By Alexa Epitropoulos | firstname.lastname@example.org
Shortly after school started in September, players on the T.C. Williams High School boys’ basketball team and their parents learned their third coach in three years would not return for the season.
The firing of Brett Sullivan as head basketball coach came after the appointment of James L. Parker as athletic director in August. Sullivan had only been on the job for one year. He had been hired in 2017 and his tenure followed the controversial, abrupt departure of Coach Bryan Hill in October 2016 and the interim, one-year tenure of Walt Coleman, who coached the 2016-17 team.
After firing Sullivan, Parker hired Darryl Prue – a former D.C. basketball star who played collegiately at West Virginia University, then professionally overseas – as coach. Prue was officially introduced to parents and players on Sept. 24 by famed Georgetown University coach John Thompson.
Though many parents expressed excitement about Prue, some are also frustrated about the turnover of the last several years.
Jeff Harold, a parent with one son who graduated from T.C. in 2017 and two others trying out for the team this year, said the turnover has created a lack of consistency.
“I have two kids that are freshmen there now, so I would just like to have some kind of stability,” Harold said ahead of the coach announcement. “… You want your kids to have someone that they can go to, a constant person outside the home that reinforces things that they [learn] at home, which a lot of coaches do. You want to have that person and every year it changes, so you have to [re]build the relationship.”
Alexandria City Public Schools declined to discuss the reason for removing Sullivan, citing its policy of not commenting on personnel issues.
Parker said, however, that hiring Prue is part of ACPS’ strategy of recruiting high-profile talent to lead teams. Parker, a former player himself who has long worked in the sport, has a particular focus on basketball. He previously worked as director of sports for the Amateur Athletic Union. Parker said it’s important to attract high-profile coaches to make sure teams recruit and retain the best players. Well-known coaches also appeal to parents.
“When you’re publicly funded over a private school that may have more discretionary income to do more things with, there’s other things we have to do to attract kids and keep parents here,” Parker said. “Part of it is hiring high-profile and high-quality coaches, part of that is making sure we have great partnerships with organizations like Nike or Adidas, where kids feel like ‘Wow, I’m part of something big.’”
When it comes to the amount of coaching turnover the team has had, Parker said it’s time to look forward and not back. He said his goal is to build a foundation for the team moving forward.
“We told the players we can’t change the past – whatever happened in the past happened. I wasn’t here in the past, so I can’t speak about what happened in the past, but what I can speak about is where we want to go and what we want to do,” Parker said.
“What we want to do is have a basketball coach that has a lot of contacts, not only in this area, but nationally, that can help them better themselves as basketball players and as young men, and can also bring some clout, so we’ll be able to raise more money for the program so we can do things,” he continued.
Because ACPS won’t comment on Sullivan’s departure, the circumstances remain cloudy. Sullivan was informed that Parker was doing an assessment of his performance in the position shortly before Labor Day and was told the first week of school that he wouldn’t return to the role, according to a former member of the coaching staff.
Sullivan’s removal from the position echoes the dismissal of Hill two years ago on Oct. 31, 2016. Parents, at the time of Hill’s dismissal, told the Washington Post that Bill Campbell, a member of the Alexandria School Board, was behind Hill’s departure. Campbell denied those claims at the time.
One parent, who spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity, said they weren’t surprised by Sullivan’s departure, especially with the appointment of a new athletic director. The parent said they believed Campbell had orchestrated Hill’s firing and that Hill’s departure had, in turn, led to more turnover.
The parent said if Hill had not been fired in 2016, they believed the discussion about turmoil would not be taking place and that the team would have been more successful over the past few years.
Campbell’s older son played on the basketball team at T.C. before graduating in 2017 and his younger son, who is a senior, is trying out for this year’s varsity team. Campbell said his sons have also been impacted by the instability.
“I’m almost positive when it comes to the varsity team, no one’s been impacted more than our family. I have a son that’s started on varsity since his freshman year. He has had as many coaches as possible. This will be his fourth coach in four years,” Campbell said. “Certainly, as a player and as a parent, you prefer stability first and foremost. You want positive interactions that’s going to make your high school experience something to remember.”
Campbell described Sullivan positively. He said he found out about Sullivan’s dismissal at a parent-and-coach event early in September.
“I liked Brett. I certainly thought he treated the boys well and I did have two boys play for him. … They went through the season. It was a tough season, but I thought they enjoyed playing, which is the most important thing,” Campbell said. “I didn’t interact a lot with Coach Sullivan, and then I thought he was absolutely professional and a gentleman in terms of how he handled the announcement [of his dismissal from the team].”
Despite the turnover, many parents expressed excitement about Parker’s appointment of Prue.
“I think change is hard, but one of the things we felt last night is that it was a really good step in making sure everyone feels confident in the decision,” Mary Fluharty, a parent of a T.C. sophomore who played on the freshman team last year, said.
Fluharty, a former employee at T.C. Williams, said she supported the process.
“The role of athletic director has also change a fair amount. Change is necessary to move a program forward and I certainly understand [Parker] hiring someone he feels comfortable with, someone he’s worked with,” Fluharty said.
Prue, who coaches for Team Takeover at the Amateur Athletic Union, the same organization Parker used to work for, was a basketball star at Laurence Dunbar High School in D.C. in the 1980s.
He was recruited by Thompson to play at Georgetown, but opted to go to West Virginia University instead. After playing professionally overseas, he became a coach. Parker said Prue would be a good role model for players and would be able to coach them and prepare them for the future, whether it’s in the NBA, in a sports-related career or something else entirely.
“We’re trying to push them to be great. They can’t just be average – they have to be great, because, at the end of the day, even if you play basketball, that’s going to end at some point of time and you’re going to be relatively young,” Parker said. “Even if you make $30 to $40 million, you’re going to be 31 or 32 years old and you’ll still have a lot of living to do, so what’s next?”
Parker said the goal is to make players into leaders on and off the court, and to help them plan for what’s ahead.
“It’s very important, when you have a coach, that it’s not about the wins and losses, but about the development of the player and making sure they’re doing what’s right, because it’s using basketball, not letting it use you,” Parker said.
Parker said the hiring of Prue and the hiring of girls’ basketball coach Lisa Willis is part of a
movement by the athletic department to hire high-profile individuals in each sport. He said the athletic department’s next step is appointing a lacrosse coach.
He said high-profile means different things in every sport.
“Being high-profile is really about being high-profile in your world – that everybody looks at you as a high-quality coach and a high character individual,” Parker said. “… It’s not about being popular, it’s about credibility.”
Open gym has started for T.C. boys’ basketball players and tryouts will be held in November. The first game of the season is Nov. 14 against Potomac High School.