LONDONDERRY – The members of the Londonderry school board are used to having their meetings sparsely attended. So as the Tuesday, Jan. 7 meeting was about to begin, several members of the board could be heard commenting on how large the crowd was in the seats before them.
Several dozen supporters of recently-deposed Londonderry High School varsity football coach Jon Rich attended the meeting to seek the reason why Rich wasn’t being brought back for a seventh season, and they made that quite plain. And there was certainly no way the board could ignore the words of the man who began the LHS football program and coached the Lancers for more than 20 years – Rich’s mentor, Tom Sawyer – or the presence of longtime Pinkerton Academy football coach Brian O’Reilly and PA athletic director Tim Powers.
School board chairperson Nancy Hendricks initially stated that the issue of Rich’s non-renewal for the 2014 season would be discussed for 15 minutes only, due to the number of items on the board’s agenda for the evening. But the Rich supporters made it known that they would have no part of such a limit on a subject upon which they held such strong views.
After nearly an hour of discussion – during which two Londonderry policemen was summoned in case the heated discussion grew rowdy – the Rich supporters departed the meeting room grumbling and unhappy after being told by Hendricks and school superintendent Nate Greenberg that the decision on Rich was final and the district – and the meeting – were moving on.
At the heart of the upset generated by the Rich non-renewal is the widely-held belief within the sizeable group that supports the coach that his removal from what Rich himself has termed “my dream job” was generated by behind-the-scenes actions of at least one school board member.
In the wake of finding out about his non-renewal, Rich told the Londonderry Times and other media that he thinks his removal was generated by actions of the school board. But mere hours before the Londonderry Times went to press with that initial story, Rich said he had subsequently met with Greenberg and the superintendent was taking “full responsibility” for Rich’s removal. Rich and his wife are both employed as teachers at LHS.
But Rich supporters continue to believe that the responsibility for the coach’s removal lay with the school board, and they expressed that clearly and emotionally at the Jan. 7 meeting.
Londonderry Wildcats’ youth football director Ken Sharkey, LHS football program founder Sawyer, and two former LHS gridders – 2012 grads Dan Kinnon and Zach Capobianco – spoke first in what were supposed to be the only 15 minutes in which the issue would be discussed.
When Hendricks then attempted to close discussion on the issue, Londonderry resident Paul Hennessy responded emotionally and, pointing out the size of the crowd of Rich supporters, stated that, “I’m disappointed in every single one of you, that you can put this charade on and not listen to your taxpayers.”
It was then that the first Londonderry policeman was summoned quietly by a school district administrator, and Hennessy spoke for several moments.
School board member John Robinson told the audience several times that he had heard tales of someone from the board “lurking in the shadows” and dictating that Rich shouldn’t return as the LHS coach, and he welcomed anyone who wanted to stand up and say who that person was. And the one time that a response to one of Robinson’s inquiries was offered by a Rich supporter, it came from LHS grad and longtime Lancer football assistant Russ Love, who said, “It’s the guy to your right.”
The person seated to Robinson’s right was school board member John Laferriere, who took virtually no part in the hour-long discussion and did not respond to Love’s statement.
Contacted after the meeting, Laferriere stated, “I don’t know where Mr. Love is getting his information, so I can’t really comment on it.”
All in all, nine of the Rich supporters spoke on-mike at the meeting, with the discussion winding to a close when one asked if there was any chance the decision could be reversed. The response from Hendricks and Greenberg was that the decision was final, and the district was moving on.
Two of the folks who were most conspicuous for their attendance at the board meeting were Pinkerton’s O’Reilly and Powers, who were dressed in their bright red PA jackets. As neither is a Londonderry resident, they knew they couldn’t speak to the board, but O’Reilly – one of the most successful high school football coaches in New England over the last 30 years – was more than happy to express his feelings after the meeting.
“Jon is an excellent coach and a quality man, and I fear that this decision may be about wins and losses and record, and that’s not what high school athletics are all about. This is very unfortunate,” said O’Reilly.
And O’Reilly was also one of a number of people who expressed concern that, with neither superintendent Greenberg nor members of the school board willing to talk about why Rich is not being renewed, citing an inability to discuss personnel matters, there may be questions that linger about whether or not the coach was guilty of some sort of misconduct that cost him his “dream job.”
Greenberg did state during the meeting that Rich is still a teacher in good standing with the district.
Rich watched the school board meeting live on television in his Londonderry home with friends and family, and admitted he was moved by the turnout of supporters.
“I was taken aback by the show of support by the parents and especially the kids who attended,” he said. “It was pretty awesome.”
When asked about the fact that the school board and Greenberg stated multiple times that the coaching decision is final and that they are moving on, Rich responded, “It’s disappointing to hear that.”
School district policy does not allow Rich to appeal his dismissal. However, Rich told the Londonderry Times on Tuesday that he is intent upon reapplying for the coaching job in the coming weeks.