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Former Montezuma-Cortez baseball coaches share shock after losing jobs

The former coaches of the Montezuma-Cortez High School baseball team, from left: Les Likes, Jeff McDonnell, Josh Cornett and Tim Passell. (Tim Passell/Courtesy photo)
District says firings were necessary because of allegations

Two Montezuma-Cortez High School baseball coaches were fired in mid-April, and two others resigned after a “thorough investigation” by the RE-1 District and Athletic Director Colton Trosclair, according to the district.

Former head coach Tim Passell said he received a “very vague” text from Trosclair about 10:17 p.m. on April 16 informing him that he would no longer be the school’s baseball coach.

The Journal did not receive a response from Trosclair after multiple requests for comment.

Superintendent Tom Burris told The Journal he couldn’t comment in depth because it was a personnel matter.

“I’m really not at liberty to speak on this,” Burris said. “We did a very thorough investigation. We didn’t talk to everyone we could have, but we talked to a majority, and we have a conclusion.”

For Passell, who said the sport of baseball and coaching baseball were his biggest life passions, the news was devastating.

“My real passion is baseball. That’s what I’ve been doing every year of my adult life, coaching that at some level,” Passell said.

Passell has coached at various levels for more than 30 years. For nine years, he coached at Montezuma-Cortez, eight of them as head coach. He also was part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes before the club was removed from the school last year.

In the past few years, the team has been going to state and beginning to see more and more improvement.

“Every year we’ve gotten better and better, and then last year was our best year ever for the high school in the team’s existence. It was a very fun ride, and it didn’t happen overnight,” Passell said.

According to Passell and former assistant coach Josh Cornett, the coaches had met with the district after learning that some of their players might have smoked marijuana on a recent team trip to Glenwood Springs. Some of the players went through drug testing at the discretion of their parents. The firings came not long after.

“We went to a tournament in Glenwood Springs, and there were some allegations that some of the students were smoking pot. We took that very seriously. We went and met with the principal and the AD at the school and told them what the allegations were, and the AD said they were going to do some further investigating. Then the next thing you know, I’m getting fired over text,” Passell said.

“We were also told there is nothing that can be done because no names where specified and disciplinary actions with no evidence or proof of wrongdoing is unjust and unlawful,” Cornett added in a letter to the district.

“I love coaching baseball. It is one of my biggest passions,” Cornett said. “I am hurt and saddened by the lack of support I have received from this administration and in fact, I didn’t receive any support. I was put up for termination.”

The coaches shared that some of the allegations included mishandling of team funds and that the coaches rather than the students were the ones smoking marijuana. Others said the players weren’t being properly fed on trips.

Les Likes, one of the assistant coaches who resigned after Cornett and Passell were fired, told The Journal that at first, Principal Jennifer Boniface and Athletic Director Trosclair didn’t want to meet with him.

“They didn’t want to meet with me,” Likes said. “They told me that my name was never brought up in it and they wanted to keep me out of it, but I’m right in the middle of it.”

Likes said the allegations against Passell and Cornett were untrue.

“They are all untrue,” Likes said. “I have been on that baseball field every game and every practice. I haven’t missed one game or one practice, and I’ve seen everything that goes on that field, everything that goes on in the dugout and everything that goes on in out-of-town trips, the bus rides, everything. It was a bunch of false accusations.”

“They never did figure out the truth. The one about coaches smoking marijuana with kids around was the one that really got me. It tore me up because it was totally untrue,” Likes said.

Passell said that he was never in charge of the money raised during the team’s fundraiser, that the money was handled by a player’s parents. Three other parents donated money for a new mound tarp, and Passell said that after the tarp was purchased, he provided them with the receipts the week the money was given to him.

Likes added that students “always had access to food.”

“I believe these (firings) were handled poorly and unjust. All of the false and untrue allegations that the school officials acted poorly on have left myself with no choice but to resign,” Likes said in a letter to the district.

Volunteer coach Jeff McDonnell resigned the same day as Likes.

Though the district said a thorough investigation was done, Passell said they didn’t talk to everyone on the team.

“There are so many parents that were never contacted or asked anything before they fired me,” Passell said. “I don’t think they talked to any students.”

Cornett was let go during a phone call, and Passell said the loss of Cornett was one of the biggest hits to the program.

“He’s one of the biggest casualties,” Passell said. “He’s one of the best coaches in the Four Corners area. He really loves the game, and he loves the kids. I was mentoring him to be the high school coach for the future. We’ve spent months together, starting indoors, getting to know these kids and working together to be a true team that loves each other, and I just feel really bad for the players.”

Despite not hearing from the district for multiple days, Passell said that he and Cornett have received letters of termination as of Friday. According to his contract, Passell said he was supposed to be given a two weeks’ notice.

Although the termination letter cited improper coach conduct while traveling with the team in Glenwood Springs, the letter did not specify what the conduct was.

Now, the junior varsity team is being coached by Christopher Hernandez, who was an assistant coach before Passell was fired, and new head coach Jake Huff. Hernandez didn’t respond to The Journal’s request for comment.

Despite not coaching the team anymore, Passell said he and the other former coaches attended the last game to continue showing their support for the players.

“All three of us coaches went and watched their last game, and it was very sad,” Passell said. “One of the hardest games I’ve ever watched, watching the players you love, but I’m going to keep going and supporting the kids.”

“It hurt them worse than anybody,” Likes said of the students. “The allegations toward those two coaches were so untrue and unfair, and I had to resign.”

Passell and the other coaches, along with family and community members, attended the District Accountability Committee meeting in April to speak to the district, but Passell said other than DAC member Monica Plewe, “they barely even listened.”

“Spending over 10 years coaching in this community has been very rewarding; I have gotten to know a lot of outstanding people,” Passell said. “I have had to do candlelight vigils for players fighting for their lives, do funerals for players who lives were taken way too soon. Travis Beeson, Logan Birch.”

“This last week, having so many players, their parents, grandparents reach out to share how important our lives together are meant for each other has meant the world to me. I thank God I have had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people through baseball,” he said. “Thank you to everyone who has continued to reach out. Hopefully the truth will prevail.”

Burris said that Trosclair did talk to both coaches face to face after the firings.

“We want athletes to represent our community well, and we want our schools represented well. That’s what’s important to us,” Burris said. “The reasons were significant, but I can’t tell you exactly what those reasons were.”

Passell filed a grievance to district lawyer Brad Miller on April 23.

“The position involved is a purely at-will engagement and there is no legal basis for a claim of due process violation,” part of Miller’s response said. “This is a non-punitive termination and there is no evidence presented in your complaint of any specific statement by any of the named individuals which may be construed as ‘defamation.’ You did not have a property right to this position. Accordingly, there was no requirement that termination only could occur because of an allegation or a violation of policy.”

Miller also told Passell he had 10 days to write an appeal to the school board.