When Dave Fernandes met with athletic director Pete Kuczma last week, every question he posed resulted in the same answer. Kuczma, the former coach in his second stint as athletic director, held a consistent refrain with Fernandes, who he had hired as Horace Greeley’s basketball coach 24 years ago: The school wanted to take the program in a different direction, he said — one, of course, that wouldn’t include Fernandes.
“I said, ‘Twenty-four years coaching varsity basketball and all the years I’ve known you and that’s all you’re going to tell me?'” Fernandes said.
The sting of his abrupt dismissal surprised both Fernandes and members of the Chappaqua community, who have rallied to support the longtime coach. Former and current players and parents gathered to sign a petition on Fernandes’ behalf Wednesday night during a New Castle-sponsored outdoor concert at the fields near Bell Middle School.
Rob Cross, who played for Fernandes from 2008-10, drove down and back from Glens Falls Wednesday to speak to the crowd. Cross, who coached high school basketball last winter in Tennessee, felt he repaid the commitment Fernandes showed him as a teenager.
“He always told me, ‘When you make it big, I’ll drive the car for you. I just want to be a part of what you’re doing,'” Cross said. “He just always had my back.”
The deep reservoir of support in the wake of Fernandes’ dismissal begged the question: Was it fair? Fernandes has worked as a coach in the district for three decades after earning his start under Kuczma when Kuczma was the varsity coach. Fernandes became a custodian at the school in Dec. 1986 and is currently the head custodian.
He has received noteworthy support from one of the district’s most notable recent alumni — athlete or not — Matt Townsend, a four-year player and graduate from Yale attending Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship.
“I wouldn’t be nearly the same person or player I am today without Dave,” Townsend said Wednesday by phone. “Out of all the coaches I’ve had from Greeley to AAU to Division I and now playing in the British university league, coach Dave is probably the best example of selflessness that I can think of. To me this is kind of an issue of how you treat someone in your community who has given so much over so many years. On those grounds, asking Dave to resign seems wrong. I’d just like some more transparency on the issue. If he’s being dismissed, then on what grounds?”
When reached by e-mail and phone, respectively, neither the school board nor Kuczma would comment on the decision. Board president Alyson Gardner said, “We do not comment on personnel matters.”
But even personally, Fernandes believes the explanation he received fell short. He was told by Kuczma that his coaching style had changed in recent years, but Fernandes said it was the first direct critique he had received regarding his coaching.
A tipping point may have been reached last fall when Fernandes’ longtime volunteer assistant, Gary Abrams, was dismissed just two games into the season. Abrams, who coached 11 years with Fernandes, received late approval from the school board after a push was made to prevent him from coaching. Abrams had a son who joined the varsity last season — he had coached without his older son eight years prior — and the district has since ruled that volunteer assistants cannot coach if he or she have a child on the team.
Fernandes considered Abrams a strong ally on the bench and thought his absence hurt the team’s results. The Quakers finished just 8-13 and lost at home to Ramapo in a Class AA outbracket game.
“That hurt the program,” Fernandes said. “He’s a great coach.”
Abrams denied that he or Fernandes showed his son any favoritism.
“He started every game when I was there and started every game when I was sitting in the stands,” Abrams said. “Dave thought he could help them win.”f
Along with players and parents, Abrams has been a central figure in the fight to get Fernandes reinstated. Fernandes said he hoped to at least coach a 25th season and had begun to consider a retirement from coaching, but he had no immediate plans to do so.
Fernandes certainly wanted to return the program to some semblance of normalcy. The Quakers twice reached the County Center during his tenure and were often at or above .500, but the Abrams situation and a losing record marred what appears to be his last season at Greeley.
“I don’t know how many more years he was going to be there,” Abrams said. “It was definitely a rough year for Greeley basketball. It was a tough year for the kids, a tough year for the parents and a tough year for Dave. He didn’t want to go out like that.”
“He had been leading Greeley basketball for longer than I’ve been alive,” Townsend said. “That should count for something.”