Once upon a time, there was a high school football coach who turned a losing team into a winner. Then the coach got into trouble with the administration and was fired.
The football team the coach had built went on to enjoy an undefeated season (as of the date of this column). The football team, the high school and the community were ecstatic, and the coach who was fundamentally responsible for the team’s success became a faded memory.
Or did he?
It seems that former Lake Highlands High School football coach Mike Zoffuto is not going gently into that good night of involuntary retirement. You Lake Highlanders will no doubt recall the hubbub created in May when RISD Supt. Vernon Johnson unceremoniously and abruptly dismissed Zoffuto for alleged improprieties.
What is the story surrounding Zoffuto’s dismissal? Isn’t this just another story of an overzealous football coach putting his agenda above school policy?
Some will scold me for beating a dead horse. Some will thank me for bringing attention to the story. Some may have their curiosity piqued. And some may continue to think that a Zoffuto is a fancy pasta at Macaroni Grill.
In case you haven’t heard, Mike and Marcie Zoffuto filed suit against RISD, Vernon Johnson, and a gaggle of other administrators and teachers. And the longest article in the November issue of D magazine (covering part of 12 pages) was devoted to the Zoffuto’s dispute with RISD.
This story is clearly not a dead horse.
I recently spoke with the Zoffutos for several hours and asked them all the questions I wondered about last May. The timing and abruptness of certain events suggest to me there might be more to this story than meets the eye.
Marcie was an assistant band instructor in RISD and developed breast cancer in 1993. Unfortunately, the Zoffutos say in the lawsuit that her boss at the time made Marcie’s life as unbearable on the outside as the cancer was making it unbearable on the inside.
Marcie was able to arrange for a transfer to another RISD school in 1994, and apparently was doing well, because the Zoffutos say her October 1994 performance review indicated the highest rating of “exceptional quality.”
Meanwhile back at Wildcat Stadium, Mike had just taken his football team to the state playoffs. In December 1994, word got out that the Allen ISD was trying to lure Mike away. After several discussions with Vernon Johnson, and despite being offered more money by Allen, Mike says he decided to stay at Lake Highlands.
During those conversations, Mike says he asked Johnson if he was permitted to join a group of band parents at his daughter’s school who were concerned about the band program. Mike says Johnson told him he saw “no reason you can’t be a parent.”
In January 1995, the Zoffutos joined the band parent group, signed a letter of concern to the principal, and later participated in a meeting with the principal. One of the concerns resulted in an audit of the band’s account, the Zoffutos says.
Immediately following news of the band audit, Mike says that his principal began receiving phone calls alleging Mike was receiving kickbacks from school contractors. Not too long thereafter, the Zoffutos say an audit of Mike’s athletic department was initiated.
What was happening to Marcie at this point? In March 1995, according to the lawsuit, she was re-evaluated by her principal and told that her contract would not be renewed.
From “exceptional quality” to unemployed in five months – talk about a fall from grace.
The investigation into Mike’s department led to his suspension April 25, which led to a May 11 letter from Johnson informing Mike that he could resign or be fired.
The charges against Mike were made to sound heinous, but how many RISD coaches would survive similar scrutiny?
One of the charges involved making personal calls from his office, in which case I suppose we all could be fired.
Marcie has since found a job as a band director in a Garland middle school. Mike says he has been turned down on all coaching positions and cannot even land a job as a school bus driver.
Is the dismissal of the Zoffutos simply an exercise in good management by RISD?
In the hoopla of Wildcat fever, Lake Highlanders should not forget the man responsible for the success. More important, if baseless retaliation by certain RISD officials turns out to be the explanation for the Zoffutos’ dismissal, it will be up to the community to demand a full accounting. If RISD is wrong, the Zoffutos should not be left alone with the task of proving it.
Our tax dollars entitle us to an explanation.