Coach retires amid strife

The youth football veteran was accused of promoting racism, but he has defenders.

By ROBBYN MITCHELL, Times Staff Writer
Published January 19, 2008

TEMPLE TERRACE -- A longtime youth football coach has stepped down at the end of a season marked by allegations that he promoted racist behavior on his practice field.

News of Ken Wing's retirement was posted this week on the Web site of the Temple Terrace Youth Sports Association, where Wing, 55, coached for 27 years.

Wing, a criminal lawyer, led his Wildcats to 263 wins and two championships. He served six times as president for the West Coast Youth Football Conference, the league's governing body.

Yet in his final season, a group of parents led a petition drive against him, saying he organized a foot race that pit black players against white players. They also accused him of joining a player in a chant of "white power."

Wing says a few parents blew the situation out of proportion, and parents loyal to him agree. He said he matched players against one another according to speed, not race; and when the white player yelled "white power," he disciplined the youth accordingly.

"That was the end of it," he said. "We talked to the boy involved and it was not racially motivated. ... In 27 years, I've never had a complaint like this."

The allegations surprised longtime league supporter Mike Hanson, who estimated Young's teams are 90 percent black. "I've known Ken since 1974, and he's not that kind of guy," he said.

Parent Jon Glass said many on the team were not even consulted. "It would be a shame for this man's 27-year career to be damaged by the false allegations of a few parents," he said.

While Wing described his retirement as a natural end to a long career, others believe the allegations played a part.

"They were absolutely a sore spot for him," football director Eric Jasinski said. "He expressed that he didn't like being accused of something racial."

Parents Amy Kelly, Tammy Hawthorne and Melanee Holder campaigned to oust Wing, with letters and phone calls in addition to the petition. Kelly is white; Hawthorne and Holder are black.

Holder said she saw Wing line two boys up to run a race -- between the races.

"He lined them up one black, one white and then said, 'Who would you put your money on?'" Then he gestured that he would bet on the black player, she said.

"These boys have enough people trying to pit them against one another," Holder said. "The last thing they need is the coach dividing the team."

After the race, Hawthorne said a white player ran past Wing pumping his fist and yelling, "White power!" To her amazement, she said, Wing returned the gesture to the student.

Jasinski said he is certain Hawthorne heard the boy correctly, but thinks Wing's action may have been misinterpreted.

"He has a severe hearing problem," Jasinski said. "So I doubt he heard what the boy was saying."

But Hawthorne said Wing repeated the phrase to the child.

Glenda Dennison, whose son has played for Wing for two years, said she was there the day of the incident and didn't see Wing return any gesture.

"He was a very good coach, and the kids seem to get along with him," she said. "He taught the boys teamwork and football fundamentals, which doesn't happen with every coach."

Nonetheless, the board organized separate meetings with the parents and players.

Jasinski says Wing did not attend because he did not feel he owed anyone an explanation. But Wing says the board told him not to attend, that they'd handle it without him.

Parent Cheryl Watson, who called the campaign against Wing a lynching, suggests the discontent has come from parents who are disgruntled because their children were not star players.

Indeed, Kelly complained to the league that her 12-year-old son was a bench warmer for most games. Assistant coaches stonewalled her, she said, and told her Wing does not like to talk to parents.

"They said he's not a personable guy," Kelly said. "How can you coach children and not be personable?"

The women collected eight signatures out of the 34 players' parents. They submitted their petition to association president Ricky Hayhurst, who investigated and came back with no punishment for the coach.

"Head coach Ken Wing is a valued volunteer with the Temple Terrace Youth Sports Association for 20-plus years," Hayhurst wrote in a letter to the parents. He "deserves our respect as much as you deserve his respect."

The women reached out to the West Coast Youth Football Conference, but were frustrated when they learned Wing was conference president.

After the season ended, Kelly and Hawthorne said they would seek out different football programs. Hawthorne said her son did not want to move. And now that Wing has retired, she'll consider bringing him back.

Holder's son will enter high school in the fall. And Holder is skeptical of Wing's retirement.

"They say it every year because so many parents threaten to leave," she said. "But then they pay their money and he comes back to coach."

Staff writer Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at rmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5313.