Just like every other year since 1988, Mike Cohen was at the first day of boys cross country practice at Simsbury High School, getting ready for the season, back in late August.
Cohen, a finalist for the National High School Athletic Coaches Association coach of the year award this year and a retired science teacher at Simsbury High, has coached both indoor and outdoor track and field at Simsbury, as well as cross country for 30 years. He started the indoor track program at the high school, where he taught biology for 35 years, and won four state championships in cross country. Last year, the girls outdoor track team he coached won the Class L state title.
But before the first cross country meet this year, Cohen resigned from all three positions due to a conflict with the school's administration over the handling of a situation with one of the athletes on the team.
"It's not the way I wanted my career to end but it's in keeping with me," said Cohen, 68, of Simsbury. "I am old school. My values are old school. I think I'm extremely modern in my knowledge and approach to coaching but I'm old school when it comes to core values and what we're trying to accomplish. Sports has to be, in my opinion, something more than just running up a wins and losses record. It can't be competition for competition's sake.
"It's got to involve learning life lessons. And those life lessons have to be about teamwork and commitment and discipline. And understanding that you have to get along with people. Respect for one another. You don't have to love everybody on the team but you have to show them respect. There's nothing in my opinion more important than the team."
According to Cohen, the conflict surfaced with a runner who was on the team previously, whom he would not identify. Although the runner participated last year, Cohen said he did not have a good attitude and did not finish the season.
"I told the athletic director I really didn't want him on the team given his history," Cohen said. "The AD suggested I ask the kid what's changed. So I approached it with him. Basically the answer I got was 'nothing has changed, I've paid my participation fee [$175 at Simsbury], I can run.'
"There was nothing about, 'I want to help the team, I want to become a better runner.' It was only about, 'I want to run.' I said, 'Well, I don't think that's good enough. And so I'm not going to let you come out for the team.'"
But Cohen said that athletic director Jeff Pinney and Principal Andrew O'Brien determined that the runner should remain on the team. Cohen turned his resignation in the next day, saying he could not stand for the athlete being on his team and that it went against his core values: commitment, discipline and teamwork.
"Mike was an outstanding coach here for many years," said Pinney, declining to name the runner and say whether he was still on the team. "His decision to resign was a surprise. It was his decision to make. He will be missed by many athletes and families and we wish him the best moving forward in his life."
He added, "None of Coach Cohen's concerns were brought to our attention before this season. We did our best to support him. We told him, here's how we would like to support you and address any concerns you have, but unfortunately, that was not able to happen."
Cohen said he kept his concerns confined to the team last season.
"It was a team matter and it stayed within the team," he said.
Cohen, who is the senior director of the Green Mountain Running Camp in Meriden, N.H., ran the Stratton Brook Invitational cross country meet for years and was the chairman of the CIAC boys cross country committee before he resigned. Longtime Glastonbury girls coach Brian Collins is the chairman of the girls committee.
"I was quite shocked," Collins said. "I feel bad with the career Mike has had. He coached there for 30 years. Taught there for 30 years. All the things he's done for the program. What he's done for a lot of these kids. That's why Mike was still doing it. He loves the sport and he likes working with the kids."
Cohen said he will now have more time to spend traveling to California with his wife Judi to visit their three grandchildren.
"I want to make it clear: My decision to resign was not, 'You will or we will fire you.' It was not an 'or else.' It was my decision," he said.
"I can also tell you I've not had a second thought about what I did. I have not at any time said, 'Gee, I wonder if I made the right decision.' As much as I miss coaching and miss the team — and I realize I'm letting kids down who are on the team and working hard — I have not had the least bit of question about whether or not I did the right thing. It went against my core values. And the reason why I coach."