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Playing it both ways with coaches

Trey Williams • Jun 1, 2014 at 4:12 AM

Science Hill athletics needs protection from itself.

Hilltoppers Hall of Famers Damon Johnson and Leah Jackson-Smith, former ’Toppers tight end/assistant football coach Paul Overbay and Johnson City Schools teacher Missey Mains could have careers altered by a prospective policy that will be voted on at a school board meeting Monday night at Columbus Powell.

The policy, which passed unanimously on first reading, would prevent Johnson City Schools teachers from coaching for other area schools. That sounds perfectly reasonable on the surface — and hypocritical beneath it.

Science Hill uses coaches employed in other school systems and non-faculty positions. Would it continue to have its cake while eating it, too?

The salt-of-the-earth Overbay, who teaches at Science Hill, became John Bowles’ defensive coordinator for the Hilltoppers in 2004 and kept the same role all three years under Bowles’ successor, Scott Smith (2007-09). Overbay also worked as a defensive assistant for current Hilltoppers coach Stacy Carter before parting “amicably” to assist Larry Shively and another former Science Hill coach, Randy Ferrell, at Happy Valley three years ago.

“My son Hank played for coach Carter and my son Tate’s going to be a sophomore next year, and I’m thrilled that he’s playing for coach Carter and his staff,” Overbay said. “He loves playing for those guys. I’m certainly not going to do anything to hurt them. It’s no conflict of interest with me at Happy Valley. …

“I chose to leave just because I had an opportunity to work with Larry and work with coach Ferrell. Coach Ferrell was my receivers coach and my freshman coach at Science Hill.”

Many conversations about this policy proposal, including those with members of the Washington County and Johnson City school boards, indicate the prospective policy being primarily influenced by the number of players that have transferred to David Crockett since John Good was hired as basketball coach in the spring of last year.

Good played at Science Hill. So did his wife (Tracy), daughter (Johneshia) and sons (C.J. and Patrick). Good assisted Science Hill coach Ken Cutlip before taking the Crockett job, and Patrick went with him to Crockett. So did Brendan Coleman, another second-generation Hilltoppers player, and Crockett beat Science Hill in two of three meetings this season. It had been more than a decade since Science Hill lost in the series.

Other ’Toppers have since transferred to Crockett, including Ian Martin, who could’ve started in football and basketball at Science Hill the next two years.

But, as John Good pointed out, Science Hill’s basketball program began losing transfers long before he moved to Jonesborough.

Science Hill has had many athletes from Washington County and surrounding counties throughout the decades. Where was the outcry when they transferred to where they felt most comfortable?

Damon Johnson, who played for George Pitts at Science Hill in the early ’90s, was an assistant coach on the East Tennessee State women’s staff during Karen Kemp’s final season in 2012-13. He got a call from Good shortly after Good was hired at Crockett.

And some three months after joining Good’s staff, Johnson got a job with Johnson City Schools working with eighth graders (in-school suspension).

“As soon as I got the job, coach Johnson was one of the first people I contacted,” Good said. “DJ was on our staff before he got hired by Johnson City Schools ... and that was not an issue (when JCS hired him).”

Why, Good wonders, was it OK for Johnson to be coaching at Crockett when Johnson City Schools hired him, and less than a year later it’s a conflict. Good says the proposed policy questions the honor of the very employees it’s hired.

“The reason I wanted DJ is because he is a man of integrity,” Good said, “and I trust him with my life.”

Certainly, Johnson is no talent agent eagerly exploiting teens. Granted, anyone who has met him could see where eighth-graders’ extended exposure to Johnson might make some want to follow him to Crockett. But Science Hill has much bigger problems than Johnson if players want to leave their friends, what’s basically a brand-new school and a new gym to attend a school that’s had the same facilities for five decades.

Three years ago, Science Hill had two players, Shannon Hale (Alabama) and Jaylen Allen (Wofford), pass up a trip to Hawaii and what was expected at the time to be the first year in a new gym to transfer. And Allen’s father, Shane Williams, is in the Science Hill Hall of Fame.

Johnson also is aware that Science Hill hasn’t practiced the policy it suddenly wants to preach.

“It would be a contradiction,” he said.

Missey Mains assists her husband Travis with the Daniel Boone girls basketball team — for the moment, at least. She’s not sure what she’d do if forced to give up her Johnson City teaching position or her job helping her husband with the Lady Trailblazers.

“How did I go from teacher of the year three years ago at Liberty Bell,” Mains said, “to at risk of losing my job?”

Leah Jackson-Smith, who has tried time and time again to get coaching jobs in Johnson City, is a substitute teacher for JCS and has been an assistant coach on the Crockett girls basketball team. Evidently, those could become either/or roles.

“Here’s the thing that really bothered me about the rule the most: the school is going to tell me what I can do with my time as a volunteer after I get off work,” Overbay said. “That’s bothersome to me. … Now, I can have a part-time job delivering pizza, but I can’t go to Happy Valley and help a kid learn how to catch a football. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Travis Mains is having difficulty digesting the controlling-off-hours aspect, particularly when it involves his spouse.

“The real problem is having control over what someone does with their time after they get off work,” he said, “to help her husband and use her knowledge and passion to help other youth in the same county.”

Missey Mains and Johnson plan to speak at Monday’s meeting. Should the proposal pass, Missey isn’t sure what she’ll do.

“If I go to MTSU with them (the Lady Trailblazers) this summer, would I get fired for being a supportive wife,” she said.

It doesn’t take a cynic to suspect this policy is primarily about corralling talent, though some of it is talent that’s not being liberally utilized. Whatever Monday’s decision, hopefully it’ll be the one that best serves students.

“The biggest loser in this would be the kids,” Missey Mains said.

Overbay said the same thing with the same conviction during a separate conversation.

“It’s going to be kids that are going to get hurt, because school systems are short on coaches, and Carter County’s certainly like that,” he said. “Johnson City Schools are, too. There are lots of non-faculty coaches working for the Johnson City school system — the tennis program, the swimming program. And I think that’s good, because they can’t get people that want to teach and coach; it’s hard. I mean, my feelings will be hurt and I’ll be sad about it, but the kids in East Tennessee are gonna be hurt the most by it.”

Many a personal agenda has been thinly veiled by “the kids,” but when multiple people of substance speak calmly but firmly while mentioning them, good intentions seem clear.

Overbay is often referenced by former players as a positive influence on the field and in the classroom. He’s in the Emory & Henry College Hall of Fame. Mains has been recognized by JCS for her work.

Jackson-Smith’s son Larry was a senior starter on one of Science Hill’s best basketball teams in the Cutlip era, and her daughter Shae played regularly as a senior two years ago on what was arguably the best Lady ’Toppers basketball team.

And Science Hill athletic director/girls basketball coach Keith Turner, who declined to comment on the proposed policy, made matters seem more perplexing while complimenting Johnson, whose daughter Shy Copney was one of the stars on that same Lady ‘Toppers team.

“Damon is a class act,” Turner said via text, “but that is not what this is about.”

No kidding. Nothing about this matter feels classy.

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