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Wilde Lake fires Clay as basketball coach


Lester Clay, the Wilde Lake boys basketball coach whose martinet style of coaching often frustrated and infuriated his players and their parents, will not return for the 2000-2001 season.

But he might not be leaving without a fight.

Wilde Lake principal Roger Plunkett notified Clay in a letter dated Aug. 1 that Clay's basketball coaching contract was not being renewed.

Clay contends that his due process was violated, citing county policy that such terminations must be made in writing within 60 days of the conclusion of the season.

Plunkett concedes that Clay did not receive written notice within 60 days. "But he had been informed on more than one occasion that it [termination] was an option," Plunkett said.

Howard County Coordinator of Athletics Don Disney said that Clay has the right to file a grievance if he thinks his rights were violated. "The teacher's union would then meet with the Board of Education's attorney, and they would try to resolve it," Disney said. "I can recall two or three times during my 15 years that coaches have been reinstated."

Clay, who served five years as varsity head coach, performed those duties last season - most of the time from a wheelchair - while recovering from a serious illness that had caused him to miss the entire 1998-99 season.

"I believe my illness is a part of it," said Clay, who suffers from sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease involving the lymph nodes that attacks his spinal column. "But it's politics. It's wanting to please certain constituents."

Attached to his termination letter were three letters of complaint from parents that accused him of verbally intimidating and demeaning players, of using foul language and of retaliating against players who complained about his tactics.

"They make me out to be worse than Bobby Knight," Clay said. "But even if everything in those letters is true, everyone in America is entitled to due process. I have the right to be confronted with the issues."

Clay contends that a scheduled spring meeting with Plunkett to discuss the issues was cancelled. "If they had come to me I'd have been very disappointed but would have had to live with it. And if I'm that bad a coach, then why am I still coaching girls volleyball?"

Clay, who teaches math and physical education this year, also coaches the girls junior varsity volleyball team and will remain in that capacity.

Plunkett said that Clay's style of coaching volleyball is much different and less intense.

Last season's basketball team had high expectations. Many considered it one of the finest county teams of the past decade. But it finished third in the county, two games from first place, and was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. It had a 15-8 record.

Clay said that he benched a key starter for three straight crucial league games because of academic issues, and that the team lost all three of those games.

"Education is more important than sports," Clay said. "But no one wants to stand up anymore. It should not be about winning and losing. It should be about doing the right thing."

Plunkett said that Clay's replacement would be announced soon. It is expected to be a teacher within the school.

"It's time to move forward for the sake of the athletes," Plunkett said.

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