Falmouth football coach John Fitzsimmons talks with his players during a practice in 2021. He has been Falmouth’s head coach since 2007, compiling a 84-66 record. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Nearly three-quarters of the players on the 2023 Falmouth High School football team signed a petition presented to the school board Tuesday night asking that veteran coach John Fitzsimmons be replaced, taking the step after months of pressure from parents failed to sway school administrators.

The petition was signed by 22 of the 30 players on the 2023 team, including 21 of the 28 who would be eligible to return in 2024. It said Fitzsimmons has “lost the respect” of his players and they “have lost confidence in Coach Fitzsimmons.”

“Several of us have talked with you individually and in small groups about this, but we are now speaking with a collective voice to ask that you replace John Fitzsimmons with a new football coach next season,” the petition said.

While it’s not uncommon for parents to pressure high school administrators to replace a coach, it may be unprecedented in Maine for student-athletes to sign a petition asking for a coach’s removal.

Three of the approximately 10 players attending Tuesday’s school board meeting spoke during the public comment period.

Matthew Grace, a sophomore who was named the team’s 2023 defensive MVP, read from a prepared speech.


“We come to you tonight, this time publicly, to ask for change in the Falmouth football team’s coaching leadership,” Grace said. “We are not adequately coached for competition, and our safety is not prioritized. We players have attempted to make our voices heard on this matter for far too long. Too many players have quit in recent years and not enough will return this fall if you do not make changes to the team’s coaching leadership. We do not understand why school officials will not pay attention to us. This program will be ruined by the inactions of the athletic director and administration.”

Ben Robbins, another sophomore, talked emotionally about how his twin brother Alden started on defense during a Friday varsity game, and then, because of the team’s small roster, also had to play in a junior varsity game the following Monday.

“On two days’ rest he played both ways and he was exhausted and he fell and broke his collarbone in a game he shouldn’t have been playing … in a game Falmouth shouldn’t have been playing,” Ben Robbins said.

Falmouth High football players stand for the national anthem before a game at Gardiner Area High School on Sept. 15. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Thomas Willoughby, a burly sophomore lineman, just seemed angry with the whole situation, particularly with the adults – board members, school administrators, coaches – who have not been able to resolve the issues.

“Shame on all of you,” Willoughby said.

Fitzsimmons, 74, has been Falmouth’s head coach since 2007. He has been referred to as “the father of Falmouth football,” a program that played its first varsity season in 2003. Prior to taking over as the varsity coach, Fitzsimmons was Falmouth’s youth football coordinator, then the middle school coach, and the varsity offensive coordinator in 2006. In 16 seasons under Fitzsimmons (excluding the 2020 COVID year when teams played flag football), Falmouth has 11 winning records, 12 playoff appearances, and has appeared in three regional finals.


Fitzsimmons’ overall record is 84-66, including a 2-6 mark in 2023 when Falmouth was forced to forfeit its game against Portland because it had only 19 healthy players. The forfeiture resulted in the Maine Principals’ Association ruling Falmouth ineligible for the 2023 playoffs.

Reached Wednesday afternoon, Fitzsimmons declined to discuss the petition.

The presentation of the player petition to the school board came after months of requests by parents to administrators asking for Fitzsimmons to be removed.

Todd Ross, the father of a freshman player and vice president of the Falmouth Football board of directors, said the parents had been acting on behalf of the players. Ross, the point person in communication with school officials, said players have been expressing concerns about the football leadership for several seasons.

“This is not driven by the parents. The players had hit a wall,” Ross said. “They tried and tried, and every communication and concern they raised eventually (were ignored). The superintendent had no idea there were concerns until the Portland forfeit. … Parents helped to have (players’) voices elevated through the school administrative process.”



The concerns and criticisms, detailed in a presentation made by parents to the school board in an executive session on Jan. 8, included that Fitzsimmons has lost the ability to communicate with and lead the team, that his play-calling is outmoded, and game preparation is inadequate.

Most notably, they contended that several upperclassmen have chosen to quit in recent seasons because they did not want to play for Fitzsimmons. That left the program with critically small and inexperienced rosters. In 2023, Falmouth had two seniors and four juniors on its roster. The parents claim the attrition, combined with Fitzsimmons’ practice and game management, created an unsafe environment that resulted in a spike of injuries.

The school board, in a Jan. 12 response, said it “did not believe that it was necessary or appropriate to recommend that the administration take any action regarding the employment status of Mr. Fitzsimmons,” according to a letter obtained by the Portland Press Herald.

Matt Backman, whose son Indi Backman is a junior running back and has been one of the team’s best players the last two years, said the parents’ issues with Fitzsimmons center on safety. With the program losing players, he said, young and unprepared players have had to take on bigger roles, or veteran players have been overused.

“It’s not safe because the culture’s not retaining talent for upperclassmen,” Backman said. “You need 17-year-old kids on the field against 17-year-old kids. You can’t have a bunch of 13-, 14-year-old boys go out there. It’s not safe.”

Falmouth Athletic Director James Coffey was an assistant coach on the football team in 2023. The parents say that because Coffey is an assistant coach, he can’t adequately do his job as Fitzsimmons’ supervisor. Coffey did not respond to voice and email requests to be interviewed regarding the players’ petition.


Tim Grace, Matthew Grace’s father, is baffled by the school administration’s desire to retain Fitzsimmons.

“I don’t understand the thought processes that both Fitz and Coffey have on wanting to maintain the current situation. I just really don’t. To the detriment of the kids,” Tim Grace said.


At the conclusion of Tuesday’s school board meeting Superintendent Gretchen McNulty told the audience that she would be at Falmouth High early Wednesday and urged concerned students to meet with her.

Responding to a request to interview McNulty on Wednesday, Stephanie Motter, communications coordinator for Falmouth Public Schools, wrote: “We in the Falmouth School Department highly value student input and respect our students’ perspectives. Members of the administration and board members are continuing to meet with students and coaches will provide an update (Thursday).”

One name noticeably absent from the player petition was Falmouth senior William Gale, who earlier Tuesday received the statewide honor as the Frank J. Gaziano Offensive Lineman of the Year. Gale said he was aware of the petition, as well as the push to get Fitzsimmons to leave.

“Coach Fitzsimmons has done so much for me and I respect him a lot so I’ve sort of stayed by his side,” Gale said. “I did not sign (the petition) because he’s done so much for me and it felt wrong to do that.”

Gale said of Fitzsimmons and his coaches, “They’re not slacking off. They do more than enough work, but I guess the students are no longer enjoying it. I’ve always enjoyed football. It might be because I’m just good at it. I’ve always had fun and the practices are well-regulated. It’s a well-focused environment.”

Staff Writer Drew Bonifant contributed to this report.

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