Bullies disguise themselves. They’re not always the big kid on the playground.
In this case, the bully isn’t a kid or an individual person; it’s a school district that flexes its muscle toward anyone bold enough to cross it.
And Brian Tinker? He’s the bully’s latest victim.
Tinker, the former Fossil Ridge High School football coach, was informed March 25 by athletic director Ken Denning that his contract would not be renewed by Poudre School District. Stunning.
Tinker had been with the SaberCats for two seasons, going 5-5 and leading the school to the Class 5A playoffs in each — the only coach in school history to do so.
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He had momentum. No, scratch that. Because of him, Fossil Ridge had momentum. It has a NCAA Division I quarterback prospect, a Division I defensive end and will return more than a dozen starters in 2016. With Tinker at the helm, the SaberCats were on the brink of becoming the best team in Fort Collins.
The turnaround Fossil Ridge saw under Tinker spoke for itself. The SaberCats won as many games in his two seasons as they did the previous four, combined.
Tinker met all expectations in the only coaching evaluation he received (January 2015). The only areas of improvement listed were that Tinker should “Continue to learn Poudre/Fossil procedures” and “Read emails.”
So why did a coach who received high marks and breathed life into a program lose his job?
He stood up for what he believed in, and the bully didn’t like that.
I remember sitting in the IHOP on College Avenue early in the morning of a late August day with Tinker, his staff and his players.
The SaberCats had just completed a 15-mile overnight ruck walk, with stops along the way to discuss and honor fallen members of the military they had researched. Tinker wanted his players to earn the new camouflage uniforms the program’s booster club had purchased for military appreciation night — not simply wear them because they’re trendy.
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The SaberCats earned that right, but they wanted to take it a step further. They wanted to put the names of fallen soldiers across the back of the uniforms in place of their own names.
It was a request PSD had already denied.
News of the denial was something Tinker had informed me of a week prior, but he asked that I keep it under wraps for the time being. I agreed.
During that week, I received pressure from Fossil Ridge parents to spread the news of PSD’s denial. That morning at IHOP, I gave Tinker a choice. I told him, “This is your program, not the booster club’s program. Do you want this out there? Because I guarantee you it will go viral.”
Already frustrated with the district for taking his teaching position away earlier that summer, Tinker gave the green light.
He didn’t think he had anything left to lose. He never imagined he’d lose his coaching job for disagreeing with the district.
But he did.
As expected, the story quickly gained traction. National outlets ran with it, and the resulting firestorm led to the district being dishonest to parents in a mass email and later changing its stance as to why it wouldn’t allow names on the uniforms. Eventually, PSD tried to point blame toward state and national governing bodies.
PSD was within its right to deny Fossil Ridge’s request, but it was how everything was handled that caused embarrassment for the district. And rather than swallow its pride, PSD played the long game, waiting seven months until it sucker-punched the one person it thought it could inflict the most damage to — Tinker.
Let’s not pretend placing the names of fallen soldiers on the back of a football uniform is a civil right. Tinker wasn’t fighting for some kind of equality. But honoring the military in this way is something he and his team felt was the right thing to do. He took a stand.
Because of that — and only that — this beloved coach is unemployed.
Tinker was an at-will employee. PSD exercised its right as a public institution to not renew his annual contract.
Petty? Yes. Legal? Without question.
In addition, PSD is not required by law to give details as to why it decided to move Fossil Ridge football in a new direction. All the district has elected to tell the us was that Tinker’s non-renewal wasn’t a budget-based decision and that the central office was behind the move.
But what PSD didn’t understand when it retaliated against Tinker was that the only person the district meant to punish, ultimately, is the one it hurt the least. Good coaches find work.
PSD hurt its students. About 40 of them — Fossil Ridge players and managers — showed up at the district office at 8 a.m. Monday to protest Tinker’s termination, each dropping off personal essays explaining what the coach meant to them, followed by chants of “Tinker! Tinker!” and “We want justice!”
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Those were just the students who could get out of class. There were 60 more players who couldn’t play hooky, most of whom want their coach back.
Like any bully, PSD has created a culture of fear. Students who were vocal less than a week ago are no longer allowed to speak. When reporter Kevin Lytle arrived at Fossil Ridge on Friday, assistant coaches wouldn’t let him near their players, not even to talk about football topics unrelated to Tinker. I was told Tuesday by one assistant that PSD never told the staff why their head coach was let go.
Tinker has respectfully declined comment throughout the week.
The district doesn’t seem to care that these players looked to Tinker as a father figure, that he was instilling a winning attitude on and off the field.
PSD thrives on power, and it squashed Tinker without giving him a chance to hand over his lunch money.
For insight and analysis on athletics around Northern Colorado and the Mountain West, follow Sports Coach and columnist Matt L. Stephens at twitter.com/mattstephens and facebook.com/stephensreporting.