James Chaney was back on the Lehigh football field Tuesday as the head coach of the Lightning, four weeks after being reassigned by the Lee County School District for a professional standards inquiry and five weeks since coaching his last game on the sideline.
“I’m happy to be back,” said Chaney, whose one-game suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct on Sept. 11 against South Fort Myers preceded his larger absence as head coach. “I’ve put all that behind me. And I just want to give these guys a chance.”
Surprisingly enough, Lehigh (2-5, 1-1) is still in the hunt for a playoff position in District 6A-11. The winner of its game against Estero (2-6, 1-1) on Friday will move on to the postseason, which is something the Lightning haven’t accomplished since 2009.
“If they win, they’re in the playoffs,” Chaney said. “I’m telling them, if they prepare and practice hard and show up and be on time and play to the best of their ability, they can do well in this game.”
He described his time off as the most trying of his entire football career, a period where he sat home on Friday nights and followed the team’s progress on Twitter.
Tuesday was the first day he was allowed back on the field following his reassignment by the school district on Sept. 19, though he could not comment on the reason for his absence or any punishments given.
“I’m just kind of the mindset, I’ll take the blame, I’ll take the issue. I’m the head coach,” he said. “Everything is my responsibility.”
But in the weeks between his reassignment, parents and players remained confused as to why their head coach – as well as Lehigh teacher and coach Matthew Booth — was even off the field. The school district could not provide answers during that time, nor could Chaney. Requests for Chaney’s personal standards inquiry have been deferred to Nov. 1, per state statutes.
That confusion came to a head on Oct. 6 during a Lee County School Board meeting when Suzie Steadman, a parent of a Lehigh player, issued a statement. Student-athletes Rocky Jacques-Louis and Shocky Jacques-Louis also spoke on Chaney’s behalf.
“I’m seeking to know when our football coaches are going to be back and returning to work. I know it’s an ongoing investigation and I’m OK with that,” Steadman said. “But I have to say the coaches that have been removed from our school are missed. They’re very important to my son, the school and the community. They work tirelessly every single day to keep our children out of trouble and to give them guidance.”
While Chaney could not witness the support in person, he said it had a direct effect on him.
“When I watched that school board meeting, a tear came to my eye,” he said. “It was touching.”
In his first moments back Tuesday, Chaney was forced to be a disciplinarian. With several players arriving late to 8:30 a.m. practice, he led the Lightning through five sprints.
“I didn’t get the biggest reception in the world,” he said. “But this one thing I won’t put up with is kids being late. My dad always told me if you weren’t 15 minutes early, you’re late.”
But Chaney largely guided a positive practice that later spun off to drills reinforcing a competitive environment. He lauded the work of his coaches and thanked his principal, Jackie Corey, for supporting him through the district-mandated reassignment.
“I want to show these guys, when they got knocked down or when they take a hit, instead of wallowing or quitting, you get back up and you come back even stronger,” he said. “I ain’t bitter. I’m not hanging my head. I never sent any bitter messages to them. I want them to see that I’m vibrant, I’m back and I’m energized.
“And I put the whole situation behind me. I’m really trying to send that message to them … I want them to know in any situation, you come back and bounce back. I want to be that example.”
Win or lose Friday, Chaney still believes he has a larger goal to accomplish at the school. The former North Fort Myers standout and Florida State nose guard wants his players to be multi-faceted on and off the field.
“We’re trying to develop these kids into players that will play through adversity, that will play when it’s tough,” he said. “College scouts don’t ask for highlight films. They ask for game film when you lost 42-0. They want to see if that prospect played hard when you were down three or four touchdowns. That’s the mindset we want to develop here.”