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“Mr. High School Sports” – Haters Gonna Hate…

Footballs

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

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By Matt Popchock

(mpopchock@kdka.com)

Okay, before I proceed, please humor me for just a minute while I share a little something about myself…

I have the attention span of goat cheese. There, I said it.

Happy now?

Allow me to elaborate.

I have Attention Deficit Disorder, which often inhibits me from working at the same pace as the average adult, though I have learned, over the years, to harness it. I have responsibilities as a member of a single-parent household. I have friendships. I have relationships (every once in a while). I have to work that much harder to shore up my financial health in this already tenuous business amidst a nationwide economic downturn.

One thing I don’t have, as a collective result, is time. This is a necessary ingredient for recreational reading.

But on the infrequent occasion I do have the time–and the patience–for that, I really enjoy the content on CBSSports.com, no smoke-blowing or company line-towing intended. One of my most recent guilty pleasures was national columnist Gregg Doyel’s “Hate Mail” column, in which he lightheartedly addressed terse, and often volatile, e-mails from disgruntled Penn State supporters.

Recently “Mr. High School Sports” has received some hate mail regarding recent blogs on Penn State, and, for that matter, athletic director/head football coach Terry Smith’s employment status with Gateway High School.

So, in the spirit of Doyel’s column, I’d like to reply to a couple of these negative e-mails…

The first one comes courtesy of “Andrew,” who writes:

“As a Pitt Alumni and fan I was appalled at your article about Dorian Johnson! You should leave Pittsburgh and go somewhere else to make a living! You are no longer welcome here and I attend Pitt Games and do not leave in the 3rd Quarter. Pitt is an excellent university and you can kiss my A**.”

Just to jog your memory (if necessary), Andrew is referring to my July 17 blog about whether or not I would send my son to play football at Penn State were I a parent. I prefaced my main argument with the fact that football recruit Dorian Johnson, once thought to be sold on Pitt, decided very late in the game to go to PSU instead.

Full disclosure: my aunt and two uncles on my mother’s side of the family are Pitt alumni, and have been football season ticket holders for well over 30 years. They have invited me to games on a regular basis, and I have attended them for over 20 years and counting. Although, as a media professional, I have tried to divorce myself from my own fanaticism as much as possible, I have sat among the regulars at Pitt Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium, and Heinz Field, and cheered rabidly for the Panthers, even when they were playing against my own alma mater (Cincinnati). In good times and in bad, I can count on one hand the number of games I’ve left prematurely.

So an education on Pitt fandom, in my case, is not necessary. Having said that, I don’t need to be Jessica Fletcher to deduce that Pitt football, like Penn State football, has struggled to regain national relevance in my lifetime, and that college football attendance at Heinz Field and Beaver Stadium isn’t exactly six one way, half a dozen the other. There will undoubtedly be pressure on new coach Paul Chryst and his players to improve upon that, though I can only imagine what Chryst’s counterpart, Bill O’Brien, is going through in the back of his own head right now.

Some more full disclosure: Andrew sent me subsequent follow-up notes. The first one simply called me a “piece of crap” and asked me to leave Pittsburgh.

Um…no.

The second one contended I have “offended African-American Pitt fans” with my writing.

Andrew, in that instance, was referring to a conversation between me and Post-Gazette Pitt football reporter Paul Zeise in which Paul explained to me that safety seemed to be a major concern with Johnson’s family, based on his own findings. To them, said Zeise, Penn State’s rural campus, for safety reasons, was more appealing than Pitt’s urban campus. I cited that conversation in my July 17 blog, and I talked about how Pitt’s geography can possibly affect recruiting.

First of all, my experience with Zeise as a journalist and as a person tells me if he says something like that, he has a damn good reason. Second of all, as the cliche goes, perception is nine-tenths of reality. Cliches are cliches for a reason: they’re true.

I don’t dispute that Pitt, like Penn State, is a solid institution of higher learning, and has its own merits. I simply pointed out on July 17 that Pitt, being an urban school, is inevitably attached to certain stereotypes, and to some people, unfair though they might be, those perceptions make a difference. If that makes me offensive in the eyes of some readers, so be it.

By the way, Andrew closed his last e-mail by admonishing me to “think before I write.” I appreciate his passion and patronage, but I could say the same to him.

The second e-mail comes from “Fred,” who identifies himself as a Gateway alumnus. It was a lengthy one, so here’s a sample what Fred had to say regarding my July 10 blog (“Will Gateway Oust Successful Coach?”):

“This may be one of the worst articles i have ever read. Why is race being brought into this article and the terry smiths situation?  Obviously you do not know mitch adams that much because #1, how in the world do u think mitch adams has that much power at gateway? Your kidding right? #2 mitch adams had a player staying with him from time to time in 1988 who just so happened to be african american because his family was going through some difficult times that year. Mitch adams is far from racist and this article basically mad me laugh out loud when i read it. The rift between terry smith and mitch has nothing to do with what the school board is doing right now…I am very close with terry smith…He does a great job and is a good person and loyal alumni, but why this has to be a racial issue is beyond my belief.  Blame corbett, blame our economy but please dont blame 1 guy and mitch adams, it makes you look like an idiot.”

Fred is right about one thing: I don’t know everything there is to know about Mitch Adams, the head boys’ basketball coach at Gateway, or Coach Smith. My job compels me to canvas the entire WPIAL, not Gateway alone. This means, when trying to take the temperature of that community, I have to rely upon the testimony of those who live in it, and are able to keep a much closer eye on the political and bureaucratic behavior that is a part of this story.

To say the demotion of Smith was racially motivated might be disingenuous on my part, or, at the very least, difficult to prove. However, some people close to the situation have told me they believe there is a subliminal racial disconnect in the school district, so I would also be lying if I didn’t say that, either.

Furthermore, I never explicitly called Adams a racist. I pointed out that Adams is a noteworthy white figure in the district (he’s a longtime employee whose teams have won back-to-back WPIAL titles), just as Smith is a noteworthy black figure in the district. I’m not a puppeteer. I’m not out to pull strings. I’m merely setting the scene.

Fred, in his defense, did admit that I wasn’t completely off my rocker for saying Smith and Adams were at odds.

Speaking as someone who has been through the unemployment wringer, I sympathize with all of those affected by the district’s budget cuts, especially those who are presently out of work, and I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear in the past. Plus, I will cede that, in a typical school district, much of the money that is spent in any given academic year goes toward athletics and salaries. A number of my relatives have worked in public education, and they will corroborate me there.

However, Smith created a program that suddenly started winning and generating money and scholarships for years, despite the fact that Gateway, recently, has had one of the least voluminous varsity rosters in WPIAL Class AAAA. The board created an administrative situation unique to Smith–that he wasn’t allowed to hold a supplemental job beyond 2012.

My understanding is Smith’s original (aggregate) salary was not exorbitant compared to other WPIAL figures in his position, and to cut that salary would not have any tangible effect on Gateway’s red ink. Yet proponents of the board’s decision, including the one affirmative voter willing to speak to me at the time, cited economics as the chief reason behind Smith’s demotion.

You draw your own conclusions.

Black or white, love me or hate me, I appreciate the thoughts, everyone. Keep ‘em coming. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I…hey, what’s that in the kitchen…?

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)