BRADENTON -- After months of keeping a low profile, former Manatee High football coach Joe Kinnan lashed out Wednesday at the Manatee County School District, contending he is the victim of a smear campaign that has taken a toll on his health and cost him his livelihood.
Decked out in a collared Manatee football shirt and flanked by longtime supporters, city council members Gene Gallo and Gene Brown, in front of Bradenton City Hall, Kinnan read a statement and took questions for about 25 minutes.
He addressed an administrative complaint filed about him in December, saying schools Superintendent Rick Mills and others in the district have "launched a full-scale attack on my position and reputation."
"I focused on trying to solve problems and the school system is actually using it
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against me," Kinnan said. "I've been repeatedly investigated, hit with a gag order, told to resign or retire, and smeared with outright lies in the media."
A winner of five state titles and 290 games in 30 years at Manatee, Kinnan said he had hoped to return to the sideline this fall after sitting out the spring for health reasons. But he said his doctor advised against it, claiming the "district leadership's threats on my job, pressure and intimidation to retire" has brought on stress and anxiety, as well as sleepless nights.
"I chose to heed my doctor's advice," he said, "and take a year off from coaching football."
Addressing the complaint
Much of Kinnan's statement Wednesday revolved around the complaint lodged against him in December, when the district accused Kinnan, then Manatee's athletic director, of lying during an investigation into former Manatee baseball coach Dwayne Strong. The complaint recommended Kinnan be suspended 10 days without pay.
Kinnan and Robert Gagnon, Manatee's principal at the time, were also accused of intentionally steering district funds toward Strong's baseball facility in downtown Bradenton; and Kinnan was also reprimanded for allowing Strong to coach the baseball team without proper certification.
Kinnan stepped down as AD on Dec. 6, the same day he sent a letter of resignation to Manatee High Principal Don Sauer and members of the media. Choosing to focus on football, Kinnan said he had decided to vacate the position last fall, adding it had nothing at all to do with the baseball investigation.
Kinnan said he first heard of the district's findings, as well as the complaint against him, when a district courier delivered a package to his house the night of Dec. 6.
Kinnan told the crowd gathered Wednesday that he believes the district timed the complaint to make it appear as if he was resigning because of the report's findings. Had he known about the complaint and violations beforehand, Kinnan said he would have not stepped down until the issues were resolved.
"The district's devious tactic worked well, as to this day, I continue to read news articles that suggest that I resigned as AD as a result of a perceived baseball scandal, which is simply not true," Kinnan said. "The underhanded manner and deliberate timing of the district's delivery of the administrative complaint, in an effort to deceive the community and smear me, shows the type of leadership we have in the district today."
In a statement released Wednesday to the media, Mills praised Kinnan for his litany of accomplishments on the football field, but said the district cannot comment on "pending administrative matters."
On medical leave for the 2014-15 school year, Kinnan said he was offered a teaching position over the summer after he was told he would not be renewed as the school's business manager. But while teachers and salaried staff members returned to work Tuesday, Kinnan said approval of his hiring has yet to be brought before the school board.
"As of now," he said, "I am currently unemployed after being non-renewed on medical leave."
In reference to Kinnan claiming to be unemployed, district spokesman Stephen Valley said Kinnan is a "tenured teacher out on extended medical leave. He will have a position in the district if he chooses to return."
Return to the field?
After sitting out the spring season, Kinnan told Sauer and athletic director Jason Montgomery he was going to take a medical leave and not coach the Hurricanes in 2014.
"They responded by hiring a coach to permanently replace me," Kinnan said.
Kinnan's replacement is John Booth, a Manatee alum who was picked out a pool of more than 70 candidates. While Kinnan said he has nothing against Booth, he believed his three longtime assistants who applied -- Chris Conboy, Jim Phelan and Chuck Sandberg -- were more qualified, even if they had never worked as head coaches. Booth has spent the previous five seasons as the head coach at Valrico Bloomingdale.
"One of the three certainly has deserved the opportunity to at least be a head coach," Kinnan said. "(Booth's) body of work can't compare with assistants."
Kinnan said he was never under the impression the new coach would be hired on an interim basis. But he speculated the school chose someone outside of Manatee's staff to ensure Kinnan didn't return to Manatee's sideline.
"All my assistants said, 'Joe, I will take this job if they give it to me. And then if you're ready to come back in December, we'll step aside and let you have your job back,'" Kinnan said. "However, that wasn't the wishes of the administration...It was a bit of a slap in the face.
"I was hoping I would coach again at Manatee."
Montgomery said there was never an intent to keep Kinnan away from a program he built into one of the most successful in the state.
"We went to great lengths to make it to where we could get Joe back out here. Joe told me, 'I have no idea when I'll be able to coach again; you guys have to do what you have to do,'" Montgomery said. "At that point, we decided that the flux and indecision in our program was having a negative effect on everyone involved. ... We needed to find somebody who was going to be our new head coach moving forward, and in every one of the interviews, including the ones with (Kinnan's) assistants, that was expressed. This was not a place-holder position.
"We genuinely looked for the person that was the best fit. We want another 30-year guy, and we feel like we have that in John. ... There was never any consideration to keep Joe away."
Kinnan claims the charges brought about him are false. He handed out a 31-page booklet to members of the media Wednesday, refuting the charges by the district as well as the Florida High School Athletic Association, which fined Manatee more than $13,000 for the baseball team's violations. He said he plans on fighting the district's recommendations at an administrative hearing in October.
Kinnan said he has retained the Romano Law Group in Lake Worth but said they haven't a filed a lawsuit yet.
"We've been meeting since January," Kinnan said. "The legal process is slow."
Kinnan said he told Mills he would retire from the district July 1 and return to Manatee as a volunteer head coach. Mills said he would agree to that as long as Kinnan wouldn't file a lawsuit against the district.
"I said, 'With the damages that you've done,'" Kinnan said, '"I cannot agree to not filing a lawsuit.'"
A handful of Kinnan's supporters were in attendance Wednesday, some of whom applauded and embraced Kinnan after he was through speaking.
But Richard Conard, a retired physician who also served as the chairman for the school district's Citizens Advisory Group, which had input into the hiring of Mills as the new superintendent in 2013, asked Kinnan why he chose Wednesday to address the accusations during the media's question-and-answer session.
Conard was led away by police but allowed back, and he got into verbal altercations with some of Kinnan's supporters after the conference.
"I think this is all a ruse to be disruptive to the new coach," said Conard, who had a copy of the district's investigation into the baseball team tucked under an arm, "and to be disruptive to the students of Manatee High School, and football, and to also be disruptive to the school district."
Gallo disagreed, adding that the press conference was Kinnan's way of defending himself.
"Joe knows me well enough to where if I thought he did wrong, I'd tell him," Gallo said. "But he hasn't. He has not done anything wrong. And for his life to end up like this, I can't think of the right words to say what it is. It has upset me to no end, it has made me emotional at times.
"I'm a Manatee fan. But also, if there's a wrong, there's a wrong. And that man hasn't done anything wrong."
John Lembo, Herald sports reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7057. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLembo1878.