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Jim Kenyon: Coach Gets Cut

On May 15, head coach Peter Steese was making final preparations in his office with a member of his Colby-Sawyer College track and field team for their trip the next day to the Eastern College Athletic Conference Championships in Springfield, Mass., when a college employee came to the door. The woman asked Steese to come with her to a meeting a few buildings away.

Steese had no idea what the meeting was about. It wasn’t on his schedule.

Jesse Socci, of Wilton, Conn., who had qualified in the shot put for the two-day championships that feature the top Division III track and field athletes in the Northeast, waited in his coach’s office to finish their talk. But when Steese returned, Socci found him unusually quiet. “He just seemed kind of stunned,” said Socci.

Steese handed Socci a packet of papers, which included the championship meet’s itinerary. Hang onto these, said the coach. “Aren’t you coming with us?” asked Socci.

“Sorry,” replied Steese. He wouldn’t be joining Socci and his three teammates who had qualified for the championships, after all.

How come?

At the unscheduled meeting, Steese was handed his layoff notice. Effective immediately. Steese was one of 16 Colby-Sawyer employees who learned that they were being “released” that day as part of a budget-cutting measure.

I understand Colby-Sawyer’s desire to do some belt tightening. Like many small private colleges that are tuition-dependent and don’t have large endowments, Colby-Sawyer struggles in these trying economic times to stay out of the red.

But that’s no excuse for treating Steese — or his student-athletes — the way it did.

Steese, 61, had worked at Colby-Sawyer for 23 years, pulling double duty as head coach of track and men’s soccer squads during much of that time. Couldn’t the school at least have waited a few more days until the track season was over before showing him the door?

Colby-Sawyer President Thomas Galligan and his “leadership team” (that’s how the school describes its people in charge of budget slashing) didn’t show a lot of understanding or respect for the relationship that Steese had built with the students he works with almost daily.

The four ECAC qualifiers had stayed in New London after classes ended to train with Steese for the championship meet at Springfield College. Since Colby-Sawyer doesn’t have its own track, Socci, Matt Van Vliet, Hayden Bunnell and Ted Paquin drove with Steese to nearby Kearsarge Regional High School for afternoon workouts. “He’s always there when you need him,” said Socci.

Van Vliet, of Bridgton, Maine, had high hopes for what turned out to be the final meet of his collegiate career. “I was trying to qualify for the nationals. I felt as though if Peter was there, I would have made it. But I couldn’t concentrate that well. Not having him there kind of ruined it.”

After hearing about Steese’s sudden dismissal, Colby-Sawyer student Mike Laskowski, of Fremont, N.H., set up a Facebook page. Laskowski, who will be a senior in the fall, was captain of the 2013 men’s soccer team and also competed in track. “Coach Peter has been here as a teacher, coach, friend and mentor for many of us,” Laskowski wrote. “He has been part of the Colby-Sawyer family for over 23 years.”

Laskowski has written to Galligan about the college’s “lack of professionalism” for its handling of Steese’s forced exit. “He wasn’t given a chance to say goodbye to his teams,” Laskowski explained to me. “He was just told to pack up and go. That’s it.”

Athletic Director Deb McGrath, who has headed the school’s intercollegiate sports programs for 25 years, wasn’t part of the inner circle that decided Colby-Sawyer could do without a full-time men’s soccer or track coach. “I had no knowledge that this was happening,” said McGrath, who, with the soccer season less than three months away, is looking to hire a part-time coach.

McGrath was informed that Steese’s position had been eliminated only shortly before the coach found out. She told her bosses that the ECAC Championships were starting the next day. But it didn’t matter. Steese’s “separation was effective immediately and there’s no room for making an exception,” she was told.

McGrath then put two part-time assistant track coaches, who were already planning to make the trip, in charge. During the meet, Steese stayed in touch via cell phone. “I was kind of amazed that I wasn’t allowed to go,” he said when I called him last week. “It was disappointing to say the least.”

On Friday, I talked with Galligan. He said that he couldn’t discuss “individual personnel decisions,” but these were the first layoffs at Colby-Sawyer since his arrival in 2006. The layoffs and other cuts, which are expected to reach close to $3 million, are needed to balance the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, he said.

David Sauerwein, vice president for student development, was part of the leadership team that decided who got the ax. He said he was unaware that the track season hadn’t ended before Steese was given the news. The college wanted to make the announcement after graduation, but before the faculty left for the summer. “We had a very narrow window,” he said. “It’s a sad thing to have to do, and there’s no good time for it. I think we made the right decision for the institution.”

Even if Sauerwein had known about the ECAC meet, I doubt it would have made a difference. “We had to treat everyone (who was laid off) the same,” he said.

Along with coaching, Steese taught a class at Colby-Sawyer. It was called “Ethics in Sport.” It sounds like a class that the school’s leadership team could have used.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@Valley.net.