Love him or hate him, people have strong opinions about Riverside-Brookfield High School Athletic Director Otto Zeman.
That’s true among the District 208 school board and among top RB administrators.
Last week a divided RB school board voted 4-3 to release Zeman from his position as athletic director effective June 30. Voting to release Zeman were three members of the school board who were elected one year ago, Dan Moon, Matt Sinde and Mike Welch. They joined with school board President Jim Marciniak, who cast the deciding vote in favor of releasing Zeman. Larry Herbst, Sue Kleinmeyer and MariAnn Leibrandt voted to retain Zeman.
The split vote of the school board reflected not only the division in the community, but also apparently reflected a split among the top two
administrators at RB.
Interim Superintendent David Bonnette recommended that Zeman be released, while Interim Principal Tim Scanlon reportedly favored retaining Zeman.
“Dave’s recommendation was not to bring Otto back; Tim’s was,” Herbst said. “It’s just a difference of opinion.”
Bonnette confirmed Monday that he recommended releasing Zeman.
“I made that recommendation to the board, yes, and beyond that I don’t really comment on the intricacies of personnel recommendations,” Bonnette said. “I felt that it was important to go in a new direction with the athletic program.”
Herbst said that Scanlon favored retaining Zeman.
“He felt that Otto should be given another year,” Herbst said.
Scanlon was home sick on Monday and did not return a call to his cellphone from the Landmark.
Zeman has been a fixture at RB for more than 40 years. He graduated from RB in 1965 and began teaching and coaching at RB in 1969 upon his graduation from Northwestern University. He became head football coach at RB in 1982. In 2002 Zeman retired as a teacher but became the athletic director, officially on a part-time basis, while continuing as head football coach.
This year Zeman made $83,784 as athletic director and received a stipend of $8,228 as head football coach.
When contacted by the Landmark and asked for his reaction to board vote to release him, Zeman said that he did not wish to comment.
At last week’s school board meeting Shari Bongiorno implored the board to retain
“He has openly said he would take a $10,000 cut in pay,” Bongiorno said.
Bonnette and school board members say that they were not aware of that offer.
But the next day Herbst said that he understood that Zeman was willing to take a pay cut even though he did know specifically about the $10,000 figure.
“I’d heard rumors, but I hadn’t asked him for sure, but I understand that that gesture had been made,” Herbst said. “No one else in the building has been willing to do that.”
Marciniak refused to say why he voted to release Zeman.
“This is a personnel situation and I really don’t feel free to comment on it,” Marciniak said.
Sinde was the most specific in his comments of those voting to release Zeman.
“Things needed to be changed,” Sinde said. “During the year that I was on the board, I kept on seeing stuff that did not show a good run department. When we went out campaigning his name popped up with a lot of people. I just think the athletic department needs to be realigned, redesigned and make sure it’s meeting the needs of our students and athletes.”
Sinde said that the use of a volunteer wrestling coach while the man was awaiting trial on drug charges was only one factor in his decision. The man in 2009 was found not guilty of the charges.
“That was a part of it, but there was other stuff too,” Sinde said. “Getting skull caps for the football team only. Where was the financial restraint? The fundraising debacle.”
By fundraising debacle Sinde said he was referring to revolved around having RB athletes sell discount cards, a practice that has irked many RB parents who claim that athletes are given a quota to sell.
Sinde, whose daughter plays volleyball at RB, said he was troubled by the practice.
“If you sold enough gift cards then they would give you free cards to sell that you keep the money with,” Sinde said. “It seemed very, very strange. It was just real weird. I talked with other parents in other sports and it didn’t seem right.”
Lax financial oversight was a frequent criticism of Zeman as was the RB Booster Club and athletic department practice of sometimes using the fundraising services of a company that Zeman’s son was involved in.
“Lack of organization, lack of procedures, guidance, evaluations, stuff like that,” Sinde said.
But members who voted to retain Zeman said they saw no reason to let him go.
“I think our sports are doing well for the size of school that we are,” Leibrandt said. “Participation is up. I have heard no negatives, so I think he is doing a fine job.”
Herbst said that he was never shown that releasing Zeman would save money.
“I have not been shown any reason why this is financially advantageous,” Herbst said. “In fact my own investigation is the reverse of that. No one’s proven to me that this is going to be a cost saving. I highly doubt if it will be a cost saving to seek another athletic director.”
Herbst also pointed to RB’s athletic success and the high level of participation in athletics.
“We’ve had a very successful athletic program for the last five years,” Herbst said. “More sports than ever, more kids than ever, more success than ever. I’m not saying that it’s because of Otto, but I certainly not saying it’s in spite of Otto. I saw no reason not to bring Otto back. No one ever gave me a valid reason. There was absolutely no valid reason not to bring Otto back.”
Herbst said bringing Zeman back would have allowed incoming RB Principal Pamela Bylsma to make her decision on who to have as athletic director.
Herbst said that Zeman became a divisive issue, because of a group of residents who constantly criticized and targeted Zeman.
“Otto is a divisive factor, because one group has made him a divisive factor,” Herbst said. “You saw who waited. I think that speaks for itself.”
Jerry Buttimer, an RB parent and the leading critic of Zeman, was the only member of the public, other than two reporters, in the board room at around 11 p.m. when the board voted to release Zeman.
Buttimer said that he was happy about the board’s vote.
“This creates an opportunity to make character-building a primary goal of our new athletic department,” Buttimer said. “There was more emphasis on winning in the smallest conference in the state of Illinois when we’re in the largest
“The kids aren’t learning the character life lessons that can be learned from sports. It’s more than winning or losing. It’s more than winning conference. It’s about hard work, determination, fairness, level playing field. It’s not cronyism, nepotism.”
Gary Zeleny, the president of the RB Booster Club, said that he worked well with Zeman.
“Sorry to see him go,” Zeleny said. “We’ve had a good working relationship. We look forward to whoever replaces him to pick up the baton and carry it further. I think he had a good run.”