By Ryan Costello, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
— CHEROKEE, Okla. - The selection and hiring process of a successful, but controversial coach at Cherokee High School late last month sparked concern in the small northwestern Oklahoma community, but school officials continue to defend the move.
Also see related: DCLA coach’s past draws concerns
Chad Hutchison, who previously coached at Weatherford, Lomega, Thomas-Fay-Custer and most recently at Deer Creek-Lamont High School, was hired by a split vote during a May 23 special meeting of the Cherokee Board of Education, bringing with him years of coaching success, but also previous accusations — which Hutchison deny — of a 2009 romantic relationship with a then-18-year-old female student-athlete he coached that led to his dismissal from Thomas on the grounds of moral turpitude.
That alleged inappropriate relationship included a series of graphic text messages between Hutchison and the student, including several that were exchanged on the team bus heading to a cross country meet, in addition to purported clandestine night time meetings on a rural road.
Hutchison reiterated his denial of any impropriety on Friday, while also defending his long-standing career.
“Once anybody’s gotten to talk to me, they know what I’ve been about for almost 20 years in education, and that’s been all about students, student-athletes, and truly caring about the kids that I coached,” he said. “I’ve never wavered from that one bit, one time, in my whole career in education. If there’s ever been anything that’s been perceived in a bad light, that’s what it’s been: Perceived … I definitely understand due diligence. I have no problems answering questions, but my performance, my students’ performance, speak volumes.”
Hutchison owns an impressive record as a head coach.
He has two state championships, one in cross country while with Thomas in 2009, and another in track 2012 at DCLA. He’s coached five girls teams to the state basketball tournament, including three consecutive trips to the quarterfinals in each of his three years coaching DCLA, which hadn’t made the state bracket since 1984.
Hutchison has a 219-107 record as a basketball coach, with a 169-76 mark coaching high school girls basketball. He takes over a Cherokee program that hasn’t reached the Class A state tournament since a 1996 quarterfinal appearance. Cherokee lost in the first round of district play in 2012-13.
The special board meeting during which Hutchison’s hiring was considered came more than a week prior to the next scheduled regular session, but was posted more than 48 hours in advance. Its agenda called for the hiring of a third-grade teacher and a girls basketball coach.
However, just as Hutchison’s background has generated controversy, so too did the circumstances surrounding the Cherokee board meeting at which he was hired.
When the agenda item of hiring a new basketball coach (Hutchison) came up, the Cherokee board went into closed executive session for two hours with Hutchison present for 40 minutes, as reported by the Cherokee Messenger & Republican. After the executive session, which was held while members of the public were relegated to a hallway outside, board members voted 4-1 to hire Hutchison and adjourned, barring comment from the public in attendance.
Cherokee schools superintendent Cory Ellis said the special meeting was used to consider hiring Hutchison and not to conceal the move, but instead to expedite the process in order to finish in time for team camps — which have since been held — and to allow DCLA to start the process to replace Hutchison.
“I wasn’t trying to hide anything, it was just out of courtesy (to DCLA),” Cherokee superintendent Cory Ellis said. “If I’d have waited, then they would have had to wait. There’s nothing to hide.”
The series of events surrounding Hutchison’s hire surprised at least one veteran observer.
“I’ve reported on school board meetings for more than 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Cherokee Messenger and Republican publisher Steve Booher, referring to each of the steps of the hiring process, from the special meeting and executive session, as well as the parents’ initial protests that later faded.
School board members Ken Girty, Amber Wilhite, T.J. Allison and Kevin Jantz voted in favor of Hutchison’s hiring. Tony Hellar cast the sole vote against employing Hutchison. When contacted by the News & Eagle, Hellar declined comment as to why he was against hiring Hutchison.
Hutchison will be paid $53,000 per year working three hours per day as middle school principal, a new position at the school that holds middle school and high school in the same facility. An opening for that position was not listed as an item for consideration on the special meeting’s agenda. As in his previous posts, Hutchison also will coach high school girls track and cross country, and will also coach girls basketball, track and cross country at the elementary and middle school levels. He will receive an additional stipend for his coaching duties, which hasn’t been determined.
