Dismissal of Football Coach Kicks Up a Furor at Grant
“I said to the kids, ‘This is where I want you to hit.’ And I called them a name. Obviously, I would never use it again.”
--Jeff Engilman, fired Grant football coach
The dismissal of a football coach at Grant High in Van Nuys has divided the school’s faculty and left behind a field of questions.
For Grant, Jeff Engilman was to be the answer for its ailing football program. For Engilman, Grant was to be a homecoming.
For both, the relationship has ended in turmoil.
“It was a dream of mine to return to the Valley,” Engilman said. “I had something good at Manual Arts. But I made a move and haven’t slept since.”
The coach, who won City 3-A championships the past two years as co-coach at Manual Arts High, was accused in April of drawing a vagina on a blocking dummy and ordering players to use it as a target during spring drills.
He lost his coaching job, he lost his transfer to Grant--and he may have lost his reputation, says a spokesman for the United Teachers of Los Angeles.
Yet school board member Roberta Weintraub, who brought the incident to the attention of district officials, said this week that she is “disturbed” by the lack of evidence against Engilman.
The split among faculty at Grant is sharp.
“Hitting that bag was simulating a rape,” said Grant teacher and softball Coach Beth Winningham, Engilman’s initial accuser.
“Jeff Engilman unwittingly walked into a feminist buzz saw,” Grant teacher and former football Coach Drew Yellen said.
Engilman, 34, played football at Valley and Cal Lutheran colleges in the early 1970s and graduated from Cal State Northridge in 1974 with a teaching credential in physical education and health. He transferred to Manual Arts after coaching at Polytechnic in Sun Valley for two years.
A burly man who coaches with a boisterous enthusiasm, Engilman is regarded as an excellent motivator of football players. At Manual Arts, he worked well with tough, undisciplined inner-city players.
“Jeff is the best,” Manual Arts athletic director Priscilla Morgan said. “He has a way of getting through to kids.”
Engilman requested a transfer to Grant to be closer to his Saugus home. He was to begin teaching at the Van Nuys school in the fall. Meanwhile, he drove to Grant from Manual Arts after school and supervised spring practice.
The players at Grant, who had suffered through two consecutive 1-8 seasons, responded well to the new coach.
Said Todd Barr, captain of the Grant team: “Coach Engilman was teaching us new skills and helping us develop a winning attitude. He had us working hard.”
Added Jose Alcedo, linebacker and center: “I could see the difference. Coach Engilman was dedicated to turning this program around.”
But the gritty approach that had worked at Manual Arts turned out to be inappropriate at Grant.
“To do it over again,” Engilman said, “I would have changed my teaching techniques and terminology early on.”
He says there is one word he regrets using.
“I said to the kids, ‘This is where I want you to hit. Don’t put your head down. And I called them a name. Most football people have used the word at one time or another. Obviously, I would never use it again.”
The name was locker-room slang for a woman’s genitals.
Said Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a professor of psychology at UCLA who specializes in sports psychology: “The football term is a derivative of the word pussycat. The mistake, apparently, was the coach creating a visual symbol of a sexual nature. . . .
“A creative coach would have been able to think of socially acceptable ways to motivate his athletes.”
Yellen, the former Grant coach, explained that the crossover in terminology between football and sex may have led to the drawing.
“In football, the word is used to describe someone who doesn’t like to hit,” he said. “It means the guy across from you is afraid. The kids knew that and the coach knew that.”
Confirming whether the drawing, in fact, depicted female genitalia has become impossible.
Engilman drew a football helmet over the initial drawing a couple of days after it was discovered by softball Coach Winningham.
Three teachers said they saw the drawing. District spokesman Bill Rivera said “several” teachers saw it.
Rivera also said, “There were drawings on several bags.” If there is one point on which all those at Grant agree, it is this: There was one drawing on one bag.
“I saw the bag along with another teacher,” Winningham said, “and there is no doubt in my mind . . . It depicted a vagina.”
Grant physical education teacher Jan Johnson, who also saw the drawing, disagrees.
“It would take a pretty dirty mind to make that association,” she said.
Bill Foster, an assistant coach named to replace Engilman, said: “I am the only faculty member other than two girls’ P. E. teachers who saw the bag. Understand? If you saw the drawing, you wouldn’t know what it was.”
No one said Engilman was an artist. Was the drawing interpreted by the team as depicting a vagina?
Said Barr, the captain: “The drawing was of an attack point. That’s all. You have to stay low when you hit a bag, and the drawing was just a low target. It didn’t mean anything like what these people say it meant.”
