Dan Ricker, who took over the Oakland Mills wrestling program four years ago and led the Scorpions to four straight county titles, has been fired and replaced by Steve Carnahan. Carnahan had coached the Scorpions for 14 successful seasons before Ricker took over.
Ricker, a controversial figure known as much for his sharp tongue and fiery competitive nature as for his coaching skill, said he sensed his days were numbered after meeting with Oakland Mills principal Dave Bruzga when the wrestling season ended in March. But Ricker said he remained at a loss for reasons why he was fired.
"Why am I being fired?" said Ricker. "We've been successful. What have I done that warrants firing a guy who has done a good job?"
Ricker coached the Scorpions to a 27-1 record against county competition over four years and led Oakland Mills to a regional title this year. He also helped senior heavyweight Monte Spencer become a two-time state champion.
"It was an internal personnel decision which I can't elaborate on," Bruzga said. Bruzga is winding up his first year at Oakland Mills after transferring from Hammond High, where he was principal for five years.
Bruzga said he followed hiring guidelines by advertising the coaching position to in-house teachers, which is done after each season in accordance with school system policy. After that, coaching positions are offered to teachers outside the home school but within the system, before being offered to so-called "emergency coaches" -- those who work outside the system.
Ricker, a 27-year-old admissions adviser at an Annapolis business school, falls into the latter category. Bruzga said his desire to increase the number of in-house coaches at Oakland Mills influenced his decision. Carnahan has taught at Oakland Mills for nearly 20 years.
"There is no question that he [Ricker] is very talented and has been an asset to the program, but there are many factors one needs to take into consideration in operating an athletic program," said Bruzga.
"I wouldn't call it a firing. It's a change in personnel," he said. "If Danny is using the word 'firing,' that's his terminology."
Ken Klock, the athletic director at Oakland Mills, could not be reached for comment.
Ricker, a 1982 graduate of Glenelg High, where he starred in football, wrestling and lacrosse, made his presence felt immediately after taking over for Carnahan. He took the wrestling job after concluding a great football career at Towson State University.
The Scorpions went more than three seasons under Ricker before losing a league dual meet. Ricker was also known for his temper. He was assessed 14 penalty points in his first year and was ejected from several matches. Ricker claimed he was showing personal improvement, as he went through last season without being assessed a single penalty.
Ricker's ouster was greeted angrily by Oakland Mills wrestlers. Bruzga met recently with the varsity and junior varsity wrestling teams to announce his decision. Mike Maughan, a senior and two-time county wrestling champion, said the team is upset with the way the coaching change was handled.
"He [Bruzga] never told us anything about it. If he really cared about the program, I think he should have talked to the people who make the program -- us," Maughan said.
"There wasn't one person in that room who felt we should get rid of Coach Ricker," Maughan added. "He [Ricker] has played a big role in our lives. He has so much to offer to kids like me. I don't think he [Bruzga] understands how we feel."
"He's been stabbed in the back," said Dan Bickel, who graduated from Oakland Mills last year. "[Ricker] took over a program when nobody wanted it, he's done an excellent job, and this new guy comes in and fires him."
Bickel, after winning a county title despite wrestling with a dislocated elbow last year, won the first Dan Bickel Award, which recognizes an Oakland Mills wrestler who shows exceptional courage during the season.
Bickel said he intends to return the award to the school as a way of protesting Ricker's firing.
Ricker says that Carnahan felt compelled to take the job because Bruzga had made it clear he was going to turn the program over to Felix Smith, the former Howard High wrestling coach. Smith teaches at Deep Run Elementary School.
Smith said he had no intention of accepting the job if it was at Ricker's expense.
Bruzga denied any connection between Smith and Carnahan.
"It was a normal hiring process. No one twisted Steve's arm," he said.
Ricker countered Bruzga's version.
"Carnahan has been put in a bad position. And the kids are not being told the truth," he said. "What hurts me is all year long Bruzga would always say 'hi' to me and tell me what a great job I was doing. He's just a phony politician."
Carnahan, 44, left the wrestling program after a stellar, 14-year tenure. Under him, the Scorpions won 10 county championships, five regional titles and three state crowns and produced 12 individual state titlists. He spoke highly of Ricker and sounded less than ecstatic about assuming his old job.
"I really like Danny. I absolutely played no part in the changing of the guard," said Carnahan, who did not apply originally when Ricker's job was advertised within the school. He supported Ricker's version of the hiring process.
"I knew they wanted to make a change. I hoped there was some young whippersnapper here who would take it, but that didn't happen," Carnahan said. "I just wanted to make sure the program was taken care of. I didn't want it going to someone outside the building.
"It's a big commitment. I'm convinced it's the toughest sport to coach," added Carnahan, who still coaches cross country and tennis but said he will give up tennis.
"I don't know if I have the same drive I once had," Carnahan said. "I really enjoyed being free in the winter. I'm hopeful that I'll get recharged over the summer."