Jaws drop at move Howland makes
Jaw-dropping moments are pretty common in sports, and they come in all types.
The last-second shot to win the game. The big hit or amazing catch in football. A walk-off hit or a diving catch in the outfield. Heck, they’re a big reason sports are so much fun.
There are other shocking moments that have a similar effect but for a different reason (think LeBron James taking his talents to Miami). There haven’t been many awe-inspiring instances lately — thanks a lot, MLB — but the Mahoning Valley did have one last week.
The Howland school district chose not to renew the contract of longtime girls varsity basketball coach John Diehl. It was shocking because Diehl is a local legend who has a spotless track record.
He accumulated a 407-198 record over 26 seasons at Howland and won four district titles. He sent nine players to Division I colleges during his tenure, which is more than any girls basketball program in the area — by a lot.
The Tigers had a rare “off year” in which they finished 12-12 in 2019-20, but that had little to do with Diehl not being retained. Diehl won’t be coaching at Howland this year because times are changing, people are changing, and in most cases — like this one — it’s not for the better.
The school district released a statement thanking Diehl for his services and added, “Although disheartening the narrative being shared, the district will continue to focus on moving forward and with our priority on kids.” They also sent a more detailed response to this newspaper.
The contents of the response didn’t reveal a specific reason for Diehl not being rehired. One of the key points was, “… the District’s priority is the safety and best-interest of students with a focus on upholding the standards of professionalism and expectations as determined by the Board as it pertains to all District employees, this includes limited supplemental employees. Taking into account the totality of the circumstances, it was the recommendation that Mr. Diehl’s contract not be renewed as the girls’ high school basketball coach for the 2020-21 school year as determined to be in the best interest of students and the District’s athletic program.”
Making this decision even more surprising was that it was done, in large part, by people who knew Diehl fairly well. Howland superintendent Kevin Spicher is a Howland graduate who started working at the school in 1999. Diehl, a former teacher at the school, started coaching in 1994. Athletic director Andrea Ferenac not only played for Diehl but coached with him for nearly 15 years. Neither had his back when push came to shove.
This is hard to believe. Those who know John Diehl speak of him with the utmost respect. Several former players have spoken up in his defense and lauded Diehl for the impact he had on their lives. In interviews with former Howland athletic directors Rick King and Ron McCleary, both said they never once received a complaint of any kind regarding Diehl.
That’s impressive because parents are passionate about their kids, as they should be, and they will voice displeasure if they feel their kids are being treated unfairly. And that’s what I believe this boils down to — an upset student-athlete leading to an upset parent. No, the school district didn’t specifically say that, but it seems obvious to me after reading the response from the school and speaking with Diehl that some type of incident occurred.
The situation seems to have been fairly minor. He would’ve been fired months ago — and the school wouldn’t have thanked him as it did in its initial statement — if there were some type of scandal. Still, I suspect a parent or two had enough pull or said the right things, and a great coach lost his job because of it.
Diehl’s career shouldn’t have ended this way, but the school district seems to be losing its values during the same time much of society is doing the same. Diehl is 64, and he brings an old-school, straight-forward approach to coaching. A lot of people appreciate that kind of style. Some do not, mainly when it’s them (or their child) taking the brunt of an old-school scolding, or what coaches often call a “teaching moment.”
We’re living in an era in which coaches are being told to teach kids in the most sensitive and politically correct manner possible, which isn’t realistic if he or she is going to instill the virtues gained from sports. Not every moment calls for a pat on the back or a sweet little saying. The most important attributes taken from athletics are often taught in the most difficult moments. If those “teaching moments” are taken away from coaches and athletes, sports have lost their value as well.
It’s hard to know what John Diehl did that was so unforgivable to the Howland Local School District, but I believe the man deserved a better ending to his career — not because he won more than 400 games, but because he positively impacted more than 400 lives. That’s a jaw-dropping moment that merits more than simple applause.