Parent influence on Colorado high school athletics producing tension, upheaval

Before Chad Hanson coached a game for the Heritage High School girls basketball team last season, he had problems with two parents.

The first was the mother of a senior who demanded her daughter be placed back on the team after getting cut. When Hanson did, because he says he was under pressure from athletic director Jill Schrader, that uncorked turmoil with another parent.

Hanson says that second parent, Reggie Sanchez, was so infuriated by the re-addition of the cut player to the team that he “made it his mission” to get Hanson removed as coach. Sanchez wrote numerous emails to the Heritage and Littleton Public Schools administration throughout the season calling for Hanson’s termination.

Sanchez’s emails accused Hanson of verbal abuse, intimidation and, ultimately, grooming — claims the coach says are “completely unsubstantiated and fabricated,” but led to his resignation “to save face for the district” on Feb. 6, with five games left.

Hanson’s situation at Heritage epitomizes the power parents hold in today’s prep sports world, where fathers and mothers of players can create leverage to get a coach removed.

While parent pressure on coaches has long been a staple of high school athletics — and can lead to positive change in the case of abusive coaches — The Post interviewed more than 15 coaches and administrators who said it has been amplified over the past several years, and often has nothing to do with tamping down an out-of-control coach.

As part of the reporting for this story, The Post uncovered at least 12 other high school coaching exits in the metro area over the last two years alone that were, in some way or another, caused by parents.

It’s an issue coaches and administrators say looms over every prep sports season in Colorado.

“You empower parents an inch, they’re going to take a mile, and it’s clear they’ve figured out school districts do not stand up for coaches,” Hanson said. “As a parent, if you decide you want a coach out for whatever reason… you can go as far as you want and there’s no penalty.”

The power shift

Hanson says the issues with parent influence on his program began Nov. 14, when he decided to cut the daughter of Amanda Hurley, a former Heritage administrator and the current principal at LPS’ Euclid Middle School.

That decision backfired on Hanson, who subsequently became a target of what he called a “conspiracy” by Sanchez. Hanson said Sanchez, who was briefly a volunteer assistant coach with the program, “started pretty light” with his accusations after becoming angry when Hanson reinstated Hurley’s daughter on the team.

Hanson says Heritage administration told him he was not allowed to see Sanchez’s emails about him, but The Denver Post obtained them via a public records request. Those emails reveal that Sanchez grew increasingly frustrated throughout the season with both Hanson and the administration’s handling of his complaints.

In a letter sent to HHS principal Stacey Riendeau, Sanchez wrote that Hurley and Schrader showed “shameless cronyism, and the pressure tactics, the bullying, the shaming, and the guilting of Chad Hanson for this (roster) decision was a great sin.”

But Sanchez saved most of his ire for Hanson. After quitting the staff in November, Sanchez followed a playbook that’s becoming the norm for parents who want a high school coach removed: He escalated his claims until they became a headache the district couldn’t ignore.

“He was using big-time buzzwords — he started with ‘Chad’s playing mind-games with the kids,’” Hanson said. “Then it escalated to, I’m promising things and not delivering. Then it was verbal abuse. He wasn’t getting what he wanted, and my assistants refuted all his accusations, so finally he wrote a letter saying I was grooming three of the girls on the team to have sex. I went home that day and got a lawyer.”

The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office and Littleton Police Department said they have no record of an investigation into Hanson.

Sanchez, Schrader, Hurley, Riendeau and Littleton Public Schools all declined interview requests when contacted by The Post. In a statement, Sanchez cited “progressively abusive ways” employed by the coach throughout the season as the reason for his actions.

Hanson said Schrader and Riendeau supported him internally throughout the controversy, until “it became politically smart for them not to anymore.”

In text messages from Riendeau to Hanson that the coach provided to The Post, the principal told him to be “patient,” and that the school was undergoing a review that was “the proper process for clearing your name.” That was Saturday, Feb. 4. Two days later, Hanson says the district told him to resign or be fired. He chose the former.

