Murph's Turf: Coombe's exit awkward, and likely unwarranted

During the Great Recession, Americans learned that investing instruments called CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations) were one of the primary reasons for the economic downturn. Banks bundled risky subprime mortgage loans into CDOs, which then were deemed less risky because of their bulk. But once higher rates kicked in on flexible-rate mortgages, homeowners couldn’t make their payments. The result was a rash of foreclosures, layoffs, and economic shambles.

To be reminded of CDOs and their role in the 2008 recession, you can watch The Big Short. Or you can consider the bizarre case of Freya Coombe.

Coombe was the Wilton High girls soccer coach hired last spring to replace John Salvatore, who had resigned after four seasons in charge. Coombe is now the former head coach of the team, either resigning of her own accord (official Wilton High account) or being asked and then instructed to resign (according to sources close to Coombe).

Coombe may have the smoking gun(s) — a series of emails from Wilton High administrators calling for her to resign or risk being fired — but she has not divulged them, despite inquiries from this paper and others.

What can be determined is that Coombe took the hit for a number of missteps, accusations and mistakes, which might not have led to her departure on their own but did so due to their collective packaging.

The seeds of Coombe’s resignation (forced or voluntary) were planted before she even took over as Wilton’s head coach. The players were either erroneously informed, or had it strongly suggested to them (by the previous coaching regime), that a well-liked assistant would be taking over the team. A vote for this season’s captains was also held, and three players, rising seniors, were chosen.

When Coombe was hired, a faction of parents who wanted the assistant coach as head coach were not pleased. Then, a social media post led Wilton High Athletic Director Chris McDougal to call for an awkward revote of the captains, and one of the original captains was not re-chosen.

This was the cauldron Coombe entered.

It didn’t get better. Coombe’s demanding coaching approach and gruff communication style angered parents already angry about her hiring. Wilton also lost five of its first six games, although that was not surprising when considering the team’s graduation losses and tough early schedule.

Several sources (none of whom spoke on the record) said several players then drew up a petition calling for Coombe’s resignation. At a captains-only meeting in the field house, the Wilton players were told to sign the petition or risk being slapped, according to one parent. When administrators gave no credence to the petition, one senior left the team.

From the outside, all seemed fine after that. Wilton turned its season around, going 8-1-1 over its 10 final regular-season games before losing 1-0 to eventual conference champion Ridgefield in the FCIAC quarterfinals.

But prompted by parents still complaining about Coombe’s methods, McDougal and Wilton High Principal Robert O’Donnell conducted a two-day investigation right before the start of the state tournament. At a practice, O’Donnell announced that the allegations did not merit Coombe’s dismissal. Two more players, including a captain and the leading scorer, left the team that day.

In spite of the departures, the Warriors made an unforeseen run in the state tournament, winning two games and then losing to New Canaan, 1-0, in the Class LL quarterfinals. Although she was asked to improve in certain areas, Coombe subsequently received a favorable end-of-season review and was told she would return as coach next fall.

That was not what the anti-Coombe faction wanted to hear. Several of them went before the Board of Education at its November 18 meeting and criticized McDougal and the Wilton High administration for its indifference toward their concerns, even though the two-day investigation had been conducted. A letter presented by the parents of one player mentioned Coombe’s “disregard for the safety, mental and emotional health” of her players and said that examples of that disregard had been previously provided to the Wilton High administration.

The Board of Education subsequently conducted its own investigation, which culminated in Coombe’s resignation last month.

Although she did not say whether she resigned voluntarily or was asked/told to step down, Coombe did express her thoughts on the unexpected turnaround in an email Wednesday morning. “I did have a positive review at the end of the season, so it was a surprise to me to find myself in this current situation,” wrote Coombe.

Connecting the dots, from the favorable review to the resignation, would lead one to believe that the Board of Education either caved in to the complaints of a few families (who didn’t want Coombe in the first place) or found allegations serious enough to warrant Coombe’s departure. But none of the pro-Coombe parents believe she did anything that egregious, and McDonnell and McDougal’s initial investigation likely would have resulted in Coombe’s ouster if she had acted that inappropriately.

In the end, the parents who wanted Coombe gone got their way. While no one incident might have been grounds for termination, the persistency and totality of the complaints generated the CDO that sunk her. Wrongly, if you ask me.