Gene Allen has been coaching the Atlantic City High School boys basketball team since 2003 and has compiled one of the most impressive records in South Jersey during his tenure. After last season, his career record stood at 336-101, included the only three state championships in school history, and heading into the 2018-2019 season he needed just 17 more wins to become the school's all-time winningest coach.
He may not get that chance.
Mike McGarry, veteran high school sports reporter for the Press of Atlantic City, reported on Tuesday, Nov. 20, that the Atlantic City Board of Education had elected not to reappoint Allen to his position as head coach. High school coaches do not sign multi-year contracts, and each year they must be reappointed to their positions by each school's respective board of education.
For the time being, assistant coach Elijah Langford is serving as the team's coach, although he said on Friday that he is as confused as everyone else about everything that is going on. There initially was talk of a special board meeting to further clarify the situation, then it was announced the board wouldn't meet again until its regularly scheduled December monthly meeting. But local radio host Harry Hurley, of Hurley in the Morning, posted on Facebook tonight that he received a text message from ACBOE President Walt Johnson confirming that a special board meeting will take place on Friday, Nov. 30, at either 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. to address the issue. Hurley also reports that a new coaches manual will be implemented by Superintendent Barry Caldwell. The public also will be heard from at this board meeting, Hurley stated.
"I was as shocked as anyone. I found out the same time as everyone else. I was shocked because it was so sudden. We had tryouts Monday and Tuesday, so I was literally with coach Allen an hour before the voting and neither one of us knew that our reappointments were up for voting. He was disappointed, sad, shocked and emotional — there were a lot of different reactions from him," Langford said during a phone interview on Friday. "I'm the JV coach, and that's that. I'm as confused and in limbo as anyone else. It's been unfair to me because I was thrown into a situation that I still know nothing about. I have no idea what's going on. I'm still waiting to hear something from someone.
"I feel like there should have been due process. I feel like it's unfair in any circumstance to hear one side of the story and not the other," Langford added. "Right is right, wrong is wrong and fair is fair. If you're going to hear one side of an argument you should hear the other before making a decision."
Why it happened
Atlantic City Board of Education members were unavailable for comment during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, according to McGarry, and a call from Glory Days Magazine to Caldwell's office on Wednesday, Nov. 21 has not been returned.
The main impetus for Allen being let go as Vikings head coach seems to be complaints issued to the Atlantic City Board of Education by Raymond Bethea Sr., father of Raymond Bethea Jr., a star player for the Vikings who graduated in 2018 and finished his career as the second-leading scorer in school history.
Bethea Sr. posted a video to Facebook of his complaints at the Nov. 20 board meeting, and also spoke more in depth about his complaints during a recent radio appearance on the Kevin Hall Radio Show on WOND. The crux of Bethea Sr.'s argument against rehiring coach Allen appears to be an issue with last year's season-ending awards banquet. Coach Allen sent a group text out to his players last season saying that there wouldn't be a year-end banquet because the team did not deserve one, as it had not won any championships. The Vikings went 25-5 last season, tying for the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference title with rival St. Augustine Prep, but Atlantic City lost to Wildwood Catholic in the CAL Tournament finals and to top-seeded Shawnee in the South Jersey Group 4 sectional championship game.
In a phone interview late last week, Allen clarified the banquet issue and expressed regret for the text message. In midseason last year, a pipe burst in the Atlantic City High gymnasium, rendering the gym unplayable for the remainder of the season. The Vikings were forced to play their home games at the Dr. Martin Luther King School Complex, a local middle school in Atlantic City. In exchange for allowing the Vikings to use the court, Allen said he felt the right thing to do was to let the middle school keep the profits from concession sales, which normally would be one avenue of revenue for the season-ending banquet, along with sales of 50/50 tickets during games.
"We had a banquet. What they didn't say was that I apologized to the kids (for the text message). It was a team thread, and it wasn't that we couldn't have a banquet," Allen said. "Normally, we would have something kind of elaborate, but due to us not having a gym and taking over the middle school, I decided that school — because we had inconvenienced them — could do the concession stand (and keep the money raised) so they could have a better seventh- and eighth-grade school trip. I thought that was only fair because we were using their facilities and taking time away from their after-school programs and things of that nature. So, the way we would give back was to let them do all the concession stands at our games and they could keep the money and so something positive with it. So, I told the kids we would have something, but we would have to have it in our school cafeteria, and they really didn't want to do that. And that's where things got a little dicey."
Voicing support for Allen
Coach Langford and several former players, including Ryan Fader ('16) and Nah'Sir "Flash" Morgan ('18) all were contacted late last week by Glory Days Magazine, and each displayed unwavering support for coach Allen.
"I've talked multiple times to (Glory Days) and other news outlets about how great of a coach (Allen) is and how huge a role model he's been in my life. He really helped me mature, grow and expand as a person, and I credit most of my success — getting into college, doing well in college, playing club basketball at Duke — everything I've dreamed of doing, I credit a lot of that to him," Fader said. "He really helped me mature as a person at a young age. I was shocked, because he's been such an important role model, not only in my life, but my entire team. We had 13 seniors (when I graduated) and he had such a big impact on all of us. I was in utter disbelief."
Three starters from last year's team currently are playing sports at the college level, Nazim Derry at Goldey Beacom, Bethea Jr. at Howard University, both of whom are playing basketball, and Morgan, who is a football recruit to the University of Maine.
"It was kind of heartbreaking that it had to happen, that they just voted him out. It was very shocking. He's like a father figure to a lot of people, but for me it was on a different level because I actually grew up under coach Allen. I was in the locker room during games as a child of 8 or 9 years old (as the ball boy), probably younger than that. Listening to how he coaches, then for me to play under him, he's been a big part of me. He is Atlantic City basketball, that's him. He's made history that other people couldn't do," Morgan said. "We're going to try to do whatever we can do to get his job back. Former players will be coming together to do whatever we can to help him out."
Allen said that if he doesn't get his job back, he's encouraged Langford to take the reins.
"I'm still contemplating what I'm going to do, that's where I'm at. I haven't decided whether I'm going to fight this thing or not. It's disappointing," Allen said on Friday. "I have a great relationship with (Elijah). I tried to persuade him that if things didn't work out (with me) for him to take the job. I didn't think it was fair to him that the board even put him in that kind of situation. In the end game, I feel bad for the kids. I'm so humbled by all the support from not only the city, but all of Atlantic County and beyond."
"The boys were very emotional. I spoke with each of the returning players and had contact with a lot of the players who would probably make the team because they had played previously, and they were very emotional," Langford said. "I just tried to tell them to stay focused and that the smoke would clear, to stay focused and level-headed."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays