Coach Bilodeau Should Remain a Rebel

Matt Brownsword

Former coach Bilodeau celebrates her 2004 State Championship.

 

In the wake of Mike Rice-gate — the Rutgers coach who was physically and verbally abusing his players by means of throwing basketballs at players’ heads and gay slurs in their ears — the concerns of parents and administrators over athlete safety has never been more paramount. Any complaints from either party must be highly regarded in the eyes of the coach’s superior and inspected with scrutiny — however, when does it go too far?

Stacy Bilodeau, long time coach of the girls basketball team, had become a mainstay of Walpole Athletics. Ms. Bilodeau won a State Championship as a player in 1994 and another as a coach in 2004, two years after taking over the program from Steve Waisgerber. She coached many players that took their talents past the high school level, including Brooke Waite and, most notably, Caroline Stedman, who won the Div. 3 National Championship as well as the Final Four MVP in 2011. Ms. Bilodeau’s record was 175-78, and her name has become synonymous with Rebel Basketball.  However, on March 26, she was notified that after 11 years in the program, her contract was not renewed for next year.

The decision was not made by the Athletic Director, William Tompkins, but by Principal Stephen Imbusch, and speculation suggests that the number of players quitting and parents complaining was the major reason behind the decision. However, Principal Imbusch declined to comment on the reasoning behind the final determination by saying that it was a “personnel decision.”

The Boston Globe, The Walpole Times, and numerous people on social media have reported on her firing — largely with quotes from alumni and from other coaches who all claim her firing as an unjustified act.  How could anyone with her record of success and with her reputation for work ethic be let go?  No newspaper reported Mr. Imbusch’s reasons, and this reporter cannot either.  However, it appears that this decision was not an impulsive, reactionary one, but rather one with great forethought and with mixed opinions from athletes and ex-athletes.  Nevertheless, while Rutgers’ eventual dismissal of the abusive Mike Rice was the obvious correct decision, the dismissal of Ms. Bilodeau seems like an overreach.

This comment is not made lightly; it is a judgment made after interviewing a number of players on the team in recent years — some players who loved her, some players who played for her with hesitance, and some players who will happily rejoin the team (after quitting the team) next year under a new coach.  However, because of the sensitivity of this issue (which is the presumed reason Principal Imbusch’s reluctance to comment), no players in this editorial will be named.

Ms. Bilodeau — in the vein of great college coaches like Pat Summit — demanded a lot from her athletes.  This demand seemed to carry with it not only brutal work ethic but also brutal honesty. Both are the main reasons for the large number of students that have quit this year and year’s prior: “When it was the fall season, and she knew that I had commitments for other sports, I was still supposed to be attending basketball events, like clinics and workouts,” said one ex-player. “And when it was basketball season, during practice, [Bilodeau] would not hold back, saying such things as ‘You are a waste of my time.’” Asking for a large commitment to basketball and an aggressive coaching style appears to have caused the disdain of many parents and players and ultimately the disapproval of administration.

However, this decision is completely unfounded: parents and players cannot have this kind of say in the process of hiring or firing a coach just because their kids came home a little less motivated then before. “I know that at times she may have had differences of opinions with players or their parents, but I believe she always acted in a professional manor and treated people with respect,” said an alumni that played for Ms. Bilodeau.

It may be old school for a coach to challenge her players through means of raising her voice or getting in their faces but that type of coaching intensity has motivated athletes to be successful.  It may not be for everyone, but the player and parental opinion should not take precedence in a personnel decision. If players do not like that kind of style, they should do what they have done this year and quit. Even with a high number of players from all three levels departing the program this year, Girls Basketball went 10-8 overall, and their 10-4 record in the league earned it the Herget Division title.

But firing this coach because there were a multitude of complaints? That’s just soft. These old-school coaches are not in the coaching business to make friends; they are there to coach their team to the best of their ability in order to acheive whatever kind of goals they set at the beginning of the year.

Consider Coach Lee Delaney for instance. He took the boys soccer program over as a kid just coming out of college, barely older than the kids he was coaching. Now, Coach Delaney has made boys soccer a yearly contender for the Bay State Title. No one is doubting that Delaney is a product of the old school type of coaching; he is not shy to raise his voice or create confrontation as a means to motivate his players. And the success speaks for itself.

Just like Delaney, consider Mr. Barry Greener, Mrs. Marianne Murphy, Mr. William Tompkins.  Have the Rebels become too soft for brutal honesty?  Should every athlete make the team? Should every athlete get playing time?  Should every coach reassure every mediocre athlete that he or she is doing a good job?

Ms. Bilodeau may be a hard coach to play for if you are not fond of yelling or confrontation, but if that does not mesh with the playing style, then quit! If parents do not like the approach, then they should talk to the coach directly, not weasel out and go above the coach’s head in an effort to get her removed. It’s just plain selfish; just because your kid — in this case daughter — does not believe the coach — Ms. Bilodeau — has a beneficial coaching style, it does not mean you should petition for her dismissal. Consider the options of gutting it out, quitting, or finding another team to play for.

A similar circumstance occurred when Ms. Bilodeau was the coach of both varsity soccer and basketball: the theory at the time was that Ms. Bilodeau’s coaching style was not favored by the administration or some parents. Ms. Bilodeau took over a soccer team that was 1-16-1, and after four seasons, they won the Bay State Conference.  After that season though, it was rumored that she had to choose between soccer and basketball to coach.  Her decision to choose basketball led to the quick downfall of the girls soccer program, as the success that Ms. Bilodeau accrued was all but forgotten because of following dismal seasons. The program has been recently revitalized, finally reaching the state tournament consecutively and winning its first state tournament game this year since since Bilodeau left the program in 2008.

Now, as similar circumstances have led to Bilodeau’s dismissal as the girls basketball coach, expect the pattern to reemerge. Girls Basketball will not have the same kind of success that they have had in the past — competing for the Herget Title year in and year out — especially right out of the gates. The players that have been in the program for two or three years will have to adapt to a different coaching style and philosophy while still trying to simulate the bond that all the players felt under Ms. Bilodeau.

“Stacy made the team what it is today, not only coaching them to State championships, but creating a bond between the players,” said the same alumni.

“I don’t think she deserved to be fired and I don’t think that Walpole will find a coach that put as much time in as [Ms. Bilodeau] did,” said a current player.

Sometimes, it is necessary for parents to complain about a coach to a higher-up, as we see in Mike Rice’s case at Rutgers; however, parents need to know the difference between protecting their children and following a self-absorbed agenda that only benefits their kid — not the whole program. This decision was the wrong one, and Ms. Bilodeau should still be walking out of the locker room at the Walpole High School gymnasium the next time Walpole Girls Basketball team takes the court. A coach that has had that kind of success in a sport should be able to easily find another coaching position. And if she ever does walk onto the floor of the Walpole High School gym again as another team’s coach, fans will not be able to tell who the crowd is rooting for — the hometown team, or the hometown coach.