Tempers flare at Camden Catholic High School over the direction of the school and its football program, as former football coach Nick Strom and school president Mary Whipkey trade accusations about racism and teaching protocol, but other Catholic school coaches and administrators say they sympathize with both sides and understand how such conflicts can arise.
“The dynamic is so difficult,” said Rick Mauriello, a longtime assistant football coach at St. Joseph of Hammonton. “You go through it every year. There is always going to be that dynamic between the team and the school over who you are bringing in to represent the school. That’s normal.”
What is not normal is for the situation to grow so toxic. On Monday, Strom, also a history teacher and golf coach at Camden Catholic, was placed on paid administrative leave for the rest of the school year and relieved as coach of both sports.
Strom, 34-6 in his four seasons as football coach, said Monday he was told his contract was not renewed because of, among other things, dress code violations, leaving class early and confronting another faculty member.
For his part, he accused Whipkey of asking him in 2014 to “get more white players on the field” to help the team better connect with the alumni. He said Monday that he was fired because the direction of the program included attracting and featuring black players as well as white ones.
That led to students walking out of school and parents protesting with them Monday in support of the coach.
Whipkey denied that the race of the players had any role in her issues with Strom but would not discuss his employment specifics.
“There was never a negative discussion” about incoming students, Whipkey said Monday.
Mauriello, of St. Joseph, and Eastern head football coach John Doherty, who spent 13 seasons as the head coach at Paul VI, said such differing views of the same situation are not so rare.
“If you’re a private school and having a lot of success in one or more sports, a lot of people are going to be keeping a close eye on how you run things,” said Joe Sette, the athletic director at Archbishop Wood High in Warminster.
Strom said he tried to attract students to Camden Catholic based on criteria that included their football ability, academic potential and character.
Mauriello and Doherty said it would be natural for Strom to push hard for the continued advancement of his program, for better facilities, for more qualified athletes.
It also would be natural for Whipkey, they said, to step back and look at the big picture, to listen to alumni, parents and faculty, and to question what steps Camden Catholic wanted to take to make sure every sports program aligned with the school’s mission.
“We view athletics as only one part of the equation when it comes to drawing students,” Sette said of Archbishop Wood.
John Petruzzelli, the principal at St. Joseph’s Prep, said his school wants to be known first for its academics.
“We have to bring in the type of student-athletes who can handle the academic course load,” he said. “That’s our priority.”
Mauriello, who has been an assistant coach at St. Joseph for more than 20 years, said this kind of tension between a school’s administrative mission and its sports teams helped him improve at identifying athletes who will flourish at St. Joseph.
Doherty, the Eastern coach who worked for years at Paul VI, said the Paul VI administration was “fantastic” when it came to expressing concerns about the students he sought to enroll.
“We stuck to our [academic] standards,” Doherty said. “If we brought in a kid that maybe was borderline [academically], we’d try to make sure he was set up for success, not failure, with extra help and support.
“But it doesn’t always work. There’s no magic to it.”
At Roman Catholic High School, head football coach Jim Murphy said, “There is no tension between the folks in the enrollment department and the coaches.”
Communication and common goals, he said, are the key.
“We’re all on the same page,” he said.