Hanson’s story parallels the type of pressure coaches say parents campaigning against them can successfully apply. Eventually, even the most loyal administrators tend to pivot under prolonged pressure.

Coaches say they need administrators who are willing to take a stand in an uncomfortable situation with parents, but that because of the political nature of administrative positions, that support can be tough to come by.

“The majority of parents I’ve encountered have been great, but all of us coaches too often have to deal with out-of-control, unreasonable parental expectations,” Cherry Creek football coach Dave Logan said. “And when it becomes personal, and parents try to get coaches fired, I think administrations need to be supportive of the coaches that they’ve hired.”

One Class 5A athletic director admitted it’s “not ideal” for an AD or principal’s career to put themselves at the center of a parent/coach controversy.

That AD also acknowledged the lines of communication between coach, parent and administration can quickly break down because “parents are naturally seeing things through a different lens.”

“It’s important the parents have a voice, and they’re entitled to that voice,” said the AD, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of professional backlash. “But how does that empowerment carry onto the field or court and affect the philosophy and culture of a program? It’s not always done the right way or in a way that helps the kid, the coach, the team, the school or the community.”

At Heritage, Hanson said Hurley interrupted a post-tryout meeting with another player to complain about her daughter getting cut. Then, she demanded a meeting with Hanson the next morning, when the coach, his staff, Hurley and Schrader all convened at the school.

In that meeting, Hanson says Schrader, Heritage’s athletic director, implied he needed to put Hurley’s daughter back on the team.

“For all the right reasons, I cut her,” Hanson said. “For all the wrong reasons, (Schrader) wanted me to put her back on the team. She made it seem like I made a mistake by cutting a girl the entire coaching staff agreed didn’t deserve a spot.”

Local coaches say the monetization of youth sports, the rise of club sports and a more individualist mindset by families following the COVID shutdowns is fueling the tactics used by Hurley and Sanchez.

“Why do parents feel like they have so much pull? It’s because administrators at the highest level give them too much pull,” Rocky Mountain baseball coach Scott Bullock said. “In the club sports world we live in, parents feel like they have the right to have a say and make decisions when it comes to coaching, and that’s trickled into high school.”

In Colorado Springs, Air Academy girls basketball coach Chris Gunn was fired following a months-long conflict between one family in the program and himself.

The parents accused Gunn of using divide-and-conquer tactics among his players, creating and sponsoring a bullying/hazing environment and using inappropriate language, among other complaints. The school officially dismissed him March 22. Two days later, more than 30 Air Academy students held a walk-out to protest his firing.

In an interview with The Post, Gunn called the accusations “false and defamatory, and just made-up embellishments.”

Gunn filed a civil lawsuit against the family in response. And in a rebuttal letter to Air Academy administration following his firing, Gunn said the family’s complaints are “all about playing time” and that the district “dropped the ball” in regards to properly addressing the mental health of the player at the center of the controversy.

Air Academy athletic director Kali Maxwell and principal Dan Olson declined to comment when contacted by The Post. The parents who brought the allegations forward and are named in Gunn’s lawsuit in El Paso County Court did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

According to emails, documents and letters obtained by The Post, drama engulfed Gunn’s team for the majority of the season as the Kadets made a run to the Class 5A Great 8.

Gunn said Air Academy administrators supported him during the season until an official complaint was filed by the player’s parents with the district on March 3, the day following the final game. After that, Gunn said the school’s administration refused to back him as a coach, but like Hanson, permitted him to keep teaching at the school.

In a statement to The Post, Academy School District 20 said, “team performance, team/coach interaction, interpersonal communication skills, team member character development, team member skills development (and) team morale” were all considered in Gunn’s termination.

“I asked (Maxwell) how to handle the family, no answers. I asked what about the mental health of the other players, no answer, and as soon as I take (the player) off the team, all hell breaks loose,” Gunn wrote in his rebuttal letter to the school, which addressed each allegation against him.

