Gillis steps down after 22 years of coaching soccer at BKW

The Enterprise — Jordan J. Michael

Tough loss: Jim Gillis, left, seen here during a game in September 2012, has resigned from his position as Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s varsity soccer head coach after 22 years because he says he has been under scrutiny from a small group of parents over the past year. Gillis won 202 games with the Bulldogs, won five league titles, and is 14th all-time in Section 2 soccer victories. He’ll remain a chairman of Section 2, a post he’s held for 14 years.

BERNE — After 22 years of coaching varsity soccer at Berne-Knox-Westerlo, Jim Gillis is relinquishing his position. He planned on coaching this fall season, but says that four sets of disgruntled parents “won’t go away,” so it’s not worth it to continue.

Gillis, a member of the Section 2 soccer committee since 1994, and its chairman for 14 years, told The Enterprise this week that he has spent many years earning trust and respect as a coach. He doesn’t feel like he has to justify himself every day.      

“You can only get hit over the head so many times,” said Gillis of the dissection he has gotten from the small group of BKW parents; he wouldn’t name them. “It gets to a point where you ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it?’ No, it’s not fun anymore when you’re being dissected after every practice.”

Twenty years ago, Gillis said, he would have shrugged off criticism from parents and still coached if he had full support from BKW’s administration, which he does currently, but he just doesn’t like the aggravation. “If it’s not enjoyable, I don’t want to do it,” he said.

Messages left for BKW’s new interim superintendent, Joseph Natale, who took over for Lonnie Palmer on July 1, were not returned; Palmer declined comment, saying he no longer works for BKW. Gillis said that there was a meeting with Palmer, secondary Principal Brian Corey, Athletic Director Jeff Keller, and some parents in late June.

Gillis doesn’t know what all the complaints against him are, but he said the parents’ issues include him not teaching enough, talking too much, not doing enough drill work, and punishing the players when BKW loses. When asked if these claims made any sense, Gillis said, “No.”

In a letter from Gillis sent to the BKW players that was forwarded to The Enterprise on July 16, Gillis writes about how a small group of “unhappy parents” have distracted his coaching, placing him in a “no-win situation.”

“We have great kids, and they don’t deserve this, but this is the best way to move forward,” said Gillis this week. “I have to remove myself, and I hope they understand.”

Gillis said that he didn’t send the letter to the four sets of parents that have a problem with him because they didn’t want him coaching anyway. When asked about the players’ responses to his letter, he said that he has gotten positive feedback.

BKW was state ranked for only the second time in school history in 2013, and won its first Western Athletic Conference title in 11 years.

“That wasn’t enough, I guess, so I don’t want to continue [coaching],” Gillis said. “There was a meeting before last season, and we moved on, but some hard feelings remained and are still there. If there is some displeasure with the coaching, then it’s time to stop. I think the players understand.”

Gillis mentioned Andy Wright, the former BKW basketball coach that was fired last October after 10 years; Gillis called that process a “fiasco” that “opened doors.” Administrators never confirmed, but it was widely speculated, that the opinions of a small group of parents led to Wright’s removal. Wright didn’t have the support of the school board. Gillis said he does have support of the board.

The school board president, Joan Adriance, said that Gillis does have support from the board. Asked about parental influence, Adriance said that there was none — “no sway from parents.” She went on, “Gillis chose not to coach.”

“When do things start to wane?” Gillis posed. “If the board members start getting hammered [with complaints], they might break down. The sad part, there were complaints last year, with no credence, and it’s happening all over again this year.”

When it comes to how coaches should coach kids, do parents have more sway than ever?

“It has changed for better and for worse, and in education, too,” said Gillis, who taught physical education at BKW for 32 years before retiring four years ago; he sees the soccer field as an extension of the classroom. “Somewhere, we need a balance of what is a complaint, what is looked into, and what is really considered.”

Gillis said that social media gives people more of a chance to be heard. When he was coming up as a coach, social media didn’t exist.

“The pendulum has swung too far,” he said of parents dictating teaching and coaching. “You’re not going to see coaches going for 20 years.”

Is Gillis surrendering his coaching post?

“Maybe a small part,” he said. “I’ve earned my right to not have to prove myself every day after 36 years. I have an idea about coaching.”

In 1978, Gillis started his coaching career as an assistant for Guilderland’s freshman team, learning from varsity coach Don Snyder, who went on to become a legend of Section 2. Gillis eventually headed the freshman team, the junior-varsity team, and then took over BKW’s varsity in 1992.

Spike Schwenk coached the Bulldogs’ varsity before Gillis, who says that he’s lucky to have gotten the opportunity. Schwenk had taken a post-office job, and could no longer coach.

“For the most part, we had great kids, year in and year out, working hard,” said Gillis of his 22 BKW soccer teams. “We out-worked teams, had an attitude, so teams had to come out and beat us. They took what they learned on the field and applied it to life.”

The Bulldogs were tough under Gillis, but BKW won six Sportsmanship awards, so he believes that his team played the right way.

“My expectations were high, but I was fair,” Gillis said. “With 20 kids, everybody might not be happy, but that’s life.”

With loyal support from ex-players, and respect from other coaches, Gillis says that those people matter to him most — more than people who don’t know what it’s like to coach 20 different kids, try to keep them happy, and put a respectable team on the field.

“I can’t please everybody,” said Gillis. “The kids have always gone out hard for me, running their sprints, and being competitive.”

Gillis, who is number 14 on the Section 2 win list with 202 victories, and led BKW to five league titles, said he’ll be sitting on the back of his truck this fall, watching the Bulldogs play.

Applications for the BKW varsity soccer coaching position must be received by Aug. 4, and Gillis hopes that the current modified coach, Mark Tidd, gets the first shot.

Since Gillis is pretty much all that BKW has known for a varsity soccer coach, what do the players deserve from here on out?

“I hope they get someone who did what I did,” Gillis said. “Someone who isn’t there to be your best friend; tough, fair, and willing to give chances. When the players look back, they should be glad that they played for you.”

Gillis said that he went back and forth with his decision to step away from coaching — at 58, he felt like he had a few years left — but realized that he couldn’t allow himself to be under a constant microscope. He believes that he has had a good run.

“I truly loved coaching,” he said. “It’s in my blood, and I’ll be there whenever anyone needs a recommendation.”

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