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Cotey: Countryside officials, especially principal, should shoulder blame

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Wed. October 24, 2012 | John C. Cotey | Email

Cotey: Countryside officials, especially principal, should shoulder blame

Countryside High School has to forfeit six football games — five of them victories, two of them critical district triumphs — because its administration screwed up some paperwork, failed to communicate and can’t, apparently, understand rules.

Surprised?

Of course you aren’t.

If there is one thing that has defined the administration at Countryside the past few years, it’s a breathtaking ability to bumble and bungle its way through what many would find to be rather easy tasks.

The booster club imploded two years ago.

There have been letters of admonishment from the Pinellas County Area 2 superintendent for the administration’s lackadaisical efforts in vetting volunteer coaches.

And now we have this: a football player was allowed to play despite the Florida High School Athletic Association telling Countryside he couldn’t until the proper paperwork was filed.

It never was. But coach Jared Davis said he was given the green light by administrators to play quarterback Christian Strong anyway.

Well done, fellas.

The school will appeal, but the paperwork issues and residency flubs that may go even deeper should temper any hope. And it doesn’t excuse Countryside of an incredible pattern of sloppiness.

The school district said Wednesday that it isn’t planning to look into this beyond what the FHSAA has already investigated. And really, what’s another letter in someone’s file anyway?

This time, it would be nice to see someone, anyone, take responsibility, to step forward and apologize to the parents and players, to the 24 seniors whose final season of high school football has been tainted.

Maybe administrators need additional training — or new jobs. Something that doesn’t require so much paperwork, or so much diligence.

Parents of the players are rightfully livid, their sons devastated and disillusioned.

Today, people are angrily pointing fingers, and there’s clearly enough blame to go around.

First, at Strong, the transfer from Canada who said he was living with relatives, but who the FHSAA said wasn’t.

Secondly, at Davis. If a school official really told him Strong’s eligibility checked out, then his biggest mistake might be trusting his administration. He should have placed his own call to the FHSAA.

Thirdly, at athletic director Steve Blumer and assistant principal in charge of athletics and activities Lewis Curtwright, who inexplicably failed to do their jobs, which many are wondering if they should continue to hold.

And lastly, at principal Gary Schlereth.

Yes, we know, principals delegate. They can’t be everywhere, can’t look over every scrap of paper that comes across their desk.

And besides, they have people for that.

But how many times can Schlereth hide behind the failings of people for whom he is responsible?

Does he have a point?

In April, that letter that the FHSAA sent to Countryside, notifying the school that Strong was ineligible for the spring and saying it needed to check back with the organization before playing him in the fall? That letter was addressed to Schlereth and Blumer. 

Schlereth told the Times Wednesday night that he emailed his athletic administrators in July telling them to "make sure your I's are dotted and T's are crossed on the quarterback." He said he asked Blumer again in August if it had been taken care of. Blumer, he said, told him it had been.

"The people I have responsible for that,'' Schlereth said, "didn't follow through.''

At the end of the day, he admits, the buck stops at his desk. I'm not sure he quite believes that, but Schlereth is responsible for the administration of all aspects of the school’s athletic programs, and it says so right there in the FHSAA handbook.

When it comes to the football program, he has failed.

The booster club imploded under his watch. A district policy requires yearly audits be examined by the principal, but when they weren't filed no one seemed to notice, until a quarter of a million dollars was unaccounted for, money that was raised for the benefit of student-athletes.

Schlereth was reprimanded last month for his school’s sloppy process of registering volunteers, and it wasn't the first time. He was scolded by Area 2 superintendent William P. Corbett because two years ago there had been similar concerns about the same issue, and Corbett wrote to Schlereth in his letter of reprimand that he had been verbally instructed to correct the process, which he clearly didn’t do. 

Those may sound like minor instances, but with the screening process being ignored when it comes to letting volunteers work with kids, you could argue that Countryside has been very fortunate. 

And now, this.

I have no doubt there are people assigned to responsibilities by Schlereth who are not fulfilling them. Maybe they're confused, as Blumer was about the rules surrounding a player having legal guardians, as in Strong's case.

But can that always be an excuse? Is Schlereth that uninvolved in athletics that he couldn't, in this case, be bothered to monitor the eligibility of a high-profile transfer who plays a high-profile position for his very high-profile and successful football program?

It’s hard to give him a pass on the forfeit of six football games and a team’s postseason chances because he delegates responsibility.

We know where he is pointing his finger.

But after a while, I wonder: is it time to point a finger at him?

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@tampabay.com or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

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