On a 3-2 vote Wednesday, Sept. 14, the Nodaway Valley School Board reinstated Nodaway Valley/O-M head football coach Seth Comly who had been on administrative leave from that position since Friday, Sept. 2.
The agenda item was a recommendation from Superintendent Paul Croghan to terminate Comly. Voting to reject that recommendation were Kristen Jensen, Molly Herrick and Daniel Shilling. Adam Woosley and Susan Stevens were in favor.
Comly is in his second season as head coach of the Wolverines and his third season with the program.
Accounting for both open and closed sessions held, debate and deliberation on the issue lasted more than three and a half hours in the high school library.
An estimated 90 people filed into the library to hear the proceedings.
Following testimony from parents of the football program and the community, as well as current and former players of Comly, an informal hearing took place in open session at his request as he waived his right to it being in closed session.
Comly and school administrators Croghan and secondary principal/activities director Gerry Miller shared their evidence and witnesses before the school board.
The proceedings were moderated by Danielle J. Haindfield from Ahlers & Cooney of Des Moines, which is the school district’s legal counsel.
Six individuals, some close to the football program spoke to the board during an open forum that started the meeting. Board president Susan Stevens said the board would not respond to questions from those speaking.
Boston DeVault, the Wolverines’ senior quarterback, represented the football team before the school board. He, and others, questioned why the school administration waited until late on a game day, Sept. 2, to make their announcement of the coaching change.
Football parent Michelle Carns said she hoped the administration “would do the right thing.” She said other sports programs at Nodaway Valley have had issues, not just football. She listed softball and cross country specifically, but did not name coaches.
“We have a big problem. What we have is a glaring issue of hypocrisy. You can’t manage a company that way and you can’t manage a school that way,” Carns said. “I am asking [our administration] to fix this. This is far beyond football at this point. This is a room with far more than just football parents. As a football mom, I’m baffled we’re even talking about coach Comly, based on what parents and other sports parents have observed in the last several months in some of our programs. If you want to fire someone be my guest, but do it the right way, like between seasons, when the issue you’re so concerned about transpired.”
Croghan first asked Miller to testify in front of the board. Miller said there have been previous problems with Comly that have been followed up on.
In one such instance, Comly was given a letter in September 2021 stating areas of concern including he was speaking to coaches and players in a negative manner and they felt they could no longer effectively communicate with him. Miller said Comly would often change times of practices, film sessions and weight training sessions on late notice and he would show up late to many of these events.
Miller said he recommended a contract for Comly for the 2022 season because he wanted to see continued growth and work with him in a second year as the head coach.
Miller also stated there were numerous concerns shared with him regarding Comly from former assistant coaches. Comly would allegedly give assistant coaches duties only to abruptly take them away from them during practices or games.
Assistant coaches have refused to work with Comly, Miller said. Assistant coach Thad Tussey, who was named interim on Sept. 2, informed school administration Sept. 1 he would resign if Comly remained head coach. Miller stated it was that conversation that alarmed him enough to recommend he and Croghan make a change.
“I was concerned that coach Comly had a continued pattern of brash and abrupt changes in schedules and coaching duties that had not changed during the course of his coaching tenure,” Miller said.
Miller also frequently pointed to “a lack of collaboration over a long period of time” with other coaches when speaking about Comly. Miller said if Comly would be reinstated he does not think there would be an assistant coach willing to work with Comly. Only having one coach, Comly, Croghan said if Comly was reinstated, he would suspend the remainder of the football season not wanting one coach to manage the entire team.
Comly, who chose to represent himself, questioned Miller on what he meant with a “long period of time” as Miller said he has had concerns over the last two years brought about by complaints from Comly’s assistant coaches.
Referring to Tussey, Comly said he had an assistant coach who said he would “show up when he wants to practice.” Comly asked how he’s supposed to collaborate with a person like that. Miller told Comly he thought that was a “hypothetical question,” as the audience responded with laughter. Miller said if Comly would have made him aware of such things, he would have supported him in trying to correct it.
Questions from the board
Jensen asked Miller what kinds of support or structure are in place for coaches. The fall sports coaches meeting was a time to go over the activities handbook and policies and procedures, Miller explained.
Miller said he asked for a preliminary roster, schedule for the season and inventory of equipment from Comly in July but only received a portion. He said the calendar he received wasn’t the right one.
Haindfield asked Miller whether it is true that expectations set forth in the September 2021 letter weren’t met by Comly, and Miller agreed.
“I do believe that coach Comly has improved in the area of communicating with players, coaches and parents in a professional and respectful manner and that he has taken on an attentive role in listening to players’ concerns,” Miller said. “I do have concerns with the bottom two bullets, which led to a lack of confidence in his ability to lead our program.”