“This child was spiraling out of control due to playing time… Their child is having (mental health issues) and (the parents’) main concern is why her position and minutes changed.”

The parent-led issues that engulfed Hanson and Gunn is often more pronounced in high school basketball programs in particular, due to the popularity of the sport, its high profile and the fact that there’s only five starting varsity spots.

“It’s getting a little insane out here (with parent pressure on basketball coaches),” ThunderRidge boys basketball coach Joe Ortiz said. “The parents are absolutely feeling power all over the place. We’re talking about a $5,000 job here. This isn’t the head coach of the Broncos.”

Coach vulnerability, fallout on athletes

With a year-to-year, easily voidable coaching contract, both Hanson and Gunn had little ground to stand on and fight for their jobs when their respective districts decided to get rid of them.

“As my lawyer explained to me, if this was my teaching job, it would be different because there’s a (true) contract and a collective bargaining agreement,” Hanson said. “But because it’s just a coaching contract, I pretty much have no power. I could sue (Sanchez), I could write a cease-and-desist order — but it’s not going to get me my job back.”

Gunn, whose civil lawsuit is ongoing, feels the same way.

“What I’m confused about is, (Maxwell) even told me, ‘Hey next year, just cut (the player whose family complained),’” Gunn said. “She knew it was a headache we didn’t need; she knew (the player’s) family was telling lies to try to take me down. But it’s me who doesn’t have a coaching job now.”

Former boys basketball coach Troy Pachner, who was subjected to what he claimed was an “orchestrated parent campaign” at Arapahoe that resulted in him and his entire staff resigning just before the season began last November, believes “coaches need more of the protection that we afford teachers.”

“Maybe there needs to be a coaches’ union of some type, or those contracts need to be made much more in the manner of teachers’ contracts,” Pachner said. “Because the truth is, why would people invest their lives in coaching when they can be removed at the whims of parents who complain, almost always, about (coaching) style, playing time, winning or roles within a program?”

In the Douglas County School District, both Mountain Vista girls basketball coach Mike Willahan and Castle View boys basketball coach David Johnston stepped away from their positions after the season largely due to parental pressure.

Willahan, who spent 11 seasons leading the Golden Eagles, coached the last two winters on district-implemented performance improvement plans that were the result of a group of parents reporting him to the administration during the 2021-22 season. The heat trickled into this past season, when the coach said being labeled a “mental abuser” for his intense approach ate at him.

“The pressures did have an effect on me,” Willahan said. “(This past season) I played kids who probably didn’t deserve to play because I was trying to make people happy. I knew it was time for me to get out when I started to do that, and not what was truly best for the team.”

Willahan also said he had some “good conversations” with the parent group that pressured him, despite the fact he feels unfairly maligned by a process that included an array of meetings between the parents and district administration that did not include Willahan.

“I was made uncomfortable, and I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t grow during this process, because I did,” Willahan said. “It made me a better coach, a more reflective coach, probably a more sensitive coach.”

Meanwhile, parents at Castle View took issue with a perceived lack of investment from Johnston, who has two young kids, and the program’s record.

The Sabercats had four losing seasons under Johnston playing in the Continental League, including an 11-12 mark last year, after which Johnston said a parent group led by a member of the booster club presented a performance improvement plan to then-Castle View athletic director Derek Cordes. It was not the only parent-driven coaching departure at Castle View this past school year, according to multiple prep coaching sources.

The plan outlined a number of requirements the parents wanted Johnston to abide by in order to be renewed as a coach each year, including guaranteeing winning a certain amount of league games and input on all coaching hires.

Even with support from their respective athletic directors, both Willahan and Johnston, now an assistant at Legend, decided the ongoing controversy surrounding their situations wasn’t worth continuing to lead a program. Johnston declined to comment further for this story. Cordes did not return a request for comment.

“The parents are getting more brazen over the past few years, and especially since COVID,” Willahan said. “I’ve been physically bumped, I’ve been stared down, I’ve had people waiting for me outside my office… There has to be a zero tolerance for that, but there’s not, and then it becomes a headache for (administration) at the district level. The coach is always put through the ringer and it’s extremely draining, even if you come out the other side.”

