Rally cry: Arcadia football community expresses overwhelming support for fired coach

Parents, boosters and student-athletes packed into the Arcadia gym to vent their frustrations over the recent firing of Kerry Taylor as head football coach. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Emotions ran high as a passionate Arcadia High School football community vented its frustrations with the firing of first-year head football coach Kerry Taylor, demanding reinstatement.

Parents, student-athletes and team boosters packed the stands of Arcadia’s gym for a community meeting Wednesday, June 5. This meeting with the school’s administration came on the heels of the school firing Mr. Taylor last week.

Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Dr. Milissa Sackos, Arcadia Principal Todd Stevens, and Scottsdale Unified School District Athletic Director Nathan Slater sat in front of the crowd. Absent was Arcadia Athletic Director Cher Fesenmaier, who Mr. Stevens said had an out-of-state family obligation.

Also in attendance were three SUSD Governing Board members: Board President Patty Beckman, Board Vice President Allyson Beckham and Sandy Kravetz. None of the board members, nor Mr. Slater spoke, as Mr. Stevens and Dr. Sackos facilitated the discussion.

Arcadia Principal Todd Stevens reads from a prepared statement in addressing the Arcadia football community. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Mr. Stevens said this type of meeting is important because the issue had a lot of emotion behind it and school leadership owes it to the community to hear that emotion and attempt to move forward.

“I do not believe without a meeting such as this, that those thoughts and emotions could be openly vented, that we would have an opportunity, whatever the outcome is, to move forward positively,” he said after the meeting.

Mr. Stevens read a prepared statement to the crowd, one he assured he wrote, and then yielded the floor for comments.

Many attendees spoke to Mr. Taylor’s character and the impact he had on them as a player or community as a whole. Many frustrations centered on the timing of the firing, the impact that would have on the team’s summer activities and criticisms of Ms. Fesenmaier and the administration.

Dr. Sackos told the crowd she was gathering information and would meet with Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard regarding the issue the next day. Dr. Sackos did leave open a possibility of further investigation and reconsideration. Dr. Sackos also said the school posted a job listing for a replacement.

Booster club president Matt Richardson said the goal of the community was to get an “honest and fair perspective” on why the school fired Mr. Taylor and accountability from Ms. Fesenmaier.

Mr. Richardson says he hopes the administration heard a positive message from the community about Mr. Taylor’s impact.

“I hope they hear that and I hope they honor that and do the right thing,” he said after the meeting.

Arcadia Head Coach Kerry Taylor speaks to his team after a 2018workout. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

The issue at hand

In 2017, Arcadia football had a winless season and opponents routed the Titans by a combined score of 472-29. After then-Head Coach Tony Stillings resigned, the school brought in Mr. Taylor.

Mr. Taylor, a former Arizona State University and NFL wide receiver, quickly turned the program around, finishing 2018 with a 6-4 record. Furthermore, many players said Mr. Taylor has had a positive impact on them, calling him a “father figure.”

Mr. Stevens, reading from his statement, said in April the school became aware of two Arizona Interscholastic Association bylaw infractions and self-reported them to the AIA.

Those infractions included several reported incidents of recruiting and a violation of out-of-season practices being mandatory, according to the minutes from the AIA’s May 20 meeting. Mr. Taylor denied both violations on Twitter following the AIA’s meeting, claiming he wasn’t allowed to provide evidence to the contrary.

This resulted in the AIA placing the Arcadia football team on warning, which is one step below probation or a loss of postseason eligibility. Mr. Stevens claimed if the school hadn’t self-reported the violations, AIA Executive Director David Hines said the school would’ve gone on probation.

“I believe that any sanctioning actions by the AIA is a call to action to make changes,” Mr. Stevens said, reading from his statement. “In my role, this meant meeting with Coach Taylor and clearly set expectations moving forward rather than dismissing him at that time.”

Arcadia junior Paxton Earl evades Deer Valley defenders during Arcadia’s 40-21 win over Deer Valley Friday, Aug. 24. (Special to the Independent/Ralph Freso)

Mr. Stevens said he outlined expectations for Mr. Taylor and asked if he needed any further explanation on those points. He declined to share specifically what those expectations were but said they were aligned with AIA and SUSD policies.

