Coatesville's Como a steady success - until the texting

Coatesville School Superintendent Richard Como (left) watching a game last fall. Como, who rose from coach to principal to superintendent, resigned last week after racist messages came to light.
Coatesville School Superintendent Richard Como (left) watching a game last fall. Como, who rose from coach to principal to superintendent, resigned last week after racist messages came to light. (TOM KELLY IV)
Posted: September 30, 2013

Around noon on Father's Day, Steve Brazzle texted Richard Como, his onetime principal at Coatesville High School.

"Happy Father's Day pop pop," Brazzle wrote, poking fun at Como's age.

"My son!" replied Como, 67. "Much appreciated and thanks as always for remembering me. That does mean so much."

Brazzle, who is black, wrote back: "Of course. Thanks for being who you are."

Later that day, Como's phone spewed an entirely different text conversation to athletic director Jim Donato, this one peppered with racial slurs.

"Me no like [N-word] SNAKE LYING MOTHER F-," said one text about Tiger Woods, who was playing that day in the U.S. Open.

Now, no one is thanking Como for who he is. Instead, they are wondering who he was.

Until August, Como was known as the Chester County native who rose from football coach to Coatesville superintendent, steadying a racially diverse district that had been in turmoil.

His influence was so unquestioned that the school established the Rich Como Award, a $250 scholarship to honor athletes for their accomplishments on and off the field.

Now, the nephew of the late entertainer Perry Como is in hiding, having quit the post he held for eight years after phone records appear to have unmasked him - and Donato - as racists. Last week, a man stood near the district's main campus holding for passersby a handwritten sign that showed how far the superintendent had fallen.

"Como Worse Than KKK," it read.

"It's a hard pill to swallow," said Brazzle, a 2005 Coatesville graduate and football captain who now works as a dean at an alternative school in Reading. "This was a guy I would look up to. I would go to him for guidance."

Como has not returned phone calls seeking comment, and there's been no answer at his Coatesville home. A newly planted sign in his yard proclaims "Private Property, No Trespassing."

But interviews, records, and a review of past reports show a man who once seemed destined to be remembered with gratitude, not scorn.

Como's late father, Al, was the athletic director in Chester County's Great Valley School District, where Como was a student. Como played football there and later at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

He then coached the sport at Upper Merion, where he led the Vikings to several championships in the suburban division - and taught drivers' education and gym.

In 1983, Como left for Duke University's football program, coaching the offensive line under Steve Sloan. His fellow assistant coaches included Tommy Bowden, who went on to coach Clemson University's football team, and Rodney Allison, who became head coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

After three seasons, Como left Duke and came back to Chester County. He landed in Coatesville.

As the head football coach, he started a weight-training program, which the district never had. More than 80 players tried out for the team during the second season.

He briefly left to serve as Upper Merion's athletic director but then returned to Coatesville as an assistant high school principal. In 2002, as the high school's principal, Como told The Inquirer that he reduced the dropout rate from 63 to two.

In 2004, he helped lure football players like Antoine Jones. A high school football standout from Michigan, Jones was moving to the area with his mother and looking at schools. Como offered a deep Rolodex of college football contacts.

"He was genuine - that was probably the biggest thing," Jones, a Delaware resident, said in an interview last week. "It seemed like he really wanted me to be around the whole atmosphere."

Jones ended up as one of the team's captains. And Como kept his word, bringing in scouts from North Carolina State, West Virginia, and Pitt, among others. Jones played at Saint Francis University near Pittsburgh before transferring to the University of Akron.

Jones said he was disgusted when news broke about the racist texts. "I never saw that in his character," he said.

Brazzle, who graduated from Coatesville in 2005, said he had heard grumbling that Como treated black students differently, pushing them toward sports instead of, say, student council. But Brazzle brushed off the speculation - until this month.

"I lost a lot of respect for him," he said.

The texts were discovered in August when the district's technology director, Abdallah Hawa, replaced Donato's school-issued cellphone and began to erase data from the old one.

Hawa found dozens of messages between Como and Donato's phones that referenced students and faculty members with the N-word and insulted women, Jews, and people of Middle Eastern and Hispanic descent.

"Will [N-word] report to office, pardon the interruption but will [N-word] report to nurses office. [N-word] to lunch now," said one text from Donato's phone.

Many of the texts, copies of which have been obtained by The Inquirer, were tied to sports. One sent to Donato during the NBA Finals said: "no travel no palm ball no 3 second. To many [N-words] and cant learn rules."

Board members confronted Como and Donato. And both men agreed to resign without a public explanation.

The texts leaked last week, drawing national attention and igniting outrage in a district whose population is nearly 50 percent minority.

On Tuesday, several hundred people packed a school board meeting to demand that both men be fired, although the board voted to allow the men to resign to avoid a legal battle.

By the time Como got the school's top administrative job in 2005, the district had lost successive superintendents under circumstances that drew headlines.

Como's predecessor, James Scarnati, resigned after board members increasingly questioned his abilities. Samuel DeSimone was dismissed after just a few months over issues regarding his state pension.

And Louis Laurento, a Coatesville graduate, left over mismanagement claims.

Como seemed likely to break the streak. He beat out superintendents from Kansas and Western Pennsylvania after a nationwide search. Board members said Como could hit the ground running because he knew the district and its challenges.

And he did.

Paul Johnson, a longtime school board member, said Como worked well with the board in recent years to improve Coatesville's name and its test scores, though some schools are still struggling, particularly the high school.

Johnson is among those who have stopped trying to reconcile the two faces of their superintendent.

"What has happened is gone - that was yesterday," he said of the texting scandal. "We have a school district to take care of. And we as a board have to keep on going.

"The first thing we've got to do is find a good superintendent."


INSIDE

In Coatesville, racism in the present tense. Harold Hackson, C1.


bfinley@phillynews.com

610-313-8118 @Ben_Finley

Inquirer staff writers Aubrey Whelan and Michaelle Bond contributed to this article.

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