Football coach Travis Benson resigns amid uproar | AspenTimes.com

Football coach Travis Benson resigns amid uproar

Nate Peterson

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

Longtime local Travis Benson said it was his choice to resign Monday night as Aspen’s varsity football coach after two seasons. As to whether Benson had a choice to remain in his current position, or take a proposed subordinate role as an assistant head coach under Superintendent Diana Sirko’s husband, remains a hot topic of debate.

More than 30 Aspen High teachers and staff met Tuesday night with Sirko and principal Charlie Anastas to voice their displeasure over what many perceive as an unfair ouster.Benson, a former Skiers standout who went on to play at Division II Mesa State, acknowledged he never considered walking away from the Skiers program before a meeting two weeks ago with Sirko, Anastas and athletic director Carol Sams.

Sirko and Anastas both said the intent of the sit-down with the coach was to float the idea of having Sirko’s husband, Mike, come to Aspen to counsel Benson for a season or two before handing back the head coaching duties.

“It really was an open discussion,” Sirko said. “[Travis] asked us point-blank: ‘Is this an ultimatum?’ We said, ‘No, this is simply a discussion.'”

Benson didn’t give specifics as to why he felt compelled to resign, but his comments in a phone conversation Tuesday indicated he felt pressured.

“I don’t think it was fair,” he said of the meeting. “There were definitely options out there and different avenues, but I just decided the best thing to do was step down … I took everything into account with my family, my assistant coaches and my players, and decided that the kids come first and that this would be the best choice for the future of the program.”

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Benson said he had never met behind closed doors with Sirko and Anastas before two weeks ago. He had frequent discussions with Sams during the season, but never got the sense that he was doing an unsatisfactory job, he said. Sirko defended the proposal for Benson to take a subordinate role under her husband, noting that the intent was to “help grow the program and take it to the next level with him.”

Mike Sirko is one of the most successful varsity coaches in the state, having compiled 185 wins over 29 seasons, including 96 wins in the last 10 years. He led 5A Doherty in Colorado Springs to a 6-5 mark this season, capped by a 41-19 blowout loss to Fort Collins in the first round of the playoffs.

“It was never meant to eliminate [Travis’] connection to the program,” Sirko said. “It was meant as a discussion. We have discussions with staff members every day and people who’ve said things like: ‘OK, I’ve thought about this, here’s what I want to do, here’s what I don’t want to do.”

Teachers at Tuesday’s emergency meeting at the high school didn’t see it that way, and questioned Anastas’ and Sirko’s tactics during a discussion lasting two hours. Sams was out of town at a national conference for athletic directors.

A couple of teachers, choosing to remain anonymous, said the discussion in the high school’s seminar room was heated. Benson’s wife, Sarah, a biology teacher at the high school, left the seminar room in tears at one juncture, while a handful of other teachers walked out of the room shaking their heads.

“I think there’s a vulnerability for everyone when something like this happens,” one teacher said. “I think it’s like, ‘What was the protocol?’ If someone has a problem with a teacher, we understand that parents are directed to talk to us … I don’t think that there were really full answers in there. I don’t think it was at all as forthright as it could have been.”

Anastas and Sirko maintain that the proposed coaching changes were merely preliminary discussions and that Benson had every right to say no. But, as one teacher said, “Who is going to say no to the superintendent?”

Sirko also denied claims of nepotism and corruption. She said she hadn’t considered whether a decision to move her husband into the head coaching position at Aspen would violate district policy, again noting the proposed changes were simply part of a “discussion.” The meeting with Benson initially stemmed from a number of complaints from parents who questioned Benson’s coaching credentials, she said.

“I think that there have been pervasive issues that have been raised over the course of the last couple years that really intensified this year,” she said. “And [parents] raise them with me because they believe I know the game. I’ve probably seen over 400 high school games.”

In his two years as head coach, Benson said he had only one parent ever approach him personally to voice concerns about the direction of the team. He didn’t refute Sirko’s claims that parents had come to her, but felt – as a whole – he was leading the program in the right direction. The Skiers won three games this season and went 3-4 in the 2A Western Slope after winning just five games in the previous three seasons, including a 1-7 mark with no league victories last season. The Skiers also had more than 50 players out this fall – the most since varsity football returned to the high school in 2002.

Aspen junior running back Tucker Eason said he was shocked by Monday’s news.  Sirko and Anastas both claim their intentions were in the best interest of the players on Aspen’s team, but Eason said the proposed restructuring of the program had the opposite effect.

“I loved coach,” said Eason, one of Aspen’s top returners next season. “I think he’s a great coach and a great guy. A lot of the parents and stuff think that they’re better coaches than he is. They just think they know better what’s going on, but he’s got a plan in his head. He knows what he’s doing and parents don’t know the whole picture.”

Assistant coach Derek Johnson disagreed. He said he and his fellow assistants liked the idea of Sirko’s husband coming to Aspen to take over control of the team on a short-term basis. Under Benson, the program made great strides, but Sirko’s husband could teach everyone – including Benson – a number of things, Johnson said.

“There’s some stuff that I think only experience can teach,” he said. “I’ll be the first one to say it, we all need some help. I never coached before. I started about seven years ago making it up as I went. I played in college and two seconds in the pros, played a lot of football, but I’ve never coached it before. I saw it as a good opportunity for me to grow a little bit and then be able to give more back to the kids, and again it’s about the kids.”

Anastas regarded Benson’s resignation as an undesirable ending to what he initially envisioned as a positive step in the program’s development.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” he said. “Looking back at it, you can redo things, but I’m not sure we would have changed our minds or not. It was an open-ended discussion. When the coaches came in and told us that this really could be a great thing, I was really optimistic … Again, our goal was to have Travis be long-term. But there are some areas that need to be addressed. I was hoping that after speaking with the coaches that this was going to fly. Obviously, it didn’t.”

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