The boardroom at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School was near capacity for the Tuesday-night meeting.
For varsity basketball coach Walter Tyler, months of turmoil had taken its toll, but many of the people present were there to speak on his behalf. His job remains in limbo as yet another chapter was added to the lengthy saga of deciding his fate at the school.
“I’ve been dealing with this for several months now, and it has been very tough,” Tyler said later in an interview. “To be able to hear what a lot of people think and feel about me, for them to explain how much gratitude they have for me as far as what I’ve been doing for many years ― loving, serving, and coaching kids and adults in the community ― was a blessing.”
Tyler is Santa Ynez High’s only Black head coach and the first Black varsity head basketball coach in the school’s history. For several months, a group of parents have sought to remove him from his job.
“To be honest, I expected a little bit of resistance, but I didn’t expect it to the extent that it’s at right now,” Tyler said. “Anytime there’s a new coaching regime and a culture change, there’s always going to be a little bit of shock. But the racial stuff and everything else that has been thrown into it I did not expect.”
The parents told Tyler he wasn’t qualified for the job, and they made claims that he bullied players and used profanity while he coached. At a July 29 booster meeting, Tyler was verbally harassed by parents and called a “buffoon,” according to Tyler and multiple witnesses who were in attendance.
The parents went on to file a formal complaint with the Santa Ynez High administration shortly thereafter, but no grounds for Tyler’s removal were found after players were interviewed and practice footage was reviewed.
“I’m the only coach on the campus that records every practice because I knew that I was going to have to deal with some type of resistance with someone lying or stating something that would require me to prove myself,” Tyler said. “I went out of my way to record practices and games to protect myself, protect my name, and to protect the kids in case there was a COVID situation that required contact tracing.”
During the investigation, it was discovered that Tyler used obscenities at practices, which is fairly common in high-school-level sports. Reports of bullying within the program were unsubstantiated after the practice footage was reviewed by the Santa Ynez High administration, according to reporting in the Lompoc Record.
The group of parents appealed the findings to the school board, which originally set a December date to determine if Tyler would be able to remain in his position for the remainder of the season. They have since pushed back the decision to January 14.
Tyler has already decided to resign at the end of the season, but would like to finish it out first. The Pirates currently have a 7-1 record, which is the best start for the program since 2015.
“We’ve got a really solid team, and I believe we have a really good chance of making history,” Tyler said. “I just wish we didn’t have to make history in the way we are right now.”
At the Tuesday meeting, 18 people delivered public comments in support of Tyler. Among the commenters was Rich Saferite, a longtime announcer at Santa Ynez High for football and basketball games, who passed out a multi-page document defending Tyler.
“Are they bigots?” Saferite asked at the podium of those who have made allegations against Tyler. “I don’t know them well. I am not saying they are, but you certainly put that reasonable question out there with Walter [Tyler] being our first African-American coach. He’s off to the best start in his first two years of any basketball coach that we’ve had here in 20 years.”
Saferite believes that Tyler could be convinced to stay on beyond this season if the disgruntled parents would apologize and allow him to move forward with building up the program. “Walter, I want you to stay,” Saferite said in his closing remarks. “We cannot back down to this behavior.”
At the meeting, Loren Ollenburger was nominated to be board president, but that motion was struck down by a 3-2 margin. Subsequently, José Juan Ibarra was elected. Ollenburger and his wife, Sarah, who is the basketball team’s booster president, have a son on the team and have been adamant that Tyler be removed from his position. The Ollenburgers moved to the Santa Ynez Valley from Orange County in 2017.
One of the final speakers of the night was Jacob Lee, a current player on the varsity basketball team. “I’ve never seen coach Walter act in an inappropriate way around this team or around any players, or staff, or anybody,” Lee said. “He has been a really dedicated coach for as long as I’ve known him. He has encouraged us to build ourselves as young men and basketball players, and he holds everybody accountable.”