For Hanson, walking the halls of Heritage last spring with rumors swirling was “really tough.”

HHS administration did not let him play in the student-staff basketball game, with Riendeau citing Hanson’s “safety” as the reason. Riendeau also advised him to stop coming to girls basketball games as a fan after his resignation, a directive Hanson ignored. HHS administration then sent Schrader and a school resource officer to the senior night game, specifically to supervise Hanson.

Eventually, Riendeau issued Hanson a formal letter of direction on March 8, ordering the coach to cease all interactions with players and families in the girls basketball program.

The letter cited multiple complaints that Hanson continued to interact with Heritage players at school. At the center of the letter was the allegation that Hanson “aggressively yelled” at Sanchez’s daughter in the locker room after the Eagles’ home loss to Chaparral on Jan. 31, for what Hanson perceived as her dad coaching her from the stands.

It was the most intense point in the season and gave Sanchez leverage, especially after Hanson was overheard telling his assistant he was going to “whoop (Sanchez’s) (expletive),” a comment that made its way back to Riendeau.

Hanson admits he made the remark, but denies threatening Sanchez’s daughter. Riendeau’s letter of direction says that the coach said to Sanchez’s daughter in the locker room, “If you do that again (look to your dad in the stands), I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

The evening of Feb. 1, Sanchez emailed Schrader with the subject line “Report of Chad Hanson’s Abusive Behavior on 1/31/23 and Request that He Be Removed Immediately.”

That was the start of an email blitz by Sanchez, who emailed HHS administration at least seven more times over the next two days, leading to Schrader’s email to the Eagles basketball community on Feb. 2 announcing that Hanson was being put on leave from coaching.

“(Hanson’s) abusive outbursts towards our daughter that night (of Jan. 31) were a concern for us,” Sanchez wrote in his statement to The Post. “We, as well as many others, reported our concerns to the school officials.”

At this time, Riendeau also decided to pull Hanson from his basketball weight training class, abruptly switching him with the teacher for the team sports class.

Then, on Feb. 6., Schrader emailed the community again, letting them know of Hanson’s resignation. That email contained a two-sentence statement by Hanson that the coach says HHS administration wrote for him.

Hanson said he was never interviewed by the district for a formal investigation. He said he encouraged Riendeau and Schrader to review the gym’s Hudl taps, recordings of practices that contain audio, but is unsure if they did.

And Hanson said the recent situation involving Blair Hubbard at Broomfield — where the well-supported football coach was criminally investigated and accused of grooming, costing him his coaching and teaching positions — lent legitimacy to Sanchez’s “false claims.”

“This goes back to the whole rumor mill. How does it look to take a class away from me? To tell me I can’t interact with female students?” Hanson said. “Like the entire second half of last (school) year, it looked horrible and made me look worse and worse. And I was given no recourse to defend my character, just as they never showed me any of (Sanchez’s) letters and Stacey kept most of her communication with me verbal, for an obvious reason.”

The Post spoke with two since-graduated Heritage players who were senior captains on the team, Addie Shipley and Emma Texel.

Both said all of the allegations against Hanson are false and that Sanchez repeatedly approached families and athletes throughout the season “asking them whether they would support the ousting of Hanson,” as Schrader wrote in a Feb. 7 email to Sanchez outlining the school’s concerns against him.

“For (Riendeau and Schrader) to let the rumors continue and not directly come out against them, but still have him employed as a high school teacher, that just seems completely inappropriate and confusing and wrong,” Shipley said. “Our peers all thought (the grooming accusation) was true, because that rumor had spread, when it wasn’t true at all. It had no merit.”

Texel acknowledged Hanson was much more intense than the previous coach, Terry Nickels, whom sources say was also run off by parent pressure following the 2022 season.

