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A sorry state

Blindsided. Aspen lifer Travis Benson injected life into a tired football program this fall. Fans, no doubt spurred on by the youthful coach’s and his players’ enthusiasm, spilled over on the sidelines for nearly every home game – and watched their team log a few emotional wins in the process. A year after winning only once against lowly Norwood, the Skiers were a respectable 3-4 in the 2A Western Slope. Excitement, it seemed, had returned to the local gridiron.How did Aspen reward Benson? School officials “gently” delivered an ultimatum of sorts, asking Benson to hand over the reins, albeit temporarily, to the district superintendent’s husband. Officials, concerned about the direction in which the program was heading, mindlessly assumed this plan was in the best interest of both Benson and his players.Was it a slap in the face? I’d say more like a baseball bat to the face.Let’s be honest. Is Benson the second coming of Vince Lombardi? Hardly. Was his play-calling and game management questionable, even dumbfounding, on more than a few occasions? Sure. But consider this: The Skiers couldn’t win more than five games with Tom Osborne roaming the sidelines. Mike Sirko will soon find out that 2A and 5A football are worlds apart.I’m sure Sirko is a good man and a good coach. After all, there was something about him that commanded the attention of Aspen officials during their recent nationwide search for Benson’s successor. Maybe it was his personality or his impressive track record. I’ve repeatedly been told having a wife who is superintendent was a coincidence, but of little consequence. We can trust our school officials to conduct a thorough, nonpartisan coaching search that’s in the best interest of our student athletes, right?Officials pegged Benson as the man to lead the football program. Two short years later, and in spite of obvious improvements, they changed their tune. Winning here is apparently paramount.Therein lies a contradiction.Consider the plight of longtime Aspen baseball coach Rick Ryan, who was unceremoniously dumped in July 2005 after nine years. Ryan, who had spearheaded a baseball resurgence with the Skiers, was not retained amid rumblings he was too focused on winning and too hard on his players.”They wanted baseball to be fun and not as competitive, but they’re saying the opposite about football a year later,” Ryan told The Aspen Times in December.Athletic Director Sams told Ryan she had decided to move in another direction – the equivalent of your prom date saying she just wants to be friends. And Ryan said he never saw it coming.News of Benson’s “resignation” was disheartening to Ryan. What else could drive a lifelong Aspenite and former Skiers baseball player who bleeds black and red to admit he’s happy he landed on his feet with rival Basalt?”Things here are only getting worse,” Ryan told The Times.Aspen tradition and credibility is being destroyed one ousting at a time. Passionate, committed coaches around whom players rally are apparently dispensable. Is there something we aren’t being told? There’s really no other way to explain how recent personnel decisions caught nearly everyone off guard. Who will suffer most? Most likely it will be the players who are forced to start over under a new regime all the while trying to understand what just transpired. The coaches, too, must come to grips with a fate that is wholly unwarranted.Turmoil on both sides of this issue continues to simmer, long after the “Benson or Bust” signs have been torn off the concrete walls. Many teachers continue to disapprove of Benson’s ousting. Schools, after all, are built on a foundation of trust, accountability and communication. Whether or not officials are exempt from following those principles is up for debate.Ryan supporters, who turned out in full force in 2005, are now quiet. But I’m certain they’re shaking their heads and thinking the same thing: Something’s rotten with the state of Aspen High School sports.If Sirko wins here, the controversy will likely fade. The fact that one current Skiers coach was suspended last season for swearing at and allegedly shoving a player during practice is merely an afterthought now, as he and his players eagerly await a postseason run. Still, something is not right. Confusion and contradictions, starting at the top, abound.School officials continue to lambaste the press for “blowing this issue out of proportion.” Many online bloggers say it’s time to move on. Benson did ultimately decide to walk away, they say. The only natural next step was to hire a new coach.What’s my response? I refuse to be that naive.Jon Maletz, aka “The Hammer,” can be reached at jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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