Tom Mihalovich era ends at Des Moines Lincoln

Tom Mihalovich era ends at Des Moines Lincoln

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Tom Mihalovich era ends at Des Moines Lincoln

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When it all ended — the five hours of school board hearings and the 12-year era of Lincoln football — Tom Mihalovich navigated through a throng of supporters to a corner where he was surrounded by television cameras.
It was there that the candid 55-year-old reflected on the past late Wednesday night, pondered his future and unloaded on several of the figures he felt contributed to his firing. Near him, family, friends and former players cried, hugged and protested the removal of a coach who led Des Moines Lincoln High School to unprecedented heights.
Mihalovich built the reputation of a hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach during his days leading the Railsplitters. The lifelong south sider took over at Lincoln in 2001, inheriting a program that had lost 14 consecutive games, hadn’t posted a winning season in seven years and hadn’t reached the postseason since 1976.
The Railsplitters reached the playoffs six times in the last seven years — more postseason appearances than fellow metro public schools North, Hoover and Roosevelt combined — and compiled a 57-51 record under Mihalovich.
But, ultimately, it was the handling of a former player, one who had never played a varsity down at Lincoln, that led to Mihalovich’s dismissal after a lengthy and tense school board special hearing.
Sophomore Dante Campero’s critical Twitter post of the Lincoln varsity squad on Aug. 31 and his subsequent punishment sparked a six-week chain of suspensions, investigations, protests and testimony that culminated with the school board voting 4-2, with one abstention, to approve interim superintendent Tom Ahart’s recommendation to dismiss Mihalovich.
“They just lost a hell of a coach and a hell of an educator,” said Mihalovich, an at-will employee whose contract paid him a maximum of $6,319 for the 2012-13 school year. “They talk all about the kids. Listen to me, I’m there because of the kids and there’s no other reason. I’m not there for a stipend.”
A Des Moines Public Schools investigation concluded that Mihalovich violated policies for bullying, harassment and corporal punishment when Campero was subjected to extra conditioning and forced to stand in front of the varsity squad and repeat what he wrote about the Railsplitters.
Drew Bracken, the attorney who represented the superintendent, also argued that freedom of speech permitted Campero to criticize the team without facing punishment.
Approximately two dozen Lincoln players sat quietly in the back of the board room Wednesday night as they learned of Mihalovich’s fate. Thursday afternoon, they boarded a bus to play at Sioux City East as the program prepares to turn the page to the next chapter of Lincoln football.
“As much as everybody is focused on football, it’s not just football,” said Lincoln junior Donny Reinig, the last player to leave the board room. “They want to say he’s (guilty) of something, they want to say he’s cussing at players and mistreating them. But the whole team was here supporting him and you don’t support somebody that doesn’t support you.”
The school board also voted to fire assistant coach Kevin Johnston. Larry Gamblin, a non-licensed volunteer assistant, was also dismissed from the program.
Mihalovich said “rules were made up” during the investigation process and said he was undermined by former colleagues lobbying for his job.
“I told my attorneys I was dead man walking three weeks ago,” he said. “This is what they do. You want to be honest. I’ve got a couple coaches — coach (Joe) Bianchi and coach (Tom) Alessio on that staff — and some freshman coaches who put some falsehoods in there that want my job. … They’re going to have to live with that.”
Bianchi declined Wednesday to comment on Mihalovich’s accusations. The Railsplitters are 2-5 overall this season and entered Thursday’s game in a three-way tie for third in Class 4-A’s Division 1.
“Right now our focus is just on this season and that’s what we’re going to stay focused on for now,” Bianchi said. “They’ve handled the adversity fairly well, and I’m proud of them for that.”
The Lincoln controversy received attention in recent days on prominent national sports blogs, and one of Mihalovich’s most well-known pupils weighed in on Twitter.
“I’ve always been a proud Lincoln alum, but I cannot back them after this,” Washington Redskins defensive back Jordan Bernstine wrote. “LHS gets no more support or respect. I’m with Coach Mihalovich!”
He also posted: “Lost all respect for (athletic director Phil) Chia, Bianchi, & Alessio. Your hidden agendas will come to the light soon enough. New doors will open for coach M!”
Mihalovich said he wants to continue coaching. As the door closed on his career at Lincoln, he paused for several seconds when asked how he would’ve handled the Campero situation differently in retrospect.
“Probably kicked him off the team immediately,” Mihalovich said. “Then I wouldn’t have been here.”

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Tom Mihalovich era ends at Des Moines Lincoln
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