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Nation’s most respected cross country coach fired for pointing out lockers were being broken into; his athletes aren’t happy

Cameron Smith
Prep Rally

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Part of the Facebook support for legendary cross country coach Jim O'Brien — Facebook

Part of the Facebook support for legendary cross country coach Jim O'Brien — Facebook

A longtime California cross country coach has been ousted for an act that he felt was actually helping correct a serious problem: He was marking lockers that had been broken into so the school could keep track.

According to Los Angeles CBS affiliate KTLA and Runners World, and brought back to Prep Rally's attention by Online Sports Guys, 17-year Arcadia (Cal.) High cross country coaching veteran Jim O’Brien was either fired outright or had his contract option declined -- accounts of the technical machinations of his ouster differ -- after school officials discovered he was responsible for X’s that were appearing on school lockers in the boys locker room. Those X’s were designed to mark which lockers had been broken into during a rash of locker burglaries, a problem which O’Brien felt was being completely overlooked by the Arcadia administration.

As it turns out, that aforementioned administration deemed O’Brien’s X’s to be an act of near treason, because they summarily dismissed him in the middle of the summer without summoning him for a longer discussion about what had transpired.

According to Runners World, O’Brien had been very vocal about his displeasure about the school’s tardiness in repairing lockers, which had led to a number of his runners losing gear that they were storing for afternoon workouts. The dispute rumbled on, eventually earning the moniker “Lockergate” from athletes who had lost items to theft.

For his part, O’Brien admitted to Runners World that he and the school’s administration had suffered previous disagreements before the spring emergence of “Lockergate”, yet the school and coach had always been able to work out their differences in a more amenable fashion. After one such dispute O’Brien resigned his position as the head track and field coach, but he had always held on to his cross country role, which he treasured above all of his other responsibilities.

That passion was reflected by the program’s success on the trail, where he led the program to two national titles in the prior three years. Over 17 years, O’Brien coached and mentored more than 1,000 runners, with many of those athletes now rallying behind their dismissed leader.

In fact, support for the dismissed coach has now reached a crescendo, with as many as 200 O'Brien supporters attending a Tuesday night school board meeting after a Facebook page promoted a "storm the board" campaign aimed at having O'Brien reinstated.

For a quiet mid-summer board meeting, that's a lot of protesters.

"[O’Brien] is way more than a coach," Maria De La Rosa, whose two sons have both competed for O’Brien, told Runners World. "He is a counselor, a father figure to so many kids. He works with their attitude, their character. I’m a single mother. The one teacher Juan carries deep in his heart is coach O’Brien.

"This is an injustice, a travesty. Behind the scenes, he helps all kinds of kids. To my way of thinking, these [administrators] are abusing their power because they have personal issues with him. We parents do not like it. We need to find ways to protest and ask for a change and for them to think wisely, not on a personal level."

While O’Brien may be out of a job at the moment, he hasn’t given up hope of a return to the Arcadia locker room, insisting that he would be more than happy to discuss any resolution with school officials that would allow him to continue coaching the cross country team.

"I’m not looking for a fight," he says. "I’m looking for a resolution. I’m looking for them to value me as an employee and value the job I’ve done over the years. I’ll take whatever directives they give. Let me work.

"Let me work with the kids and continue doing the things we were doing. The kids want it; the community wants it."

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