‘Incident’ hardly defines who Johnny Burns really is
New London – Full disclosure: Johnny Burns was unlikely to return as New London High School’s football coach next season. And while I believe the mission of high school coaching extends beyond wins and losses, I can’t argue with a decision to replace him, based on the recent 2-8 record, empty bleachers and general feeling of malaise around the region’s proudest program.
Still, Burns deserves to be heard and have his name and reputation upheld in the wake of an “incident” that led to last week’s resignation.
The “incident” in question came on the field during a timeout with four seconds remaining in the third period of a game versus Ledyard on Nov. 12. Video of the play can be seen on theday.com’s replay of the game.
Burns called timeout and ran on to the field to address his team. He appeared to jab his son, Johnny III, the quarterback, on each shoulder pad with his right hand.
“I was hoping to grab the front of his jersey right at the numbers, but it was too tight so I ended up with a fist full of air,” Burns said Monday in a phone conversation. “I then tried again aiming for his sleeve on the side and ended up with the same result. Nothing to grab. We moved on with the huddle. I was trying to use the moment to bolster some energy.”
The ensuing details are layered, but the gist is this: Burns said he was placed on administrative leave the following Monday (Nov. 14) and the matter was referred to the Department of Children and Families (where Burns once worked for 12 years.) DCF, in less than a day, determined the incident merited no further investigation.
Burns said it was his understanding, per communication with Central Office, that he could return to the team after DCF’s decision, although the district still had more questions and would perhaps do its own investigation.
Burns said he resigned because answers from Central Office were confusing and sometimes inconclusive about his status. Burns resigned because he believed it was the only way he could watch his son play his last high school game in person on Thanksgiving. He said it was clear he wasn’t wanted back.
“I don’t think it’s right for me to leave it as a sham,” Burns said. “Whether I move on in coaching or ministry, my goal is to keep a clean name. Wanting to move on from me as head coach is fine, but to be disingenuous in reporting and for anyone anywhere to even think I would punch my son in the chest is not OK.”
Burns alluded to other issues, such as “hostility in the work environment” but ultimately said, “that might be a fight for someone else another day.”
New London Public School officials are not allowed to comment on personnel issues.
Straight up: Burns could have chosen a better way to “bolster energy” in the huddle. If we purport to teaching kids about self-control, adults need to set the example. But I do not believe Burns’ actions were malicious or egregious in any way.
However, I cannot and will not argue with the decision to find a new coach. It’s just that such cases call for the wisdom to separate the vocation from the person. There is what we do and who we are.
Burns is a good man. He has a family background rooted in ministry. I’ve enjoyed his pregame/postgame speeches to the kids. Right tenor, right notes. And heaven knows that it’s not easy coaching anywhere now, what with coping skills next on the list of endangered species.
But I also believe that athletics have a prominent place on every campus for reasons that, again, extend beyond wins and losses. Forget about all the bromides about hard work, teamwork, sacrifice and discipline. Sometimes, it’s no more complicated than this: Athletics can set the tenor of an entire building and be the metaphorical carrot that keeps kids grounded, responsible and accountable.
The new coach’s task at New London High is hardly about teaching blocking schemes and Tampa Twos. It’s about recreating the culture. I believe that starts with an almost militaristic approach in the beginning about what will and won’t be tolerated on or off the field.
I enjoyed my time on the sidelines during games this year. Cordial, funny conversations with the kids. But I also saw what transpired when things didn’t go well on the field. Too many kids went into a complete shutdown. The new coach needs to understand that coping skills are his top priority – and must have the ability to teach and reinforce them.
It’s sad that Burns didn’t work out here. His background suggests that he could and would teach the right lessons. Now that’s on someone else. But Johnny Burns leaves every bit the good man as when he started.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro
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