Steve Pinsoneault, who coached the Frenchtown football team to the 2009 Class A state title, has been fired.
But that's not what upsets him most.
Pinsoneault said the Frenchtown school board ignored the recommendation of school administrators at its monthly meeting on Dec. 20 and voted against rehiring the 23-year coaching veteran. Pinsoneault thinks the board continues to take overzealous action against coaches and administrators, while listening to "the vocal minority."
"The climate has been so negative out there," said Pinsoneault during a face-to-face interview earlier this week. "My biggest motivation is to turn that around."
The school board, however, believes a coaching change was necessary and it was within its right to make one.
"The school board has the authority to decide if coaches should have another contract year. Some of the coaches were given another contract year and some were not, and Mr. Pinsoneault was one of those," said Stella Van Loh, the school board's chairwoman. "The board felt we needed to go in another direction. Mr. Pinsoneault is a very qualified coach. He's done an excellent job in the past. It's just a matter of the board wanting to go in another direction."
Pinsoneault is worried about which direction that may be. He believes the board is being swayed by disgruntled parents instead of siding with school administrators.
"All it takes at one of those board meetings is for one person from the public to stand up and say they have a problem with the nomination of this coach," said Pinsoneault, who's been on hand for his last two rehiring sessions. "This year we knew there was going to be some (nay-sayers). I was even kind of counseled by my superintendent. He told me going into the meeting that he didn't think I was going to make it."
"Then you wonder, ‘How do you know this?' The board must be doing some sort of talking outside the confines of the board meeting, which the last time I checked was inappropriate and unethical. But he did give me the heads up."
Van Loh insists the decision to let Pinsoneault go was not made before hand, although she did say board members gather information on their own outside of the public meetings.
"We get phone calls. People talk to me in the store in town or at the post office. I'm a member of the senior citizens center. We're a small community you know," she said. "You get input from the community throughout the year."
Pinsoneault is not convinced. He was approved for rehire last year by a 6-1 vote, but in December that vote was reversed, 1-6, with two new board members weighing in and three who'd changed their mind. Even more curious, Pinsoneault said, was their reaction when his name was called for rehire.
"Nobody was even going to second the motion," he said, "until I spoke out of turn."
Finally, one school board member seconded the rehire motion, whereupon the board voted it down.
"That really took the wind out of my sails," Pinsoneault said. "That indicated to me that they had been talking outside of the meeting and it was a done deal."
Perhaps worse yet, Pinsoneault said, was watching the board interrogate Frenchtown athletic director Nate Fry on how he makes his recommendations.
"I would go so far as to say it was institutionalized bullying," Pinsoneault said. "(Fry) has been nothing but supportive - and on up the chain - but I don't know if I felt worse for myself or for him, because here they have paid experts in education that they are totally disregarding and devaluing their opinions and recommendations. He was really attacked that night as well."
Fry, who's in his seventh season as A.D., deferred all questions to Frenchtown superintendent Randy Cline.
"As much as I'd like to tell you my feelings, I can't," Fry said. "I will say that I've had a wonderful experience with Steve and I wish him all the best."
Cline doesn't think the board over-stepped its bounds.
"They're changing some things, but I don't think they're exceeding their authority," he said. "One of the things they do is hire and fire. ... Every coach is on a one-year contract, so they have to act within those parameters. I don't see any problems."
When asked about the perceived "negativity" at these meetings, Cline declined comment.
"I don't have any comment on that," he said. "Obviously the board decided to make a change. That's in their authority to do so. Several people commented on Steve, both pro and con, at the meeting. When the final vote was taken it was against Steve. We obviously appreciate Steve and all he's done for the District."
Pinsoneault, who assumed the head coaching position after legendary coach Tim Racicot retired, believes the administrators have been supportive of him, but they don't want to cross the school board in fear of getting fired.
"Granted, that's their prerogative as board members, but they're acting as ad-hoc administrators," Pinsoneault said. "Realistically, I think our administrators are walking on eggshells. They have to be approved every year as well, but (with them) we're not just talking about a coaching stipend. We're talking about their whole livelihood."
The Frenchtown football team went 1-7 this past season and missed the playoffs, the worst showing by the program since moving up to the Class A level in 2003. Still, Pinsoneault doesn't feel that's reason enough to be let go.
"I've always felt that unless there's negligence, dereliction of duty (or) abuse of players that you don't, on the high school level, start firing coaches and you certainly don't start doing it because of wins and losses primarily," he said. "Every head coach at the high school level wants to be competitive - we were former athletes -but we wanna do it the right way.
"It shouldn't be about that. We do so much more than just wins and losses."
Pinsoneault guided the Broncs to the playoffs in each of his six previous seasons, including three state championship game appearances. Frenchtown played in back-to-back title games in 2005 and '06 - falling to Dillon both times - in Pinsoneault's first two seasons at the helm, before winning a championship in '09. The Broncs beat Billings Central 28-6 to cap an 11-1 campaign.
Pinsoneault went 48-26 in his seven seasons at Frenchtown and was 70-39 overall as a head coach in Montana.
"We understand that Mr. Pinsoneault is an excellent coach and had an excellent record," Van Loh said. "The reason behind not renewing his contract was the board felt that as a school and as a program we needed to go in a different direction."
The school is currently interviewing candidates for the head coaching position and will likely recommend one to the board for a vote at its next meeting on Feb. 21. Cline said in-district candidates must be considered first based on their collective bargaining agreement.