The Billies of Williamsville South High School opened their varsity basketball season with three straight wins en route to another league title a year ago.
But not even some lopsided scores could mend coach Allan Monaco’s fractured program during the 2011-12 season, when jealousies drove a wedge among teammates, and parents in the bleachers also were divided. After a district investigation, Monaco’s 24-year coaching career at the school ended.
Now, Monaco has filed a petition in State Supreme Court, calling the district’s investigation flawed and asking to be reinstated.
“It is apparent that the district conducted a one-sided investigation, giving preference and credence only to the handful of disgruntled parents and student athletes,” according to Monaco’s court papers.
There is no question about turmoil on the team that season.
Varsity players screamed at each other and nearly came to blows at one practice.
Sophomores bullied eighth-graders on the junior varsity team, according to a parent.
A sophomore damaged a locker room after the coach promoted several eighth-graders over him to the varsity squad late in the season.
Parents, too, grew entangled.
The father of one player complained that Monaco cursed at his son during a game.
Another parent accused the coach of bullying his son about his weight.
A parent who liked the coach said he moved from his regular spot in the gym during several games to avoid other Williamsville South parents making “cruel, demeaning and condescending comments” about players on the South team.
At the end of the season, Monaco’s boss got a call from a player’s father.
“What are you going to do about that coach?” the father asked the athletic director.
What happened that season led to investigations by the school principal and superintendent and even the Amherst Police Department.
Williamsville Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff decided to find a new coach for the varsity basketball team, telling Monaco that his actions, or lack thereof, “caused a great deal of unnecessary disruption in the program.”
Monaco was out, after a record of 364-211 in 24 seasons at South, including several league championships and coach-of-the-year awards.
Monaco also lost his position as varsity golf coach.
But Monaco’s lawsuit contends that he never got a fair hearing from the school superintendent.
“He would not even allow me to describe my side of this story and to reflect on the difficult season we had just completed,” Monaco said of Martzloff in his affidavit.
What’s more, Martzloff sent the wrong message about student bullying by supporting older players who bullied the eighth-graders, Monaco said in court papers.
Those who tried to get to the bottom of what happened that season looked at what Monaco said to his basketball players as well as how players and their parents acted amid the discord.
The investigations exposed divided opinions about the coach among players, parents, boosters and administrators.
Jealousies and bullying
The court file includes affidavits, filings and copies of email messages from school administrators, parents, players and others who provide accounts of a Billies basketball season riven by player jealousies, accusations of bullying, and some parents’ complaints.
Over the summer, as Monaco’s coaching positions hung in the balance, his athletic director sent Martzloff an email message supporting the coach.
“This was about playing time and future participation in our basketball program,” Williamsville South athletic director Kevin M. Lester told Martzloff in an email message. “It is always about playing time.
“I know that Al is accused of bullying and harassing. I don’t believe it,” Lester said. “I, as his athletic director, would never let him or any coach do that to a student athlete and I have never seen him do the things he is being accused of. This is a situation where a parent believes that his child has been wronged by Mr. Monaco and he/they will not stop until Mr. Monaco has been fired. I honestly believe that Al did not bully or harass any of these student athletes.”
Lester told the superintendent that “Monaco is being unfairly maligned by several parents and/or student athletes.”
“I have known Mr. Monaco for twenty-five years and as his athletic director I do not believe that he should be dismissed from his coaching duties for either golf or basketball,” Lester said.
Lester told the superintendent that he was familiar with the investigation by then-South Principal Dan Ljiljanich into the parent complaints.
“I believe that based on the results of his investigation and what he shared with me that Mr. Monaco did nothing wrong and I expressed this to him,” Lester said.
Monaco points to his coaching evaluation as proof of his abilities.
His March 2012 evaluation, signed by Lester, said he “continues to do a very good job developing South’s basketball program.”
He received a satisfactory – the highest mark possible – in all 13 areas of the evaluation.
Monaco said he was asked to sign a revised evaluation in June after the principal completed his investigation.
The revised evaluation gave him a satisfactory grade in 11 of 13 areas but indicated improvement was needed in two areas: maintaining individual and team discipline and morale and also showing self-control and poise as a coach.
In none of the areas was he graded unsatisfactory – the lowest mark available.
Monaco, in his court papers, said he met with Ljiljanich, the principal, and Lester, the athletic director, to review the revised evaluation report and was told Ljiljanich’s investigation was finished. Monaco said he was told “this is all over” and that he would continue coaching.
“I must admit that the meeting with Lester and Ljiljanich and signing off on the revised evaluation report was a tough pill to swallow,” Monaco said in an affidavit. “Then, as now, I firmly believe that I handled what was a difficult season to the best of my ability.
“Nevertheless, I believed sharing some level of responsibility and taking on a level of self-examination and dedication to growth for next season was a good compromise and allowed everybody to move past what was a very difficult year,” he said.
But despite the principal’s investigation and revised coaching evaluation, “this small group of parents persisted in their complaints – this time focusing their complaints towards the superintendent of schools, Dr. Scott Martzloff – whom I had never had any sort of meaningful interaction or relationship with previously, and the Amherst Police Department,” Monaco said.
