More than 50 Anacostia High School football players refused to practice yesterday to protest the firing of head coach Thomas (Mule) Johnson.
"He's a good coach and was totally dedicated to us," said team captain Kevin Patterson. "We think he got a bad break. We need a coach like Mr. Johnson. He worked hard and we didn't mind breaking our backs for him."
After a 20-minute meeting with scholl officials the players went to practice.
Johnson's firing this summer was the latest in a series of coach-administration struggles at the southeast Washington school. Against this background of disruption, Anacostia's football program, once one of the best in. The area, has fallen into disarray and confusion.
Johnson, an elementary school physical education teacher for the past 13 years, took over the coaching job after Steve Powell's dismissal in June, 1976. Powell, who a year earlier succeeded the popular, successful Wyman Colona (six titles in nine years), was not rehired after school funds were found to be missing. No charges were file but principal Russell Lombardy was forced to stop for another coach.
Since Johnson had been an assistant coach at Anacostia for the past seven years and was highly recommended by other members of the faculty, Lombardy gave him the job.
Under first Powell and then Johnson, Anacostia posted 6-4 records the past two seasons.
Hiring Johnson "was the first time we've ever gone outside the building for a coach," said Lombardy, who has been a teacher, assistant principal and principal at Anacostia for 20 years. "I prefer my coaches in the building. He wasn't here when he was needed."
Lombardy also said that Johnson alienated the other coaches and that they refused to work with him. Lombardy said Johnson refused to cooperate with the media and college coaches. Norman James, also a former Anacostia player and Virginia State graduate, was added to the faculty in September, 1976, and became Johnson's only assistant.
"I think he felt I was a threat to his job," said James, who was heir apparent to Johnson's job but decided to join the Howard University coaching staff instead. "Johnson's a good person but our relations became a bit strained on coaching techniques and strategies. It was poor management."
Johnson conducted spring practice before Lombardy informed him he was being relieved.
"He has students out there coaching students. What happens when one of them gets hurt? We'll have a lawsuit on our hands," said Lombardy.
Last month, Johnson took his complaint to the Washington Teachers Union, which in turn filed a grievance with the school system. According to union spokesman Harold Fisher, the Labor Relations Board of the D.C. Public Schools ruled last week in favor of Lombardy and allowed Johnson's dismissal to stand.
Johnson, reached at home, declined comment but did say he planned to "take the matter to arbitration."
"As far as the union is concerned, we plan to back him as far he wants to go," said Fisher. "He was qualified when they gave him the job and according to the union contract, Lombardy is in violation by firing him."
"The board used a technicality to fire Johnson," added Fisher. "And if that's the case, he (Lombardy) hired Johnson illegally in the beginning. Lombardy never advertised the vacancy either that's in the contract."
The D.C. teachers contract says that "if in any school year in a particular school, there is no qualified teacher available to conduct a specifically needed extra duty pay activity the services of a teacher of the same level from another school may be utilized after agreement between the concerned supervisor and the concerned teacher."
Fisher contends they, the board, used the "same level" phrase to declare Johnson, an elementary teacher ineligible to coach high school. Only one other Interhigh head football coach (Moe Warren-Phelps) is not in residence at his particular school. Warren is a teacher at Hamilton Junior High.
The team members, meanwhile, are in limbo.
"I'm a senior and it Johnson doesn't come back, I'll have had three coaches in three years," said Wendell Buckmon.
"We feel deserve that much respect from the administration that we can ask for an explanation. We just like to know what's going on, that's all." said Terry Williams, another senior.
The players generally agreed that Johnson earned their respect over the years with dedication, motivating speeches and his tendency to develop father-son relationship.
Alan Chin, a law teacher and former athletic director, and Charles Weaver, the present athletic director have volunteered to be coaches. Lombardy said several other male staff members will also serve in some function with the team.
After the players met briefly with Lombardy they decided to call off their boycott and resumed practice yesterday afternoon.
"We didn't know a lot of things until the meeting with principal. Now we've heard both sides," said Williams. "Coach Johnson was awful good to us but we have to deal with right now. We don't have very long to prepare for the season. We've lost one day. We have to be in condition for the coach, whoever he is."