The freshman basketball team at W.T. Woodson High School had masks made up last spring to demonstrate the dramatic expressions made by their coach, Derrick Pearson. Pearson also coached baseball and football at the school, but now is uncertain of his future there. (courtesy Derrick Pearson)

Derrick Pearson was both a popular and successful assistant coach in three sports at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, with a wealth of experience in both the amateur and professional sports world. But when he applied to be the head varsity baseball coach at Woodson last summer, an odd series of events occurred in which Pearson was hired by school Principal Jeff Yost, then unhired by county administrators, followed soon after by Yost’s abrupt retirement, effective at the end of this month. Some think the principal’s retirement was related in part to the Pearson situation, but Yost said it was not related. Here’s how it all went down:

Pearson, 52, was born and raised in Arlington, where he played varsity football, basketball and baseball at Washington-Lee High, including under longtime baseball coach Del Norwood. He began coaching youth sports in 1985 in Fairfax and Arlington counties, worked in the restaurant business and in the 1990s moved into sports broadcasting, eventually co-hosting Redskins Magazine and appearing on Sports Edge. This led to sports management opportunities after he moved to Utah in the early 2000s, where he served as general manager of teams in the Continental Basketball Association and American Basketball Association while continuing to work in broadcasting.

Derrick Pearson, in his role as general manager and president of the Utah Eagles of the Continental Basketball Association, with head coach Scott Fields. (CBA)

Pearson moved back to Northern Virginia in 2010 and ran into his old quarterback from Washington-Lee, Barry Thompson, who recruited him to help coach freshman football at Woodson. Before long, he was coaching freshman basketball and assisting the powerhouse varsity, and later he took over junior varsity baseball at Woodson. In his two seasons as J.V. baseball coach, his combined record was 24-8.

But what impressed parents and administrators was Pearson’s insistence on the players organizing and maintaining their “168s.” That’s 24 hours a day, times seven days a week. Once their days were organized by hour, they were required to attend class and present proof to their coaches that they had taken notes and received their assignments. Pearson boasts that 88 percent of his players had a 3.5 grade point average. He also required them to do good deeds, to make other people smile. This became particularly important as Woodson suffered through several student suicides.

And Pearson has a stack of emails from parents, and handwritten letters from students, expressing their thanks and admiration to him for his role as a mentor as well as coach. “I am grateful for the influence you have had on [my son] and the example you have exposed him to,” one typical e-mail from a parent to Pearson read. “Coach DP” — he is commonly known as “DP” in the halls of Woodson — “did not just coach baseball,” one parent wrote to Woodson athletic director Dan Checkosky, “all of the players became young men.”

“Coach DP is a treasure to all who know him – athletes and their families,” parent Beth Walsh told me. “Coach DP’s leadership and guidance shone through again during summer baseball camp with younger ball players.  Coach DP made an effort to include all players and make them feel special, in addition to improving their baseball skills.  We’re honored to have the assistance of Coach DP in raising our kids.”

“You turned me into a better baseball player,” went one of many letters from students, “but more importantly a better person.”

Red Jenkins, the iconic former basketball coach for 35 years at Woodson, said, “He’s one of those guys that have a real gift, the kids love him and they play hard for him. And his record would indicate he’s a real good coach.” In February, school principal Yost sent him an e-mail which said, “DP I believe you are a gift to my kids. I believe Woodson is a better place because of you.”

When Woodson’s varsity baseball coaching position opened up in June, Pearson said he was told that pitching coach Brett McColley was assured of the job and didn’t plan to apply. But he said parents urged him to throw his name in the hat, and eventually Pearson did. He was interviewed by a panel of coaches and parents, chosen by the athletic director, and the panel recommended McColley. Checkosky in turn endorsed McColley, who previously served four years as head coach at Lee High School and had a record of 16-56, and the principal, Yost, hired McColley.

