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Stu Vetter has had just one occupation as an adult: high school basketball coach.
And he’s done pretty well at it. Vetter, a Manassas native, has coached a team onto USA Today’s Top 25 prep rankings every single year since the poll started. Nobody else has done that. He’s also the only guy to have coached national champions at two different preps: In 1986, his Harker Prep squad won that mythical title, and last year, Vetter’s team at St. John’s Literary Institute at Prospect Hall went 25-0 and ended up atop USA Today’s prestigious rankings. Vetter was subsequently named the paper’s coach of the year for the second time. St. John’s star forward, Jason Capel, signed with North Carolina, becoming the fourth Vetter product to play for the Tar Heels. No other prep coach in the country has sent so many to Chapel Hill. The NCAA and NBA teem with other Vetter protégés.
But there won’t be any great accolades this year for the reigning coach of the year, or the reigning national champions. Near the end of the last school year, his seventh at St. John’s, a school founded in Frederick by Jesuits in 1823, Vetter resigned. At 46, after 23 years as a coach, Vetter will sit this season out.
“I’m not used to having free time,” Vetter tells me.
Not that he wanted any. Vetter didn’t hand in his resignation until the school administration made him feel wholly unwelcome.
On the night of the basketball banquet in June, for example, Headmaster Tom Peri didn’t even bother showing up to congratulate the undefeated team or its coach, or to watch as the players received their national championship rings. Neither did anybody else from the St. John’s staff.
Bob Amick went to the soiree, however, and Peri’s slight boiled him. Amick’s son, Justin, played for St. John’s last year as a sophomore. The younger Amick withdrew from the school at the end of the year. Amazingly, so did everybody else from the national championship team. To a kid, they loved Vetter, but the conduct of Peri and other administrators prompted their mass withdrawal. The absenteeism that plagued the banquet, says Amick, was symptomatic of an ugly malady that afflicted much of the St. John’s community last year.
“That banquet was supposed to be a time of celebration for the kids and Coach Vetter,” Amick says. “But it was more like a wake. These people at St. John’s call themselves educators, and I guess the kids did learn a lot from them: My son learned how petty people can be, and what hate looks like up close. Not just on that one night, though.”
The lessons in pettiness and hate had commenced months before the banquet, and, oddly enough, it was an act of youthful affection and sweetnessalong with some indiscretionthat got the ball rolling downhill.
In February, Damien Wilkins, a star junior and one of the most heavily recruited players in the country, was caught making out with a classmate in a hallway after school. Public displays of affection on campus are taboo, according to the St. John’s student handbook. No nudity was involved, and both students were first-time offenders, but Peri showed the kissers no mercy. Wilkins and his kissee, fellow junior Allison Mathis, were immediately expelled, thereby becoming the first students ever kicked out of St. John’s for that offense.
Everybody involved agrees that the expulsions polarized the St. John’s staff and student body, and even parts of the Frederick community, very quickly. To some, the issue became pro-Vetter vs. anti-Vetter, while others thought the issue came down to black vs. white. Many thought the two were indistinguishable, since both kids were black, and the boys and girls basketball programs accounted for a huge percentage of St. John’s minority population.
In any case, before long there were hateful public meetings in which adults referred to the young players as “Latrell Sprewells” and used other racially charged invective. Unsurprisingly, that kind of talk was followed by civil rights lawsuits and staff resignations based on alleged racism. Lawyers, administrators, and underinformed parents took to the barricades, and soon enough the St. John’s basketball dynasty that Vetter had built was gutted.
Rich Fairley, who was dean of students last year, supported Wilkins’ expulsion then and now. Fairley says the make-out session violated “the value system of what a Catholic school should be.” The collapse of the basketball program, he adds, had nothing to do with race, but occurred because the school had “changed its priorities.” Vetter, he says, had a lot of enemies among the St. John’s staff.
“Are people resentful that a guy can be paid a full salary who doesn’t teach one single class? Yes,” rails Fairley, clearly among the resentful. “Are people resentful that a guy who comes in at noon, sits down for lunch with his assistant coach, and then goes to practice gets a full salary? Yes. Are people resentful that this nonteacher was the second-highest-paid staffer at the school, and all this is happening while the computer labs have [ancient] computers and the facilities are in constant need of repair? Yes, you could say they’re resentful.”
