by Andrew Garda

Reaction to the Montclair Board of Education’s decision not to renew the contract of Montclair High School Athletic Director Jeff Gannon was met with swift and negative reaction from the community at large. First, students, coaches and parents showed up in force at the Board of Ed meeting to voice their displeasure. Next, one of the individuals who spoke at the meeting, Walter Springer, launched a campaign on demanding “a complete review of the Job Replacement process for Jeff Gannon and Kim Westervelt.”

Westervelt, assistant principal in charge of English, was also informed the board would not be renewing her contract.

“My most concerning issue is with the way the process was done,” Springer said. “Did the AD receive a documented evaluation that detailed a poor job performance?”

Mary Kate Mellow, whose son Sam went to Atlantic City to wrestle in the New Jersey State Tournament this winter, was equally concerned.

“I find it alarming that no procedure is in place requiring the Board of Education and the superintendent to notify parents and students in a timely matter when major staff changes are made,” she said.

If you ask the athletic community, Gannon has done a difficult job well.

“Jeff Gannon has one of the hardest jobs around,” head football coach John Fiore said.

He shows up to sports that normally don’t see an athletic director, save for the biggest games and matches. Ask members of the tennis, golf or crew teams or their parents and you’ll hear the same story, that Gannon had shown up on a regular basis where other athletic directors had not.

“Jeff Gannon has been nothing but supportive to me and the student-athletes in both of our volleyball programs at Montclair High,” head volleyball coach Pam Reilly says. “I truly appreciate seeing him at our matches and love the fact that he shows up for all of our teams’ competitions at some point.”

Boys tennis coach Andrea Noyes agrees.

“I have found Mr. Gannon’s support of MHS tennis to be exceptional,” Noyes said. “Personally, he has been very supportive and an excellent adviser when needed for myself for boys tennis. He comes out, watches and supports our boys when [he’s] available.”

“A lot of coaches have horror stories regarding their AD,” said golf coach Kenneth Schnitzer. “I’m lucky in that I don’t have any. I coach two sports and Jeff has been very easy to work with and for. He’s been extremely supportive of both my teams. We’ve been on the same page, doing what’s best for the teams and the athletes.”

Schnitzer says there have been times Gannon has even tried to help other coaches who have not had as much support from their athletic directors.

Some of the affected MHS coaches are in their first year, but despite that, they found Gannon to be just as supportive and helpful as if they had been in their positions for years.

“He was a part of that support system, and always positive about doing what he could to help our team,” said fencing coach Ed Chang. “As a lesser known and often less respected sport, we always supported his attitude toward fencing.”

Parents feel the same.

“Through my involvement with the wrestling, cross-country, track and football booster clubs as well as several committees for Project Graduation, I have come to know Mr. Gannon as an outstanding athletic director as well as a director of student activities who goes above and beyond for the students at MHS,” said Mellow in an email.

During an overall successful first season, boys basketball coach Gary Wallace’s team had a few bumps in the road. Gannon allowed him to work through them, Wallace said, and didn’t interfere.

“A lot of times early in the season, he could have pulled the plug on some things but he trusted me to do what I wanted to do and with this program.”

Wallace’s concern — one shared by many coaches — is what changes a new athletic director might bring, especially for smaller, less well-known sports.

“I hope [the people making the decision] understand the ripple effect this is going to have in years to come,” Wallace said. “Not just with the basketball program — but with ice hockey, golf, swimming, football, tennis. I’ve seen him in one day be lacrosse then at baseball. He’s everywhere and the kids love seeing his face. So you have a guy that is committed to the kids and coaches. That’s a diamond in the rough.”

Like Springer and many other people around the MHS athletic programs, Wallace is concerned that the decision not to retain Gannon was made by people who do not seem to have been around that program.

How can you make such an important decision without seeing what Gannon does on a daily basis, Wallace wonders. How can you make that decision without any input from the coaches and players he deals with on a daily basis?

“I only worked with Mr. Gannon for one season, but in that season it became apparent that his primary concern is the students,” boys lacrosse coach John Scanlan told Montclair Local in an email. “Let there be no doubt — Mr. Gannon really acted as an advocate for the students and student-athletes of Montclair High School.”

Scanlan shared something he once witnessed that left an impression on him. The sentiment was echoed many times by individuals in talking about the athletic director.

“One time, I saw [Gannon] go out and buy a kinda shoddy-looking cupcake,” Scanlan wrote. “He didn’t eat the cupcake. He bought it because he saw that a bake sale for a club with really small membership hadn’t been well attended. He wanted to give them some business. I dunno. I kinda get where he was coming from right there. Kids first, as far as I’m concerned.”

The year isn’t over, but time is ticking and both coaches and students are concerned that without Gannon as athletic director, the more than 30 programs that were under his watch will struggle.

Or, as Noyes put it earlier this week when talking about the future of her tennis team, “The program will lack without the direction of Mr. Gannon.”