Emotions Rise for 'Ousted' East Hampton High School Coach

Jim Nicoletti, an admired former coach at East Hampton High School, said at an East Hampton School Board meeting on Tuesday that it is the third time in 18 months that a head coach has been forced out. Jack Graves photos

Tuesday night's East Hampton School Board meeting took a hostile turn after dozens of angry parents, coaches, and softball players came to demand answers from Richard Burns, the district superintendent, regarding his reasons for reportedly forcing Lou Reale, the longtime varsity softball coach, to retire.

For two hours, people at the meeting berated the board, making emotional statements about Mr. Reale's dedication, and calling for Mr. Burns to reverse the decision.

Mr. Burns said that he had been inundated with letters complaining about Mr. Reale over the past six weeks and, after meeting with students and parents, stood by his assessment.

• RELATED: Coach Reale criticized in letters written to school officials.

"I've always been an advocate for kids, but when I get information, I have to act on it," he said. "This side represents one piece of the puzzle."

Jason Biondo, a Little League coach whose daughter, Raven, is the backup catcher on the East Hampton High School softball team, waved a three-page letter he wrote in reply to Bill Fleming, a father who supposedly tried to push Mr. Reale from his position for four years following problems his daughter had under his coaching. "Mr. Fleming is on a modern-day witch hunt," said Mr. Biondo, who is also a Montauk School Board member.

When Mr. Biondo's three minutes expired, he ignored the board clerk's protests and continued speaking, receiving a raucous round of applause. He said he couldn't fathom why Mr. Reale had been forced to leave even after, he said, the athletic director, Joseph Vasile-Cozzo, called it a loss and recommended that he stay.

Jim Makrianes, whose daughter Lia is a senior outfielder on the team, said her name had been thrown around without his permission, during an investigation into Mr. Reale's coaching, as someone who had been verbally abused and hurt by Mr. Reale's tough manner.

"I think it's outrageous, and I'm very upset by it," Mr. Makrianes said, his voice rising. "I asked my daughter and she said, 'That's Lou, you deal with it.' "

Jackie Lowey, a school board member, acknowledged that the situation had been handled poorly.

A number of speakers at the meeting speculated that the decision stemmed from Mr. Reale's demanding expectations.

"I think statements were made he threw a ball at me," Molly Nolan, a former player, said, going on to explain that the combination of a forceful pitching machine and high winds shot the ball in the air. "I misjudged it. That was my fault. I should have caught it."

"There's more to this story," Mr. Burns responded following the testimonies. He refused to elaborate and had summoned a lawyer to be present at the meeting.

Abby Fleming, Mr. Fleming's wife, said her daughter had a rough time with Mr. Reale as a freshman, and she feels it is time for a change. She was one of two people in the gathering of at least 50 who expressed this opinion and sat down to a few claps.

J.P. Foster, the board's president, dismissed this idea. "We hear 'old school.' I don't care about tough. Tough is great. Life is tough. That's not the gist of my conversations." The board members said, however, that the decision is solely Mr. Burns's to make.

Several past players choked up as they recounted how Mr. Reale made them stronger people and prepared them for the harsh realities of life beyond sports.

"He was my dad away from my dad," said Devin O'Brien, who invited Mr. Reale to her wedding this past June. "If he wants to go, he shouldn't be forced out." A number of parents and past players echoed Ms. O'Brien's sentiments.

As reports surfaced regarding Mr. Burns's decision, including one on The Star's website on Sunday, speculation swirled that the athletics department wanted to change focus to participation rather than competition. The news infuriated attendees, many of whom said varsity sports should be reserved for elite athletes who earn the spot.

"Varsity athletics is not about everybody participating. This is setting a dangerous precedent," said Jim Nicoletti, an admired former coach at East Hampton High School, now retired.

"Winning feels good when you earn it," Mr. Biondo said, questioning if the new shift means never letting someone experience loss until they graduate.

Ms. Lowey said she hadn't heard of a move toward a new system and that it would continue to be a varsity program.

Mr. Nicoletti later stood up in back and demanded to know why the decision had been made, as a clear answer hadn't been given. He said this was the third time in the past 18 months that a head coach had been forced out.

"If you can just trust me. . . ." Mr. Burns replied, to sarcastic laughter from the crowd.

When the meeting ended, the crowd left en masse and only three people remained, including two reporters. Despite the late night, Ms. Lowey called for a closed-door executive session to discuss a hearing regarding Mr. Reale.

When asked later if the board might override Mr. Burns's decision, John Ryan Sr., a board member, said it was unlikely, but members might discuss the situation again in the future.

"It's a mess," he said.

Tom Cooper, the head of the recently formed East Hampton Booster Club, also spoke in favor of Coach Reale.
Sue Ann Ryan, one of Coach Reale's former players
Jim Daunt of Montauk, a longtime youth coach
Carol Hansen, whose daughter Alison Hansen played for Coach Reale from 2004 to 2008, was among his biggest supporters on Tuesday night.
Tom Bock called the situation a disgrace.
Devin O'Brien, one of the coach's former players
Emily Janis, a former player, is now an assistant field hockey coach at Lafayette College.