By BEN JOHNSON
He had high hopes for Tahlequah’s basketball program. He wanted to transform it into a preeminent power in the Metro Lakes Conference — and in Class 5A.
Those were on Mike Leafgreens’ short list of goals when he took over as the Tigers boys’ basketball coach in May 2011.
“When I took this job, it wasn’t to be here for a year or two; it was to build a program,” Leafgreen said. “It was to build something special here.”
He’ll no longer have a chance to do that. Leafgreen was recently told by the school district that he was not going to be retained for the 2013-2014 school year, thus leaving Tahlequah in search for yet another boys’ basketball coach.
“The coach that gets hired for next year will make three guys in four years, and in total, eight guys in 17 years,” said Leafgreen, who took over for Wes Hayes, who was also in charge for two years before being dismissed.
Leafgreen said he did everything he could to be the coach Tahlequah so desired.
“I was told when I was hired that there was a desire to have a coach who was stable, reliable, had integrity and was a high character person — which I did to my best ability,” he said. “Now, they’re saying that’s not what [they] want. I love my Tigers, and those young men deserve to have stability. [They] deserve to have someone who is reliable and does things with integrity. And with the dysfunction that has plagued TPS and its coaches, one thing you’d think would be desired was stability.”
Leafgreen found out he was being terminated March 12 when he met with Jeff Thorne, Tahlequah High School principal. The explanation Leafgreen received was he wasn’t going to be back because of “academic reasons.”
That caught Leafgreen off guard. Throughout the school year, he was observed and evaluated less than a handful of times (each observation/evaluation has 20 areas listed):
• On Dec. 10, Leafgreen’s observation received 13 effective marks, one high effective mark and six not observed marks.
• On Feb. 7, his observation had 17 effective marks and three not observed marks. On an evaluation that same day, Leafgreen received 20 effective marks.
On top of that, Leafgreen’s basketball club was named this season’s 5A academic state champion.
Armed with all that information, Leafgreen went into his meeting with Thorne well-prepared.
“I took my last three observations and evaluations into the meeting,” said Leafgreen, who was 22-24 during his two seasons at the helm. “One of the things I said in the meeting was, ‘Based on this printed and signed information by my evaluator, how does this tell me I’m doing something bad enough as an employee to where I need to change or something will happen?’”
In Leafgreen’s mind, that raised a red flag.
“This doesn’t tell me that I need to change what I’m doing or I risk not being rehired,” Leafgreen said of his observations and evaluations. “So do I believe something else is going on? Of course. This hard copy information doesn’t add up with the statement I was given.”
On top of that, Leafgreen was the recipient of some other startling news.
“I was told by a longtime Tahlequah coach,” Leafgreen said, “that I’m the only coach in 20-plus years who hasn’t been rehired because of ‘academic reasons.’”
The Tahlequah Daily Press contacted both Thorne and Lisa Presley, the district’s superintendent. Neither could provide information on Leafgreen’s dismissal.
“I couldn’t talk about that,” Thorne said. “I can’t discuss personnel matters.”
Echoing Thorne’s comments, Presley said, “That’s a personnel matter and that’s confidential. This is the time of year when we make recommendations for coaches. But beyond that, these personnel matters are confidential.”
That, too, is what Leafgreen was led to believe – until he found out someone had spread the news of his departure. That prompted Leafgreen to tell his players he wasn’t returning before he had initially planned to do it.
“Because someone wasn’t professional and decided to tell people what wasn’t public knowledge, I had to have a meeting with our team, at a time when I wasn’t at a good spot to tell them,” Leafgreen said. “It was tougher than it should’ve been because I had to meet with them to make sure they heard it from me and not someone else. I was very emotional, and could barely get out a few things I had written out.
“This moment was cheapened because my confidentiality was betrayed.”
Leafgreen planned to reveal the news to his players after having time to digest the news. But that option quickly went by the wayside.
“I was wanting to wait until after spring break to meet with them,” he said. “At least then, I would be in a better spot emotionally and could talk with them and let them ask questions, but that didn’t happen.”
What pains Leafgreen the most is the toll relocating will take on his family.
“My youngest daughter was born soon after I was hired on July 11, 2011, and by Aug. 8, I was in Tahlequah for meetings,” Leafgreen said. “We hadn’t sold our house, so my family stayed in Oklahoma City and I spent much of the first semester either staying in the gym or crashing at other coaches’ houses. In November, we were blessed with someone basically giving us a one-room apartment rent-free. After that, my family would come over for one or two days a week, but we spent most of the year apart.
“Now I feel this is time I wasted; time I won’t get back with my girls. We finally got my family moved here last June, and we’re already moving again one year later.”
Soon will come some painful news for Leafgreen’s oldest daughter, Lilly.
“Now I’m having to explain to my 4-year old why we’re moving again, and she won’t be able to see her friends anymore,” Leafgreen said. “I wouldn’t care what people said or did to me, but they have to realize what this is doing to my family. But that doesn’t matter to people.”
Now Leafgreen — who was an assistant at Del City before taking over — and his wife and two daughters will be on the move again.
“We’re still looking for a place to live, even open to going to Oklahoma City,” he said. “Easy and convenient would be to go back to OKC. Other options include going to Arkansas or the Dallas-Fort Worth area. My wife is open to going anywhere. But we’re still kind of in a ‘don’t know’ phase.”