Wait a minute. Hamilton High School, which is still trying to recover from a major hazing scandal in its football program, is hiring a new head coach who is not that far removed from a hazing scandal in his own Michigan program?
Mike Zdebski was just hired away from Walled Lake Western High School in the Greater Detroit area to take over the Hamilton program, which has a rich tradition of nationally-ranked teams and seven state titles in the last 14 years.
But the Chandler school is still embroiled in the fall-out from a hazing scandal that involved charges of sexual assault dating back to February of last year. A criminal investigation, which is ongoing, resulted in the arrest of six players and the dismissal of head coach Steve Belles from his coaching duties, turning the team over to his assistant, Dick Baniszewski, for last season. The team finished the 2017 season 8-4.
Along with Belles, the school principal and athletic director were re-assigned to jobs elsewhere in the district. Chandler police have asked that charges be brought against the three men for mishandling the hazing accusations, but no charges have yet been filed.
Since that investigation is still ongoing, the wounds among parents and community have yet to fully heal.
So why go all the way to Michigan to hire a new head coach with a past that brings all that angst to the surface once again? Regardless of the man’s character and coaching ability, it’s the “what if” factor that is going to matter here. What kind of questions is this hire going to raise in the minds of the parents that just went through the trauma of the last incident and want their sons to be able to continue playing for the Huskies?
The first assumption would be that the district and school administrators didn’t do their due diligence when looking into the background of a man they were about to hire for the most high-profile job at the school. But that’s not the case. The district athletic director, Marcus Williams, admitted the search committee knew about the hazing incident that occurred in 2011, when Zdebski was at Walled Lake Western.
Zdebski continued on at Walled Lake Western and was inducted into the Michigan High School Football Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame six years later.
The hazing incident in 2011 bore little resemblance to the one Hamilton is dealing with now, in which three players have been charged with sexual assault. The one in Michigan reportedly involved tying a player to a pole while others hit him, some with a stick. The incident was linked to a couple of assistant coaches who allowed it to happen and Zdebski was apparently not implicated.
Williams called Zdebski “a man of high character and strong values” when announcing his hire. And there appears to be little in his background to dispute that claim.
Zdebski has been coaching for 30 years and, according to his bio, has compiled a 203-98-1 career record. He has been coaching at Walled Lake Western for 23 years and won a couple of state championships there – but his last title was almost 20 years ago.
However, the problem is in the perception that comes with that incident nearly seven years ago. Normally, that could be overlooked once a search committee is able to verify there’s no reason to be concerned, that the problem rested with the assistant coaches (who were fired) and not the head coach.
But this isn’t a normal situation. So why go there when you don’t have to?
Are the Chandler district officials telling us they couldn’t find any other coach with comparable qualifications? According to one report, the district received over 50 applications from coaches in seven different states. It’s probably safe to assume there were some really impressive credentials in that pile.
Hamilton is a program that has consistently been included among those that have earned a national ranking. The school has a top-tier program that would be attractive to the most-qualified applicants and should have the pick of the litter.
So why take a chance on tearing the scab off a sore that is just beginning to heal?