By Gavin J. Quinton and Vincent Nguyen / Burbank Leader
A crowd gathered at the steps of John Burroughs High School on Thursday as student athletes and their parents awaited news that their beloved basketball coach, Austin Pope, would be fired from his position.
Just minutes after entering a meeting with JBHS administrators, Pope exited the school and approached the group, giving them the verdict that he was no longer a coach at Burroughs.
Several rumors had preceded the much-anticipated meeting, but no formal reason was provided to Pope by administrators detailing the circumstances surrounding his termination Thursday.
“I was just let go. They’ll be hearing from my legal team. As of right now they’ve got a bunch of disgruntled parents and kids who are going to go in there and handle it. … The kids know me. My coaches know me. They know I’m positive through it all,” Pope told the Leader on Thursday.
As Pope shared the official news to the crowd, many students broke out into tears. He took time to speak with many of them, including some parents, and said that he was being asked to leave campus.
“I’m heartbroken,” said Bears team captain Chase Kardosh. “Austin is a big brother to me and everyone in the program. He’s the best coach we could have asked for. … it’s sickening.”
The boys’ varsity team has had a stellar season start under Pope and held a 6-0 record before losing Wednesday to Harvard-Westlake, the reigning CIF State Open Division champions.
Pope had received a call just before that game with unofficial news that he would be fired, according to Burroughs boys’ basketball assistant coach Frederick Hawthorne.
After the game, Pope gave the players the news, and many students said they would not play under any other coach. The team was scheduled to play a quarterfinal game at the Rose City Roundball Classic at Maranatha High, but many players told the Leader that the team “boycotted it.” The team pulled out from the game. A few members of the team said that they would not play another game if Pope was not at the helm.
According to Hawthorne and other sources, a disagreement between a tournament organizer, Jack Pollon, and Pope may be behind the coach’s termination, though the Burbank Unified School District did not cite a specific reason for it.
Hawthorne told the Leader that the two men disputed over the team’s fee due for a tournament run by Pollon, and that the organizer attempted to charge Pope for 10 games when they would only play five.
Hawthorne also said he and Pope believed several parties “colluded” to install a new head coach and used the fee dispute as reason to fire Pope.
“He was fired without due process by administrators that have no integrity. This is a man of honor who loves these kids, I’ve seen it,” Hawthorne said.
As of Friday, district administrators did not provide a reason for Pope’s termination, though Burroughs Principal Kenneth Knoop did send an email to the school community confirming the coach’s release that afternoon.
“I am disappointed that our multiple efforts to hold a productive meeting with Mr. Pope did not occur over the past several days. While I know many desire to know the specific details of the allegations that led to this decision, I am sorry to repeat that I am limited in what I can share, as Mr. Pope has legal privacy rights. I understand how unsatisfying it is to not receive these answers but given the seriousness of the allegations and the on- going investigation I ask you to respect these legal limitations,” wrote Knoop.
“This is a heartbreaking situation. We know that in Mr. Pope’s brief time with the program, many of his players felt a deep connection to him,” he added, saying that a search for a new coach is underway as league play begins next week. The Burroughs community can expect an update as early as next week.
Administrators confirmed the girls’ basketball coach, Vicky Oganyan, would not take over Pope’s role.
Many parents echoed Hawthorne’s claims, saying that there were suspicious circumstances leading up to the firing, including that many students apparently knew Pope would be fired as early as Monday, though the Leader could not confirm the assertions.
“This is the third coach that’s been fired in the last three years,” said Tonya Kardosh, team mom. “It’s too much for us. We want him to be the coach, this is the best the program has ever been… Everyone loves him, the kids love him. I witnessed 15 kids crying their eyes out.”
Following the news, the school’s athletic program directors and administrators invited students and parents to the school cafeteria where Knoop addressed concerns alongside other school and district leaders.
“It’s not him and his character,” Knoop told parents and players Thursday afternoon. “It’s not about him as a person. It’s not him as a coach. Those are all the wonderful things that we loved about him. There’s more information that I am not privy to put out at this time.”
Without knowing the circumstances behind their coach’s termination, players and parents pleaded with administrators to bring him back, adding that whatever mistake may have been made could be handled with corrective disciplinary action rather than termination.
Players collectively said they would refuse to play any more games this season if Pope did not remain as coach. However, Knoop was adamant that, despite players’ protests, the program will play on.
“I have every intention that not a single minute of practice or game are missed,” said Knoop during the meeting.
Parents and players said they hope administrators will restore Pope’s position after hearing their testimony.
“Knoop has the power to make the decision to bring the coach back and just take a corrective action to mentor Coach Pope in whatever may need to be changed. I don’t know if [Knoop] would do that, but if he did do it, he would be the superhero of Burbank,” said Tonya Kardosh.