Countless numbers of young boys have grown up dreaming of being the quarterback of their high school team, going on to play college football and then returning to their hometown to become the head coach at their alma mater.
For most boys, this is nothing but a dream. For Pat McNicol the dream came true, as he played quarterback at East Liverpool, went on to play both quarterback and defensive back at Muskingum College, and then returned to East Liverpool on two different occasions as an assistant coach, before being named head coach of the Potters in May 2005.
While this was a dream come true for McNicol, who bled Potter Blue like Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda bled Dodger Blue, the dream didn't have a happy ending. In fact, it actually turned into a nightmare.
With the turmoil that engulfed the Potter football program in the latter stages of the 2008 season, McNicol decided to resign his coaching position, even though he still had one year remaining on a three-year supplemental contract that he had signed in 2007.
As with any controversy, there is more than one side. Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with McNicol and his wife Jill to hear their viewpoint on this unfortunate situation.
McNicol candidly explained how the $20 payments got started.
"When we were in the lockerroom just prior to the start of the Beaver Local game, I got up and said something like, 'We're going to kick off and we need to go down there and put a good hit on them to set the tempo for this game. I'll give 20 bucks to whoever goes down and makes the tackle on the kickoff.'"
"When we were watching the film either on Saturday morning, or Monday afternoon, I can't remember which, we determined who made the first hit and I gave them the $20. The next week, I had forgotten about it. When we were watching the film of the second game, the player who made the tackle on the kickoff, asks, 'Coach, do I get $20?' What could I say? I gave him $20. It just kind of went from there. There were some weeks when no one got the money. I remember one week, when we had two players make the first tackle, so they split the $20."
This brought up my question of, "Pat, didn't you think this was illegal?"
McNicol responded, "The way I read item nine on the sheet we go over with each player was that it was legal. I didn't try to hide it from anybody."
Item nine on the eligibility checklist for high school student-athletes reads, "I have not received an award, equipment, or prize valued at greater than $200 per item."
"To me, since it was under $200 for any one player, there wasn't any problem," McNicol said. "I was just trying to motivate our players. Since a number of our players need money, I was just using it as a motivational tool. My whole spirit and intent was for our kids. Due to the economic conditions that some of our players have, over the years I have helped them pay for shoes, pictures and things like that. I have even had some of them come out to my farm to work and earn money. A lot of our coaches have helped players out. I was just doing what a dad would do for his kids."
When the allegations about the $20 incentive payments first surfaced, McNicol didn't try to duck the issue or mislead the administration when he was confronted.
"I told them the truth," McNicol said. "I thought it was legal."
When the East Liverpool administration called the Ohio School Athletic Association for clarification and guidance on how to handle this situation, they were initially told to recover the money from the players and return it to the coach. However, when the administration called the OHSAA again later in the week to double-check on the procedure, a different commissioner gave them a different verdict. That verdict was that the players who received money were immediately ineligible and the team's wins over Linsly and John Marshall would have to be forfeited.
"I would like to know what happened between Tuesday and Thursday to make them call Columbus again on Friday morning," McNicol asked. "Was it because the papers had picked up on it?"
An upright man, McNicol refused to use chicanery to confuse the issue.
"I could have probably gone to the players and told them to say that I had loaned them the money to pay for their share of their sweats, but that would have been wrong."
In his letter of resignation to Superintendent Ken Halbert, McNicol wrote, "While there is still one year remaining on the contract, this action has been necessitated by my actions, which have resulted in player suspension and forfeiture of victories by ELHS. For that, I must and will bear the responsibility."
"I was aware of Paragraph 9 of the Eligibility Checklist, which I always took to be the governing rule regarding the giving of something of value to a student-athlete by anyone (limit $200). I previously have not been aware of the OHSAA Bylaw 4, Section 10. Amateur. I have never had a copy of the OHSAA Bylaws."
"Incidentally, a review discloses 4-10-3, which reads in part: The following activities do not jeopardize amateur status: c) Receiving an award, playing equipment, or prize of monetary value which does not exceed the awards amount authorized by the Association."
McNicol's wife Jill also had something to add on the matter.
"Pat told me prior to this happening, that it was heating up on the Internet, with people saying he will be gone once the season is over. That makes me think that there was someone behind all this. It's one thing to not agree with him as a coach, but don't attack his character. Pat has to feel betrayed. Ever since he went into coaching, he wanted to be head coach at his alma mater. I'm very disillusioned about all this. The saddest thing is what this says about East Liverpool ."
McNicol's coaching record will read 9-29; actually 7-31 with the two forfeits figured in. However, the enthusiasm he and his followers brought to the Touchdown Club enabled the organization to remodel a decrepit room in Potter Fieldhouse and turn it into a brightly lit, drywalled room now known as the Potter Conference Room. That room is available to all school groups for meetings. He also shepherded the Potters through a brutal two-year schedule in the Metro Athletic Conference, playing top-notch playoff caliber teams.