"There's never been a coach in the history of high-school basketball who doesn't have people who dislike them," says Bill Resler. The question is whether being disliked is really the biggest source of Resler's problems.
Last year Resler was riding high as the subject of a nationally acclaimed documentary, The Heart of the Game, which portrayed him as a voluble and sometimes profane spark plug, fond of carnivorous slogans like "Devour the moose!" and "Draw blood!" to motivate his girls to aggressive, physical play. He led them to the state championships five times in eight years (winning the tournament in 2004), as depicted in the film. After the movie played across the country, Resler got a book contract to write his life story and even starred in his own Nike ad.
None of that seemed to matter this month, though, as Resler was abruptly and mysteriously sacked on Nov. 9, just days before the new season was to begin for the Roosevelt Roughriders. A replacement was hired last Friday.
Neither Roosevelt nor the school district is giving a reason for the decision, and they don't have to. Careful, neutral language like "take the program in a different direction" is being repeated by officials at every level. Seattle Weekly queries were eventually referred to a school district lawyer, Shannon McMinimee, who explained that, Resler, like other coaches, is hired only for one-year contracts, which are "renewable basically at the district's option."
All of which leaves a conspicuous void, filled by innuendo and inference. "It hurts a little bit because in the papers, there's this, 'Why was he fired at the midnight hour?'" says Resler. "And so people speculate, 'What did he do that was so horrible?' And the answer is that I didn't do anything horrible. But it's implied, and that hurts. Because that means strangers might think about Bill Resler and say, 'He must've done something to a girl, or he must've set the school on fire.'"
In his book, The Heart of the Team, published last December, Resler mentions his two divorces and three grown daughters, touching briefly on his partying days as a WSU undergrad and his fondness for nightlife while doing postgraduate study in New York during the early '70s. "Like most people," he writes, "I have my share of imperfections. I certainly do not consider myself a candidate for sainthood. And in this book, I do not offer my past as a model way of living."
Resler, a UW tax law instructor and basketball fanatic, began volunteering at Roosevelt in the mid-'90s and was promoted to the varsity job for the 1998–99 season, at the end of which he was named coach of the year by The Seattle Times.
He freely acknowledges that his fun-loving, oddball reputation may have riled some parents. In his book, he fondly thanks "our Duchess family"—referring to the staff and regulars at the longtime Northeast 55th Street watering hole, the Duchess Tavern, where he's known to entertain his students from the UW business school and their parents after class. "I tell a lot of jokes and I take risks, and sometimes those jokes and/or risks offend people," he says.
Resler has been aware for some time that trouble was brewing. "About two seasons ago, there were about three dads who wanted to get me fired," he says. "They accused me of a lot of things. And one of their things was that I was on the road drinking with the players. And that was a lie." He admits to enjoying dinner with wine with the kids' parents on one team road trip in Oregon. Disapproving parents on the Roosevelt Basketball Alliance last year asked him to sign a contract saying he'd never drink on road trips and would cut down on his girls' cursing. He complied, happily, he says: "It was not an admission; it was me saying I would never do this. [But] a Bill-hater copied that thing off and sent it to all the reporters at the Times and P-I."
There was another warning sign in March. Roosevelt got a new principal, Brian Vance, one of whose assistants told Resler, "'There are some parents out there who are trying to get you.' It's not surprising. It has nothing to with whether we win or lose. It has to do with these people out there who don't think much of Bill Resler." He describes long-standing and inevitable parental complaints over who starts, how many minutes each girl gets, who makes it onto the varsity squad.
What was different following the winning 2006–07 season, Resler believes, was a change in the Roosevelt administration; the same old complaints fell on new, sympathetic ears. "[Vance] got ahold of me in April, and he said that there were several parents calling in saying bad things about me. And I said, 'What are the bad things that they're saying?' And he said, 'Just generally that you're a bad guy.' And I said, 'Can you call them back and get some specifics?'" Resler says no details were provided.
Being a lawyer himself, Resler says he can understand why the district is providing no information on the grounds for his dismissal. School district attorney McMinimee puts it this way: "We have no legal obligation to tell you why we're choosing not to give you a right you don't have."
None of Resler's critics are willing to go on record with their complaints about the coach, either. In telephone and e-mail exchanges with Seattle Weekly, Resler's critics have made only the vague sort of where-there's-smoke-there's-fire insinuations that are impossible for Resler to rebut. And that's not necessarily surprising. Last year, a Seattle Times story chronicled allegedly shady recruiting practices by coach Ray Willis and two assistants at Chief Sealth High School. The three were then fired. Although the Seattle School District has thus far prevailed in wrongful dismissal suits brought by Willis and the two coaches, the latter pair have filed defamation claims against some of the parent-critics quoted in the Times.
Following a huge four-part Times series in 2003, called "Coaches Who Prey," the school district is seemingly sensitive to even the whiff of impropriety. Earlier this year, a Seattle Weekly profile of Ballard High School girls tennis coach Aaron Silverberg—who was prone to court quizzes like, "Hey, what's the difference between full-blown spirituality and full-blown sexuality?"—led directly to his dismissal.
"Seattle Public Schools doesn't want another scandal," says retired Roosevelt athletic director Joel Waters, who considers himself sympathetic to Resler. Waters sees the parental complaints as sour grapes, not the smoke of a raging fire. "It's a minority. They've been after him a long time. I don't think you're gonna find big smut on Bill Resler."
Meanwhile, his old job now filled, Resler is busy teaching courses at the UW and giving motivational speeches "to corporate groups and things like that. Which," he notes, "would not have occurred were it not for the movie and the book."
Heart of the Game director Ward Serrill, who spent seven years of his life documenting Resler and the Roughriders, is still writing and shopping the script for a possible feature adaptation. Does this unhappy coda negatively impact the project's salability?
Serrill claims no: "I might even put it into the script."
If it gets made, that sports drama will have the lovable, flawed Resler being unjustly sacked following his unlikely success. If he's secretly guilty of some grievous offense—well, that's a movie we're not likely to see.