The two bullets were lack of collaboration and changing of schedules and duties.
Miller said he reviewed Comlly after the 2021 season in January.
In the preseason, Nodaway Valley advertised to fill assistant coaching positions and hired one paid assistant coach. That paid assistant brought on a volunteer coach. Miller said he presented that list of personnel to Comly prior to the beginning of August and also offered his own services as a volunteer assistant coach. Miller said Comly never communicated back to him after that email was sent.
The Thursday before the team’s preseason scrimmage in Corning, Comly asked Miller about the idea of him becoming a volunteer assistant, as he had previous offered. Miller talked about it with his family and accepted Monday, Aug. 22. One week later Miller was asked to not come back because Comly said players felt he had “ulterior motives” by Miller being there. Miller refuted those claims but left the position out of respect for Comly.
Comly later would ask Miller whether he thought the administrative leave was retaliation for asking Miller to leave as an assistant coach, but Miller said “it is not.”
Shilling asked how assistant coaches are hired and whether head coaches have a say. Miller said they usually do. In the case of Tussey, Miller helped initiate the conversation between Tussey and Comly after Tussey was hired.
Miller explained when Comly was hired as head coach, two teachers from other districts applied for the position of head coach. Miller interviewed them both. In July, Miller asked Comly, who was already an assistant coach, whether he’d be interested in head coaching, and he was given the job.
Comly claimed Miller said he would be there for him “every step of the way” as a head coach. Comly disagreed with Miller. Miller said sometimes his other duties pull him away so that he can’t respond immediately to questions, but makes attempts.
Other evidence explained included a practice time getting changed and some players did not know. Two parents approached Miller concerned that their student-athletes had missed practice. When called on the miscommunication, Miller said Comly told him he had “spaced” putting the updated time on the third-party smartphone app all Wolverine activities use to communicate with each other.
Comly alleged a letter placed in his personnel file in September 2021 was not in the version he received from the school office. Miller denied the claim. Comly said, “I’m going to call you a liar.”
Tussey told administrators the time, energy and sacrifices he was making were not valued by Comly. Tussey said he would frequently create play schemes or help prepare schemes that were eventually overruled, sometimes without him knowing it. Comly would change things during practice and tell the players but not Tussey, he said.
While the interim head coach, Tussey said he had gave equipment to a couple of players because they did not have it. Tussey also claimed an online file with pertinent team information became unavailable to him before the Sept. 2 game at Shenandoah.
Comly asked Tussey to talk about his experience as a coach and asked whether he thinks if he’s new to the program he should have more say than he did in the decision making. Tussey said he should. Comly stated Tussey handed equipment to players who did not have all of their required paperwork turned in.
Shilling asked both coaches how often they would get together to discuss practice plans. Tussey said such meetings were regular, especially before school started. The practice itinerary would be on paper to be followed, however it might change on the fly, Tussey said.
Tussey confirmed this is his first year as a paid assistant football coach.
Several players were called to witness by Comly, including Blake Lund, Kaden Herr, Charles Rudolf and Brandon Raasch, as well as former player Carter Holder.
All players spoke highly of the football program, saying changes in schedules were well-communicated and any conflicts were resolved within the team.
Holder said there were frequent changes in the practice schedule, especially on Thursdays last season. It was Holder’s class that set the precedent that players aren’t punished for missing practice, they make it up.
Rudolf spoke of a situation where a player recently left the team after they felt disrespected by Miller, however that player has reportedly re-joined the team.
The board took about 1 hour and 45 minutes for a closed session to only review all evidence presented during the open session.
A large percentage of the football team was present at the meeting when the room erupted in cheers after the verdict was announced following the closed session.
“I’m glad that things turned out the way they did,” said Raasch, a senior two-way player. “Our team was lacking in enthusiasm, courage and all aspects of football without Comly here. We felt the coaching we had wasn’t quite the way it should be and are much more confident with coach Comly.”
DeVault agreed with Raasch’s sentiment and was ecstatic at the school board’s decision.
“We fought for him from the beginning and we never lost faith,” DeVault said. “We did everything that we could to get him reinstated as our coach and now that he’s back we’re ready to rock and roll.”
Comly said after the meeting that it’s time to “live and learn” and not get “hung up” on this situation moving forward.
“I’m just happy to be back with the guys,” Comly said. “It’s been a long two weeks. It’s been pretty emotional and really taxing, but it’s all worth it now that I get them back. We’re just going to pick up where we’re at, get rolling and go from there. We just live and learn. It is what it is, we fix the things that we can, control what we can control and move forward. We can’t get hung up on this.”
Comly said after the meeting, other people said during the meeting about their interest in being assistant coaches.