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Head to Head
What former East High assistant basketball coach Ellefsen heard, he didn’t want to believe. What he wanted to believe his former boss, East High School head basketball coach Lowe, had said was that the team had fewer problems when they were “wider.”
“I was shocked when he said that,” Ellefsen says. “I looked at him and said, ‘Do you mean wider?’”
“‘No, whiter. We had less problems when we were whiter. Less brown,’” Ellefsen says was Lowe’s response, recalling a conversation that still makes him visibly angry months after the exchange took place.
Lowe sees Ellefsen as a disgruntled subordinate seeking to have him fired over comments he says were never brought to his attention when they allegedly happened. All this makes the exact wording of his alleged comments questionable in his mind—he remembers saying that things “were different.” He also said that he “may very well have used” the term “whiter.” That’s the term also heard by Ellefsen and Lowe’s No. 2 coach, Mike Matheson. For Ellefsen, it’s hard to justify tying student behavior—whether it means being different, or having fewer problems—to the term “whiter.”
“There’s no gray area there,” Ellefsen says.
“If he never says anything as it’s going along, it’s as if he agrees with it,” Lowe says. Ellefsen, however, says that he did complain about the remarks during the season to his supervisor, Matheson. He says he didn’t complain to Lowe directly at the time because he didn’t want the issue to become a distraction during the team’s season; that’s why he and Lord brought the concerns up at the end of the season.
Matheson can see why Ellefsen saw the “whiter” comment as a “big red flag” but believes the comment was taken out of context. He sees the issue as a clash of personalities between Ellefsen’s “blood and guts” motivational coaching style versus Lowe as being the more analytical “strategy-meister.”
“When you’re developing a staff, it’s real important that you work well together, and this was not a match made in heaven,” Matheson says.
Ellefsen worried that bringing the allegations to the administration would be “career suicide,” given that Lowe is a salaried coach, earning $84,341 a year, according to the public information Website UtahsRight.com, while Ellefsen was a paraprofessional—an assistant coach paid a meager stipend, he says, of roughly $1,100 per season. While Ellefsen had coached at Kearns-Saint Ann Catholic school for more than 19 years, he knew that he and Lord were still newcomers to the program at East.
Once he and Lord blew the whistle, however, it was game over. During a tense April 7 meeting with Lowe and East administrators about the allegations, Ellefsen says Lowe fired him in the meeting while Lord decided to walk away from the job. In an e-mail Lowe sent to Ellefsen the next day, Lowe confirmed that he had fired him.
“I cannot have coaches on staff who actively try to have me removed from my position,” Lowe wrote. “We are obviously not working toward the same things.”
Ellefsen says he and Lowe were working toward the same things, but says Lowe seems to operate from a different playbook. He says Lowe’s failure to connect with his players is why Lowe has coached only 40 wins out of 170 games since he became head coach in 2003, for a winning-game average of just 24 percent, according to the Deseret News’ prep sports records.
Ellefsen remembers one game in late January 2011 where the dysfunctional team dynamic became especially clear to him. The team was getting slaughtered, and it was scrub time when, with a couple minutes left on the clock and East’s Leopards down significantly, they started taking players off the floor to keep them from potentially injuring themselves. Ellefsen says when he tried to put one of Lowe’s preferred players on the floor, the player reacted heatedly, slapping Ellefsen’s hand from his shoulder and cursing at him.
The player faced no consequences for nearly shoving Ellefsen while, a week later, two Pacific Islander players who showed up late to a game practice were suspended for the next game. Lowe argued that it was a written rule to be suspended for a game if a player showed up late for practice.
“We need a written rule that if you have a physical altercation with an assistant coach, then you get suspended?” Ellefsen asks.
Ellefsen and Lord say the incident shows Lowe treats certain players differently, and Lowe does not disagree.
Lowe says that the point of discipline is to correct the problem, and because he talked with the player and it didn’t happen again, the problem was corrected. Lowe says how he would handle the issue again would depend on the player.
“It depends on what kind of relationship I have with that individual—not with a member of the team, but with that individual,” Lowe says matter-of-factly. Still, Lowe says that he does not favor players to the harm of those who are willing to work hard and that race is not a factor in his coaching. If anything, he says, East’s diversity is part of why he loves his job.
“There’s something that draws me there that I love, and I think part of that is the diversity,” Lowe says. “Sometimes, those things present some challenges.
“I have never said anything [like], ‘Boy, things sure have gone downhill,’ or, ‘Boy, I hate coaching now,’” Lowe says. “I love my job, and I love the kids that I work with. Sometimes there’s different issues that are part of … ” Lowe says with a pause, “who we are now and who we have evolved into.”
In a written statement Lowe drafted for the school administration in response to Ellefsen and Lord’s allegations, he listed some of the new issues diversity has brought such as “teenage fatherhood,” “parole officers” and a “culture that exists in some parts of this school” that doesn’t value attending school and striving in academics.
Lowe says these issues can happen to white teenagers, but that has not been his experience.
“They’re not things I’ve dealt with in the past; I’ve dealt with other issues.”
Ellefsen maintains that Lowe’s comments went too far, alleging also that Lowe said during the past season that the “black and brown kids” couldn’t handle Lowe’s program “academically.” Ellefsen put the statement in writing for East principal Paul Sagers, and it’s one that Lowe adamantly denies saying.
The administration concluded the investigation after the meeting, having determined that Lowe was not discriminatory against players on the team and that he would undergo cultural sensitivity training. Sagers says the comment about Hector dying in a gang fight was not brought to the administration and was not part of their investigation.
Matheson regrets the loss of Lord and Ellefsen.
“You don’t just find people like [Ellefsen] who have basketball experience like he does, who understand the game like he does,” Matheson says. “Both he and [Lord] had a huge value.”
Principal Sagers, however, says Ellefsen was not fired by Lowe, but it was his decision (see adjacent sidebar). Sagers says he questioned Ellefsen’s loyalty early on, saying that Ellefsen approached him during his first season to suggest he should be the head coach, not Lowe.
Ellefsen says that a meeting did take place, but that he met at Sagers’ request to speak about the program in general. He says he made a different recommendation: “I said flat out that Mike Matheson should be the head coach,” Ellefsen says.
Lord is reserved in his comments, not wanting Lowe to be labeled a bigot. He does, however, challenge East’s handling of the investigation and questionable firing of Ellefsen. “If there is an issue of preferential treatment or bias, it should really be known and stated,” Lord says, “especially since the school and the district didn’t seem to want to do anything about it.”
For Ellefsen, Lord and Willkom, the attitude of the coach does have an effect on whether or not students try out, especially minority students. In Ellefsen’s statement he drafted to Principal Sagers on March 8, he argued that Lowe’s favoritism discourages students from trying out.
“They have to buy into the system 100 percent, and the system is broken,” Ellefsen writes in the e-mail.
The issue of Latino players on the team is one Lowe challenged in his written statement to East administration, listing nine Latino players as proof that Latinos have made his team before. But in an interview, Lowe acknowledges that only two of the players listed have actually played as starters on Lowe’s varsity and junior-varsity teams.