The Column: Eagles athletic leadership in quite the conundrum

What just happened?

That’s the question many Rantoul Township High School sports fans, coaches, administrators and players most likely had in their head at one point or another in the past week regarding the bizarre developments that have taken place.

What we do know is this.

Joe Bendoraitis is no longer the Eagles’ athletic director and head football coach.

What we don’t know is exactly why.

RTHS Superintendent Scott Amerio and the school board won’t divulge any specifics on the matter.

Neither will the coaches.

Nor Bendoraitis.

Efforts to reach him have proven unsuccessful to this point.

Amerio essentially put a gag order on any coach at RTHS talking about the situation in the immediate days following last Wednesday’s announcement Bendoraitis resigned for personal and family reasons, according to a prepared statement from Amerio.

All comments and questions about the matter were to be directed to him.

Only on the job for five months, Bendoraitis had a quick stay at RTHS.

From talking to him in early November about his plans for the football program and seeing him sitting in the stands at the RTHS boys basketball season opener against Serena in the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Thanksgiving Tournament on Nov. 20, the news caught me off guard.

Bendoraitis had put in place a winter strength and conditioning program that started the first week of November.

He even had plans put together for the Eagles’ football team to have new uniforms and helmets next season. Doesn’t sound like a guy who was going to “resign” a month later.

“We’re going to have helmet stickers next year,” Bendoraitis said in early November. “We’re going to have a gold and yellow helmet next year, similar to LSU. We’ll have a purple stripe down the middle and a purple feather on the side. Kids who don’t make a certain attendance requirement (in workouts), which we put at 80 percent for the summer and for the offseason, they won’t get those stickers. Everybody in the stands will know and ask, ‘Hey, why doesn’t this kid have stickers on his helmet?’ It’s because he didn’t show up to anything.”

Puzzlement, bewilderment, frustration and embarrassment are likely emotions expressed along South Sheldon Street and RTHS’ campus since the calendar turned to December.

No school ever wants to go through looking for a new athletic director and head football coach five months after the person just started.

Seven months ago I asked RTHS Principal Todd Wilson if the school anticipated looking for a new athletic director two to three years down the road even after Bendoraitis was hired at the school board’s mid-May meeting.

“Lord, I hope not,” Wilson said with a laugh, albeit one, looking back now, seemed filled with nervous energy. “We don’t anticipate doing that.”

Not much was known about Bendoraitis, a native of New Lenox in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, around these parts last spring.

Add in the long time frame it took for RTHS to hire him, not to mention the fact the school board did not approve Amerio’s original recommendation of former RTHS boys basketball head coach and current RTHS teacher Chris Wagner to replace Sally Bryan at its September 2011 meeting, and it seemed an obvious question about the future of the Eagles’ athletic director when Bendoraitis was hired.

Bryan retired last December after 10 years filling the role of Eagles athletic director, setting off the chain of events in the past year that you’d have a hard time making up.

In a perfect world, the board has an idea of what it wants out of its next hire. But this isn’t a perfect world, and Bendoraitis’ resignation is another indication of the way the board and the RTHS administration have struggled bringing in a suitable replacement for Bryan.

The first task the board will have to make is deciding whether it wants one person to fill the role of athletic director and head football coach, or have two people take on those responsibilities.

Board member Roger Quinlan, a former RTHS athletic director and coach, has expressed repeatedly at meetings in the past year how he’d like to see more head coaches present in the building during the day, meaning they’re either teachers or administrators.

All three head coaches RTHS has for its winter sports work outside the school, with three of the five fall sport head coaches at the school and two of the four spring sport head coaches at the school.

It’s almost imperative for the head football coach to fit the criteria of working at the school.

With a larger squad than any other sport, it’s a way for the coach to connect with his players in the hallways, before practices, workouts and games.

Plus, RTHS has never really deviated from that plan, so the likelihood of bringing in a head coach who isn’t in the school every day isn’t that great.

With the failed Bendoraitis experiment of handling dual roles, you’d think the board would want to steer away from giving the responsibility to one person again, especially if they had never had both jobs before, which was the case of Bendoraitis.

This isn’t like a college coaching search or college athletic director search. Sure, Wilson and Amerio would have liked to have had a full-time replacement in the day after Bendoraitis resigned.

It’s not a necessity, though.

It’s not like in college, where coaching searches are done in a matter of days, all the better to help out recruiting efforts and ease (or upset even more, depending on the hire) a fan base.

Simply put, the sooner the school brings in a qualified and experienced candidate, the quicker the school can put the unsettling and confounding episodes of recent days in the past.

Getting both spots filled by February is ideal. If they’re filled by March, it’s not perfect, but not a disaster either. April puts the department and football program on shakier ground, and May could lend itself to another situation like the one that just developed at the school.

Considering how many times RTHS has swung and missed in the last 16 months with these two positions, they need to make the right decision this time.

Or end up having recent history repeat itself.

We all know how well that’s turned out.

Matt Daniels is the sports editor with the Rantoul Press newspaper. Like the column, love the column or hate the column? Let him know at mdaniels@rantoulpress.com

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