Leader Blues

Friday, March 26, 2010

SPORTS >> Downfall of coach hits hard, hits many

Leader sports editor

In so many cases a basketball play breaks down.

It is drawn up with all of its options, with the right players in the proper positions and every X accounted for by every O. But whether the play is hastily scribbled on a clipboard or drawn from deep within the playbook, it can’t account for the human element.

One moment of hesitation, a flinch, a twinge of human weakness and the whole play breaks down.

Abundant Life seemed to have everything properly drawn up. The Owls had the talent, the fundamentals, the conference championship, high seed and state tournament experience. And they appeared to have the coach in Tim Ballard.

Only there was no accounting for the human element.

On Tuesday, almost a month after Ballard was a no-show for the Owls’ 51-49 loss to Clarendon in the boys 2A-East Region Tournament, Ballard pled not guilty to first-degree sexual assault in Sherwood District Court.

Now, for Abundant Life, many things have broken down.

Sherwood police reports say Ballard — also Abundant Life’s principal, former girls track coach and an 18-year employee of the school — had inappropriate relationships with at least two girls who were students at the time.

One sexual complaint dates back 11 years.

Ballard, 39, pled not guilty and, as is his right, he will get his day in court and the chance to prove if he is innocent.

But what a mess.

This time the scandal doesn’t involve a high-profile golfer or coach, and we’ve seen our share of those lately. This time the scandal is in our backyard, in a local school affecting a local basketball program.

I was asked if this spelled the end of basketball at Abundant Life. The better question is will the school continue? Will parents, with their trust shattered, rush to pull their kids out? This story won’t end with a court verdict; it will end with enrollment figures.

Owls assistant Chris Horton is the interim coach and will be for the foreseeable future. There isn’t a rush to start a coaching search and apparently it isn’t a priority at a school that sooner or later will have to explain how much it new about Ballard and his alleged relationships.

“We really haven’t talked about a timetable to fill that,” athletic director and girls basketball coach Justin Moseley told me.

“Because there have been more important things to deal with.”

If Abundant Life survives, then basketball will too. The Owls program, under Ballard, has become a regular contender not only in the 2A-North Conference but also at the state level.

I feel most sorry for the Owls players. As the top seed, they needed just one victory in the regional to return to the state tournament, where, with a good draw, they would have likely been one of the favorites. Instead, the team missed a trip to state for the first time in three years.

Who knows how much the players knew when they took the floor at White Co. Central High School without Ballard to lead them? They had most likely heard rumors, and in a small school like Abundant Life, rumors can hit close to the truth.

Despite Horton’s best efforts, the Owls (29-5) had to have been thrown off not only by the absence of their coach but what they were no doubt hearing. Tough loss indeed.

What’s to be learned from this? Should we start impeaching coaches every time an accusation is made? No, because then any athlete or parent with an ax to grind could conceivably make hell for an innocent person and we already try people by rumor and opinion too often in this country.

I think the answer for Abundant Life, and for all schools, comes down to something as boring as diligence — a few new rules, maybe, or enforcement of old ones, along with some nosy teachers and parents who won’t settle for the answer “fine” when they ask a kid “how was your day?”

Think what might have been prevented at Abundant Life if the coach had been required to keep an adult witness to one-on-one meetings with athletes. What if an open, office door policy had been required in those situations?

What if those rules already existed and had been enforced?

What if they had a playbook and stuck to it?