Recruiting by H.S. coaches under microscope after Shady Side basketball coach’s suspension

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Saturday, July 22, 2023 | 7:34 PM


A one-year suspension is the punishment for any PIAA coach caught recruiting, but is that rule taken seriously in every case and in all corners of the state?

Cardinal O’Hara, a member of the Philadelphia Catholic League, recently hired a new boys basketball coach, and some of his candid comments about recruiting have drawn scrutiny statewide. Especially here in Western Pennsylvania, after the WPIAL just suspended its fifth coach in five years for an alleged violation.

“I’m getting such a late start, but we will have to recruit,” new Cardinal O’Hara coach Fran O’Hanlon told the Delaware County Daily Times after he was hired earlier this month. “I have some assistants who can help me with that.”

O’Hanlon came to Cardinal O’Hara from the college ranks, having coached Lafayette for 27 seasons. His most recent experience in the Philadelphia Catholic League came many decades ago as coach at Monsignor Bonner.

“It’s not the same league I played in or coached in,” O’Hanlon told delcotimes.com. “Kids come from all over the place now. So it’s a whole lot different.”

His comments didn’t sit well with the PIAA and were discussed at the July board meeting. The PIAA District 12 committee, which oversees Philadelphia public schools and the Philadelphia Catholic League, was asked to investigate.

PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said the comments by O’Hanlon surely add fuel for critics who question whether all areas of the state view recruiting and athletic transfers in the same light.

Four months earlier, the PIAA faced another high-profile case in Philadelphia when an Imhotep Charter basketball player credited his coach for recruiting him in a TV interview at the state finals. The District 12 committee investigated and ultimately found no violation.

Lombardi said the committee had no “smoking gun” to punish Imhotep, but he still believed recruiting allegations are taken seriously in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

“These are a couple of instances that people say, ‘Ha! See that?’” Lombardi said. “But I also have a number of other instances where students have gone from School A to School B and they’ve said, ‘Whoa! Stop right there.’”

5 coaches in 5 years

The WPIAL board handed down a one-year suspension Thursday to Shady Side Academy girls basketball coach Jonna Burke, a 500-game winner who ranks among the league’s most accomplished active coaches.

The WPIAL held a 90-minute hearing to investigate a social media message Burke sent to the parents of an athlete from South Fayette, and found that her message violated PIAA rules. Shady Side Academy has said it intends to appeal the WPIAL decision to the PIAA.

Burke is the fifth coach since 2019 to receive a suspension from the WPIAL for a recruiting violation.

“The WPIAL for years has been a strict interpreter of the rules,” WPIAL executive director Scott Seltzer said. “I learned that from (retired executive director) Tim O’Malley, that these are the rules and the rules need to be followed. I think that’s what most of our member schools expect from us.

“I don’t have anybody telling me different, saying, ‘Don’t follow the rules.’ Those are the constitution and bylaws set by the PIAA.”

Seton LaSalle football coach Mauro Monz and assistant Jason Pinkston were suspended in 2021, Seton LaSalle baseball assistant David Lee in 2020 and McKeesport assistant girls basketball coach Troy Blackwell in 2019. Most appealed to the PIAA, but they all served their suspensions.

“For years, we’ve been overturned quite frequently (by the PIAA board),” Seltzer said. “Now recently, we haven’t sent as many things to the state, and the things we’ve sent to the state have been upheld for the most part.”

Impact of social media

Social media has contributed to many of those recent suspensions levied by the WPIAL.

Seltzer said it’s hard to pursue allegations with no proof. He also said having tangible evidence in terms of text messages or social media posts will bolster their chances of being upheld on appeal. It’s harder to prove a phone call or in-person conversation took place.

“Our member schools are getting better at providing factual information, not stuff that might be rumored or hearsay,” Seltzer said. “I think they’re doing a more diligent job. And to be honest with you, social media helps (make a stronger case) when they get that kind of stuff.”

Shady Side Academy attorney Kendra Smith, who represented Burke in the WPIAL hearing, argued that the PIAA should update its rules to include well-defined social media limits for coaches. Smith asked the board whether a coach “liking” a student’s social media post or replying with a thumbs-up emoji could be considered a recruiting violation.

“I think it’s a discussion,” Seltzer said of drafting social media guidelines. “I do. But coaches reaching out to students or a student’s parents might be a little different than just ‘liking.’”

Burke was suspended after she sent a direct message to the parents of a basketball player after they followed her on Twitter. The message praised their daughter’s athleticism and offered to talk with them about Shady Side Academy.

South Fayette’s administration provided a copy of that message to the WPIAL. Seltzer said recruiting allegations with evidence “have more teeth.”

“Emails. Text messages. Instagram. Facebook quotes. People say a lot of stuff on social media that they don’t think is going to get out there,” Seltzer said. “But it gets out there.”

‘We were all surprised’

District 12 vice chairman Joe Sette said his committee will hold a hearing in August to investigate the comments of O’Hanlon, the new Cardinal O’Hara coach.

Sette said he couldn’t recall the last time District 12 suspended a coach for recruiting, but he emphasized that his district “has always been supportive of the policy and bylaws of PIAA.” He also asked to avoid any rush to judgment on O’Hanlon’s case.

O’Hara president Michael Connor didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.

In regards to the Imhotep player’s comment on TV, Sette said, “That’s your typical bravado from a kid who has the camera in front of them.”

He pointed out that the student played four years at Imhotep, so he wasn’t a newcomer.

Sette noted, however, that District 12 does have a unique challenge since almost half of the schools are charter, parochial or private schools. He said there are about 25 charter schools alone in District 12.

“I can’t speak for the other 11 (PIAA) districts, but I don’t know if they have such a different grouping of schools,” said Sette, a former athletic director at Archbishop Wood. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we give schools a pass on any of the policies, but it’s just that is comes at us from so many different types of schools.”

Sette said his phone “blew up within hours” of O’Hanlon’s comments appearing in the newspaper. The PIAA office soon heard about the story, too.

“We all were surprised by it,” Lombardi said. “But with coach being at Lafayette for the last, what, 30 years, he certainly speaks from the college ranks. He got a primer real fast on PIAA rules, and what you can say and what you can’t say, and what you can’t do.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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