Pearson coaching freshman basketball for W.T. Woodson in 2013. (courtesy Derrick Pearson)

By now, Pearson wanted the job. Many parents supported his application and Pearson said he and the parents both contacted Yost shortly after his decision was made, asking him to reconsider. And, according to Pearson and Jenkins, Yost changed his mind. He removed McColley and installed Pearson as varsity baseball coach.

“He called me in,” Pearson said of the principal, “and said he knows there’ll be bounce back, but he’s willing to accept it because this is the right thing to do for our kids.” Pearson showed a text message from Yost which said he had “just sent [Checosky] an email reminding him that DP is my choice and I expect his support.”

And for the month of July and much of August, Pearson was the varsity baseball coach at Woodson, running their annual summer baseball clinics. But, Pearson said, McColley filed a grievance against Yost. The principal had selected him for the job, then had taken it away. And then in mid-August, after the school district investigated, they reinstated McColley as the head baseball coach. Pearson was out.

“They informed me,” Pearson said, “that because of the pressure I put on Yost, it caused him to change his mind.”

Pearson was “disappointed, because I was never interviewed by the people making the decision, to ask me what my conversations were like.” He said none of the coaching candidates were interviewed by county administrators before Yost’s decision was reversed.

Then on August 18, Yost announced in a letter to parents that he was retiring “with mixed emotions” soon after the school year’s launch. Coming closely in time after being overruled on his choice of baseball coach at Woodson, Pearson felt it was “an odd coincidence.” He said the principal’s emails and text messages were investigated by the school district, even though Yost had not been pressured by the administration after the spate of student suicides. “Then all of a sudden this happens immediately,” Pearson said. “And he can’t speak about it.”

Yost was effusive in praising Pearson, though he declined to discuss the baseball coach episode. But Yost was clear that the Pearson situation did not play a role in his decision to retire, effective at the end of this month. He said at age 55, with 30 years in the Fairfax school district, he was ready for a new challenge, and still needs to pay for college for two of his kids. He said Pearson “brings a kind of charisma and intensity that the kids want to be around…the way he pulls kids together, when things go wrong with a student, he sees it happening and he’s involved. If I could run my own school, I would definitely want DP to be part of the program.”

Checosky and McColley declined to comment, referring questions to school district administrators. Assistant Superintendent Frances Ivey said the baseball coach hiring process was “a personnel matter, so the details associated with the process we cannot discuss.  We had several good candidates, and after a thorough hiring process, we are pleased to have Mr. McColley as the Woodson High School baseball coach.”

Ivey added in an e-mail, “We are very appreciative of Jeff Yost and his many years of service at Woodson High School.  Mr. Yost’s decision to retire should be respected.  We thank him and congratulate him for his many years of dedicated service to FCPS.”

Jenkins, who has seen his share of coaches and principals come and go at Woodson, said “the county, in a sense, cut his [Yost’s] legs out from under him, by overruling his decision. That may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Doug Craig, the varsity basketball coach at Woodson, said, “DP’s a great guy. He did a really great job. Kids love him, he’s got a very good rapport with young people and he got them to buy in with what he wants them to do. I’ve never gotten any complaints from parents, I think they all know his heart is always in the right place with the kids.”

Barry Thompson, Woodson’s quarterbacks coach and the head of Fairfax youth football, recruited Pearson to Woodson. He said Pearson “focused on the important things that help a young person have the opportunity to be the best version of themselves.” He added, “sometimes it appears that the things that people outside of Woodson would run to, for whatever reason in Woodson they run away from.”

Pearson is not coaching football this fall. He said he may help Craig coach basketball, and he hasn’t decided about returning to baseball. “At this point, it’s a heavy weight,” he said of returning to Woodson. He said he had received job offers from other schools for both J.V. and varsity spots. “I was going to stay because these are my guys,” Pearson said. “I wanted to coach these guys. It’s not about the money. I lifted them up.”

Pearson leads his Woodson junior varsity baseball team on to the field last spring. He applied for the varsity baseball coaching job, was hired by the school principal, then un-hired by the school district. (Elaine Harrelson)