A negative report
In court papers replying to Monaco’s court action, the Williamsville Central School District said Ljiljanich’s investigation findings and recommendations were not favorable to Monaco.
In his investigation, “Ljiljanich interviewed several student athletes and parents, along with (Monaco) himself,” according to the district’s court papers.
“Contrary to (Monaco’s) allegations, Mr. Ljiljanich found (Monaco) to be recalcitrant and unable to assess the damaging effects of his conduct. Based on his investigation, Mr. Ljiljanich expressed to Superintendent Scott Martzloff in writing that he unequivocally supported a decision not to appoint petitioner as the boys’ basketball coach for the 2012-13 season,” the response states.
When Ljiljanich left Williamsville South in June, Martzloff continued to investigate the complaints about Monaco’s conduct toward his players, the district said.
“Over the course of several months, Dr. Martzloff met with students, parents, district employees, the Amherst Police Department and petitioner as part of his investigation,” according to the district’s court papers.
Martzloff personally met with Monaco three times, the district said.
“During each of these meetings, (Monaco) rejected the complaints and refused to assess his own role in creating a hostile environment for his student athletes,” according to the district’s reply.
‘A prudent decision’
The district “made the prudent decision not to appoint” Monaco to the golf or basketball coaching positions, according to its reply papers.
In Martzloff’s Aug. 24 letter to Monaco, the superintendent said the district’s decision not to reappoint him was not based on complaints about playing time or the advancement of younger students over older students.
“My concern, however, is that along with making those decisions comes the responsibility to appropriately anticipate and handle the team dynamics surrounding those issues,” Martzloff said in the letter. “Both your actions in this regard, or lack thereof in certain situations, caused a great deal of unnecessary disruption in the program as a whole.
“It also appears to me that you are unable to recognize that your use of sarcasm with players is often perceived as condescending and mean-spirited,” the superintendent wrote. “This is an area in which you have been previously counseled in relationship to your teaching duties.”
Monaco is a health teacher at the high school.
In his letter to Monaco, Martzloff said he talked with Ljiljanich about problems in the program and “it became clear to me that you did not appropriately characterize his statements to you about team management issues both during the school year and related to the summer program.”
“Given all of this, I have no choice but to move forward with new coaches for both programs,” the superintendent wrote.
Dissension and strife
Player jealousies appear to have been a big part of the team dissension.
Two junior transfers made the basketball team in 2011-12, both of whom were “top performing athletes,” Monaco said.
“The inclusion of these student athletes caused some internal strife on the team. I would describe the team as fractioned,” Monaco said.
One of the transfers emerged as the team’s best player, and when he was named player-of-the-game at the Cataract Classic, a senior who had expected to be the team’s star player “was clearly down about it,” according to notes taken by Scott Horton, a Williamsville Teachers Association union representative, who sat in meetings Monaco had with district leaders.
The senior’s father later complained Monaco cursed at his son during a Jolly Boys Tournament game against Williamsville North. Monaco denied it and said the senior’s father “had been after him” from the time his son was in the seventh grade, according to Horton’s notes.
Some players welcomed the transfer students and others did not. The friction culminated in players screaming at each other and getting “in a near-physical fight in the gym,” Monaco said.
Monaco said he called a meeting with the players “to work through their differences and move forward as a team with no further similar incidences.”
“In my opinion, Coach Monaco handled this situation well and tried to keep the team on track so that we could all enjoy playing the game,” Patrick Stasiak, a junior on the 2011-12 varsity team, said in an affidavit.
Stasiak, who said he was not one of the team’s stars, said Monaco “dealt with a difficult team dynamic because of the attitudes and opinions of a number of players, and their parents, related solely to their disagreement with the players’ respective playing time.”
Paul Stasiak, Patrick’s father, said he watched nearly all of his son’s games but had to move from his regular seat during several games because of malicious comments from some South parents about South players. The coach also drew their ire.
“One of the comments I overheard at a game during the 2011-12 season from one of the parents was that ‘we’ve got to get him out this year.’ ”
Despite the strife, “we really did have a successful season,” Monaco said, pointing to the team’s third straight ECIC Division 2 championship.
Monaco fared far worse with sophomores on the junior varsity team.
Monaco was not aware of bullying on the junior varsity team until the mother of an eighth-grader alerted him in February 2012.
“I investigated the allegations of bullying and harassment and determined some or all of them to be true,” Monaco said in his affidavit.
Monaco chose not to promote several of the older junior varsity players to the varsity squad late in the season, taking into account the bullying and the players’ skill. He instead promoted several eighth-graders, whom he said demonstrated “outstanding skill and character.”
Monaco said the school’s principal and athletic director supported his decision.
Monaco said he met with parents of sophomores upset by his decision not to promote them or by their sons’ playing time.
The allegation from a parent that Monaco bullied his son about his weight followed amid other complaints.
“The false allegations against me by the parents were made in retaliation against me due to my decision not to promote the children of said parents to the varsity team, and due to the opinion and false allegations of a few disgruntled parents and students related almost entirely to dissatisfaction with playing time and perceived entitlement to certain accolades,” according to Monaco’s petition.