Racial allegations raised in dismissal of Collingswood High basketball coach

Joe McLoughlin, holding up a plaque honoring his 200th win in 2010, has lost his coaching job.
Joe McLoughlin, holding up a plaque honoring his 200th win in 2010, has lost his coaching job. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 16, 2012

After a typical Collingswood High School boys' basketball game, coach Joe McLoughlin would stand on the court and exchange handshakes and hugs with former players, parents, and longtime fans of the Panthers' powerful program.

Those relationships were built over McLoughlin's highly successful 14-year career as a coach at the Colonial Conference school.

But about three weeks ago, McLoughlin lost the job he loved, and many in the Camden County borough aren't clear why.

At the June 25 school board meeting, Collingswood Superintendent Scott Oswald recommended against retaining McLoughlin as basketball coach. Oswald declined to specify his concerns, citing privacy in a personnel matter, but a source close to the Collingswood Board of Education, who declined to be identified because personnel privacy, cited a lack of team discipline as a factor in the superintendent's decision.

Some of McLoughlin's supporters, including his attorney, Dennis Young Jr., contend that the coach was dismissed because he refused to bow to pressure from some Collingswood administrators to change the racial mix of his team.

"Joe McLoughlin wasn't retained because he wouldn't play more white players," Young said.

The racial allegations have led the school board to hire an outside investigator, and a county NAACP chapter has asked the state attorney general to look into possible bias in the school system.

Oswald and Collingswood school board attorney Joe Betley insist that players' race was not a factor in the decision to replace McLoughlin with Pat Dorney, a history teacher at the high school and former head coach at Arcadia University in Glenside.

"There are valid reasons" McLoughlin wasn't rehired, Betley said. "They have nothing to do with the skin color of his players."

Oswald said: "I made this decision based on concerns I had and things I witnessed. It had nothing to do with the racial makeup of the team."

McLoughlin is Collingswood's all-time leader in boys' basketball coaching victories with 235. His teams were renowned for their fast-break offense and full-court defense.

In his first three seasons, from 1999 to 2001, the team went 20-52. But from 2002 to 2011, Collingswood was 205-78 with six 20-win seasons, while reaching the South Jersey Group 2 title game four times and winning the title in 2008 and 2010.

McLoughlin also is highly regarded for having special-needs students serve as the team "water crew." And his 2010-11 team included senior Jimmy McMonagle, an autistic student whose basket in a game against West Deptford was a season highlight.

'How to live'

"He cares about his players as people," said Tyrone Mann-Barnes, a standout 2010 player who is entering his junior year at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. "Winning is fun and all, but he's about so much more than that. He teaches you how to live your life."

McLoughlin retained his special-education teaching position. He has declined to comment on the coaching situation.

His dismissal has ignited long-simmering tensions in the borough, which has undergone tumultuous change on two fronts over the last 15 years: through the redevelopment of the downtown Haddon Avenue corridor and in a burgeoning minority population, especially among school-age children.

Some of McLoughlin's supporters at the June 25 meeting contended that the coach was dismissed because of long-standing concerns by some school administrators and community members that Collingswood's basketball teams had featured too many black players.

Tom Stilley, a resident who has known McLoughlin several years, said Friday that district officials should have been more open with the public at the meeting.

"I want the truth to come out, and I want to see Joe returned as coach," he said.

Stilley, along with Mann-Barnes, was among residents who spoke on the coach's behalf June 25.

The Panthers have been a predominantly black team for most of McLoughlin's tenure.

In response to those concerns, the school board retained Edward Borden, the Haddonfield public safety director and former Camden County prosecutor, to look into allegations that McLoughlin was pressured to change the team's racial mix. Borden will be paid $250 an hour for a maximum of 40 hours of work.

In addition, the Camden County East chapter of the NAACP has asked New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa for an independent investigation of alleged bias in the Collingswood district.

A letter sent to Chiesa on July 4, signed by Carey Savage, the branch's second vice president, alleges "rampant but covert discrimination and civil rights violations occurring against African American students attending and/or participating in sports at Collingswood High School."

"The NAACP letter has been received by our office and it will be directed appropriately," said Leland Moore, a spokesman for the attorney general.

Betley said that Collingswood would "cooperate fully" with the Attorney General's Office if it decided to investigate. Borden will focus on allegations by some McLoughlin supporters that recordings in the former coach's possession include racially discriminatory comments by Collingswood administrators, Betley said.

Young, who has heard the recordings, said they date from around 1999, McLoughlin's first season, until 2011.

Stilley said he had heard a recording that included "totally unacceptable language." Oswald was not on it, he said.

Young contended McLoughlin had been subject to a "hostile work environment" for more than 10 years from others because his teams had featured so many black players.

James Bathurst, who was Collingswood's superintendent from 1995 to 2007, said he was not aware of any pressure on McLoughlin because of the racial mix of his teams.

"Nothing ever crossed my desk, either from the school or the community," Bathurst said. "I'm taken aback by that charge by the attorney."

Bathurst said Collingswood High School's student population was about 12 percent minority in 1994, about 30 percent minority in 2007, and close to 40 percent minority today.

"There's been a lot of change, but that's a good thing," Bathurst said. "I'm a school person. I believe the schools should be the center of the community for the whole community."

Young also represents the Clark family, including twins Malik and Myesha, who were fifth-year seniors at Collingswood last school year after transferring from Camden.

Under the rules of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, fifth-year seniors are not eligible to play sports. But the NJSIAA granted the Clark twins eligibility after a hardship appeal was heard Jan. 11.

Malik Clark played in his first game Jan. 12, scoring 20 points against Audubon to spark Collingswood to its first victory of the season. He ended up leading the team in scoring with a 15.1-point average.

Clark was charged with two technical fouls during that contest against Audubon. Malcolm Clark, Malik's father, said one of the technicals was "non-flagrant," for hanging on the rim after a dunk.

Clark was not removed from the game after either technical, according to a source in the Collingswood district. Typically, coaches remove players from the game after they are charged with technical fouls to allow them to cool down for a few minutes and also to show respect for the officials.

Clark said he believed that because he was a fifth-year senior and transfer student, some Collingswood administrators pressured McLoughlin not to play him at all last season.

"I thank Coach McLoughlin," Clark said. "He knew if he played me he would have a real target on his back."

Malik Clark's emergence as a standout player last season raised concerns among some Colonial Conference rivals about a "Camden pipeline" to Collingswood.

Clark was the second player in two years who transferred to Collingswood from Camden as a senior and led the team in scoring. Karon Waller, who played for Camden as a junior in 2009-10, led South Jersey in scoring with a 25.8-point average as a senior at Collingswood during the 2010-11 season.

'An outrage'

A coach and an athletic director from the conference, who asked not to be identified, have indicated that officials from another Colonial Conference school approached Collingswood officials in 2011 with a complaint that McLoughlin had encouraged two players to transfer to Collingswood. Recruiting for athletic advantage in high school is a violation of state rules.

But Betley said, "Allegations of recruiting were not the reason" McLoughlin lost his job.

McLoughlin's dismissal "is an outrage," said David White, whose son, Julian Welsh-White, was a standout player on the 2010-11 team. "Joe had a tremendous influence on Julian, on so many players. He made Julian into more of a leader than he knew that he was."

Young said McLoughlin wanted his coaching job back and is considering filing a grievance through the teachers union or pursuing legal action.

"We're going to do whatever it takes to see that Joe gets his job back," Young said.

Contact Phil Anastasia

at 856-779-3223 or panastasia@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @PhilAnastasia. Read his blog at www. philly.com/jerseysidesports.

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