Fairley attributes whatever racial divide the expulsions created to the publicity given the incident, much of which resulted because both students involved had high-profile parentsWilkins’ father, Gerald Wilkins, plays for the Orlando Magic, and Mathis’ mother, Deborah Mathis, is a columnist for USA Today.
Suits alleging civil rights violations were filed in state Superior Court against St. John’s on behalf of the younger Wilkins and Mathis, and a motion for injunctive relief to get the students reinstated while the suit was being litigated initially succeeded. However, the school successfully had the case moved to federal court, where a judge in Baltimore overturned the injunction, meaning Peri had the right to boot the kissers out of school again. And that’s just what he did. In April, the plaintiffs agreed to settle the case in exchange for the students’ transcripts, which had been embargoed by St. John’s, and they finished the year at Newport School in Kensington.
In defending the school against that suit, the school’s lawyer, David Grove, argued that there was no evidence of racism at St. John’s. Publicly, he still maintains that stance.
“We vehemently deny that there was a racial component,” he recently told me.
Privately, however, Grove may have some conflicting emotions. Grove’s sister, Mary Catherine James, quit her job as admissions director at St. John’s shortly after the expulsions after coming to believe that she was representing a racist institution.
“My job as admissions director was to sell the school,” she says. “That used to be easy: I went to St. John’s myself; my father was a board member; and my family’s blood, sweat, and tears are all over that place. But what was going on, with people turning on the basketball program, I saw that St. John’s was failing these kids. And if I didn’t believe in St. John’s myself, I couldn’t sell it. I had to leave.”
Evidence that James was onto something surfaced not long after the Wilkins case was settled. At Field Day, a school function held in April, two St. John’s students were determined to be guilty of possessing and selling drugs, and a third was found to be in possession of a weapon, according to a memo Fairley sent to teachers after the incident. Peri, however, allowed these violators to stay enrolled in the school through the end of the school year, saying in his own staff memo that he was doing so “as a consideration to the parents of these kids.” None of the three students played basketball, and none were black.
Grove, also a St. John’s alum, was incredulous that Peri didn’t expel the Field Day Three. In a letter he sent to the St. John’s board chairman, a copy of which was obtained by Washington City Paper, Grove said the student manual explicitly demands immediate expulsion for drugs and weapons violations, yet Peri ignored that directive in the name of “convenience.” No such compassion was shown to Wilkins and Mathis, even though there is no clear policy on what punishment fits their crime.
By ignoring the guide and doling out discipline inconsistently, Peri lent credence to allegations of racism, Grove wrote. And if a case outlining the disparities in his handling of the Wilkins matter and that of the Field Day violators were brought into a courtroom, he added, a judge wouldn’t “hesitate to call this what it isthe most blatant form of bigotry ever exhibited by supposedly educated people.”
“The persons [Peri] elects to listen to and whose advice he actively seeks out are blinded by either their hatred of the basketball program, or racism,” Grove wrote.
For those reasons, and others, Grove recommended that Peri’s contract with St. John’s not be renewed. Grove refuses to comment on the letter, citing attorney-client privilege.
Peri, who was at St. John’s only two years, resigned shortly after Vetter. He’s now headmaster at Towson Catholic. Contacted at his new job, Peri refuses to discuss the damage inflicted upon St. John’s during his tumultuous tenure.
“That’s old news,” he says.
Wilkins now lives with his father in Orlando, where he’ll spend this season at Dr. Phillips High School. Last month, he signed a letter of intent to play basketball with N.C. State.
Vetter has fielded what he calls “numerous” offers to coach for various high school and college programs, but he’s turned them all down. He’s currently investigating the feasibility of starting a full-time, live-in youth basketball camp, something like the tennis camps run in Florida by the legendary Nick Bolletieri. A school would be part of such a camp, he said.
Basketball season started at St. John’s last week with no returning players, no seniors, and no lofty expectations.
“We’re not going to be No. 1in the country,” says new coach Bruce Kelley. “We’ll try to be No. 1 in Frederick.”Dave McKenna