Fired Camden Catholic football coach Nick Strom said he was asked by school president Mary Whipkey during his first season in 2014 to “get more white players on the field” to help the team better connect with the alumni.
Strom confirmed Monday that he has been dismissed as Camden Catholic’s football and golf coach and has been placed on paid administrative leave from his position as a history teacher at the school.
He said he believed he was fired because “the direction of the program” included attracting and featuring black players as well as white athletes.
“I was raised not to see race,” said Strom, who grew up in Palmyra. “I tried to build this program by bringing in players based on their ability, grades and character.
“To be told in my first year that she hoped I could get more white players on the field because they would connect with the alumni base, that was very confusing to me.”
Earlier Monday, Whipkey denied that the racial makeup of Strom’s team was a factor in the decision to dismiss the coach, who has one of the top winning percentages in South Jersey history.
Strom’s teams were 34-6 in his four seasons, including a 34-2 mark against South Jersey opponents.
“We embrace our diversity at Camden Catholic,” Whipkey said. “It makes us special. The things that he said, nothing like that was ever discussed.”
Whipkey said that on occasion she held discussions with Strom, who was active in attracting top eighth-grade players to the school, about the racial identity of incoming student-athletes.
“I’m not saying we didn’t have discussions about who was coming in,” Whipkey said. “I am saying that it is not true that that was ever a negative discussion. That was never done in a negative context.”
Strom said those discussions were proof of the administration’s discomfort with his efforts to attract black student athletes to the school.
“What other context is there?” Strom said. “What difference does it make whether a student is African American? Why would the school president even ask about that, even care about that?
“If I’m asking about the applications and admissions status of an eighth-grade student, why would she even ask about the race of the student? Why would that matter?”
The Diocese of Camden, which oversees Camden Catholic, issued a statement from the school Monday afternoon criticizing Strom for mentioning the racial makeup of his team as a reason for his dismissal.
“We do not comment on personnel matters but it has come to our attention that he has chosen to muddy the reasons for his dismissal with baseless accusations against the school and administration,” the statement read. “Any concern about racism or racial insensitivity is taken seriously and investigated fully.”
Spokesman Mike Walsh said the diocese’s office of schools would review the situation in light of Strom’s claims.
“The Diocese of Camden and the School’s Office take very seriously any and all allegations of racism,” Walsh said in an email. “By their very nature as Catholic, our schools are intended to be welcoming and nurturing to all students.”
Camden Catholic senior Marcus Hillman, a first-team all-South Jersey linebacker in the fall who has signed to play at Elon University on a football scholarship, was among the three dozen or so students who walked out of class Monday morning in protest of Strom’s dismissal.
“It’s just a shock,” Hillman said. “We were the class that came in with him. He’s done so much for all of us.”
Hillman, who is black, was especially upset over allegations that the racial makeup of the team was a factor in Strom’s dismissal.
“That’s not something you want to hear,” Hillman said. “It’s so unsettling.”
Junior cheerleaders Jade DiSanti, 17 of Pennsauken and Alexis Trainor, 16, of Edgewater Park were among the students who gathered in the auditorium Monday morning after briefly protesting outside the building on Cuthbert Boulevard in Cherry Hill.
Some parents also protested outside the school, holding up signs that read “Honk for Strom” at the start of the school day.
“Strom has done so much for us as cheerleaders,” Trainor said. “The players were so close to him. They are heartbroken.”
Said DiSanti: “He had to be one of the most positive people at the school.”
George LeCato, 16, of Pennsauken is a junior who serves as the Camden Catholic football team’s operations director or student manager. He also walked out of class Monday.
“It’s such an emotional time,” LeCato said. “We’re trying to rally for what is right, and him being dismissed as the football coach is not right.”
Former Camden Catholic football and basketball star Jamal Parker, who is finishing his sophomore year at Kent State, where he is a starting defensive back for the football team, said he believed there was something to the racial aspect of Strom’s dismissal.
“Why else would they get rid of him?” Parker said. “Because he wasn’t wearing a tie? You can fix that. Because he let kids out of class after they were finished their work? I had like five teachers there that used to do that.”
Strom supplied the Inquirer with a copy of the letter he received from Whipkey on Friday, indicating that the school would not renew his teaching contract for the 2018-19 school year.
In the letter, Whipkey mentioned “recent events” had led to her decision, including:
- a violation of the dress code;
- disrespect to the president after being questioned on your professional dress;
- leaving class early at the end of the day to prepare for golf;
- leaving your class and not providing instruction while talking to a college coach;
- Confronting a faculty member in front of students;
- Allowing students to leave your classroom in the middle of instruction and hang out in other areas of the school.
The 30-year-old Strom, a former quarterback at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre who has been a teacher at the school since 2015, also provided copies of his positive teacher reviews.
“I can’t discuss personnel matters,” Whipkey said when asked about the reasons for Strom’s dismissal.
Whipkey said she was “very impressed” with Strom’s work on the football field. “I’ve told him that,” she said.
Strom’s teams were known for their fast-paced style of play. The Irish were a high-scoring team that featured a no-huddle spread offense.
The Irish went 8-2, 9-1, 9-1, and 8-2 in Strom’s four seasons. They averaged 34.8 points and scored fewer than 25 points just four times in 40 games under the young, energetic coach.
The 2018 Irish projected as perhaps Strom’s best team. Camden Catholic is scheduled to open the season Aug. 31 at home against Rancocas Valley.
Strom indicated that he planned to remain in the game.
“I love the sport,” Strom said. “I love the opportunity to help young people develop into better people, not just better football players.”