It was true for more than a quarter century of my scribbling notes on the sidelines in that neck of the woods, and it remains the rule of the road.

Some high schools in the Sun Journal’s tri-county coverage area consistently support their coaches, and some do not.

Kalle Oakes, Sports Columnist

A select few operate with minimal grumbling from the peanut gallery, and little-to-no turnover in the coaches’ offices. Others are besieged by constant backbiting, back-page-of-the-school-board agenda dismissals, and last-second replacement hires.

Never am I surprised to see which end of that spectrum wins and which loses.

At the risk of omitting high achievers, I immediately think of Edward Little, where Mike Adams, Craig Jipson, Chris Cifelli, Dave Sterling, Elaine Derosby, Rebecca Hefty, Scott Annear and Dave Jordan have been on the staff forever and-a-day; Oxford Hills, where Shane Slicer, Scott Graffam, Nate Pelletier, Mark Soehren and Cindy Goddard are more than mainstays; and Leavitt, where Mike Hathaway was handed the keys to the two highest-profile programs and empowered to do his job long ago.

Perhaps the poster school for the flip side — yet again making headlines for all the wrong reasons, thanks to a laughably botched attempt to move on from girls basketball coach Zach Keene — is Spruce Mountain.

“Flip” is the operative word, because the Phoenix change coaches more frequently than most schools change their pregame warm-up music.

It has been that way since the rushed and predictably flimsy handling of the Jay and Livermore Falls school merger less than a decade ago, and it will remain that way for the foreseeable future until everyone involved develops a backbone and/or a true, shared vision.

Heck, this is an athletic department that abandoned and rejoined the Mountain Valley Conference when the greener grass of the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference left its record in the red. Perhaps Spruce’s most damning detail is the number of superintendents, principals and athletic directors who have passed through the revolving door since 2011, when SAD 36 morphed into RSU 73.

The place obviously has commitment issues.

Which leads us to Keene, a local product in his late 20s. That’s probably the median age these days in an avocation known for chewing up and spitting out the people who nobly give it a shot.

He is a former multi-sport athlete with strong family ties to the community. By all accounts he is popular with his players and respected by the armchair coaches, both of which are small miracles when you consider the fickle fortunes of these transitioning mill towns.

Yet, had it not been for an aggressive, electronic, get-the-word-out campaign and an emergency meeting demanded by that support team, Keene would have been quietly jettisoned in favor of the next poor sucker under the cover of “it’s a personnel matter.”

His alleged indiscretions, in a day when it’s becoming tough if not impossible to find worthy candidates for these jobs, were startlingly minor.

Keene (remember, administration conveniently isn’t allowed to comment) admitted to organizing an optional, off-campus practice on a snow day. He confessed to distributing warm-up apparel with an unapproved business logo. He acknowledged certification courses that were taken, just not in a timely manner.

Oh, and he mentioned taking the rap for “dwindling numbers” in the program. Dunno if you’ve been paying attention, but that only mirrors what’s going on in the school and the towns. That’s why the state’s best small-school sports rivalry died and a merger ensued in the first place.

Keene’s court-side manner with officials strikes me as the most legitimate criticism of his work, even if I and others think it’s a smidgen overblown in this era of rampant sportsmanship police. Still, that’s an issue that could be corrected with consistent, in-season feedback from his immediate supervisor, not piled up in a performance review.

There is a learning curve for young coaches, and certainly millennial folk communicate in a manner that makes Generation X and boomers uncomfortable at times. But any prospective coach can be coached and grow in that area.

And anyone off the street can bull their way through a CPR course or anger management class without paying attention. Not everyone is gifted with a love for the game, a passion for his community and a care and concern for his athletes that can’t be taught.

I’ve known Zach Keene for at least half his life. I know the people who guided him at home and the ones who shepherded him on the field, the court and the diamond. Most of them weren’t adequately appreciated, either.

He’s the right person at the right time. For authority figures to write him off so cavalierly after three years of steady progress and professional development inspires me to question their qualifications, not his.

Multiple sources tell me Keene has been offered a reprieve with the condition of a two-game suspension, which heaps unjustified insult on top of unjustified insult. But, then again, this is the same district that has given us mid-season coaching changes in soccer, field hockey and football; the same joint that forced out its initial football coach (Keene’s father-in-law, maybe not coincidentally) after only one autumn.

Making good people feel unwelcome and persuading them to land on their feet elsewhere is what Spruce Mountain does well.

Supporting those folks and giving them the logistics and leverage to win is its neighbors’ domain.

Kalle Oakes spent 27 years in the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Keep in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @Oaksie72.

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