But Texel said nothing Hanson did was outside the normal bounds of coaching, including Hanson yelling at the team during the Jan. 31 locker room incident, and that the school’s administration “was definitely trying to sweep his forced resignation under the rug and make sure no one heard about (Hanson’s side of the story).”

Future of parent/coach disputes

If three things are clear, it’s this:

Coaches are fed up with what they see as habitual parent interference.

Administrators, bound by privacy concerns and a fear of legal action, are usually not in a position to support embattled coaches.

And dissatisfied parents aren’t going away.

So with parent/coach conflicts “part of the future of high school sports,” Pachner argues, coaches and districts need to account for those potential scenarios in their program handbooks and bottom lines.

“Districts need to have a legitimate plan, or designated person (beyond the district athletic director), or extra money set aside to fight these recurring battles with parents,” said Pachner, who won two state titles as Valor Christian’s boys basketball coach. “Otherwise, we’re going to continue to see a process that is going to chase out a lot of good coaches, even if they’re not perfect coaches, who are basically donating their time to kids.”

Coaches need to have a plan, too, says Valor Christian’s Bret McGatlin. As the Eagles’ first-year football coach last year, McGatlin held in-home meetings with every senior on his roster, and planned to do so again in his second season.

That sort of outreach is critical in maintaining positive relationships with families, McGatlin says. It’s all the more important in a high-profile, program like Valor Christian, which is on its fourth head football coach since 2017.

“If you don’t have a gameplan for interacting with parents, it’s going to bite you,” McGatlin said. “It’s part of the culture today, so if you don’t embrace it, (chaos) will happen.”

That’s what’s taken root at Legend, where over the past couple of seasons a small group of parents came together and hired a lawyer to try to get baseball coach Scott Boyd fired.

Following the 2022 season, those parents filed a complaint with the Douglas County School District outlining a long list of allegations against Boyd, including fostering a bullying environment, financial improprieties with booster club money, player favoritism and manipulating statistics.

A district investigation cleared Boyd of policy violations regarding bullying and improper use of funds, and noted there was “not a definitive determination as to whether Mr. Boyd violated the District policy on staff conduct.” Boyd was allowed to return as Legend’s coach this past spring “under certain conditions.”

The parent group was dissatisfied with that conclusion and emailed Legend and DCSD administration again during the Titans’ season this April. The group’s lawyer, Dale Pugh, wrote he was “going to ensure that every parent and player in the program are fully aware of the allegations of misconduct against Coach Boyd and the improper accounting of monies raised for the program.”

Boyd, Legend athletic director Dan Simington and DCSD athletic director Derek Cheney all declined to comment, citing potential litigation in the case.

But Boyd, with district support, was able to withstand the pressure. Others, like Hanson and Gunn, could not.

Coaching futures for Hanson, Dunn

Hanson is back teaching at Heritage this fall, but isn’t coaching for the first time in 22 years. There is palpable tension between him and the HHS administration, fueled by Riendeau’s letter of direction in March and what Hanson says were continued mixed signals from his bosses.

He said he’s been treated “like he was found guilty of grooming,” even though he’s been allowed to remain in the classroom and said he was also verbally offered another coaching job at the school. Heritage told Hanson he was not permitted to make an emailed statement to the community after his resignation, and the coach, fearing for his teaching job, followed the order.

“(Schrader) was having a tough day with parents of our girls golf team, our coach quit and she informally said, ‘You want to be our girls golf coach?’” Hanson recalled. “This was two days after losing my basketball job. It was such an upsetting moment for me I just walked out of the office.”

Hanson doesn’t know if he’ll coach again. Dunn wants to at some point. He’s teaching in Denver Public Schools this fall because he couldn’t stomach staying at Air Academy, where the Kadets will be a preseason title contender this year — with someone else on the bench.

“I didn’t want to see another coach in there, and my office (was) 125 steps from the gym — I could almost see it from my classroom,” Gunn said. “Too tough. But that’s what coaching is these days — tough. And it’s not because of the players. It’s because of some parents, or in my case just one family, taking things way, way too far.”

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