Try 1 month for 99¢

PORTAGE — Accusations of poor sportsmanship and finger pointing over whether a coach resigned plague an eighth-grade boys basketball team.

Portage's Fegely Middle School asked for boys basketball coach Mike Kobe to resign on Monday for running up scores on opposing teams, the coach said Tuesday. On Tuesday, the school announced Kobe had resigned during halftime of a Nov. 20 game — a claim Kobe denies. 

Fegely officials declined comment when contacted by The Times on Tuesday, and the day culminated in a tense confrontation at Fegely immediately after a team practice. Parents of players hung back inside a school entrance along with Kobe, assistant coach Dan Filla and Portage varsity coach Rick Snodgrass to discuss Kobe's job status and the team's future.

Fegely Principal Ann Marie Caballeros and Assistant Principal Jennifer Combs told the group to leave and declined to answer questions. A handful of police officers arrived at the school and said they had been called due to a group that wouldn't leave Fegely's gym but the officers soon departed.

Portage Township Schools officials refused to answer specific questions about the matter.

“It's very frustrating not to even get answers and get the other side of the story,” said Jimmie Hollies, whose son, Jaelon Hollies, plays for Fegely. “Because we know there are two sides to the story. Give us yours. Let us know.”

Friction peaked Nov. 20 in a game against St. Paul Catholic School in which Kobe subbed in his bench players after Fegely jumped out to a 21-0 lead. The school district issued a statement claiming Kobe "provided a verbal resignation" during halftime.

Kobe denied the school district's claim, saying players and Filla were on hand during halftime and that he never issued a resignation. Multiple witnesses of the incident told The Times that athletic director Joe Bachan entered the team's locker room and that an argument ensued but that Kobe did not say he was resigning. Kobe left the gym afterward, and Filla – who has been named new head coach – took over for the second half.

“That never happened,” Filla said of the school's claim Kobe resigned. “(Kobe) was irate, of course, someone coming into the locker room. What came out of his mouth was, 'I was done,' which means, 'I'm done with the situation.'”

Kobe said Fegely officials had met with him about keeping scores down after his team posted huge margins throughout this season and last.

He said for weeks the attitudes of teachers and administrators in the school had turned against their team, some of them telling players directly that their wins were "unsportsmanlike." Fegely defeated Morgan Township 90-10 to open this season.

St. Paul athletic director Ray Tarnow told The Times he had no issues with the Nov. 20 game and that “there (were) no shenanigans there.”

Last year, parents said Combs posted short articles on Portage's athletics website about wins, but the last post dates back to Jan. 19. Parents and Kobe said they never had issues last year, before Bachan took over his current post.

Kobe sent an email to Combs shortly after the altercation with Bachan in an attempt to discuss the conflict. According to Kobe, he received no communication from Fegely until Combs emailed him Monday morning requesting his resignation.

Combs declined to speak with The Times on Tuesday night.

"I'm not the kind of coach to run up the score for any purpose. We just play basketball," Kobe said. "It's been a strange thing. If it wasn't for the kids, I would just walk away."

Kobe described his team as one with historic talent and that there was little he could do to keep scores reasonable. Kobe and parents said some of his athletes have played together since the third grade, have developed a chemistry as a team and that AAU coaches routinely come and scout Fegely's games.

Avoiding blowouts

Solomon Alexander – founder of the St. Louis Sports Foundation, an organization that promotes sportsmanship and organizes coaching clinics – said that the up-and-down nature of basketball and the wide range of ability at middle school levels lend the sport to large blowouts. Alexander said pre-high school leagues should generally implement a running clock once the margin balloons too far.

Alexander cited a 1993 study conducted by Michigan State University that found boys aged 10 to 18 listed a desire to win as the eighth-most common reason they participated in sports, while a lack of fun was the second-most common reason they quit. While Alexander emphasized the importance of backing off the press and playing reserves, he said there's only so much coaches of top teams can do.

“So you get to the other end and you just dribble around the basket and pretend it's not there? That would be a little silly, and asking kids to do that, it wouldn't be fair to a team of kids that have a more developed skill set,” Alexander said. “If a coach is not using abusive language, or worse, with children, then I think those type of things can be worked out. I mean, what does the next coach of these kids do?”

Team fallout

There has already been some fallout. Demetrius “DJ” Moss, whom Kobe said is among the team's best players, will transfer to Indian Trail Middle School in Plainfield, Illinois, his father, William Fields, confirmed.

“A lot of these kids go to his house and hang out,” Jimmie Hollies said of Kobe. “My son is one of the starters, and my son complains that he doesn't get playing time, because … when they get in, the score instantly runs up, and Mike has to play the reserves a whole lot.”

The school district issued the following statement and declined comment on all other questions:

"Fegely boys basketball coach Mike Kobe provided a verbal resignation from his position during halftime of the Nov. 20 game. At that time, our administrative team accepted his resignation, Mr. Kobe departed the building, and assistant coach Dan Filla stepped in to coach the team for the remainder of the game. Coach Filla has since accepted the position of head coach of the Fegely boys basketball team for the remainder of the 2018-2019 season.

"We are scheduling a meeting with the parents and players of the team to discuss his transition and moving forward with the boys basketball program."

12
29
19
17
123

Robbie Weinstein covers Porter County prep sports and Valparaiso University athletics for The Times. You can find the Vanderbilt University and Northwestern University grad posted up on the nearest field of play or in front of the TV.