By Brandon Koch
The Tonawanda News
For the second time in as many seasons since capturing its first state championship, the North Tonawanda football program is searching for a new head coach.
Longtime Lumberjacks assistant coach and 2011 head coach Rick Tomm said Thursday that he has elected not to reapply for the appointment. Fellow deep-rooted assistant coaches Chris Cook and Corey Zayatz will also not return to the program, nor will offensive coordinator Frank Fusco and the rest of the staff.
“I hate to use the word quit or resign, but the district moving in a different direction is the bottom line,” said Tomm who has been teaching and coaching in the district since 1994. “The school district was always appreciative of our work. I didn’t like the direction the school district was going and their philosophy toward sports, and I felt it was time to take my experience elsewhere.”
Athletic director Cynthia Bullis, who was hired in December 2010, declined to comment. A classified ad, however, has been ordered to run in the Tonawanda News’ help wanted section this weekend seeking varsity, varsity assistant, junior varsity and junior varsity assistant football coaches for the 2012 season.
Superintendent Greg Woytila also did not offer an explanation for the coaches leaving, though he said the district would have been happy to have them back.
“Coaches are appointed yearly,” Woytila said. “We’ve had that happen in the past, too. They don’t reapply for the next year. I don’t know if it was a family reason, personal reason. I don’t know what it was.
“We’d like stability for the team, but I can’t force people to apply for the job,” he continued. “If they would have applied for the job, we would have hired them. We didn’t have a problem with them. There’s no issues with the coaches. They did a fine job last year.”
Tomm’s departure comes in the wake of Scott Miranto’s dismissal as head junior varsity football coach following just one season. Miranto, who was also a substitute teacher at NT, was fired last month after the district deemed he had an inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old female student.
Tomm became the program’s 21st head coach after being tapped by the NT school board last February to replace the void left by longtime coach Eric Jantzi, who spent last fall as a volunteer assistant coach at Orchard Park.
Tomm went 7-2 in his first season at the helm of the varsity program, and said upon his appointment that the “program has never been in better shape.”
A year later, that sentiment has clearly changed.
“To have the success we’ve had over the last 18 year has been a lot of hard work and a lot of free time (sacrificed) by teachers and coaches, and the district has always supported those efforts,” Tomm said. “Over the full year, we haven’t felt that support.”
Tomm declined to go into specifics, but did acknowledge that coaches haven’t been given keys to access the weight room, among other things.
“You would expect a different support level, not just for myself, but for all the coaches and teachers that have been there,” he said. “Coach (Zayatz) and I, we started on modified football longer than these kids have been alive.”
And that support, he says, is something he expects for all sports at North Tonawanda.
“We know what excellence looks like,” Tomm said. “We talk about rigor in the classroom, and I think this is a big point, people talk about teachers and rigor in the classroom, and having kids to push themselves to excellence and not accept mediocrity. The pinnacle (2009 state championship), that took a long time. We know what it looks like in whatever sport you’re doing. We won at volleyball and softball, and it’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of support by the community. We had great support from the community. ... I feel we don’t have that level of support right now and it’s not worth the energy.”
Coach Cook said he knew at the beginning of last year he was on “borrowed time.” With three children, he said he’s decided to step away for family reasons. Though he won’t be on the sidelines next season, he didn’t rule out returning in the future.
“With winning, there’s certain things you have to do and right now I personally can’t do it,” he said, noting that his and Zayatz’s circumstances were similar. “We can’t put that time commitment in that we want to continue to win.”
In regards to coach Tomm, Cook said it was “administration things and a power struggle with the athletic director.”
“He does things the right way and if he feels that he’s not getting the proper respect back, he’s not going to put in the time,” Cook said.
He said without coach Tomm leading the way, “it would be tough following anyone into battle.”
“He’s a great leader and a great guy,” Cook said.
Jacks wide out Ian Gilhousen said while it’s far from ideal, he and his fellow teammates cannot “dwell on it too much.”
“It’s unfortunate, but we’re not going to let this slow us down,” said Gilhousen, who will be a senior next fall. “(Tomm) was a great coach, but we realize that this was a disagreement with the district and the football team. We can’t look at this as an excuse, we’re going to work just as hard no matter who the coaches are. We’re committed and we look forward to Week One.”
Gilhousen, who will be among a class of seniors who will play under their third coach in three years, said Tomm and the rest of the staff left their mark on the program.
Tomm said he hasn’t lost his passion for coaching and plans to be on the sideline somewhere next fall if the right situation presents itself.
“I’m going to miss the heck out of the kids here at North Tonawanda,” said Tomm, though making it clear he will continue to teach in the district. “The relationships with the kids mean a lot to me. I’ve already told them I will be coaching somewhere else next year. If it works out and a position opens up. I’ll be rooting for the NT boys.”
With many years of experience, Tomm has plenty of ties in the area, including one with Williamsville South, which upended the Jacks in a Section VI Class semifinal last fall. While Tomm is good friends with Billies coach Kraig Kurzanski, he said he’ll need some time to decide what direction his coaching career is going to take.
“I will guarantee two places I don’t land — Orchard Park or Tonawanda,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll be at NT teaching and following the Jacks and being a big fan. I love teaching at the high school. I love my job there.”
The Jacks are well into their offseason, but Tomm said he’s hopeful they can hire a quality coach to work with the quality of talent they have coming back to NT.
“I had a blast for 18 years,” he said. “I have to move on. Things change.”
Contact sports editor Brandon Koch at 693-1000, ext. 4117.