Syracuse, N.Y. — The decision of the Skaneateles school board to not renew the contract of football coach Joe Sindoni has roots in his longstanding personality conflict with athletic director Stephen Musso, new court filings show.
The two clashed over a handful of issues, notably Musso’s view Sindoni had communication issues with the school’s administration. Last month, the district decided it would not renew Sindoni’s contract as part of the fallout of his attendance at the Turkey Bowl, a pickup game among current and former Skaneateles players on Thanksgiving at the Lakers’ field.
An affidavit filed by superintendent Eric Knuth in Onondaga County Supreme Court, as well as a counseling memo and a 2019 job review of Sindoni, were filed in response to a lawsuit from the coach seeking re-instatement to his job.
Six players who participated in the game subsequently tested positive for Covid, according to Knuth’s affidavit. Sindoni attended the game, but players involved said he did not organize or promote it.
Sindoni has coached the Lakers in two separate stints, most recently from 2015-20. Musso was hired in 2017, just before Sindoni took the Lakers to a state championship. Knuth is in his first year as Skaneateles’ superintendent.
The decision to let Sindoni go has enraged many former players and community members, who have unloaded dozens of letters of support for the popular coach who took the Lakers to the 2017 state title.
Sindoni has declined comment on the matter.
Joe Goethe, president of the Skaneateles football booster club and a supporter of Sindoni, said there has been a strained relationship between the football community and athletic department.
“Things like that happen because of a lack of leadership,” Goethe said. “Things go beyond where they should when there’s not strong leadership to handle things. Mr. Musso is a black-and-white guy. And it’s his black and white, and no one else’s. I’m not quite sure where the whole (relationship) broke down. But Mr. Musso’s actions have always been himself before the kids.”
Musso has not returned several calls seeking comment.
The abbreviated 2021 season, which was pushed back from its normal fall slot because of the coronavirus, is scheduled to start March 1.
The Turkey Bowl was organized by former Skaneateles quarterback Patrick Hackler. While Sindoni denied having anything to do with the contest, the district said his presence alone and failure to notify Knuth or Musso about it in a timely manner showed poor judgment and were grounds enough for his dismissal.
“The Plaintiff’s failure to notify me or Mr. Musso before, during or after the event placed students, staff, and their families at significant risk of contracting COVID-19. Based upon his egregiously poor judgment, I would feel that Plaintiff was unfit for reappointment as a coach even if no cases of COVID-19 were reported following the Thanksgiving break,” the affidavit read.
In Knuth’s affidavit, he said he first became aware of the game via complaints from community members. Sindoni was invited to the contest, Hackler said, to catch up with former players. Hackler said Sindoni told the players to wear masks and play touch football instead of tackle.
The affidavit said security photos showed some players were not wearing masks.
“Following the event, a picture was posted about it on social media, in which the Plaintiff was posing for a photo with the players, indicating his approval for the unauthorized and unlawful event,” the affidavit read.
Knuth said the district received notification of 38 positive cases of Covid and more than 100 quarantine orders in the weeks following the Thanksgiving break and had to close the high school to all in-person instruction for a week. Two former students and four current students who played in the game tested positive, Knuth said.
“I consulted with Mr. Musso and we both agreed that the Plaintiff demonstrated a pattern of behavior that disregarded rules protecting the health and safety of District students and that he should not be recommended for reappointment as a football coach,” Knuth wrote.
Following a Jan. 5 board of education meeting, Knuth said he told Musso to call Sindoni and tell him he would not be retained as coach. Musso jotted down some notes to guide his phone call with Sindoni. Musso submitted those notes in a filing.
“Fair or not, perception is reality and (people) are upset about your participation in the Turkey Bowl event here,” Musso wrote. “It really showed a lack of judgment. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time you’ve shown poor judgment. I know you’ve been asked several times over the years by many different (people) to work more cooperatively and we have not seen that growth.”
Sindoni then apparently called Knuth.
“I informed the Plaintiff that it was irrelevant to me whether he started or organized the event. He was the students’ coach and he was there sanctioning the event. He should have contacted Mr. Musso or me. His failure to do so put students’ and employees’ health at risk,” Knuth wrote.
The district filed other documents supporting what it claimed to be Sindoni’s inability to get along with his bosses. According to one memo, during a game on Sept. 7, 2018, assistant coach Eric Prager provided a powdery drink substance called “base salt electrolytes” to a player on the sidelines.
Musso said Prager did this knowing that the school district does not endorse the use of this substance and directed all football coaches not to supply the substance to students. Musso said Sindoni admitted authorizing this substance.
“You stated that I, as the athletic administrator, could not prohibit the use of the substance and that I could ‘either work with you or against you’. You then stated that I was ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’ and challenged, ‘if you want to make it a thing, then make it a thing’ and followed with ‘do what you have to do,’ Musso wrote in his memo to Sindoni.
Musso wrote that the memo was being entered into Sindoni’s file and told the coach to conduct himself in a “more professional and collegial manner.”
Musso’s job review of Sindoni from May of 2019 was also filed. The review offered many positives, such as the Lakers’ continued success on the field, his work ethic and the strong relationships he had built with players.
But Sindoni also received an unsatisfactory grade for his communication with the athletic director and an “improvement needed” in several areas, including cooperation with building/district administration, supervision of participants and team discipline and demonstrating professional appearance and conduct.
“Our communications have not always been professional or productive, which does not meet the standards of our district’s coaching principles and expectations,” Musso wrote. “I look forward to working with you next year in a more collegial/cooperative and professional fashion.”
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