tampabay.com

Time for less bark and bite

Pat Russo hasn't stopped fighting to regain his job and clear his name of the recruiting charges attached to it.

By JOEY KNIGHT
Published January 17, 2007


TAMPA - His connection to Hillsborough High has been severed for months, but Pat Russo remains - if nothing else - a terrier.

Since his abrupt dismissal as the school's baseball coach last fall, Russo hasn't stopped fighting to regain his job and clear his name of the recruiting charges attached to it.

He has tenaciously burrowed his way through his legal contacts and clawed his way up the school district's proper channels, figuratively snarling at anyone who suggests he give it a rest.

He has crusaded to the local media, distributing folders filled with affidavits and DVDs he insists clearly attest to his innocence. He has been persistent and, at times, pugnacious. Resolute and focused.

Which is to say, he has exhibited precisely the same traits that contributed to his overwhelming success as a coach (three district titles, three Saladino crowns, one state final appearance).

"The main key right now is to clear my name," he said Tuesday.

And few would ever deny his prerogative to do so. Problem is, the fight now is in danger of harming some teen bystanders.

Baseball practice at Hillsborough, under new coach Ken White, began Tuesday. A few hours later, Russo and four parents, including three parents of current players, went before the Hillsborough County School Board to again argue for the due process he believes he was denied upon termination.

Alas, the charges and repercussions stemming from a former season have spilled over into a new one. And since Russo still has the fervent support of many - if not all - of his players, his relentless quest could become a distraction in a season of state title potential.

Even Russo acknowledges this.

"I think they're trying to get through this, but it's hard for everybody," he said. "They know when the time comes I'm going to want them to play to the best of their ability."

Nonetheless, he presses on.

At this stage, Russo seems resigned to the fact he won't get his job back. Because he wasn't a full-time teacher at Hillsborough, school officials essentially have complete jurisdiction over his firing and hiring.

What he mostly wants is to be absolved of the recruiting charges leveled against he and a Terriers assistant in signed documents sent to then-Hillsborough County athletic director Vernon Korhn.

Russo's attorneys have provided sworn affidavits from those parents believed to be the sources of the letters to Korhn. In one, a parent maintains a Terriers assistant tried to recruit his son, which the assistant confirms in a separate signed statement, but clears Russo.

In another, a parent denies having signed or written the letter to Korhn, but acknowledges the cell-phone number listed on it is his.

"How the (Florida High School Athletic Association) did a one-sided investigation is unbelievable," Russo said Tuesday. "All we want is a legitimate investigation."

But at what expense? If Russo clings to the scant hope of getting his job back or persists in his quest for exoneration, clubhouse focus could be split and White's job becomes infinitely tougher.

Case in point: Tuesday's meeting, where Russo got no answers.

His previous public suggestions that he may ultimately seek legal recourse prompted school board attorney Tom Gonzalez to warn board members about responding to the two-minute address Russo gave Tuesday night. None did.

So the ordeal drags on.

"This is not really about me, it's about my players," Russo told the board.

If he wants to do what's genuinely best for his kids, Russo should let things go, at least for the next few months, and urge players to rally around White so they can develop a single-minded focus for a return to the Class 5A championship. It will be a painful gesture, requiring self-sacrifice and humility.

But in the long run, taking one for his old team may be beneficial.