The father of a junior varsity basketball player at Williamsville South High School said ousted coach Al Monaco ridiculed his son about his weight to the point that his son's health suffered, prompting him to file a complaint with the school authorities and police.
Monaco denied the allegation and said the father's complaint was about his son's playing time and about allegations that his son was bullying other players, a charge the father denied.
Marvin Sanford's complaint about Monaco is the most specific allegation to come to light since Monaco lost his coaching job last month.
Sanford said Monaco repeatedly ridiculed his son during the season, making food and weight-related comments at his son's expense.
Based on information gathered by The News, it appears unlikely that Sanford's complaints alone resulted in the district's decision, but coupled with additional complaints from other parents and students, it may have been a factor that led to Superintendent Scott Martzloff's decision to dismiss Monaco as coach.
Sanford, a Buffalo police officer, portrayed Monaco as an insensitive coach who should have realized that his off-handed comments and fat jokes could harm a child under his supervision.
He said he didn't have an issue with Monaco until the night of the second to the last game of the season, when he said his son attempted to dissuade him from attending the game because Monaco was coaching. He said his son told him Monaco wouldn't play him and didn't like him but declined to explain until the car ride home afterward.
"My kid is sitting there in the car with me, and he has tears in his eyes," Sanford said.
That's when his son said the coach routinely made comments at his expense, including comments about his weight.
Sanford said his son told him Monaco regularly made comments when he was with his peers about the food he was eating or might want to eat.
"Hey, fat kid, you know you want another one," was one comment Sanford attributed to Monaco.
Sanford said he spoke with Monaco the next day to find out what was going on but that Monaco denied there was a problem or that he had any issues with Sanford's son. As the conversation heated up, Monaco told Sanford that he'd gotten a report a week or so prior that Joe and other JV sophomores were bullying other kids on the team, according to Sanford.
"He referred to my son as part of a gang, or mafia," Sanford said.
Sanford questioned Monaco's honesty, because, he said, at no time did anyone bring to his attention that his son was bullying or harassing other children.
Around this same time, Sanford became concerned about his son's health. After his conversation with Monaco, his oldest son came forward and told his father about Joe's weight-loss related illness. To protect Joe's privacy, Sanford said he didn't want to disclose the exact nature of Joe's illness, except to call it a "health crisis."
After his conversation with Monaco, Sanford said he took matters to higher-ups, eventually filing a police report.
Monaco's take on the events is much different.
He said he had no issues with Joe or his family and called Joe a good kid with whom he had little direct contact as a varsity coach. When Sanford came to him just before the last game of the season, it was to complain about the fact that his son didn't get called up to the varsity for the playoffs.
"The father talked plenty about playing time," Monaco said.
Monaco said he didn't recall specific instances where he made jokes about Joe, though he does joke with players.
"In no way did I intentionally try to harm any kid," Monaco said, adding that he did not make any disparaging, weight-related comments about Sanford's son.
Both Sanford and Monaco agree that Joe never raised the issue on his own or complained about the comments to other adults.
"I wish my son would have come to me sooner," Sanford said.
Monaco also said that while the youth was not considered a troublemaker and he never had any problems with Joe, another parent complained about Joe's and other JV players' behavior a week or so before Sanford spoke to Monaco. That parent was concerned for her son's physical safety around the older JV players, including Joe, according to Monaco. Prior to that, both Monaco and Sanford said the youth had not been considered a troublemaker.
Monaco said he had always had a good relationship with the junior varsity basketball player.
Monaco also questioned Sanford's credibility, saying South Principal Daniel Ljiljanich and Superintendent Scott Martzloff told him and his union representative that Sanford secretly taped his meeting with the coach Feb. 16, though Sanford denied taping the meeting in an interview with The News.
"To me, if he lied to the superintendent and the principal about secretly taping this meeting, then what else has he lied about to them, and what credibility can he possibly have in any of these other allegations?" Monaco said.
Sanford said his son had a good experience at the JV basketball level and had great respect for the JV coach, going so far as to raise a collection from other teammates for a gift card for the coach at the end of the season. Playing time was never an issue, Sanford said.
"I didn't care if my son was a water boy," he said.
Given his work as a Buffalo police officer where he sees kids his son's age shot in the head, Sanford said, he was grateful that his son was out of trouble and part of a team.
"We've never complained about playing time or anything else," Sanford said. "I have the utmost respect for coaches; teachers also. They are in a difficult profession and position."
Sanford said he understands why people think highly of Monaco. The coach shaped many people for the better, Sanford said, but he added that doesn't mean Monaco didn't harm others, including his son.
"There's a line that you don't cross, and coaches know it, employees know it," Sanford said. "When you cross that line, it shouldn't matter how many plaques, championships or mirror ball trophies you won. You should know you have to pay a price if you cross that line."
If speaking out makes him and his family targets for Monaco's supporters, Sanford said, he is prepared.
"We're not scared. I'm not scared, particularly when it comes to my child," he said. "I want to thank the Amherst Police Department, the School Board and the superintendent. In my opinion, they put the children's - in this case, my child's - well-being ahead of any coaching reputation or awards."