SPRING HILL — Greg O'Connell doesn't have much regard for cell phones, which he considers more nuisance than necessity.
So it was after noon on Jan. 2 when the 60-year-old high school basketball coach got around to turning his on and discovered a voice mail from his new boss, the athletic director of Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High.
The A.D. said the players' parents wanted to talk with him. They were waiting in the gym.
The team was 10-1, but its success concealed a tense undercurrent off the court.
O'Connell had suspended three players for being a minute late to a pregame shootaround on Dec. 29, the day of a tournament championship game.
Two days later, he booted four players from a morning practice for arriving late. According to O'Connell, it wasn't their first time. Shortly after, two others walked out in protest.
Now, hours before a game at Lakeland Christian, the parents wanted to talk.
A mother suggested O'Connell was taking the fun out of the game for the boys. A dad told O'Connell he didn't like how he was handling things.
"Seeing those parents there, that kind of hurt," O'Connell said. The parents of all but two players were there. "And I'm thinking, 'This is coming from the kids. The kids aren't respecting my rules. They embarrassed me.' "
So after speaking his piece, O'Connell turned his back on the parents and walked away. He cleaned out his locker and handed in the team bus keys. He said goodbye and good luck to the players, and he left, vowing never to step on campus again.
This private drama became public 11 days later in a story in the Times. "This was supposed to be a Catholic school," O'Connell said. "I only went there because of the discipline.
"I'm ashamed to tell you I'm a Catholic."
The public response was intense. It universally praised O'Connell as an old-school paragon of virtue who had taken a stand against meddling parents and their coddled offspring. On-line message boards included comments like this: "Those kids are just like their parents, LOSERS!!!"
The vitriol caught the parents off-guard.
"They are not juvenile delinquents," says Michele Towson, a pediatrician who is the mother of one of the players. "No one was talking back to him. No one skips practices. They are great kids. They work hard."
So if everyone was working so hard, how did a Catholic school basketball court become a battleground in a debate about how to raise kids?
• • •
Bishop McLaughlin opened in 2003 and has only 250 students in a spacious school whose buildings still smell new. Parents pay between $9,520 and $11,810. For that their children get laptop computers, small class sizes and a curriculum that steers them without exception to college.
This place defies all the Catholic school cliches. No ruler-wielding nuns roam the halls and instruction by fear is not in the lesson plan.
"That's nowhere anymore," said Scott Conway, assistant principal. "If it's not illegal everywhere, then it should be."
Discipline is still a core value. The students wear uniforms. The boys can't have facial hair. No outrageous hair colors. Consequences for poor performance can be tough.
"We have detentions, suspensions, expulsions," Conway said.
Conway said when students are having problems, he talks with them.
"I think they respond better to it," he said.
With the exception of playing and coaching stints at Saint Leo College (now Saint Leo University), the last time O'Connell had spent any time in a Catholic school was when Mass was recited in Latin. But at Bishop McLaughlin, O'Connell thought he had found an institution that shared the values with which he had been reared.
He fed the pigs before dawn on the family's 3-acre farm in rural Connecticut. He endured the rigors of Catholic education at St. Joseph grammar school, where the bishop himself handed out the report cards.
After school he'd run 3 miles, sometimes in subfreezing weather, to basketball practice. His dad — a 6-foot-5, 250-pound native Irishman named Patrick — advocated corporal punishment with a cat o' nine tails if Greg or his six siblings stepped out of line.
"We had a woodshed," O'Connell recalled.
As an adult, O'Connell would become one of the area's most successful prep basketball coaches. With his garish sports jackets and brimstone demeanor, he won 366 games and four district titles in 23 seasons at Springstead High in Spring Hill.
He established his reputation even before the first game of his coaching career, which he nearly canceled when some players refused to comply with his dress code.
"He was the consummate disciplinarian," said Lorenzo Hamilton, principal at Springstead when O'Connell arrived in 1977. "He was no-nonsense."
And in the end, he also was naive.
He envisioned kids whose attitudes had been refined — and knuckles hardened — by a nun's ruler, just as his had been. He assumed his players' passion for the game would be unbridled, his rules unchallenged.
"I'm thinking (a young) Greg O'Connell," the coach said. "I'm thinking this kid that's just going to love playing this game … that kind of attitude."
What he got at Bishop McLaughlin, he said, were dangling shirttails, messy locker rooms and chronic tardiness.
O'Connell often brought the team fruit from his own trees. Once, though, the players left a locker room at St. Petersburg Canterbury littered with orange peels, prompting that school's athletic director to e-mail Bishop McLaughlin in complaint.
During warmups before that holiday tournament championship game, O'Connell said, some players had their shirttails out and some had forgotten their warmup pants. With three starters benched and apparently resigned to his team's fate against a top-ranked opponent, O'Connell barely stood up during the game.