Mr. Stevens said he thought Mr. Taylor left the meeting with an understanding of those expectations but comments in a recent news report and a statement on Twitter led Mr. Stevens to believe Mr. Taylor didn’t meet those expectations. Mr. Stevens also cited another incident, which he declined to discuss further.

Mr. Stevens denied the notion that he or the school failed Mr. Taylor, saying he had at least 10 meetings regarding the AIA infractions with him before making his final decision.

Jon Hunter, a community member in attendance, claimed he had talked to Mr. Taylor and believes the administration did not adequately convey the seriousness of the action. Mr. Stevens said he disagreed with that notion.

Since Mr. Taylor’s firing on Friday, May 31, the school has received a deluge of backlash via social media and email demanding answers and reinstatement.

Rising junior Trey Brown stands among his teammates to share how former head coach Kerry Taylor impacted him in his life. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

A rallying cry

Prior to the start of the meeting, the Arcadia football players walked into the gym as a group. This solicited a standing ovation from the crowd as the players sat together.

Several players, including rising seniors Paxton Earl and Kadin Behler, spoke to the impact Mr. Taylor had on them as football players and individuals, referring to the team as a family.

“Some of these kids can’t go home and be brothers,” Behler said. “Some of these kids don’t have fathers. Kerry Taylor is our father to all of us. This man is our leader, we don’t want to play for anyone else. You can’t just come in and take a new coach and just expect all of us to play for him. Kerry Taylor built something with us.”

Rising senior Marcus Williams, who said he transferred to Arcadia because of Mr. Taylor, recounted how Mr. Taylor helped him get his grades up by texting him frequently. Williams said he improved from 14% to 61% in his math class.

Williams also addressed the AIA infractions, denying any recruiting and saying practices were “mandatory in our eyes” because the players wanted to be prepared.

Rising junior Trey Brown also expressed how Mr. Taylor helped him overcome his shyness and become a leader. As Brown spoke, Williams became emotional and started to cry.

Rising senior Marcus Williams points to his team as he questions whether recruiting ever occurred. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

“I love these people who I’m sitting all around with. I hold them so dear to my heart,” Brown said. “I would not be the person I am today without them and without my coach.”

Mr. Richardson said Mr. Taylor hadn’t only impacted the lives of the student-athletes, but the school as a whole. He noted the community was excited about football, which he didn’t think had happened in a while.

“I just want to say it is inexcusable for us to do this at this point in time and to be here,” he said during the meeting. “As a community, we’re not supposed to be having these types of problems whatsoever. It breaks my heart that we are here today.”

Several of Mr. Taylor’s assistant coaches spoke in support. Assistant coach Trent Marsh stood and asked Mr. Stevens if he knew his name to which Mr. Stevens said he did not as the crowd jeered the principal.

Another assistant coach Sam Johnson said he saw the administration’s reaction as an overreaction and thought school leadership hadn’t handled the situation properly.

“I think communication has definitely been an issue on all fronts,” he said. “You guys mentioned earlier that you were hoping that the assistant staff would take over during the summer. Nobody has reached out us at any point.”

Next steps

Moving forward, Mr. Richardson said the booster club is sticking by its statement that without Mr. Taylor, there will be no football season this year.

“He was let go — and this is not an opinion, by my leadership perspective, this is a factual basis, I’ve seen the documentation — he was let go for reasons that were unjust for a termination and never should have happened,” he said after the meeting.

Community member Jon Hunter addresses the crowd while expressing his displeasure with Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Dr. Milissa Sackos and the Arcadia administration. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

“So it’s just a right or wrong issue. They need to do what’s right and reinstate Coach Taylor, not for Coach Taylor’s sake, he’s going to be fine, he’s a great guy — but for the kid’s sake, so they can get going and have a football season.”

Mr. Richardson also clarified his remarks, saying the boosters weren’t holding the team hostage, but rather the season is “just not going to happen,” because it would be too hard to have a coaching search and a quick turnaround to prepare for the season in August.

As for the players, Behler said all they can do is stick together as a group and move forward.

“We’ll always have Coach Taylor’s back,” Behler said. “Hopefully, they’re going to give us our coach back but right now all we can do is hope and pray that they see our side of it and they hopefully give us our coach back.”

News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at jmartinez@newszap.com or at 623-445-2738

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