GREENWICH — Just hours before Greenwich High rugby coach Joe Kelly received a lifetime achievement award at a ceremony Tuesday for guiding the team to nine consecutive state championships, he received an email from the town’s human resources department notifying him he had been suspended.
On Thursday, he was scheduled to honor his team for winning the 2018 state championship, its 11th overall, at the Board of Education’s monthly meeting. But he was told not to come.
Instead, his wife Jill, many rugby parents, a former captain and current rugby players took turns defending the coach during the meeting’s public comment period. Teammates stood to applaud after each speaker finished.
“This week, the rugby program was verbally threatened at the (post-season) banquet to be taken down by a parent in our town,” said Jill Kelly. “I’m shocked by the lack of support these talented coaches are receiving from the school with the suspension they have received.”
Team assistant coaches also were suspended.
A source in the school system and another connected to town government said the suspension had to do with a student drinking at an away tournament and a parent complaint.
On Friday morning, Joe Kelly confirmed the suspension to Greenwich Time, and that a student broke the behavioral code of conduct, but he would not say which part of the code the athlete breached. Kelly said it happened during the rugby team’s appearance May 17-19 at the Boys High School Rugby National Championships in Kansas City, Mo.
Kelly said he and his assistant coaches acted quickly when they learned of the incident and suspended the athlete for two weeks, which was the remainder of the season. They also immediately reported the matter to Greenwich High School Athletic Director Gus Lindine, he said.
The father of the suspended student-athlete was unhappy with the discipline of his son, Kelly said, and vowed to “take down the program.”
Kelly said he heard nothing further about the matter until Tuesday — when he was suspended hours before being presented with the 2018 Coach’s Lifetime Achievement Award by the Greenwich Old Timers Athletic Association. He was informed by email that he was suspended pending an investigation into the activities during the national championships.
“I was shocked and annoyed when I heard about all of this,” Kelly said. “We have put so much hard work into the rugby program, and we have done a lot to help the student-athletes. We have received an overwhelming amount of support from the community – our phone is ringing off the hook with support from the community, including local politicians.”
The coach said he wished more support was forthcoming from school officials.
“I would like to see a procedure put in place that comes into play when something like this happens, where — when there is a misguided attack on a teacher or coach — the school makes you feel like they are there for you and have your back,” he said.
Lindine said he couldn’t comment on the suspension.
Director of Communications for Greenwich Public Schools Kim Eves said the administration couldn’t yet comment.
During Thursday’s school board meeting, former rugby captain and 2017 GHS graduate Alex Nanai defended his coaches, saying he still looks to them for guidance in life and in rugby.
“These coaches often put their own interests second to development of young men and women in the rugby program, and I know for a fact that any one of them would be there for advice if called upon,” said Nanai, who studies engineering and plays rugby at the University of Connecticut. “I cannot comment on the events they are being scrutinized for, but I can say in good faith that what they did was in the best interest of all students in their jurisdiction.”
Nanai said in an email Friday he decided to speak after consulting his former teammates, who agreed there should be an advocate for all that the coaches did for them. He added that the speeches represented a number of people affected by the coaching staff.
“The turnout last night was good, much of the current team was there to back the coaches and I believe their enthusiasm showed that,” he wrote.
Emilio Camou, whose son Emilio plays on the team, said players and parents are lucky to have Kelly and his staff in charge. He said he traveled with the boys to the National Rugby Championships.
“Even though the team couldn’t win the championship, the boys played really hard and competed up to the last minute,” Camou said. “Off the field, they had good wholesome fun under the full supervision of coaches and parents.”
Parent Deborah Armstrong-Loscalzo said the suspension of Joe Kelly and the coaching staff cuts off their valuable support for students.
“I fear that we are losing quality coaches due to the nonexistent support they receive in these situations,” she said. “Our rugby coaches feel that the school has turned their backs on them and they’ve been hung out to dry. I feel this is a terrible wrong and something should be done about it.”