"Well, I did call two time-outs," O'Connell said. "There was not a lot of coaching. When you're down 17-0 and you've already called a couple of time-outs, what are you going to do? I mean, it wasn't going to get any better because I wasn't going to put anybody in. Those (three suspended) kids aren't going in."
The team lost 61-28.
It wasn't the score that upset the parents.
• • •
The parents say they believe in discipline — at home and on the court — and agreed with the coach on punishments. It was his way or the highway, and for many that was okay.
But there were more issues than the ones he mentioned.
The parents said players who were sent home showed up 15 minutes before practice — but that was too late for the coach. The boys who were one minute late had been driven to the game by a father who took off work early to drive an hour just to be there by 5:30 p.m. — two hours before the game started.
"He should be happy they got there safely," Towson, 48, said.
The final straw, though, was threatening to suspend kids for the rest of their senior season. Punish them, yes. Make them run laps and do sprints and pushups. But let them play.
The meeting wasn't to ambush O'Connell, they said. They said they tried calling him for four days and the athletic director tried to get in touch with him that week. O'Connell recalls only a midweek voice mail from a parent whose child wasn't one of those who walked out of practice.
Afterward, "we felt bad," Towson said. "We want to call and say we're sorry it turned out this way."
• • •
On Monday, O'Connell sank into a bowl-shaped, rattan-framed chair in his Spring Hill home, gathered his two pugs into his lap, and recounted his experience at the school.
"Discipline is respect," he said. "If those kids really respected me — and it is respect — then they would've done anything they could've done to get there on time. That's the bottom line."
For the better part of 33 years at Springstead, as the players' shorts got baggier and athletic budgets got tighter, O'Connell commanded — and mostly got — that respect.
"He knew punctuality, dress, character and integrity were essential to the development of a kid," said Hamilton, who spent 37 years in local schools before retiring in 1997. "Winning would be a byproduct of it."
O'Connell's temperament, meantime, could be as mercurial as his rules were rigid. Early in his career, he said, he broke his hand punching a locker at Hernando High. When asked about profanity, he acknowledged he "did slip a couple of times" at Springstead.
"I always referred to Coach O'Connell affectionately as the Bobby Knight of high school basketball," said 1989 Springstead graduate Don Diedrick, one of the school's career scoring leaders. "But ultimately that was a good thing. Bobby Knight was successful, and so was Coach O'Connell."
Sure, there were disgruntled parents. In his final season at Springstead, O'Connell allegedly was grabbed by the shoulder after a game by a parent who accused O'Connell of verbally assaulting his players. The parent earned a trespass warning from school officials.
But O'Connell said he never encountered anything near a parental mutiny.
"One thing about Greg is, he's consistent," said Bill Meneely, an O'Connell assistant for 14 seasons. "He always gives you a second chance."
In a previous era, O'Connell said, the Bishop McLaughlin kids who walked out of practice would've never played for him again. "I would've ripped the practice stuff off them," he said.
Instead, he said he prayed before determining the consequences. Initially, he contemplated the "death penalty," meaning the players could remain on the team but wouldn't receive any quality game time the rest of the year. Eventually, he settled on a one-week suspension.
"They have a YMCA mentality, rec league," O'Connell concluded. "They want to play because they like the sport, it's fun and that type of thing. You don't have that real thoroughbred attitude. …
"Once the kids start getting happy, then they're not going to get any better. The coach has got to keep on saying, 'Hey, we've got to do this better, we've got to keep on working harder.' You strive for the top of the mountain."
• • •
Since O'Connell's departure, the on-court results have been mixed. The kids won their first two games, including a 10-point win at Lakeland Christian hours after the parents-coach meeting, then dropped three in a row.
A rematch with Tampa Prep on Jan. 16 was particularly lopsided.
"This isn't the real game, right?" one parent said. "This is just warmups."
They laughed a little and grimaced. Bishop McLaughlin lost 53-14.
Towson said she has been using this experience to teach her son, Devin, about perseverance. You learn. You keep going.
On Thursday, they played against Northside Christian School.
The parents filled the bleachers, as usual. They had left work, eaten a rushed dinner and handed younger kids off to the babysitter. People hugged warmly and chatted. A petite mom sat with two large rainbow-colored balloons, thinking of her son, a player on the team, and how he was born just before 6 p.m. on that day 18 years ago. The ugliness of the past few weeks seemed very distant.
On the court, the boys had found their rhythm again and held the lead for the whole game. They won 65-49, and afterward the whole crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to the player, who shyly ducked his head.
Their new coach is Les Parker, a baseball scout for the New York Mets who retired from coaching years ago. He's 61 and lives in Hudson. He was beginning a three-week break from scouting when he got the call. It was either play golf or help the kids, he said.
He wouldn't comment on what happened before he got there. He said the players are good kids and they listen. They work hard.
"And they don't quit."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@sptimes. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.