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West Orange Board of Education Meeting Addresses Appointment of New Head Football Coach at West Orange High School

Cynthia Cumming

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 • 2:40am

WEST ORANGE, NJ - The Board of Education Meeting held in the auditorium of West Orange High School Tuesday night brought with it both positive and negative emotions regarding the appointment of a new West Orange High School football coach.

Coach John Jacob, who has been the Head Football Coach at WOHS for the past 10 seasons with a 51-49 record, including 5-5 this past season, was not reappointed for the fall 2013 football season. Jacob is president of the New Jersey Football Coaches Association and has been appointed to a four-year term on the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association football committeeJacob will remain as a tenured physical education teacher at the high school.

Jim Matsakis, football coach at Butler High School, was appointed as the new head football coach. Matsakis has worked as a head football coach in four division 2 high schools, 1 division 1 high school, and 4 colleges.  He holds two masters degrees and has also been a wrestling and Lacrosse coach. Butler's football season for 2012 stood at 8-2.

The agenda attachments, available at the meeting, indicated that the board would be voting to approve the head coach recommendations for the following fall sports:

Boys Soccer, Doug Nevins, $10,697 stipend

Girls Soccer, Lou Mignone, $10,967 stipend

Cross Country, Joe Suriano, $ 8,254 stipend

Volleyball, Kristen O'Connell, $ 8, 254 stipend

Cheerleading, Kim Topping, $ 18,491 stipend

Football, Jim Matsakis, $ 13,707 stipend

The football coach approval was separated for specific discussion and all others were approved.

Board President Michelle Casalino then introduced WOHS Principal Hayden Moore, to make a statement regarding the appointment of a new football coach. Clearly emotional, Moore began by saying that he wanted to take a moment to recognize Coach "Jakes" Jacob, and all he has done. Unexpectedly, Moore's statement was interrupted by the appearance of John Jacob and the football coaching staff, who entered the auditorium to a standing ovation. They remained for about 10 minutes and departed, and neither Jacob nor his assistant staff made any comments.

Moore told the audience of approximately 150 residents comprised of parents, students, and former students/players, that the process of determining a new football coach was not corrupt and that he would never put his name to a corrupt process. He noted that Jacob was made aware of the process; that two rounds of interviews occurred, whittling down the applicants to 12 semi-finalists and a five day process to make independent and team assessments. Technically the superintendent is the one to make the recommendations, but Interim Superintendent James O'Neill wanted to include Moore and WOHS Athletic Director Ron Bligh.

Moore acknowledged that he understood the disappointment and raw emotion that the decision may have created, and that Jacob did many good things for the benefit of WOHS students, but that the negative emotions of parents and students "need to be tempered." He wanted everyone to have "open hearts and minds" about the appointment of a new head coach.

The superintendent elaborated on Moore's comments, saying that there were several pieces to the process of recommending a new football coach.

He said that the district received 22 applications, one withdrew, leaving 21. After review, 12 applicants were interviewed, asking the same questions. There were four finalists, including Jacob, and all were asked 75 percent of the same questions, with the remaining 25 percent geared towards the applicants and their individual coaching backgrounds and experiences.  

In response to criticisms that Athletic Director Ron Bligh had called four coaches to encourage them to apply, O'Neill said that Bligh called four coaches, and said that it did not make the process "corrupt." Two of the phone calls Bligh made resulted in applications, though neither were one of the four finalists. Jacob, Jim Matsakis, and two other coaches were. After a process of collaboration and independent investigation by O'Neill, Bligh and Moore, a mutual decision to recommend Matsakis was made.

O'Neill disputed the criticisms of a 'vendetta' by AD Bligh.  As to criticisms regarding the changed locks on "The Bubble" (The Bubble is the weight room area at WOHS and football staff utilize it) Mr. O'Neill indicated that it was scheduled for closure on Wednesday, Feb. 27, for maintenance in between winter and spring seasons but it was decided to close it on Monday, Feb. 25, after online Facebook and blog postings by parents, students, and staff merited 'erring on the side of caution' and closing it on Monday.

O'Neill, who was aware of many social networking posts on Facebook as well as blog posts, was distressed at the comments made by certain coaching staff towards former players, and said that in his 40 years in education, his primary concern was always for the "kids first." He reiterated to the crowd that he identified the process to address athletics at the high school, not Moore, nor the board.

Both O'Neill and Board of Education members acknowledged the plethora of emails they had received in support of Jacob, especially from students, but that many negative and critical emails and calls were also received. O'Neill noted that all calls to new Matsakis' former employers resulted in outstanding recommendations for his abilities.

Board Attorney Steve Christiano advised the audience that the board's authority was to approve the recommendations of the superintendent, and if they did not, he would then submit another candidate. He said that the board could "not vote 'no' for arbitrary or capricious reasons."

Ron Charles, newly elected board member, said, that he was confident that the process was not corrupt, but had reservations. The board then voted on Matsakis' appointment, and Charles voted no, with the appointment approved 4-1. His "no" vote received a standing ovation from supporters of Jacob.

After board reports, public comment began, with individuals given three minutes to speak.

Alexandra Parker, a 2011 West Orange High School graduate, presented her Change.org petition, along with other petitions, totaling 1,028 signatures, to reinstate Jacob. A current Facebook page, "Save Coach Jakes" contains several posts from residents and coaches.

Several parents and students spoke in support of Jacob. They also questioned the process and decision for a new coach, saying "why do we need to go anywhere?" and "We are going to turn our backs on the new coach," and to O'Neill" "You fought Chris Christie but you never fought West Orange parents...we are going to take our children out of the program." Other parents, whose children have graduated, said "the support will no longer be there" for the football program.

Pastor Doug Adams, chairman of the West Orange Human Relations Commission, then came to the microphone, visibly upset at some of the previous comments that had compared Jacob to Rosa Parks and other Civil Rights pioneers, saying that the public needed to keep this situation in perspective, and that the "rhetoric" being tossed about was disrespectful to the integrity of those that had struggled and died in their efforts. He encouraged the community of parents and students that change is inevitable in life, and that we need to deal with them with integrity. He also acknowledged the positive impact that Jacob has made over his 10 years.

Assistant Principal Lesley Chung admonished students that they needed to be "Mountaineers and recognize that that meant pride and respect." She spoke highly of Jacob and of Moore, also reiterating change was inevitable and a part of life and that she expected the new football coach be respected. Her comments were received with some heckling from the audience, spurring additional comments about disrespectful behavior from audience members as well as the board.  

In response to concerns that the new coach would need to travel from Butler to get to West Orange for practice, O'Neill said the district was hoping to be able to offer Matsakis a mathematics position in district. Matsakis is a Math teacher in Butler.

In addition, any matters pertaining to personnel regarding Jacob or any other employee of the West Orange School District are not legally allowed for discussion with the general public.

This meeting will be televised on 36/45.

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