But Alcedo, the center and linebacker, said some teammates yelled, “Kill it, rape it,” when he hit the dummy.
Word of the drawing spread from football players to two girls on the softball team. The girls told Winningham. She asked for an explanation.
Said Engilman: “Certain kids misinterpreted the drawing. . . . I told Beth Winningham in a letter that the drawing was a point of attack. Genitals were the furthest thing from my mind. I could have drawn a square, or a line. I drew a circle.”
That did not satisfy Winningham, who was granted a meeting with Engilman and Grant Athletic Director Stan Hughes.
Engilman then promised to assure his team there was no sexual intent to the drawing. Winningham promised not to take the issue any further.
Two weeks later, girls physical education teacher Kay Lynn McGregor heard about the incident from Winningham and drafted two petitions.
One requested that Engilman not be allowed to teach health classes when his transfer became effective next fall. The other demanded that his transfer be revoked. Thirty-one of Grant’s 145 faculty members signed one or both petitions.
Said Barr: “My third-period teacher said that someone had viewed the bag and told him about it. That’s why he signed the petition. One teacher to another, they just passed it around. My teacher said he heard from another teacher that coach was teaching us how to rape.”
Collins, the principal, subsequently issued a memo to petitioners. It stated that while the incident could not be excused, Engilman should be allowed an opportunity to correct the error. The memo also gave assurances that a similar situation would never occur.
The incident appeared to be resolved.
“I wasn’t going to be fired,” Engilman said.
About a week later, on May 28, Engilman was called into Collins’ office and fired as coach.
“I don’t know what changed his mind,” Engilman said.
“The incident was reviewed by central office staff,” Rivera said, referring to an ad hoc committee of district administrators. “There was fairly good evidence that what was purported to have happened, did, indeed, happen.”
According to Engilman, Collins told him that declining enrollment at Grant was the reason he would be returning to Manual Arts. Grant is expected to lose 400 to 500 students in the coming school year, and at least 12 teachers will be reassigned to other schools, a school district spokesman said.
The district office became involved after receiving a phone call from Roberta Weintraub, who has represented the East San Fernando Valley on the school board since 1979. A subsequent investigation by district officials resulted in the decision to fire Engilman as coach.
Said Rivera: “None of our board members knew about the incident until they read about it in the papers.”
Weintraub offered a different version.
“I first heard of the incident by a phone call from a parent on May 23,” she said. “I was obviously concerned, appalled if it was true, and I immediately sent the message to Sid Thompson, an associate superintendent.
“Whether it was true or not, too many people were convinced he did it. No one can work under those conditions. He wouldn’t have been able to function effectively. It would have been an impossible situation.”
Said Engilman, when informed of Weintraub’s reasoning: “Why didn’t she at least talk to me? She took the accusation at face value and passed it along.”
Engilman said he was not contacted by the district to offer his version of the incident. Winningham said she gave written testimony.
Teachers--and union officials--said they are disturbed by the lack of due process. Some feel it is a threat to job security.
“The staff at Grant as a whole is very opposed to what happened to Jeff Engilman,” Yellen said. “If a principal or superintendent operates on rumor, I would venture to say 50% of teachers could be fired.
“Rumors run rampant at a high school.”
Said Weintraub: “I’m sorry no one had the presence of mind to take pictures of the drawing. It is disturbing to have nothing concrete.”
“There is no way to know how accurate the charges were.”
A union spokesman concurred.
“It would seem there is a side (Engilman) would like to tell,” said a United Teachers of Los Angeles official, who asked not to be identified. “There are probably some real interesting angles to this one. His best bet is to file a grievance.
“His reputation has been damaged. He is a question mark.”
Engilman said he is looking at options--including legal action against the district.
“I have contacted the union,” he said, “along with other counsel.
“It’s not an easy choice. See, if I sue the district, my name is mud if I want to continue to work here.”
District officials, and Weintraub, had hoped that removing Engilman from Grant would eliminate the issue as a topic of discussion. “This has become a cause celebre, " Weintraub said, “and would have remained so as long as he was at the school.”
The strategy hasn’t worked.
Said Winningham: “There have been some verbal personal attacks from teachers. Some very personal things have been said. I have also received a great deal of strong support from many teachers.
“There is a definite division.”
Summer recess has put the debate on hold, and not a moment too soon for McGregor.
“I am tired of the whole thing,” she said. “It has become like a family feud, and I don’t like talking about it.”