The weirdest month of Tommy DeSalme’s life began on March 24, when Cowley College president Clark Williams called to fire him after five seasons as men’s basketball coach.
The weirdest month of DeSalme’s life ended Monday, when the Cowley board of trustees unanimously voted to hire DeSalme back on the recommendation of new athletic director Shane Larson, just 11 days after Williams’ controversial, nine-month tenure ended with his resignation via e-mail.
“I understand how strange it is, I really do,” DeSalme said. “It was strange from the get-go and it kept getting stranger ... the craziest, weirdest month of my life, hands down.”
And while DeSalme’s firing came after the Tigers’ worst season in 20 years — they went 15-16 and finished last in the Jayhawk Conference’s East Division – can’t be overlooked, it was the timing and the nature of the dismissal that sparked the first waves of concern within the community.
DeSalme, a former KCAC coach of the year at Kansas Wesleyan, won more than 20 games in his first four seasons, including a Jayhawk East title in 2010, Jayhawk East second-place finishes in 2011 and 2013, and a loss in the Region VI title game in 2012.
“We weren’t tough enough this year, we weren’t good enough,” DeSalme said. “That’s it. We just didn’t get it done.”
John Sturd is a Cowley alumnus and Arkansas City native who serves on the board of both the college’s endowment association and booster club. He was instrumental in DeSalme, who he first met officiating games in the KCAC and Jayhawk, getting his job back.
“If you look at Tommy’s entire body of work, it’s pretty impressive,” Sturd said. “No, it wasn’t his best season, but as soon as it was over he went right back to work recruiting, trying to turn it around. When he was fired, I was totally shocked ... I figured it was about something other than basketball, because why would you want to get rid of a proven winner? And how are you going to fire somebody over the phone after they’ve been out recruiting for three weeks?”
After attending a season-ending coaches meeting for the Jayhawk on March 5 in Wichita, DeSalme flew to Charlotte, N.C., to begin a marathon recruiting trip through several states and was in Iowa preparing for an in-home visit with a player when Williams called.
“He said he was making a change and I asked for a reason,” DeSalme said. “He wouldn’t give me one other than that he was making a change. My biggest worry, coming three weeks after the season, was that it would look like I’d done something wrong.”
Sturd’s perception was the same. He began investigating why DeSalme had been fired.
“I knew about the basketball part of it, knew that he was a good coach,” Sturd said. “And then I come to find out the kids do pretty good in the classroom and when there’s off-court issues, which isn’t very often, more than likely they’re on a bus headed home. I’ve got a lot invested in this college, it means a lot to my family, so I take an active role in things.
“I wanted to understand why this man lost his job. Because it didn’t seem warranted.”
DeSalme drove straight back to Arkansas City from Iowa and met with Williams on March 25, when he again asked why he had been fired.
“I never felt as if my job was in jeopardy, so I asked him, again, why he fired me and he still wouldn’t tell me, wouldn’t even look at me,” DeSalme said. “So I asked him if he would pay me for a couple of months, got my severance package and told him I’d have my office cleared out by Friday.”
It was the same day that Larson, who had been the athletic director and women’s basketball coach at Kaskaskia (Ill.) College earlier that month, met DeSalme for the first time and the same day Williams would deliver another jolt to the Cowley athletic department, announcing the men’s and women’s soccer teams were being disbanded.
For Larson, his first meeting with Williams just days before had come as a bit of a shock. It was there he was told about DeSalme and the soccer teams.
“My decision, before I arrived here, was to come in and let everybody know their job was safe, to let them know I was here to be an observer,” Larson said. “But the decision had already been made before I got here to shift things up. I’m just glad, now, that we get to reset things after the former president’s resignation.”
Williams was hired in July and his tenure also included the resignation of veteran administrator Charles McKown and the impending retirement of longtime softball coach Ed Hargrove. Two weeks after DeSalme and the soccer teams’ ouster, more than 200 people showed up at a special meeting of the Cowley College Board of Trustees. The trustees met in a closed session on April 9.
Williams, who did not respond to messages seeking comment for this article, resigned on April 10.
Tony Crouch, executive vice president of business services for the college, took over as interim president on April 11. Crouch served as interim president in the six months leading up to Williams’ hiring.
Upon learning of Williams’ resignation, DeSalme reached out to Larson.
“I told him I’d love the opportunity to be the coach again, if there’s even a chance of that,” DeSalme said. “And what I got back was that that they were going to try to make it happen.”
Monday, the board of trustees, after hearing from Larson and Sturd, among others, voted to bring back DeSalme, as well as men’s and women’s soccer. Wednesday, DeSalme met with his players for the first time and prepared to get back on the road recruiting.
“We’ve had a ton of turmoil at Cowley, but now I think, finally, we’ve got some stability and some good things are going to happen,” DeSalme said. “The people in the community stepped up for me. Shane stepped up when he didn’t have to. Tony stepped up when he didn’t have to ... John is a good friend, a good man. You realize what makes a place like Cowley special.
“I always had a feeling something good was going to happen for me.”