C hris Loonsfoot knew there would be challenges when he took over the Baraga boys basketball program following an 0-21 season. He envisioned a long-term turnaround for his alma mater — similar to what Dollar Bay has achieved — but after an 0-14 start in his second season, Loonsfoot was told he was fired from Baraga Athletic Director Amy Kraft-Lake after refusing to take a resignation on Tuesday.
“I didn’t even get to talk to the (administration),” Loonsfoot said. “The AD just said basically that it was her or me. If she didn’t make the change, they would do it and then probably remove her. She was a good AD, but nobody has anyone’s back at Baraga.”
The move came a day after a 69-18 loss to rival L’Anse. In just over one-and-a-half seasons, Loonsfoot compiled a 1-33 record during his attempted rebuild of the program.
“Our district felt it was best to separate and to make a change to move the program in a different and more positive direction,” Kraft-Lake said. “With five games left and districts, we didn’t want to wait to make a positive change. If a change can be in a positive direction, let’s do it as soon as we can.”
The school has yet to officially name an interim head coach. With the cancelation of school due to the recent cold weather spell, the process has been delayed, but Kraft-Lake believes it “will be done ASAP in the next day or two.”
“Our program needs a lot of energy, a lot of extra time and a lot of discipline,” Kraft-Lake said of what they’re looking for in a candidate. When asked if Loonsfoot was lacking in these areas, she declined to comment.
According to Loonsfoot, he was asked by Kraft-Lake to resign in a move the school thought would save face for him. He declined and was subsequently fired.
“I’m not a quitter at all,” Loonsfoot said. “When they tell me to quit and hold my head high, I could never hold my head high and quit on the kids. That’s insane. People that know me know that I don’t quit.”
The firing was felt by Loonsfoot on a personal level. He is a 2001 Baraga graduate and also played three years at Finlandia. Despite his experience and connection to the area, he didn’t feel as if he had the support from the administration.
“They told me when I took the job that it was going to be a trial basis by year to year. Right then, you’re set up for failure,” he said. “You can’t hire someone in a year and tell them you don’t like what they do. Can’t force someone to balance building a winning program and winning right now, and that’s what they did. When I tried to build the program up, this is what I get.
“I did the best for the program, for the kids. I know I did my best. I’m going to sleep well.”
The year to year contract is mandatory for coaches at Baraga, according to Kraft-Lake. The coaches are reinstated for the following year after an evaluation done by the school board.
Loonsfoot experienced opposition with members of the board during his first season. After a loss against Hancock in what turned out to be a 1-19 season, he had a verbal altercation with one of those board members.
“They were telling me why we lost and arguing with me, and I knew right then and there it was going to be a bumpy road the whole time,” he said.
With members of this season’s current team having had success at the junior high and elementary levels, Loonsfoot believes there were unrealistic expectations for the program from parents.
“They wanted instant success and that’s the problem with high school sports,” Loonsfoot said of the parents. “Coaches can have two good kids in elementary basketball and you can win. Big deal.
“You can tell that they weren’t taught much in the fundamentals, and that’s what I’ve been doing is teaching fundamentals.”
This Vikings sported a young roster with three sophomores starting for the majority of the season along with one junior and one senior. The only other upperclassmen in the rotation were two juniors.
Loonsfoot’s plan was to acclimate his young roster to the varsity level in hopes of it paying off in the future. It was a similar strategy to what Jesse Kentala used at Dollar Bay. By moving his underclassmen up to the varsity early in their careers, they gained experience and eventually earned a trip to the state semifinals last season. Loonsfoot had eventually hoped for the same.
“Certain people want their kids to be the star of the show and it wasn’t shaking out that way,” Loonsfoot said. “I have a whole team to worry about, not just two players. I have a whole team to get better. Them being so young, I could have sent them all on JV and they could win 20 games, but what would that accomplish? That would set the program back by not getting them varsity experience.
“The plan was going to shake out the way it’s supposed to, but everyone is worried about wins and losses.”
In addition to the lack of success on the court, Loonsfoot was informed attitude issues and kids not wanting to play in games was another reason for his firing. Kraft-Lake declined on commenting about the issue.
“I took a pay cut to do this coaching thing because I love basketball,” Loonsfoot said, “and to act like it wasn’t important to me is how they say it to me and I portray it as, and that pisses me off. There isn’t anything more I want than to see than the kids have success on the court and off.”
By Tuesday afternoon Loonsfoot had not been able to speak to his team in person. He messaged the players in the team group chat on Facebook to “let them know that I am proud of them.”
“They worked hard for me,” he said. “They’re good kids, and I just told them to keep working hard and keep working on fundamentals.
“They’re disappointed and shocked. They know I had their best interests at heart.”
Loonsfoot isn’t ready to give up on coaching. He will keep his options open as he plans on taking a break to assess his options.
“I’d like to stay somewhat involved somewhere,” he said. “Take some time to myself, reevaluate it later on. I got a daughter who loves to be in the gym and I’ll keep working with her. I know if I coach again, it won’t have anything to do with Baraga.”
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