Some of the players on Morro Bay High School’s football team are defending their coach after he was fired for reportedly using language insensitive and intolerant to the LGBTQ community.
The Tribune spoke with multiple players and a parent. Two players were in the locker room and described the incident involving David Kelley and a junior varsity player that Morro Bay High Principal Kyle Pruitt called “unfortunate and unacceptable” in a letter sent Tuesday to parents.
Kelley was fired from his coaching job after the incident on Oct. 24 and was replaced by the school’s athletic director for the team’s last game on Oct. 26.
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Rocky Brebes, a senior member of the varsity squad, and other players said they believe Kelley was fired for his poor performance as a head coach (the team finished with a 1-9 record and an 0-5 league record).
The team also had losing seasons in each of Kelley’s three previous seasons since he took over at Morro Bay in 2015 — including an 0-10 record his first season in 2015, according to maxpreps.com.
Brebes acknowledged that his coach made a mistake but said in a text, “I love Coach Kelley, and so does every single person on our varsity team.”
“He was more than a coach to us,” Brebes said. “He became family, and he always had our back. Whenever we were hungry, he would always get us food. If we ever needed clothes, he would always find us some clothes. Whenever we needed help in school because of bad grades or any of that, he would always find us support.”
Brebes and another player who declined to be identified but who shared a similar version of events, observed the Oct. 24 incident in the locker room, where Kelley, in a seemingly irritated mood from the start, urged JV players to get to practice.
“JV was sort of messing around and Kelley told them to stop it and get to practice,” Brebes said. “The student was sitting there and just smiling at Kelley not doing anything like getting going and ready and Kelley got even more mad and said, ‘Stop looking at me like a homosexual and get the (expletive) to practice.’”
Brebes added that he never previously observed Kelley refer to anyone that way or use a pejorative term describing someone who’s gay.
Brebes said that in a meeting with players and the principal, Kelley told the team that he wasn’t fired for his comments but instead for “the other thing” (his team’s losing record), and that he looked “at Pruitt and asked him ‘Right, Dr. Pruitt?’ And Pruitt shook his head yes a couple of times.’”
Asked to confirm a reason for the firing, San Luis Coastal’s Assistant Superintendent of Education Services Kimberly McGrath said, “We won’t be able to comment further into specifics of personnel matters.”
Superintendent Eric Prater, however, told The Tribune on Tuesday in an email, “I am extremely disappointed and troubled by this incident,” and Pruitt said in a phone interview he was “sick to my stomach.”
“Mr. Kelley apologized to the students and impacted families today,” Prater said Tuesday. “That is the beginning, I imagine, of Mr. Kelley’s genuine efforts to reconcile his actions with the MBHS community.”
Pruitt’s letter to parents also cited training that faculty had received earlier this school year on sensitivity relating to marginalized groups.
“We’ve made significant and intentional efforts as a school district to create safer, more inclusive environments for students and staff — especially our more vulnerable populations,” Prater wrote. “This incident shows the distance we still must travel in order to accomplish our goals.”
Morro Bay student Alexa Ford told the The Tribune in a text conversation that Morro Bay is overall a tolerant and accepting campus, but that “open conversation” and dialogue can help reduce prejudice and foster more appropriate behavior on and off campus.
Ford heads the school club Students for Social Justice, focusing on student empowerment, community involvement, open discussions and inclusion of marginalized groups. Ford is considering trying out for the football team next year.
“Open dialogue is not only valuable for youth, but for all, maybe even especially those in authoritative positions,” Ford said. “Hearing both sides of stories is crucial in making the right steps towards understanding. I wholeheartedly believe that seeing people, and not just teachers, held accountable for their behavior and decisions is beneficial to everyone.”
Kelley did not respond to multiple emails sent to his school email address for comment.
Jim Pugh, the father of one of his players, said, “He is human and made a mistake.”
“He is suffering, as are his boys,” Pugh said. “He was being disrespected by a young man who thinks telling an adult to (expletive) off is acceptable. He is a good man who has nurtured and loved all of those boys.”