By Paul Tennant
---- — NORTH ANDOVER – Coach John Rafferty was the winner last night by a blowout score of 20-0. But he still doesn’t have his job.
At least 20 people, including current and former Scarlet Knight football players as well as parents, spoke out against the decision to dismiss North Andover High School’s head football coach.
No one present expressed support for Rafferty’s departure. More than 200 people attended the School Committee meeting in the high school library – and it seemed clear they were all there to back the man they call Coach Raff.
Several wore T-shirts with Team Raff on the front and “R - respect, A-accountability, F- fortitude, F-fairness” on the back. They gave sustained applause to each speaker – as if he’d made a good block or tackle, or even scored a touchdown.
The committee did not take any action last night. School Committee Chairwoman Laurie Burzlaff pointed out that under state law, the hiring or firing of a coach is in the hands of the principal and athletics director.
School Committee member Christine Allen, however, told Rafferty’s legion of supporters that while closure on the issue was not going to happen last night, comments from citizens can “influence us.”
High school Principal Carla Scuzzarella and Athletics Director John Longley told Rafferty two weeks ago that he would not be rehired. Rafferty led North Andover High’s football teams for a dozen years.
Robert Trickett, who graduated from North Andover High last year and now attends Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, said Rafferty does not know why he was let go.
“Why did this have to happen?” asked Trickett, who played under Rafferty and will be a linebacker for Division 3 Randolph-Macon next year.
“We can’t comment on personnel decisions,” Superintendent Kevin Hutchinson said.
“It he (Rafferty) doesn’t understand, then who does?” asked Thomas Stabile, one of the Scarlet Knights’ tri-captains last season.
Michael Laorenza, whose two sons played under Rafferty, made a determined but unsuccessful drive for the end zone.
“Can you override the decision?” Laorenza asked Hutchinson. “It’s a yes or no question. That’s all we want to know.”
“I’m not going to answer because you’re trying to draw men into (a discussion on a personnel matter),” Hutchinson said.
“You’re not going to answer my question,” Laorenza said.
Many of the speakers credited Rafferty, who did not attend last night’s session, with rebuilding a football program that had fallen into disarray. They described a Thanksgiving game with archrival Masconomet Regional High School that ended with a brawl several years ago, before Rafferty was hired.
Stephen O’Grady, a former North Andover High football player, said Rafferty’s emphasis on team discipline drastically reduced the number of personal fouls committed by North Andover players.
Patrick Turner, a 2003 NAHS graduate, cut short a vacation in Florida to attend last night’s meeting and support his high school football coach. He expressed his “extreme displeasure” at the decision and said people have “nothing but wonderful things to say about this man.”
Turner said he learned more from Rafferty than any of his teachers.
“I think you made a terrible mistake,” he told the school officials.
Former School Committee member Daniel Murphy also said that Rafferty rebuilt a program that had been in disarray.
“We couldn’t be prouder of this program,” he said. “You’ll never find a replacement for him.”
Brianna Slattery, an eighth-grader at North Andover Middle School and daughter of Kevin Slattery, an assistant football coach at North Andover High, said school officials should reflect on “what he (Rafferty) has done.”
The football players who turned out to support their coach were dressed in ties and waited quietly and patiently – many of them standing – for almost an hour while the committee discussed other agenda items before opening the floor to public comment.
“I feel your pain,” School Committee member Brian Gross said. “I know this is tough. You should be proud of who you are.”
School Committee member Andrew McDevitt said he was “incredibly impressed” with Rafferty’s supporters.
Scuzzarella and Longley both attended the meeting. They told The Eagle-Tribune they could not comment on personnel matters.