Cherokee schools superintendent Cory Ellis explained Hutchison was recruited mostly for his role as a coach, and his role as middle school principal was determined later. According to Ellis, the newly created position already had been considered at the school, which has an enrollment of 365, to alleviate the workload of high school principal Jeremy Hickman.
“The high school principal was dealing with discipline 90 percent of his day,” Ellis said. “He was just being a manager, not really an instructional leader.”
Ellis said each new hire also was considered as a part-time administrator, and Hutchison’s credentials presented an opportunity. Hutchison is certified in social studies, as a secondary principal, and recently attained certification as a superintendent, and said the chance to fill an administrative position was a primary reason he left DCLA for Cherokee.
“It was a position that (revealed) itself because of his degrees,” Ellis said.
Ellis said he considered 10 applicants for the position. Two took positions elsewhere, and six others were certified only for social studies and physical education.
Two candidates were interviewed, Ellis said, and Hutchison was chosen.
“The reason (Hutchison) was hired was his successful stint at DCLA,” said Ellis, who recommended the hire. “I feel pretty adamant because of how things were handled previously and how he responded to those things and how the community responded ... For three years (at DCLA), he dealt with a stigma on him, and as an outsider watching him, it was evident that anything that was out there had been quelled by his respect and rapport with the girls (at DCLA).”
However, sandwiched between that success was Hutchison’s dismissal from Thomas on grounds of moral turpitude.
After Hutchison led Thomas to the 2009 state championship in cross country, Thomas schools superintendent Rob Royalty was informed of alleged regular meetings between Hutchison and the student on a rural stretch of road outside Thomas, with Royalty witnessing one of the after-dark gatherings in April 2009. On Nov. 23, 2009, following a pre-termination hearing, Hutchison was fired for moral turpitude, defined under Oklahoma law as conduct contrary to justice, honesty and good morals.
The student, her mother, Hutchison and Hutchison’s wife all insisted the relationship between Hutchison and the student was not inappropriate and instead characterized Hutchison as the student’s mentor or counselor. Hutchison later challenged his dismissal in district court, but District Judge David Russell found in favor of the Custer County Independent School District based on the extensive series of explicit text messages exchanged between the pair and testimony that placed the two together several times at the student’s house, where she lived alone, as well as, according to witness testimony, in the Thomas gym girls locker room with the student in a towel, and more than 80 meetings on a rural road outside Thomas.
When Thomas authorities tried to stop Hutchison after one of the meetings, they reported Hutchison continued for 6.5 miles at speeds up to 90 mph before pulling over.
Ellis said he believed the more than 3,000 text messages reviewed in district court were misconstrued by Thomas school officials to make Hutchison’s relationship with the student appear to be romantic in nature, the Messenger and Republican reported.
Around 12 parents attended the special meeting in protest of Hutchison’s hiring, but none came to the following regular session on June 3, when concerns could have been voiced to the board of education.
Some took to social media to both attack and defend the hire. However, Cherokee resident Niki Wyatt, initially one of the move’s more strident detractors, declined comment for this report and apparently has since removed her Facebook page.
“The people that were concerned initially, I don’t think are now,” Ellis said. “I think the opportunity to give him a chance is there now.”
DCLA superintendent David Zachary was a friend of Hutchison’s before hiring him as coach in 2010. Zachary staked his own career on the move, telling the News & Eagle at the time, “If anything happens, (Hutchison) will be gone, and I will be right behind him,” after making the then-controversial hire.
Zachary could not be reached for comment, but Ellis said his DCLA counterpart recommended Hutchison in talks before his Cherokee hiring and characterized his tenure in Lamont as incident free.
Hutchison indicated likewise.
“There hasn’t even been a question,” said Hutchison, a father of three. “People who’ve gotten to watch me coach, be it in track, cross country or on the basketball floor, my character has never been questioned. There’s times when you need to ... the past is water under the bridge. I, for one, won’t dwell on anything in the past, but focus on the task at hand and the relationships that are right in front of you. That’s why we’ve continued to succeed, myself, my family, and all of the students that have been underneath me.”
Ellis said he spoke with some in Thomas, but not Royalty, and was satisfied with what he heard.
“I’ve been nothing but transparent since I’ve been here, the good and the bad,” Ellis said. “Based on the credentials, he was the best candidate.”