By Sally Absher

In the quiet of July 4th week, parent and former president of the Bearden Softball Booster Club Randy Susong addressed the Board of Education about the forced resignation of Bearden High School softball coach Leonard Sams.

Sams was asked to resign on June 4 after seven years of coaching at BHS. Susong said, “This forced resignation is baffling to everyone in the softball community, especially to those still in the program.” Susong asked the Board to not accept the resignation, and to let Sams continue as BHS softball coach.

Susong explained, “We don’t have a coach, nor do we have a team. We built an indoor practice facility on (school) property last spring, which helped bring this team to the State tournament. The indoor practice facility currently has zero funds.” Susong and Adam McKenry, Booster Club treasurer, signed the note for the building construction, and are now personally making the $750/mo payments. There is still $44,000 owed on the building, which was to be paid through fundraising efforts of the Boosters.

When the Softball program, funded by the Booster Club, lost Coach Sams they lost their summer and fall fundraisers, which “led to lost revenue of approximately $21,000 for a summer camp, UT concession revenue, and a fall golf tournament,” according to parent Cheryl McKenry.

Booster Club Officers met with Dr. McIntyre on July 20 to ask for the reinstatement of Sams. McIntyre said he would speak with BHS principal Dr. Bartlett and make a decision within two weeks. On July 27, BHS Athletic Director Nathan Lynn announced Angelica McClerkin had been hired as the new head coach of the BHS Softball program.

On July 28, the Booster Club officers received a letter from McIntyre stating, “I believe that Dr. Bartlett made a reasonable decision regarding the softball coach based on his determination of the best interests of his students.”  The Booster Club is still searching for answers. On what facts was this “reasonable decision” made? How is the current situation in the “best interests” of these students, since none of the returning players, parents, or Booster Club officers were contacted prior to Sams’ dismissal?

Eleven of the 14 returning players have indicated they will not be playing for Bearden now that Coach Sams is gone. Two more are on the fence. Most plan to play for Sams on a spring travel team, forgoing their High School season so they can get the coaching and competition that will help them achieve their goal to play college softball.

Dr. Bartlett spoke with several players on June 9. After the meeting, freshman pitcher Kaylor Susong told her parents, “If I can’t trust these guys to have my best interest in my athletics, how can I trust them to have my best interest in my education?”

Per TSSAA rules, McClerkin is not qualified for the head coaching position. A head coach must be a full time or retired teacher, or have been an assistant coach for five years. McClerkin is not a teacher, and has just one year of experience as an assistant coach. Also per TSSAA, with the timing of the hire, tryouts can’t be held until February, so Bearden currently has no softball team.

McKenry emailed Bernard Childress of TSSAA about the new coach’s lack of qualifications. He was told that a one year waiver was granted because the administration couldn’t find a qualified candidate and they were in jeopardy of losing the program. Childress also indicated that McIntyre and KCS AD Marion Quinn were involved in the process of requesting the waiver.

There is a difference between hiring a coach, and hiring a qualified coach.

KCS Board member Doug Harris, who represents BHS, arranged a meeting with Bartlett, Lynn, and Booster Club officers on June 22. Harris said, “It seems to me you guys just assume you won’t be able to hire another coach.” Ultimately it took BHS almost two months and a TSSAA waiver to hire a coach who by TSSAA rules is not qualified. Harris did offer to write a check to help cover some of the cost of the practice facility, but the donation hasn’t been received yet.

The Booster Club asked Harris to put them on the agenda for August’s BOE meeting, but he said, “I’m not going to buck my only high school principal’s decision.”

Board member Terry Hill met with Dr. Bartlett on August 17 after being contacted by parent Sharon Glass. Hill later emailed Glass: “Coach Sams DOES know why he was fired and there were others that were there when this meeting was held… I believe I have done due diligence as a school board member. I support this decision and am hopeful your student will move forward with choices that are best for her this school year.”

The Focus spoke with Leonard Sams. He explained that when former AD Scott Witt hired him, all the athletic programs at BHS were thriving, except the softball program. “Witt told me that he wanted this program strong. I told him it was going to take several years to get this up and running, and turn it into a powerhouse program. I told Mr. Witt there would be obstacles and adversities along the way. Some parents would oppose the new direction and would like to keep the same old status quo at Bearden. Now with three ADs in the matter of four years, I think that they’ve lost sight of what me and Scott Witt started out doing.”

Sams told us that there were no allegations of wrongdoing. He said the only thing the administration would tell him is that “some of the players didn’t respect me,” and “they wanted to take the team in a different direction.” Lynn was quoted in PrepXtra, “(Sams’) departure didn’t involve misconduct.” Why fire a winning coach?

This is not the first successful, popular athletic coach forced out under Bartlett for dubious reasons. Football coach Brad Taylor resigned in 2013, to be replaced by then-AD Morgan Shinlever, who amazingly hired himself as football coach to replace Taylor.

Track coach Steve Prince resigned in 2015 after 13 years at BHS. Prince took his team to State 11 times and was named Coach of the Year 7 times. In 2012, Jack Tate stepped down as BHS baseball head coach after he took the team to State and had players sign with UT and commit to Walters State.

While it is easy for this type of situation to dissolve into a “he said, she said” battle, there are a number of indisputable facts about Coach Sams:

•              25+ years softball coaching experience, including 9+ years at the High School level

•              Started and coached the Bearden Middle softball team over the last 5 years to help build the BHS program

•              In 2015 took Bearden to the State Tournament for the first time in school history, voted District Coach of the year

•              Coached 60+ players who have gone on to play at the college level,  including 4 of the 6 Bearden Seniors who graduated in 2015

•              Coached a 16U travel team this summer and took the 6 Bearden players on that team to the ASA National Championships in Chattanooga

•              Selected to coach the 18U America’s Team in Europe next summer

Insiders in the local softball community think there is another explanation for the inexplicable coaching change, but the Focus has not confirmed this. There are other concerns with Dr. Bartlett as well. Before coming to KCS, he was under investigation in Loudon County over irregularities with a “slush fund.” Four years ago, BHS received a $100K grant from U.S. Cellular, but former members of his staff say only $30K in expenditures was ever approved. At $102,512, Bartlett is the second highest paid secondary principal in Knox County (only L&N Stem’s Becky Ashe makes more).

Susong and McKenry met recently with County Law Director Bud Armstrong about the outstanding building loan. Armstrong told them that “since Knox County owns the property in question, it would not be advisable to have taken out a loan and build on the property without going through Knox County Commission.” Unfortunately the Board of Education and principals allow that to happen all the time with booster clubs. Armstrong stated, “The only way anyone is supposed to be able to build on County property is with approval of Commission. County Commission is the only body within Knox County Government that has the power to finance via bonds for construction or other debt on behalf of the County.”

But it was not the Booster Club that brought the project to the BOE for approval on December 3, 2014. Bartlett and Lynn submitted the plans to the Board, and told the Booster Club they needed proof of the funds. The bank provided written confirmation that the loan was approved and the funds were available. Susong and McKenry never imagined that six months later, they would be without a coach, a team, and the ability to fundraise to pay off the loan.

Armstrong told The Focus that at this time, Susong and McKenry have no legal recourse, and are on the hook to either personally pay the balance of the loan, or solicit donations to pay it off. Susong said if he had known this was even a remote possibility, the Booster Club would have waited to build until they had raised the necessary money for the project, and not taken out a loan.

Susong said the next step is to meet with each and every Board of Education member to discuss the facts. As Armstrong is fond of saying, “this Board can do whatever it wants with five votes.” But right now, it doesn’t look like there are five Board members who will vote to bring back Coach Sams.