UPDATED 2:30 p.m. | Players, parents, and boosters packed the Unit 5 school board meeting Wednesday, demanding to know why the Normal West football coach resigned and denying allegations that money was improperly routed to his assistant coaches.
Darren Hess resigned as head coach Dec. 20 after 15 years and with a 96-56 record, calling the decision “not easy … but one that I came to after much reflection.” No specific reason was cited in a joint statement released by Hess and the school. The head football coach at Unit 5’s other high school, Normal Community, resigned the same week.
During Wednesday’s Unit 5 meeting at Chiddix Junior High School, parents of past and current players told board members they were upset by Hess’ resignation. They said his legacy stretched beyond the gridiron, describing him as a difference-maker in the lives of hundreds of football players. They asked for a more complete explanation of why he resigned and to see one of his former assistants get the head coach job.
“The program is dedicated to making young men better, stronger of character, and of good moral standing. There is no question that comes from the head coach of the program,” said Darrell Batley, a parent of a player. “We’re asking, what is happening? Why is such a respectable man not being asked to continue in the program? We’re at a loss.”
In the weeks before Hess’ resignation, there were concerns raised about how Normal West’s Gridiron Club boosters group spent its money—specifically whether money was improperly given to Hess’ assistant coaches. Any payments made outside of the school district would potentially violate Illinois High School Association (IHSA) rules that require “all remuneration for high school athletic coaching must be from the Board of Education of the member school employing the coach.”
After Wednesday’s meeting, Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel confirmed these concerns. He did not say if they contributed directly to Hess’ resignation.
“There were some internal audits that weren’t at first directed at that, but then discovered (issues). We need to ensure that there are no payments, or proper way of payments are made. The IHSA is looking into this very case,” Daniel said.
The IHSA said Thursday there's no active investigation.
"We have been in communication with Unit 5 schools administration and are aware of this situation," said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson. "With the recent resignation of Coach Hess, there is no need for us to investigate this further."
Jeff Lord, who identified himself as the Gridiron Club’s treasurer, told Unit 5’s board that any money paid to coaches went through the proper channels—the district’s payroll system. He denied any improper compensation of assistant coaches.
Lord said the club raises $60,000 to $70,000 each year to support Normal West football, primarily through scoreboard advertising and other fundraisers. Some of that money may go to West’s 18 assistant coaches, he said, but only through the proper channels.
Lord cited a Nov. 18 email from Normal West Athletic Director Stan Lewis to Lord, asking if the Gridiron Club “has ever written checks to Normal West coaches for coaching.” He said that was the first he heard of any concerns about Gridiron’s money.
“What is a school? It’s the parents. The students. It’s the teachers, the administrators. We’re all on the same page, all on the same team. Everything we do is all parents-generated. To think this is outside of the school, I think, is nuts. Those revenues are generated by parents of students. Everything has been above board. No payments have been under the table or outside the school system,” Lord told the board.
Hess said Thursday he couldn't talk about what happened.
"I would love to comment but based on an agreement I have reached with Unit 5, I cannot comment at this time," Hess told GLT in an email.
Lord received a standing ovation from the crowd after his remarks. Lord and others suggested Hess’ resignation was related to a small group of parents who successfully asked for a closed-door meeting with Unit 5’s school board in November.
Daniel confirmed Wednesday that the closed session was related to “questions in regards to the football program, and the leader of that program is Coach Hess.” He declined to comment further on the closed session. (The state’s Open Meetings law allows public bodies to go into closed session to discuss specific employees.)
David Cobb, one of the parents who requested that closed session in November, declined comment Thursday when reached by GLT.
“I’m among many who want and deserve answers for what’s transpired,” said Jimmy Camp, a football parent who asked Unit 5’s board to release the audio recording of that November closed session. Others asked for the minutes to be released.
Camp said he wanted someone from Hess’ former staff to get the top job.
Hess was suspended during the 2014 season after being accused of improperly trying to recruit a player who was attending University High School. He was later reinstated and told The Pantagraph he regretted his actions.
“Change is difficult, but through this change we hope to continue to build on the strong foundation Coach Hess has established,” Normal West said in its Dec. 21 statement.
“Darren Hess cares deeply for his players past and present. His players not only learn the game of football, but also develop character, leadership and a sense of family,” Normal West Principal Dave Johnson said in the statement.
Hess remains at Normal West as a teacher.
“I think it is best for me at this time,” he said. “I look forward to spending more time with my family and enjoying my son’s last three years of football at West. I also want to continue my professional growth in graduate school and possibly administration.”
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