Monday, March 31, 2008

Amite High in turmoil

All of this legal wrangling regarding Alden Foster and the head football coaching job at Amite High School had its roots in the Jim Crow South and the push for African Americans to have equal access to a system that was supposed to be equal for all citizens from the get-go.

However, Foster’s involvement in the federal case against the Tangipahoa Parish School System and the subsequent ruling in his favor has its beginnings on the sidelines of Russell Memorial Stadium in two totally different time periods — way back in 1983, and weeks before the start of the 2006 season.

It was way back in 1983 when Foster first began developing his love of football, spending his time as a team manager for his beloved Amite Warriors and head coach Gary Hendry. That time shagging balls, carrying water and putting up shoulder pads gave the young Foster a dream — a dream that one day he would be in Hendry’s position, leading the charge of purple and gold to gridiron success.

“We didn’t have biddy leagues, and I just loved football so much,” Foster said.

Foster’s love affair with the game began two years after John Williams finished his tenure as Hammond High’s head football coach. Williams, the only black head football coach in the integration era, led the Tors from 1977 to 1981.

Foster grew up, going from team manager to standout player for the Warriors before playing collegiately at Southern University. He still remembered what Hendry, his old coach, told him — get an education and then become a head coach.

He did just that, taking the reins across the parish line at St. Helena Central and turning the Hawks into a Class 2A power as he went 65-49 in 10 seasons. That run included a trip to the Dome in 2004 before barely missing the playoffs in his last two seasons.

Then came those two weeks before the start of the 2006 season.

Donald Currier abruptly stepped down as Warriors’ head coach. Doug Misita led Amite as interim coach in the ‘06 season, finishing 5-4 in the regular season before losing to Catholic-New Iberia in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs.

Following that season, a vacancy at the helm of one of Louisiana’s top prep football programs in terms of success and talent.

Foster’s dream looked like it was in sight, and who can blame someone from wanting to go back home? He applied for the job, looking to have the opportunity to coach his alma mater. Amite assistant coach Mark Vining, himself a former Warrior, also applied for the job with the hopes of taking the helm of his beloved alma mater.

The two men, bonded together for their love of Amite High football and their mutual desire to lead the Warriors, put themselves through the crucible of an evaluation process mired in the imperfections of post-integration politics — politics resulting in things such as busing, changing schools, retracing attendance zone lines, majority-minority transfers, white flight and something called a “40/60 ratio” being used as a guideline for hiring coaches.

According to reports, U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle cited factors that influenced his decision — including the school system’s history of not hiring black head football coaches, the sometimes subjective nature of the supposedly objective hiring criteria, and a complicated formula for evaluating applicants’ past performance that could produce lower-than-expected scores.

To put Lemelle’s rulings into layman’s teams, Foster got screwed. However, Foster was not the only person to get shafted by the system.

Vining, who coached the Warriors to the Class 3A state semifinals and lost to eventual state champion Parkview Baptist, got the proverbial wood as well. This ruling will probably mean he gets slapped with the “just because he’s white” label by some people.

Although Vining scored highest in the hiring process, who knows how the scores would have turned out if things were done correctly and on a level playing field? Would he have scored lower than Foster or higher?

The same could be said in Foster’s case, in which he will get slapped with the “he got the job because he’s black” label by some people. Would he have scored lower or higher than Vining if the playing field was truly level and things were done correctly?

Let’s not forget the players gearing up for a spring with the possibility of being led through it by the fourth head coach in as many years. No matter how talented the players are, the uncertainty of who will coach them in the upcoming season hangs on their minds constantly.

All of this legal wrangling puts a cloud over Foster, Vining, Amite High School and the Tangipahoa Parish School System. It is a total disservice to Foster, Vining, the players and the Amite community.

The only thing that could lift that cloud hanging over 403 South Laurel Street is the community rallying around the game that Foster fell in love with as a child, a game that identifies Amite as much as anything else.

“You dream of a job like Amite,” Foster said. “You’re going to have talent and you’re going to have kids with the passion for the game. That passion you can’t teach elsewhere is already instilled in these kids at Amite from day one.”