A real-estate agent was taking preliminary notes the other day at the home of the high school football coach in Massillon, Ohio. There was nothing new about that. Thirteen times in 45 years a Massillon coach has packed up and left, sometimes in triumph, sometimes in despair, but always with the knowledge that, for better or worse, he will never find another place like Massillon.
This house at 2034 Hickory St. NE belongs to the Currences—Mike, 45, his wife, Joan, 45, and their children, Becky, 23, a computer engineer with Goodyear, and Todd, 17, a high school junior-to-be and a fine linebacker. In nine years at Massillon High, Mike Currence won 79 games, lost 16, tied two and stayed too long. He may not sell his house right away, but sometime—perhaps soon, perhaps after Todd's graduation—the Currences will be history in Massillon.
"After five years a coach has outlived his usefulness," says Thomas Kimmins, an attorney and the president of the local school board. "That is absolute gospel."
On May 24 Kimmins and the board precipitated a Massillon monsoon when they fired Currence and voted to buy out the remaining two years ($19,330 worth) of his coach-athletic director contract. Currence, who also makes $27,000 a year as a math and phys ed teacher, says he is going to fight his dismissal. On June 19 he filed a seven-count suit in Federal court charging that he was fired for "insufficient reasons," that he was denied due process and that the board acted in conspiracy against him. He seeks reinstatement as coach—and $1.2 million in damages. But the battle, as Currence knows, is probably symbolic. Massillon has already named a new football coach. "Maybe we're old fogies," says Kimmins, "but that's the way it is."
And that's the way it has been since 1941 when Paul E. Brown packed up his 80-8-2 record and his six state championships in nine seasons and moved from Massillon to the head job at Ohio State and, from there, to professional legend-dom. People around Massillon date the "modern football era" from Brown's ascension in 1932. Until Currence, no coach had stayed as long as Brown, but others have followed his path from Massillon to plum college positions: Chuck Mather (Kansas), Lee Tressel (Baldwin-Wallace), Leo Strang (Kent State) and Bob Commings (Iowa). And Earle Bruce, who won all 20 of his games at Massillon in 1964 and 1965, became an Ohio State assistant and eventually the head coach. Those who weren't good enough to weather the Massillon pressure cooker simply were driven out before they could tarnish the tradition.
The irony is as clear as the big orange M on the jersey of the school's mascot, a tiger cub named Obie. The Booster Club, founded in 1934 by Brown, boasts 2,500 members in a town of 32,600. Junie Studer has hand-painted the paper-covered hoop through which Tiger heroes have ceremonially burst on crisp fall Friday nights for "a good 30 years." Robert (Doc) Immel, who was one of Paul Brown's student managers, has practiced dentistry, tended to his collection of circus memorabilia—he owns an authentic suit of Tom Thumb's underwear—and been a Massillon booster for 39 years. Junior and senior players walk around town in their sideline jackets with numbers on the sleeves during the fall "because it's always been done," as offensive lineman and senior-to-be Joe Luckring says.
But the head coach? He moves on.
"The funniest thing about this job," said Currence, who wasn't laughing, "is that I could never truly say it was my team. It's the town's team."
The school board says Currence was fired because his public support had eroded. But the nebulousness of that explanation might give the board trouble should Currence press his lawsuit. It could also give impetus to the petition campaign started by Cameron Speck, a p.r. man for the state highway department, to ask for the board's resignation.
There is no doubt that some Massillonians, not the least of them being members of the school board, grew disenchanted with Currence after he tried to hire two assistants from outside the district to be his offensive and defensive coordinators for the '85 season. Kimmins called the assistant issue the "red flag" that brought to the surface the other reasons for the firing, reasons that bubble away in a small-town olla podrida: He played this kid too much, this kid not enough, this kid at the wrong position, this kid at the wrong time. He offended this member of the board, this member of the Booster Club. He was too vocal on this, he didn't speak out on that. He should have scheduled this team, he shouldn't have scheduled that team.