Exit of Mounds View's title-winning baseball coach hard to explain

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 27, 2014 - 9:32 AM

A resignation at Mounds View on the heels of a state title reignited the issue of who holds sway in prep coaches’ job security.

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Mounds View players piled on after its state baseball title in June. They lost their coach two months later.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune file photo

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Mounds View won its first high school baseball title in mid-June when Max Knutson struck out his ninth batter for the final out, sealing an 8-0 victory at Target Field.

Two months later, shortly before the start of the current school year, school officials told head coach Jon Nuss, 34, that he would not continue in his job.

What has emerged is a story of a high school team whose magical ride to the state championship took an odd, final twist, and a lesson of how high school coaches — regardless of on-the-field success — are ultimately at the mercy of school administrators. Nuss’ departure came just months after the Legislature, attempting to tackle the issue of overzealous parents, passed a law saying that “parent complaints must not be the sole reason” for a coach not to have a contract renewed.

By the time Nuss won state baseball Coach of the Year honors in October, school officials were saying little of what had happened. The silence only deepened a puzzling tale of how even winning a state title was not enough to save a coach’s job.

Team captain Sam Hentges told the school newspaper in September it involved “something with a time commitment, I think,” and that Knutson said Nuss and his staff “coached the right way and helped us to a state championship.” Nuss, meanwhile, called the state high school coaches association to ask for help.

Mounds View Activities Director Bob Madison told Nuss in August that he could return, but only as the team’s associate coach. In his first expansive comments, Madison said recently that he told Nuss the associate’s job would be “an opportunity for you to get better.” Nuss declined the offer, and Madison said the result was that Nuss resigned. In explaining his actions, Madison said the change was made, in part, to utilize “the strengths and weaknesses that all of us have.” He did not offer specifics.

Nuss’ leaving so upset Zac Quammen, an assistant to Nuss last year, that Quammen told the school last month that he also was leaving the program. “I resigned because I didn’t feel comfortable being part of that program anymore after what happened,” he said.

Nuss, who still teaches at the high school, said he tried to dispel a series of rumors about why he left, including that vague “family issues.” “[I kept saying], ‘Family is great. Thanks for asking,’ ” he said.

‘No scandal here’

Nuss said he was caught off guard in August when Madison laid out his plan. “He [said he] kind of wanted to restructure it, and that he felt this would be best for the program,” Nuss said. “I would definitely say I was surprised.”

So were many others, including the president of the Minnesota high school baseball coaches association that named Nuss its Coach of the Year. “I was shocked,” said president Todd Smrekar. “It is unusual that after you win a state championship — being as young as he is — that you’d step aside.”

Tal Gravelle, the head baseball coach at Forest Lake High School, coached against Nuss three times last year, and was also surprised. “He’s very deserving” of the Coach of the Year honor, said Gravelle. “He’s more of a quiet guy, more of a quiet leader. [He’s] not screaming at kids, he’s not screaming at umpires.”

Among the parents of last year’s players, Nuss has drawn praise and mild criticism.

One parent, John Abercrombie, whose son Alec played center field, said Nuss’ leaving was driven by “parent involvement, playing time [and] kids not making the roster.” He said some parents, when volunteering to help the baseball program, “seem to think that they have kind of a right to help make decisions.”

However, another parent, Jack Smestad, whose son Austin played right field, said Nuss was “a very good coach” but that “there is a big difference between a very good coach and a very good head coach.”

In an e-mail, Smestad added: “The head coach has to do a lot more than coach, and that is where I see him needing to get better.” He declined to elaborate. “There is no scandal here,” Smestad said.

The state legislation last spring came after several high-profile hockey coaches lost their jobs. In boys’ hockey, 110 coaches have left in the past five years, and at least 38 of the departures — about 35 percent — involved parental complaints, said Mike MacMillan, executive director of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association.

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