High School Football

Football coach’s fiery resignation letter is the talk of Cleburne

Former football coach Jeff Merket’s fiery resignation letter has become the talk of Cleburne.
Former football coach Jeff Merket’s fiery resignation letter has become the talk of Cleburne. Star-Telegram archives

Unlike the days of yesteryear when football coaches stayed for generations, today, at every level, they come and go like overpriced movie options at the nearby theater.

Not many, however, go the way of former Cleburne coach Jeff Merket.

Merket exited the stage with prose generally reserved only for lottery winners, even in politically volatile Cleburne, which time after time delivers political drama as delicious as any small town in Texas.

Particularly as it concerns the school board.

But few recall such a dousing of the figurative bridges of the Johnson County seat with gasoline and, rather than a match, firing up the largest incendiary device he could find.

“Athletic Director Mark Walker and Human Resources Director Kyle Boles, along with Dr. Kyle Heath, have used such malicious tactics as bullying, harassment, and retaliation, and have threatened poor evaluations and non-renewal if I did not comply with their schemes,” according to Merket’s resignation letter uncovered by the Cleburne Times-Review.

“I have received nothing but good reviews since I’ve worked for CISD. These actions are in direct correlation to my knowledge and support of Pam Lea and her $1 million lawsuit against CISD.”

With words (and a lawsuit) like that, it was also no surprise to learn that attorneys have become involved.

Merket declined to elaborate Tuesday, saying his attorneys have advised him not to make any further comment. He did say that he hoped to coach again, though admitted “time will tell” if the contents of his resignation letter will hamper future opportunities.

A school district spokeswoman, Lisa Magers, would only confirm that officials within the district’s hierarchy had received the letter and accepted the resignation. She said the district would have no further comment.

Lea, the former athletic director who spent several years in the Fort Worth athletic department, is seeking damages from alleged incidents of discrimination and retaliation, which she asserts were pivotal to her demotion.

School district officials have continually declined to comment on the suit, though the Times-Review reported on attorneys’ answer to the charges.

He was the kind of guy who would come into the coffee shop, which we all liked.

Ted Reynolds, former mayor of Cleburne, speaking of former Cleburne coach Jeff Merket

“The district generally denies each and every, all and singular, the allegations set forth in the petition, and any amended or supplemental petition filed in this cause, and the district demands strict proof thereof in accordance with the laws of the state of Texas.”

In a career of more than 30 years, Merket, who won a state championship as Stephenville’s offensive coordinator under Art Briles in 1998, has earned a reputation as one of the state’s best offensive minds.

During his tenure in Cleburne, the Yellow Jackets went 27-25, their best five-year stretch in 20 years. Seventeen of his players went on to play in college.

In his letter, Merket noted that his players had been good leaders in the classroom, as well, citing that 98 percent of them had passing rates during the season and 60 percent of varsity players had achieved academic all-district status.

Merket has quit the Cleburne school district before. In 2013, he rescinded his resignation after resolving a dispute that presumably revolved around the district’s athletic director, who ultimately instead resigned.

Merket said Tuesday that a similar remedy is “not a possibility” this time.

“I’m a little bit at a loss of words,” said Ted Reynolds, a civic leader and once mayor of Cleburne. “I don’t pretend to know all the details of him being forced out — and he was forced out, by the way — but you just don’t find a better offensive mind.

“He was the kind of guy who would come into the coffee shop, which we all liked. I think his relationship with people like me in the business community was just fine. I don’t really know. I’ve heard he has an independent streak. But if you look at any successful coach at any level, that’s the way they are.”

7-4 Cleburne’s record in 2016. The Yellow Jackets lost to Mansfield Legacy, 56-21, in the bi-district round of the 5A Division II playoffs.

As with just about any Small Town, USA, political spectacles such as this are not unique to Cleburne, where a dog once ran for mayor (and ultimately endorsed Reynolds when city officials determined a dog couldn’t run for mayor). In two election cycles, another gentleman threw his hat in the ring for the city’s top political post with the aim of returning downtown’s market square to its original purpose: selling cows.

