When Mike Zoffuto came to Lake Highlands eight years ago as the football coach and athletic director, his job was clear: Rebuild the dwindling football program, and rally the community.
He accomplished both tasks.
But last month, after numerous allegations concerning funding irregularities and conducting personal business on school time, Zoffuto resigned before being fired by RISD Superintendent Vernon Johnson.
And now, an RISD search committee is looking for a new coach to continue Zoffuto’s football legacy.
“I’m not real distressed,” Zoffuto says. “I’m disappointed because we built it up, and it was taken away. I believe that the good Lord will point me in the direction I should go.”
“We took a diversified group of people and brought them all together. We made them one big family. I think this legacy will continue. This program is bigger than one person. It will survive without Mike Zoffuto.”
At the School
The day after Zoffuto announced his resignation, a staff meeting was held at Lake Highlands High School to allow employees to ask questions and voice concerns and frustrations, says principal Ron Mathews.
That same day, Johnson began forming a committee of community, district and school officials to find a new football coach and athletic director. Jerry Gaydon and Jim Ledford were appointed as interim head football coaches, and basketball coach Jim Roe was appointed as interim athletic director.
A new coach is expected to be hired this month, hopefully easing the frustration of the team and, eventually, that of many neighborhood residents.
Mathews also says new procedures will be enacted next school year to help unify the community and the school’s staff, but he says nothing has been formulated yet.
“Next year will be the beginning of a new phase,” Mathews says.
“We have some work to do there in the school,” Johnson says. “We have to concentrate and make sure the staff moves forward.”
Later this summer, Johnson says, district administrators and athletic department personnel probably will meet to discuss, and perhaps tighten, district policies to prevent future misunderstandings.
The meetings will be designed to “once again, and I stress those words – once again – reiterate policies and guidelines the district has,” Johnson says.
“He took a program that had 25 kids in it eight years ago and now has 125 kids this last fall,” says Bill Blaydes, one of Zoffuto’s friends and president of the Lake Highlands Homeowners Association.
When Zoffuto arrived, Blaydes says the high school’s booster club was also on its last leg and only supported the football team. Zoffuto expanded the club to support all athletic teams and turned it into a fundraising machine, bringing in $75,000 last year, all of which benefited athletic programs, Blaydes says.
“It literally gave the community something to be proud of,” Blaydes says.
Zoffuto also had success on the field. His trade-mark wishbone offense led his teams to three district titles and a 10-6 playoff record.
But Zoffuto’s successes came with a price. He angered some neighborhood residents and some of the school’s faculty, Blaydes and others say.
“He was bold, he was brash,” Blaydes says. “He irritated a lot of people because of it. He was a man driven to make sure his boys succeed.”
Booster club president Steve Holley says he is committed to ensuring the club’s continued success. He says the first step of recovering will be having club members help select a new head coach.
The club also is trying to provide stability for the football team, “just give them a sense that it will all get back to normal,” Holley says.
“It’s been very, very hard on the players – both the uncertainty of the investigation and the sadness of his resignation.”
Among the allegations were:
- Improperly accounting for several thousand dollars in gate receipts from the football team’s spring 1994 exhibition game.
- Selling insurance from his high school office.
- Paid $600 of district money for shorts and T-shirts for coaches. The transaction previously had been rejected by school officials.
- Incorrectly paid a $1,000 fee to a coach who was supposed to film football games.
- Made personal long-distance phone calls from his office.
- Improperly recruited players, an issue that already had been investigated and dismissed by the University Interscholastic League.
“Those who have been involved with him know what he stands for,” says Blaydes, who believes the allegations were “easily defensible.”
If Zoffuto had taken the opportunity to defend himself, Blaydes says he believes many of the allegations would have been defused.
“I’ve had the honor of watching his team play. I’ve been able to watch young men come out of the program. They all have a strong sense of purpose. They know right from wrong.”
Zoffuto says he can’t discuss the allegations because of his termination deal with the school district.
Zoffuto Speaks Out
“I’m not one to sit back and let people walk all over me,” Zoffuto says. “I did not want to back down. I tell my players and my children to fight for what you believe in.”
But when he was informed Johnson intended to fire him, Zoffuto says he had to think about his family first. If he was fired, Zoffuto says the appeals process could take two to three years, during which time he might not have been allowed to teach or coach.
Zoffuto and his family also would lose his salary and medical insurance.
“It killed me inside to do that,” Zoffuto says. “It flat killed me.”
“We can sit back and say: Mike, fight it. Fight it all the way,” Blaydes says. “But that’s not our life.”
As part of the process, Zoffuto says his family has received plenty of support from friends and neighbors.
“We can never, ever pay the community back for what they’ve done – even through this,” Zoffuto says. “I wouldn’t wish this upon my worst enemy.”
Zoffuto hopes to find a new coaching job by Aug. 15, when his severance pay from the school district runs out.
He is interested in coaching positions in other communities, and he has talked to businesses outside of education.
“I feel the good Lord put me here to work with kids and to coach,” Zoffuto says.
And once a new Lake Highlands football coach is selected, Blaydes and Johnson hope our community will rally behind the school and its student-athletes again.
“Many people want to move on, but there’s a void there,” Johnson says.
“This took the heart out of the community,” Blaydes says. “There’s a lot of anger. A lot of rumor. It’s going to take a while.”
“But the sun did come up today.”