WATERBURY — Jacob Grout is seeking to regain his coaching position for the Harwood boys hockey program after being dismissed from the team by administrators last week.
The 2008 HU graduate led the Highlanders to their first title in 15 years this past winter during his first season as head coach.
The start to this year’s season was delayed more than a month due to the pandemic, and the Highlanders were forced to take a pause from team activities two weeks ago due to possible COVID exposure.
During that break, Grout sent a message directed toward players that contained a half-dozen swear words. A screen shot of the text was shared by student-athletes and some parents, resulting in at least one complaint that reached the administrative level and led to Grout’s dismissal last week.
A petition calling for Grout’s reinstatement had collected more than 1,210 signatures as of Tuesday evening. The coach acknowledges that he made a massive mistake by sending the text, and he’s willing to serve a suspension if it means he can work with the team again.
Grout stands by general sentiment of his message, which is encouraging athletes to stop complaining to their parents about playing time and to appreciate the opportunities that they have.
“If you are on my team, you are here for one thing: to get the (expletive) job done,” Grout wrote at the end of his text. “If you get one shift in two games, that one shift better be the hardest shift you have ever played. We are here for the same thing. One thing that pisses me off more than anything is getting texts from parents about a line their baby boy is on. You don’t like your line, pouting isn’t going to help you. You don’t like your line, mommy and daddy aren’t going to hep you.”
Harwood co-principals Megan McDonough and Laurie Greenberg declined to discus specifics of the case, noting that it is an employee matter. They stressed that all complaints must be take very seriously while issuing a joint statement:
“Coaches must be held to the same standard as any paraeducator or licensed teacher,” they wrote. “They are very strong role models and have huge influence in significant ways in the life of our youth. We are all doing the best we can in this very difficult situation. We feel very badly about the impact and pressure on the players and will do whatever we can to support them.”
Assistant coach Shawn Thomspon was promoted to head coach, while Martin Casey continues serve as an assistant coach. Grout is quick to apologize for the inappropriate delivery of his text. He stands by the general tenor of his words but understands that using some of the four-letter expletives was unacceptable.
Here are some questions for Grout as Harwood prepares to host Milton at 8 p.m. Wednesday in a rematch of the 2020 championship:
TA: What do you think people from the community deserve to know who have been kept in the dark about this whole thing?
Grout: “I want to know exactly what part of it got me terminated. I think that’s what everyone wants to know. Everybody knows there were swear words in the text message — that’s obvious. But if you listen to what everybody’s saying, who doesn’t swear? What coach hasn’t sworn? And for a one-time offense, I had one parent say that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. There’s a process to all of this. You can’t just — on swear words — say, ‘Yep, you’re done.’ Personally, I don’t think it works that way. So I think everybody really wants to know what (the offense) is. And I want to know what the initial complaint was. I would like to see the letter and what was said to them, which I think I’m entitled to now.”
TA: Hockey can have a reputation for being a little rougher than other sports and maybe it can have more swear words. Do you think hockey in itself is different from other sports, or do you think they all have to be treated the same?
Grout: “If people want to ask that question, I implore them to go on YouTube and listen to NHL Mic’d Up and tell me their opinion. It’s inevitable. These are young adolescent men — I was there once too. I’m a construction worker. I don’t claim to have the most eloquent vocabulary. And in hockey, you can hear all sorts of things. I’ve traveled to Massachusetts to play, I’ve been up in Canada to play. There are ruthless, ruthless coaches. And this doesn’t even come close. Some of the stuff that I’ve heard players say, I’m like, ‘I don’t even know where you came up with that.’ I don’t want to say it’s the culture, because that puts a bad look on hockey. But it’s a part of every sport.”
TA: When something is documented in a text message or an email, obviously it’s that much more on display. So in retrospect, do you think a big part of this is that it wasn’t something spoken and that it was something written?
Grout: “I’m not hiding it: I swear. And the parents know that. But one of the big arguments right now is, ‘Look at the times we’re in. Look at the situation we’re in.’ I couldn’t have contact with them, practices were cancelled and we were in quarantine because of the Covid scare. The only means of communication was text message.”
TA: That’s a generational change that some older athletes can’t relate to as much, but were you ever on group texts with your coaches in high school?
Grout: “No. Shawn Thompson and I were discussing how back in the day, even if we had text messages, there was no way that we were going to have the open-door policy of sending our coach a text message about our feelings or anything. So what Shawn was uplifting about was saying, ‘This is the culture that you created where you can have that open-door policy with your players. And they can speak freely with you, in the hopes that you can speak freely with them.’”
TA: What’s it been like with people reaching out to you in response to the news? Has it been mostly to offer support?
Grout: “I’m not naive to the fact that there are people who are negative about this, that are like, ‘There should never be a time that you swear at a child.’ Well, in all honesty, they’re not children anymore. They’re young adults. Swearing at a 4-year-old and telling them no boohooing, I can understand that argument. But being young adults, it is what it is. Unfortunately — and I don’t condone this — it’s the mob mentality of somebody is going to go against you and we’re going to get them. We’re going to attack them next. I think the people who are in opposition are worried about even saying they’re in opposition.”
