‘A grown-up argument’: Ierulli, administration agree players are focus

Tony Ierulli celebrates a win during the 2010 season. Ierulli was dismissed from the Scots' team just two weeks ago after what he calls a battle over philosophy. The on thing the administration and Ierulli do agree on is that the players are now the focus. Photo by Brandon Shinn

After what Tony Ierulli called “a grown-up argument over philosophy,” the ninth-year head coach was dismissed from his position with the Maryville College football team two weeks ago.

This past Tuesday, Ierulli met with his team to say his good-byes, at which time he instructed them to keep going without him.

“Whoever they name as the head coach, you need to embrace them … and buy into it,” Ierulli told his players at the somber meeting. “When I first became coach here, nine years ago, I think 15 guys quit in the first two or three weeks because they didn’t buy into what we were doing. Whatever the [next] coach is going to do, buy into and believe in it. I’m sure there’s going to be great success in the future for you guys.”

Those that did buy into Ierulli’s plan saw the program grow.

The Scots were coming off a winless season before he took the position at the helm. Ierulli helped the program grow, and he finished his tenure as the third-winningest coach in the history of MC’s 118-year-old football program.

During that run, Ierulli saw his Scots finish 7-3 during the 2007-2008 campaign, giving them one of their best seasons ever.

“We had a great run,” Ierulli said. “I came to work here every day, and I considered it a privilege to be a head coach, especially at [my] alma mater. We’ve had great guys in the program, and we’ve got guys that just love to play ball. They are willing to sacrifice a heck of a lot.”

Ierulli, a member of the MC class of 1980, amassed a record of 39-51 during his nine-year career while playing in a tough USA South, in which he called Maryville the Vanderbilt of the conference.

During the 2011 season, the Scots bounced back from an 0-4 start to finish 4-2 in the final six games, a feat which Ierulli said he was proud of.

The Scots managed a great senior day, with a 42-20 win over Greensboro College, but more prominently, the team pulled off a 45-22 homecoming win over Averett.

It was the first homecoming win in seven years, but, reflecting, Ierulli said it might not have been such a good thing.

“I stayed employed losing the homecoming games, and then the one I win …” he said. “Usually coaches worry about losing homecoming. If you lose homecoming, you worry about your job. If you win, you think you job is secure. But obviously that isn’t the case.”

Although the athletic department’s decision hurt Ierulli, others were also pained by the loss of a brother.

“It’s absolutely one of the most difficult things that someone can do,” said MC athletic director Kandis Schram of the firing. “It’s a family member; it’s someone that you’ve worked with for a long time and you’ve admired. It was very tough, very difficult.”

With most of the Ierulli family’s attending MC, they are deeply tied in with the college community. Vandy Kemp, vice president and dean of students, says that those deep roots are what makes this situation difficult.

“It’s very painful,” she said. “Actually, I think that is the hardest part: that not only are they great people, but Tony did a lot of good stuff for this football program. He turned it around. It was in a bad place. Within a very few, short years, he has brought the Fighting Scots back, and they played with pride on the field.”

Ierulli said the one thing he regrets during his coaching career was that he wasn't able to keep the tragedy involving former player and coach, Cody Bowers. This is Legend's Rock, which was erected to honor all Scots: past, present and future. Photo by Chris Cannon

In the light of the recent firing, the rumor mill has begun sputtering out different issues as to why the former coach was relieved of his duties.

The athletic department has not released any details, which only adds fuel to the fire, but Schram says that giving a reason is something they don’t have to do.

“We comply with Tennessee laws,” she said. “In the state of Tennessee, you don’t have to give reason. You can separate for a lot of reasons.”

Although that is the law, it still doesn’t make it any easier. In fact, it makes it more difficult, with everyone wanting answers.

“It’s been challenging because we really can’t discuss the details of why the decision was made,” Kemp said. “It winds up being one of those cases where we’re saying, ‘Trust us. We’ve done this very carefully and thoughtfully, and we believe it is the right decision.’ For a lot of people, that’s not enough information.”

Even with the buzz of the media surrounding the firing, Ierulli had his players in mind. During the meeting on Monday night, he told them that he wanted them to stay at MC and graduate, saying that this is a good school.

“It’s all about the kids,” Ierulli said. “If you look on the press guides, you will never see a press guide with my face on it. I think there was one poster that had me on it, and I … didn’t want it on there. It’s all about the kids and the players.”

The rest of the administration agreed with Ierulli. President Tom Bogart reiterated this, saying that he takes the students into account in his decisions.

“Every decision I make as president is an attempt to be at the best interest of Maryville College, and our mission is to prepare students,” Bogart said. “Our focus is on the players and students involved. What we’re really looking to do is to find the next head coach quickly … and just to continue to make the program as strong as possible so we have great outcomes on the field and off the field for all the players and all of the students.”

The administration’s decisions have produced a search committee that is in the process of finding the next head coach of the MC football program.

Chairing that committee will be Joe Dawson (class of ‘69), who is a football alum of MC. He has also worked as a Southeastern Conference football official and an administrator at the Blount Memorial Hospital.

Also on this committee, which is comprised of six alumni, will be Jason Brooks (‘97), Smith Jean-Philippe (‘00), Scott Steele (‘90), Sharon Wood (‘83), Eric Etchison (‘88), and Dr. Terry Simpson. They hope to have a new coach in place by early February.

As of Nov 30, the athletic department had received 50 to 60 resumes. By the next day, the number had grown to over 100.

Whomever they pick, Ierulli says that new coach has gained something special.

“I want this team to win,” he said. “Whoever they choose as head coach, believe me, that person has gotten a gift. This is a team that should win seven or eight ball games next year. They are very talented. They are tough individuals.”

Schram agreed that Ierulli had done a lot in helping the program grow. With the events of the last two weeks, she hoped it would not overshadow his accomplishments.

“I don’t want the last two weeks to define [Ierulli’s] career,” Schram said. “I really don’t. I think it’s really important to celebrate what he has done, and I’ve tried to do that. But, it’s time to move on.”

Ierulli agreed with the athletic director. He said football was a lot like life.

“The most overwhelming thing about this was that I’ve had 50 to 60 of my current players calling me and talking to me over the holidays,” Ierulli said. “Yeah, I got fired, but football has taught me that, hey, you’re gonna get knocked down; you’re not going to have the breaks to your way. But, you know, I’m ready for the next play. I’m not going to let people prevent me from reaching my ultimate goal.”

As players left the room on Tuesday night, Ierulli hugged each one of them, thanking him for his contribution to the program. To those that were returning next year, he offered his final words of encouragement, wishing the Scots a hopeful future.

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