaints with administration, it is “a long-standing practice in the Helena School District to require individual meetings when concerns are raised about any staff member, in order to provide a degree of confidentiality to all involved,” according to a letter to parents from Superintendent Kent Kultgen.
Most, Kultgen said, “refused and continued to request to meet as a group.”
The group was upset to later be told, in a conversation between Zanto and parent Mark Baker, that their concerns had been addressed and athletic director Jim Opitz had recommended Brisko for contract renewal. Calls and a message left with Baker by the IR on Saturday were not returned by press time.
When both Zanto and Opitz continued to require parents to meet one-on-one, they skipped ahead to Kultgen -- who also informed them of standard procedure to meet individually.
The parents then skipped past Kultgen, and sent a letter to the school board, asking for intervention.
That formal complaint included charges against Brisko of “bullying and intimidating conduct” and an assertion that “she is prohibited from coaching in the Helena Youth Soccer Association.”
This triggered a third-party investigation, costing the district $12,650, in which attorney Beth O’Halloran made a finding of “no misconduct” by the coach.
Specific charges against Brisko were “unsubstantiated,” “unable to be substantiated,” and in regards to her being banned from HYSA, “patently false.”
Still, the school board chair called a special meeting for April 27, where they fired Brisko in a 5-3 vote.
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Gilstrap said she felt she had no recourse but to resign in protest.
“For me, I think it was the moral and ethical implications of how the process was handled and the resulting outcome,” she said. “I was also incredibly concerned about the precedent and the message it sends to our student-athletes. For those reasons, my moral convictions were strong enough to say, ‘This isn’t right, and I can’t sit idly by and let this happen.’”
Precedent is now a word being discussed by many Helena coaches.
“I think we all have to think about that,” Capital boys soccer coach Paul Patterson said. “We deal with such a great deal of different personalities, with both players and parents. And I’ve coached long enough to know I don’t make everybody happy.
“It’s something I’ve thought about. I think it’s on everybody’s mind. You have to think about it.”
Former Capital football coach Pat Murphy, who led the Bruins to four state championships before stepping down from his position after 11 seasons in 2014, said the school board probably should have sent the issue back to the district, referencing procedure.
He said, too, that the complaints should have been addressed in the manner that has been established.
“Being around so many different districts and coaching for 31 years, they should’ve probably not gone that far and taken it to the school board. It just opens up a new can of worms,” he said. “The athletic director is there for a reason, and that should be your last stop. You would think you’d want your school board’s concern to be focused on academics, and let the athletic director and other administration deal with those issues.
“I’ve worked for four other districts. I worked for a small school where it kind of broke down like that years ago, and that’s what everybody just did was go to the school board. If there’s a protocol in place, you’ve gotta stick to that. If you don’t, the school board had better be ready. Because the parents will circumvent the coach and just go straight to the top of the chain of command.”
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Regardless of reason, coaches deal with parental complaints on a regular basis. The general consensus is that issues should be addressed quickly, rather than letting frustrations boil over.
But, too often, when parents do bring up their concerns the conversations aren’t pleasant.
“As a soccer coach, you have 20 some odd students playing for you, and you can’t make every single one of them happy. Ever,” Nyland said. “Two years ago, I got spit on by a parent. And I was just following the (Montana High School Association) rules that said she had to have 10 practices before she played. I was just following the rules, but I guess he didn’t agree.”
For Nyland, the ordeal has been particularly difficult.
“It’s been really hard on me. I won’t lie,” she said. “Capital’s kind of in my blood. So it was heart-wrenching when all this started happening. I personally know a lot of the parents that are doing this, so it’s been a tough experience for me.”
Longtime, former Helena High girls JV soccer coach Art Compton worked with Brisko for the decade in which she was on staff with the Bengals as an assistant coach. He said that while direct, she is a good coach.
“Nan knows her stuff. She coaches like she’s in a college program. No excuses, no whining, just hard work. Because that’s what it takes to win consistently in the competitive Western AA. Parents get used to the soccer dad-type coaches, the nurturing type -- like me -- because that’s mostly what Helena’s had since all this craziness started back in the early '90s.
“Nan is a competitive coach. Perhaps to a fault, perhaps not. Many parents simply don’t know what that is or how to protect their young player’s interests with one. And they really can’t and shouldn’t, anyway.”
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In addition to the precedent concern, multiple coaches also worry, like Gilstrap, about what students are taught by the school board’s decision.
“My biggest concern as a head coach is not getting fired,” a Helena High coach said. “My biggest concern is the message this sends to the kids in our community.”
The other worry, for Patterson, is that the decision will have a huge impact on the school’s soccer teams.
“We had a program again at Capital High. That was great,” he said. “We really liked the fact that we all had the same logo, and how we shared resources. It was good.
“I think the one thing I have to wonder about is why we spent all that money on an investigation and then we went away from their recommendation, the Superintendent’s recommendation, the athletic director’s recommendation and the principal’s recommendation. The things that were borne out in the investigation weren’t things that couldn’t be fixed like any other normal job you go to from 9 to 5. A little counseling, a little education. In a school district where we don’t have money just to throw away, why go through all this, especially when you have a coaching staff that is so experienced, in not only coaching but in playing? It just seems like a waste of resources.”
The investigative report, in fact, concluded that Brisko “should be trained or coached in effective communication with high school level players and monitored over the course of the season.”
That communication aspect is a learned-on-the-job skill, Murphy said.
Unfortunately for Brisko, she never got that opportunity.
“Often, it is the coach that is vilified, but there are many ways this unfortunate situation could have been played out,” he said. “The district does a good job of finding quality coaches that know the sport and the techniques and strategies involved to be successful. But probably the most important coaching trait, these days, is the communication piece of the job. This is often learned on the job and through years of experience.
“New head coaches either need to be trained or be guaranteed time to develop this trait. We have a great mentoring program for teachers in our district, but there is nothing for our coaches -- no one they can turn to if they need advice or guidance. Until we figure out this piece of the puzzle, we will continue to lose good coaches.”