The school board and school district also have been chock full of controversy over the years, most of it having to do with the balance of what’s good for the kids and good for the taxpayer.

Factions have formed, factions have clashed.

In 2009, the superintendent axed “The Pillars of the Earth,” by Ken Follett, from the high school curriculum after parents’ angst about the sexual content in the book, written in 1989.

In 2008, an audit conducted by the Texas Education Agency found that the district had misused federal funds. Among the disclosures were an almost $1,000 meal in San Antonio for the superintendent and the board, $5,000 for district employees, and $14,000 for a visit to Vail, Colo., for a learning conference.

Of the environment in Cleburne formed by community activists, parents and some school district officials, one person, who has spent years in education at various locales, said: “Oh, it’s unique from all the others.”

Factions within the community have also faced off over what’s good for the football team and the basketball program.

Cleburne twice has been crowned co-state champion in football, after ties in the 1920 — the UIL’s first state-title game — and the 1959 Class 3A game. TCU quarterback-turned-high-school coach Chuck Curtis developed the Yellow Jackets into a state contender in the early 1980s before leaving for the University of Texas at Arlington.

Similarly, Jeff Cody built Cleburne’s basketball program into an annual contender during a decadeslong tenure at the school.

The football and basketball programs had always willingly shared players.

That sense of cooperation, however, changed after Cody retired in 2008, said a lifelong Cleburne resident who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

“There was a concern among a small group that if the football program got good, the basketball program would die,” he said.

That mindset was at the heart of the controversy that led to the exit of Merket’s predecessor, Phil Young.

When Young left in 2012, a Cleburne school board member who was purportedly one of the coach’s chief antagonists, got on a message board as “YellowJacket80” and began talking about his grievances with the coach, who was also the district’s athletic director. In closing he left his cell number, blowing his cover, if he was even trying to conceal his identity.

The comments possibly violated the exit agreement between Young and the school district, and resulted in a reprimand of trustee Jay Wilson from the board.

Ultimately, the school board decided to split the positions of football coach and athletic director, creating angst among the taxpayer watchdogs in the community.

“My former coach, Spike Dykes, told me when I got into coaching that what changes most after you get hired are the people,” Young said. “They change, they move on. The further you get away from the people who hired you the more the vision changes.”

Apart from the allegations he raised in resigning, change in leadership appears to be a factor in leading to Merket’s leaving.

Since being hired in 2014, Heath, the district’s superintendent, has made a number of changes, as is typical. Many have come from his former place of employment, the Mansfield school district.

Among them are the new athletic director, Mark Walker, who replaced Lea. Another is Le’Ann Downs, now the principal at the high school. Another is Andrea Hensley, the school district’s assistant superintendent.

That’s not to suggest there is a Mansfield Conspiracy at work. The boss generally hires people he or she knows well.

“The guess is he runs Merket off he’ll bring in a coach from Mansfield,” said Harry Shaffer, another community leader and school board observer who also ran unsuccessfully for the board. “Here we go … .”

As Young said, football is the front porch of a town. Regardless of what you know about the people who live in the house, when you drive up to it, the front porch is the first thing you see.

Is it nice? Or is it a junk heap?

People are wondering about what’s going on in Cleburne.

“Only a fool stumbles on something behind him,” said Young, now at Fort Worth Arlington Heights. “It was time to move on. We weren’t going to look back.

“I love the people of Cleburne. I want the best for it. I have dear memories there.”

Mansfield Legacy quarterback Kendall Catalon rushed for 27 yards and 3 scores and threw for 165 yards and 4 more TDs as the Broncos dominated Cleburne 56-21. Legacy scored 35 second-quarter points in the Class 5A, Division I, bi-district game.

In a small town with huge expectations, players and coaches embrace the pressure to reclaim what was once theirs: “State!”