TO PUT it plainly, Sue Thomas did not deserve the ending she got at Bedford High School.
Thomas was fired last Monday following an investigation by the Bedford administration that found Thomas to be “intimidating players” and “creating a negative culture.” Thomas figures those perceptions come from her dedication to being a tough female coach, a role she has not wavered from — nor has she ever been asked to — over the life of a decorated 40-year coaching career.
This investigation began after a Saturday training session Bedford held following a 32-point loss to rival Bishop Guertin of Nashua on Dec. 21. Thomas offered some tough love to inspire her girls to raise desires to compete, like she had done in other years and as any coach would do after a terrible loss to a heated rival.
“I was somewhat blunt in our team meeting about what I thought went wrong in the game,” Thomas said. “I told the girls that I knew that I had them prepared to give BG a much better game and that they had to trust that I knew what I was doing. I told the upperclassmen, and the captains in particular, that they had to step up and take leadership roles.”
This is not out of character for Thomas during her seven-plus years as Bedford’s coach. Former Bedford captain Maddie Blake, now a sophomore on the Worcester Polytechnic Institute women’s basketball team, went through similar meetings and had one-on-one direct interactions without issue.
“She was definitely tough on us, but it was never anything out of the ordinary for a coach,” Blake said. “My previous coaches were the same. She would get after us for messing up, but that’s the way the game is supposed to be played. In order to improve, you have to take a little tough love.”
Alycia Moyer, 30, recalled the same tough love when Thomas coached her recreational basketball teams in Bedford from fourth grade through seventh grade.
“Her messages were not mean but direct. There’s a difference,” Moyer said. “They were not warm by any means, but immediate and necessary to the situation at hand. None of her words were in any way demeaning. They were sometimes simply louder than her other words. The message was always clear: Work hard. Do better.”
Thomas said that the team talk, which was witnessed by four other adults in attendance from the onset of that Saturday workout, did not involve belittling or antagonizing any individual. It amounted to a stern plea for players to reach their potential, both physically and mentally.
After that Saturday session, the team broke for three days before a holiday tournament in Salem after Christmas. Thomas left to visit family in New York on Dec. 23, but was contacted by Bedford director of athletics Corey Parker that day.
“Unknown to me, but not surprising, some of the girls went home upset with me (after practice),” said Thomas, who made it clear that she does not blame any player for her firing. “It won’t be the first time that players are upset with their coaches nor the last. Their parents reached out and demanded a meeting with the AD, who didn’t meet with the parents but did meet with two players. From that meeting with the two girls, the AD learned that another player was crying when she left the gym.”
Thomas went on to have a conversation with Parker on the matter. Thomas explained to Parker that she did not see the player leave upset and neither did the other adults. As Thomas recalls, Parker deemed a player crying as unacceptable, regardless of whether it is noticed.
“When I told him that I didn’t see that, I was told that I was wrong, I should have known and I should have addressed it immediately,” Thomas said. “If I knew the player was crying, I would have addressed it, but I didn’t know. As I explained to the AD, sometimes girls cry when they are frustrated. I’m sure that after our loss and practice, this player was frustrated. … While as coaches we don’t want this to happen, it does and it’s an opportunity to learn how to handle frustrations when challenged.”
While this unseen incident went unaddressed by Thomas, Blake reported there were no such missed cases in her time at Bedford.
“I never saw anyone leave crying,” Blake said. “She would go to any player that was having a particularly hard day and make things good, whether that was the same day or circling back a couple days after. That’s what she did for me anyway and I saw her do it for other people.”
Lauren Marechal, who played for Thomas during middle school from 1995-1998, also never experienced emotional issues from Thomas’ coaching.
“I can say I left practice crying a few times in my life, but never once when I was with Sue Thomas,” said the 36-year-old Marechal. “There was never anyone who coached me harder to be the best player that I could be. She said things like ‘This is what your role has been your whole life, but you need to expand. Here’s how I am going to help you do it.’”
Bedford players went a step further after the conversation between Thomas and Parker. Bedford interim superintendent Mike Fournier told the Union Leader last Monday that “nearly all of the players on the team” refused to play in the Salem tournament if Thomas was the coach. Thomas, who was then held out of that tournament by the administration, rebuffed that claim after communicating with players.
“I know of three, but possibly four players who made this threat,” said Thomas, who noted on several occasions this season that all but two players from last year’s freshman, JV and varsity teams returned to the court this winter. The two players forgoing basketball this season did so to focus on other sports they are committed to playing in college. “I bet at the end of the day, most players would have played. I also bet that if I was able to meet with the team, all players would have played.”
Blake was taken aback when she heard about players, some of whom she played with at Bedford, revolting as they did against Thomas.
“I just thought the whole thing was ridiculous,” Blake said. “I mean I’m only two years out, but I feel like the kids coming up don’t really want to work hard. They expect a lot that they don’t put the effort in to get. It bothers me because they are making this as an excuse, or at least that’s how I took it.
“Having played with some of the players there, I would’ve never expected it. They were all so mellow and quiet, which makes this bold of a move so surprising. But I guess they made enough of their own culture to do that kind of thing.”
The all-inclusive meeting Thomas desired would’ve brought her before players, parents and administrators in an effort to air grievances and find common ground. Thomas asked Parker, Fournier and Bedford principal Bill Hagen for a meeting on three different occasions, but none of those requests was granted before she was fired.
“The AD turned me down, saying that he didn’t think it would help,” Thomas said. “Since when is talking through issues a bad thing? It is the first step in conflict resolution. Get the parties together in a safe environment to calmly and honestly talk about your differences. It would have been a wonderful teaching experience for everyone.”
Fournier, Parker and Hagen all declined comment for this column due to the issue being an active personnel matter.
Blake, Marechal, Moyer and three other players who played for Thomas at Bedford within the last four years — but wished to remain anonymous — agreed Thomas was the coach they needed at that time in their athletic careers.
Thomas was in charge of the crucial formative years for players like Marechal and Moyer. Marechal and Moyer both credited Thomas for not only their development, but for instilling the lifelong values that remain with them to this day.
“For me, she laid the foundation to assess and understand the value of criticism while growing my love and understanding for basketball,” Moyer said. “Without that understanding from her, I truly don’t believe I would’ve been coachable for any future coach and then unemployable to a future boss.”
Blake admitted that she and other former teammates that are now playing college basketball likely would not have been there without Thomas’ coaching style.
“Every person has their flaws, but she was always very direct about what I had to do or improve on,” Blake said. “She made it clear that if I wasn’t keeping up with my responsibilities then I was going to hear about it. It was exactly what I needed and ultimately her and my AAU coaches are who got me to the next level. She clearly did her job.”
High School Basketball appears Fridays in the New Hampshire Union Leader during the season. To reach Joe Duball, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.