An eighth grade basketball coach says he was fired from his job at a Portage Township middle school for lopsided scores, including a home-opening 90-10 victory.
The school district denies that allegation, saying coach Mike Kobe offered his resignation two weeks ago when he stormed out of the locker room during halftime of a game, throwing his clipboard and yelling, “I’m done.”
The controversy regarding Kobe and his Fegely Middle School team started, he said, when his team won by 80 points against Morgan Township on Nov. 1.
“I understand that we don’t want to run up scores, but we weren’t pressing, weren’t playing zone. We were playing solid man-to-man,” Kobe said. His team also shot 75 percent from 3-point range that evening.
“It was a game that is not going to happen again,” said Kobe, who coached the same boys in seventh grade last season, with an average winning margin of 30-plus points. He said he received no complaints that season from school officials.
But after that blowout Nov. 1, Fegely’s principal and assistant principal called a meeting with Kobe to talk about the game.
“We discussed everything from the score and how they wanted me to coach, pretty much about the (substitutions) I was making,” he said. “The starters were playing less than the subs at that point.”
Two weeks later, Kobe was out of a coaching job.
“It’s been painted as coach gets fired for winning or scoring too much. That’s just not it,” said Ken Elwood, the attorney representing Portage schools. “Did we receive complaints about the scores? Was coach talked to about those complaints? Absolutely.”
But the school system didn’t fire Kobe, Elwood says.
“He was not let go,” he said. “We accepted his resignation.”
Ruckus on the court
Kobe’s resignation, the school said, came in the form of a verbal, “I’m done,” at a Nov. 20 game against St. Paul Catholic, Valparaiso.
Fegely led St. Paul 34-7 at halftime. When the team went to the locker room so did Fegely’s athletic director Joe Bachan.
“He came in there and I looked over and said, ‘Excuse me, is there a problem?'” Kobe said.
Bachan then asked Kobe if he was going to play his second string, according to Kobe, who told Bachan he had played his bench the entire second quarter. Bachan was not made available for comment as school officials are talking only through Elwood.
“I played 11 kids that first half and the starters played under six minutes,” he said.
The Times of Northwest Indiana interviewed St. Paul athletic director Ray Tarnow after the game. Tarnow said he was fine with the outcome of the game and Kobe’s coaching and “there (were) no shenanigans there.”
That’s where Kobe tossed his clipboard and said, “I’m done with it.” He went to the locker room and assistant coach Dan Filla finished coaching the game. It was not a resignation, Kobe said.
‘Best for the kids’
Kobe, who was raised in Portage and played basketball through high school, said he has coached AAU, travel teams and leagues for years. He also runs the Portage Basketball Academy, a youth program.
His seventh grade Fegely team finished undefeated last year and his eighth grade team was unbeaten when he left. With two more games since then, the team remains undefeated.
Outside of school ball, Kobe coached the same boys this past summer as seventh graders, beating Carmel seventh graders by 30 points in a tournament, twice.
“If you beat Carmel by 30 you’re going to beat other teams from over here by 30-plus,” he said. “Carmel is basketball royalty in Indiana.”
IndyStar reached out to three of Fegely’s opposing teams from this season and did not get a response.
There are no rules in middle school about lopsided scores — such as banning the press or zone defense or initiating a running clock. Same goes at the high school level in basketball, said Jason Wille, spokesman for the Indiana High School Athletic Association.
For football, the National Federation of State High School Associations outlines national high school football rules, which do “allow for a running clock to be used at any time during a game as long as the referee and both coaches are in agreement to use it,” Wille said. “What we don’t have is a point differential that automatically triggers a running clock.”
A running clock would quickly take care of an 80-point win in basketball, said Solomon Alexander, director of the Sports Foundation and Sportsmanship Initiative at the St. Louis Sports Commission. But 20- or 30-point margins likely can’t be stopped, he said.
“With the skills sets among eighth graders varying so widely, that is going to happen, particularly in a sport like basketball,” he said. “And it would look silly to just be running around with the ball, under the basket and not doing anything.”
Alexander said it is the school’s obligation, whether in academics or extracurricular activities, to prepare middle schoolers for high school. Coaches should be giving all players time on the court.
“I think an 8th grade team, when run by the school, should want to include as many kids as possible playing,” he said.
But there is a fine line between sportsmanship and coddling an opponent, said Gene Milner, a member of the board of directors for the Indiana Basketball Coaches Association.
“Because it’s junior high you don’t automatically say everybody gets a medal,” he said. “There are lopsided scores at every level. You go to the pros and they get beaten by 40 points some games.”
In many cases coaches have enough respect for each other that they take reasonable measures to avert a blowout, Milner said. That could mean things such as not shooting 3-pointers and requiring five passes before a shot.
“But sometimes your players are just better all the way,” Milner said. “Sports is a competition. If the kid’s the last, worst player on the team, he’s still trying hard to compete.”
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