The outpouring of support for a fired Lincoln High School wrestling coach at last week’s Tacoma School Board meeting was impressive.
The heartfelt testimony, offered by a parade of student-athletes and parents proudly wearing Lincoln black-and-gold, showed the power of sports to elevate work ethic, maturity and self-esteem. It confirmed the power of a coach to change the lives of young men in one of Tacoma’s toughest neighborhoods.
What the testimony didn’t do is change a fundamental reality: All the virtues of team sports still can be realized when coaches abide by a strict code of conduct, and positive role modeling still can take place when coaches maintain firm professional boundaries.
Unfortunately, Lincoln coach Greg Ford Jr., ignored district training and was lax with nonnegotiable rules designed to protect children. In the end, he has nobody to blame but himself for being fired March 2 from a job he did well.
At the March 23 board meeting, Ford’s wrestlers hailed him as a generous mentor and strong father figure. Parents worried openly about their kids going back to the streets since Ford won’t return to coach the Abes for a fifth season. Some spoke of him getting a raw deal; others, that he deserves another chance.
One wrestler summed up Ford’s influence on him by quoting evangelist Billy Graham: “A coach will impact more people in one year than the average person will in an entire lifetime.”
There’s no doubt Ford had that kind of impact. And what a year it was, as Lincoln’s transformed program won seventh place in the 3A state wrestling championships — its best finish in two decades.
But school officials could not place the program’s success above the coach’s failure. He failed to follow clear policies created to shield students from improper contact, including sexual abuse.
Ford acknowledged to investigators that he gave athletes rides home from practice on several occasions, without written permission from parents and without notifying administrators. He also hosted wrestlers at his home for sleepovers the night before tournaments.
Ford played loose with the rules despite receiving district boundary-invasion training on three occasions — in 2014, 2015 and again last August. Investigative records obtained by the TNT this week show the coach kept providing rides last winter even after an administrator instructed him to stop.
It’s important to note that no complaints of bad behavior were lodged against Ford, and the district’s investigation found nothing scandalous.
Does that mean the coach was treated wrongly, as his defenders contend? That he was justified to err on the side of compassion when his athletes were left stranded? (“I don’t want to leave kids on the corner,” he told investigators.) That our litigious society has gone to extremes to protect students from the rare big, bad wolf?
Not at all.
Tacoma was ahead of the curve when it adopted aggressive staff-student boundary policies in 2010 — an urgency born not from theory or best practices, but from real, reprehensible abuse cases in local schools.
It started with Jennifer Rice, the Tacoma teacher convicted in 2009 of raping and kidnapping a 10-year-old student and raping the boy’s 15-year-old brother.
The public might have forgotten Rice and other violators of Tacoma’s educational trust — Donte Lipscomb, Keshia Shaw and Meredith Powell (a teacher at Lincoln), to name a few — but the district dare not forget.
Lipscomb was a Stadium High security guard and basketball coach sent to prison after he admitted having sex with three students between 2010 and 2012. One victim later sued the district for not firing him when it had a chance in 2009, when he worked at a different school.
After he was caught giving a girl a ride home. Without a parent’s permission.
Small wonder the district is now hyper-vigilant about employees playing taxi driver.
For anyone who puts absolute faith in coaches, the Seattle Times’ “Coaches who Prey” investigation, published in 2003, still makes for instructive reading. And the sordid trail of child sex abuse left by Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky should forever keep schools and parents on their toes.
Granted, coach Ford’s reported transgressions aren’t in the same universe as those betrayals, and we wish him no ill will. In time, if he learns from his lapses of judgment at Lincoln, he could be a fine addition to another sports program.
But probably not in Tacoma. History gives local school officials good reason to have a very short leash with boundary crossers.
They should take care to enforce their student-safety standards consistently, without fear or favor.