FAYE: West Orange board meeting highlights ugly side of coaching hires – Beaumont Enterprise

Hiawatha Hickman worked 22 years for his moment on Monday night.

The West Orange-Cove school board meeting was supposed to be the culmination of Hickman’s long coaching career as an assistant. With his family by his side, Hickman was ready for his time to shine.

“It was something I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” Hickman said. “I’ve prepared myself for this over a 22-year career.”

Hickman eventually had his moment, narrowly being approved as the Mustangs next head coach. However, not before the WO-S board meeting turned nasty with drama completely outside of Hickman’s control.

Members of the WO-S coaching search committee stole the show with public comments, demeaning the hiring process and putting the school board on blast for a “lack of transparency.” Strongly-worded statements from prominent WO-S supporters, including the mayor of Orange, sucked the air out of the room as Hickman could only sit and listen.

Whether or not the committee members’ concerns were valid — and they very well may be — Hickman didn’t deserve what happened to him on Monday night. He was caught in the middle of the political side of high school sports, highlighting just how ugly coaching hires can get.

As I listened to the committee members voice their displeasure, I felt a mix of emotions. First and foremost, I felt bad for Hickman, who didn’t react much during all the drama.

Secondly, I couldn’t help but wonder how we got to this point? How did the school board and the superintendent let this happen?

So let’s examine exactly what the dispute is.

The main problem many committee members had was not with Hickman, but the hiring process as a whole.

They felt as if the search committee was a scam, and that superintendent Rickie Harris had selected Hickman without allowing the process to play out.

“I’m not trying to pick nobody over nobody,” said Orange Mayor Larry Spears, who was on the committee. “Our job was to give names to be interviewed, and that’s what we were there for.”

However, many felt as if that didn’t happen. While Spears didn’t drop names, other committee members voiced their support for a specific candidate.

Toby Foreman’s name was mentioned 13 times during public comments on Monday night. Foreman was a former offensive assistant at WO-S, head coach at Beaumont Central and the current head coach at Shoemaker High School.

Search committee members confirmed that Foreman did apply for the WO-S job, and members were told not to consider Foreman as a serious candidate.

After roughly 45 minutes of public comments calling the hiring process into question, the school board went into a closed session to discuss their decision.

It was the longest closed session I’ve ever sat through, and one of the most awkward, too. On one side of the room, you had Hickman, his family and his supporters. On the other side, you had a group of people who had just spent the last 45 minutes telling the board not to hire Hickman.

After two hours, the board came back with their call. What was discussed during that closed session remains a mystery. If Hickman was the guy all along, what took so long back there? Did the public comments put some doubt into the board members’ minds?

Whatever was discussed, the board came back with a narrow decision, approving Hickman’s hiring by a 4-2 vote.

Gina Yeaman, Ruth Hancock, Linda Platt-Bryant, and Demetrius Hunter voted for Hickman, while Tricia Stroud and Tommy Wilson voted against. Board member Roderick Robertson did not attend, but his vote would not have made a difference either way.

Superintendent Harris didn’t seem fazed afterward by the wild board meeting. He celebrated with Hickman and other board members, posing for pictures and shaking hands.

“The district is focused on putting the right people in the right places to best serve our students,” Harris said. “Hiawatha Hickman will be an outstanding leader for our athletic department. Our goal is to replace a legend, coach (Cornel) Thompson, with someone who has high character, is respectful, and can serve as an excellent role model for all students. Hickman checks all those boxes.”

Hickman seemed ready to put all of Monday night’s controversy behind him. From Feb. 7 to June 30, Hickman will transition from assistant principal at WO-S to active athletic director in the absence of Thompson, who retired in December.

Beginning on July 1, Hickman will officially become the full-time football coach and athletic director. He takes over a Mustangs football team that appeared in the Class 4A-II state quarterfinals last season, and has a tradition of winning titles.

Despite all the drama on Monday night, Hickman seems to me like a strong candidate for the job. He’s learned under Thompson as a defensive line coach for six seasons, and spent the decade prior as Silsbee’s defensive coordinator.

He’ll certainly have to prove his naysayers wrong, with WO-S having extremely high expectations every year.

When asked for his response to the public comments against his hiring, Hickman didn’t burn any bridges or take the opportunity to make enemies. He told the Enterprise he understood people’s passion for the process and hoped they would give him a chance moving forward.

Hickman’s comments sounded like a leader worthy of taking over such a prominent job.

However, I think the one of the most prudent comments on Hickman’s situation actually came from one of his naysayers, Larnell Thomas, a WO-S graduate and former star athlete at the school.

“It is what it is. What’s done is done,” Thomas said. “So now, we have to support this man (Hickman). We’re all ‘Stangs, so let’s support him.”




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