TA: Last year you guys won the program’s first championship in 15 years, but I’m guessing it wasn’t a total walk in the park. So were there some tough times and some swear words last year too?
Grout: “One-hundred percent. I’ll never deny it. From the day all of this came out, I said to all of my players that reached out to me, ‘Don’t you ever lie on my behalf.’ The way I am and the way I talk — and if anybody that really knows me reads into this situation — when I start speaking like this, that’s when I’m passionate. I speak from the heart in this way. That’s just me in general. This is not attacking kids and swearing at them. It’s me talking from the heart and getting my point across. That’s it.”
TA: If you swear at a baseball umpire’s call, you may not get kicked out. But if you swear directly at the umpire, you do get kicked out. So do you think there are varying degrees of foul language where you’ll say some swear words, but others can be crossing the line at points?
Grout: “There is a crossing of the line. But the funny thing about that is you get a warning. If you swear at an official, you get a warning. If you do it again, that’s when things hit the fan. So this comes back to the beginning where it’s one offense and you’re gone. Because of how many swears are in it, I can see how they’d be upset. But many people that I’ve talked to — people who have held positions in athletics that oversee facts like this — they said, ‘One-hundred percent, you would have been disciplined with a suspension of a couple practices or maybe a game. And you would have been given the right to change this or fix this.’”
TA: Was that ever an option for you?
Grout: “No, there was never any option. When I spoke with them last Monday, they said, ‘OK, let’s talk about this.’ And I was like, ‘I acknowledge that I had swear words. I apologize that my delivery was off, 100%. And in writing, that those words are unacceptable.’ And then the athletic director spoke on my behalf in the meeting, saying, ‘This is a one-time offense. We’d never had an issue get brought up to us last year with Jake. We never had to talk to him about language or anything like that.’ And it was about two seconds after he got his words out that Laurie Greenberg quickly was just like, ‘Well, we’re leaning toward asking you just not to have anything to do with the team.’ So I’m in shock at that point. I was like, ‘Seriously?’ She immediately jumped to that conclusion and never had time to talk to any parents. She never talked to any players or anybody. And she just threw it out there, and she was supposed to call me that night with a decision. She sent me an email saying, ‘I would have liked to have gotten back in touch with you this afternoon, but I’ll have to call you tomorrow.’ So it’s like, ‘OK, you had the time to email me but not call me?’ And then the next day I get a voicemail just saying, ‘Yep, we’re going to go ahead and move forward with what we discussed yesterday.’ So they talk to me about unprofessionalism. But you leave me a voicemail to terminate me?”
TA: Did anybody ever mention serving a suspension for a couple practices or games and then to move on?
Grout: “I’ve heard that I’m entitled to all the notes from every meeting in regards to this subject. But as far as I know, there has never been discussion about a suspension at all. It was straight to termination.”
TA: Was there talk about if the principals have the final say here, or if the superintendent is in the loop with this stuff?
Grout: “The superintendent had the final say. But I asked the question, ‘OK, if the superintendent has the final say, why have I not been discussing anything with her? Why are you telling me that I’m going to be terminated, but you are not the one who has the final say?’ I didn’t even get a direct email from superintendent (Brigid) Nease. I got an email from a secretary with an attachment of my termination notice — not even a direct correspondence from her.”
TA: Everyone in town has some different level of how up to date or how informed they are about this. So during these past five days have you had to explain the background to this? Are people getting tidbits of correct information and then maybe some misinformation?
Grout: “All I care about is the parents knowing, and they’ve seen the text message. I’ve talked to multiple parents where they said, ‘We hadn’t seen the text message and then all of a sudden we hear you’re getting fired over this thing.’ And they immediately want to know what you said. And they read the text message and go, ‘That’s it? That’s what he was fired over? We were expecting something way worse.’ They’ve sent a shockwave and I’ve been contacted by a lot of the other coaches at Harwood from different sports. The administration is making an example of me, for whatever reason. But I spoke with a gentleman this morning. He sent me a text message and said, ‘I was going to apply for a coaching position over there. But after this, no way.’”
TA: Do you think the response to this says something just about the hockey community at Harwood?
Grout: “We don’t have a football team. We don’t have very much in this community where people that don’t even know the players will come out and pay the money to watch these kids play. One of the talks before the tournament last year was, ‘Look at all the numbers that we have out there guys. You can’t tell me that there’s more than 10% of the people out in that crowd that you actually have a connection with.’ That’s just what hockey brings to this community. This is our down-south football. It doesn’t matter if I played with you, if you played after me or anything like that. A hockey community is a hockey community, just plain and simple. And people are going to look out for their own.”
TA: Would you go through the formal apology process and serve a short suspension in order to get your job back and work with the kids again?
Grout: “I would definitely go with a suspension. Like I’ve told everybody: Yes, my wording was off and my delivery was off. But I will not apologize for the message. And the message is pretty clear of, ‘Work for what you want.’ So I would serve a suspension. But at the same time I want the administration to acknowledge that they messed up. And if anything, I deserve an apology letter from them. This whole week, I have not amounted to anything in my business. I’ve been doing emails, I had to take time off for the Covid thing that I don’t get paid for.”