A postgame brawl has resulted in Cullman High School defensive coordinator Matt Hopper’s suspension for the remainder of the season, along with a $1,500 fine against the school system levied by the Alabama High School Athletics Association (AHSAA) on Thursday.
Walker head coach John Holladay, who resigned earlier this week after taking a swing at the Cullman coach to kick off the brief tussle, has also been suspended for the season. The fight erupted after Cullman’s 13-10 comeback win against its bitter rival on Friday, Aug. 30 in Jasper.
Both schools have been placed on AHSAA probation, though Walker will be banned from participating in the playoffs this season. Cullman is on non-restrictive probation, meaning the team should be able to participate — if eligible — at the end of the season and no additional incidents occur.
Walker was already on non-restrictive probation dating back to a 2012 incident. If Holladay had stayed on as head coach, the school would have faced an additional playoff ban in 2014.
Each school also faces a $1,500 fine for flagrant unsportsmanlike conduct. That amount can be reduced to $1,000 if each respective team completes a professional development session administered by the AHSAA’s mentoring program.
In a prepared statement, Cullman City Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Doreen Griffeth said she was saddened the comeback win will likely only be remembered for the post-game fight — as opposed to the contest itself.
“The Cullman High School versus Walker High School football game was intensely contested, and was decided in the final 18 seconds. The players on both teams conducted themselves well throughout the game,” she wrote. “No player or coach on either team was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct during the game. We deeply regret that such an outstanding contest will be remembered for the events that occurred after the final whistle.”
She also commended head coach Mark Britton and his staff’s longtime track record of “character and sportsmanship.”
“Over the course of those 12 seasons Coach Britton’s teams have a proven record of meeting the highest standards of sportsmanship in athletic competitions,” she wrote. “Specific examples are that during his 12 seasons, no CHS football coach has been ejected from a game. Cullman High School football teams have completed the last three seasons of competition without any player ejections or AHSAA fines being assessed while competing at the most intense levels.”
Griffeth declined to give any further comments on the sanctions, but said the system planned to adhere to the AHSAA’s rulings.
“Cullman City Schools, as a longtime member of the AHSAA, is committed to continuing our practice of meeting the highest standards of sportsmanship in all of our athletic programs,” she wrote. “In accordance with our membership, we will abide by the sanctions that have been imposed and we look forward to turning a difficult event into a bridge to increased sportsmanship across all of our athletic programs.”
When asked by The Times if any additional sanctions or suspensions could be handed out, Griffeth confirmed at least one additional sanction has been placed on a Cullman player by the AHSAA. That ruling was related to a Cullman player who can be seen on video sprinting across the field and tackling a Walker player just as the fight began.
“A sanction has been handed out and we will follow it,” she said. “We’re very anxious to move forward.”
When asked if the team and coaches would participate in the AHSAA’s mentorship program, Griffeth responded: “We will follow all sanctions.”
Cullman High head football coach Mark Britton and athletic director Tim Loveless did not respond to messages left seeking comment. Messages left for Hopper and Holladay were also not returned.
In a prepared statement, Walker principal Gary Boling pledged a renewed focus on sportsmanship for the team moving forward. He also said the team and coaches will participate in the recommended mentoring program offered by the AHSAA.
“Walker High School is very saddened by these events and accepts these penalties. We apologize for the behavior that was exhibited and pledge to emphasize and put into place the measures necessary to prevent this kind of behavior in the future by a Walker High School student, coach or teacher,” he wrote. “Again, we want to assure everyone that we take these matters seriously and regret that the incident has cast a negative light on Walker High School, Cullman High School and the State of Alabama. We see this as an opportunity to provide a positive learning experience for all concerned.”
In a statement accompanying the association’s findings, AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese said he hopes the ruling will bring some finality to the issue and allow the teams, as well as the organization, to move on with the 2013 season.
“The AHSAA encourages the two schools to work together to enhance relations between their student-athletes and communities and, in doing so, demonstrate the leadership necessary to foster the AHSAA’s mission of good sportsmanship in interscholastic athletics,” he said. “It is time to take the focus away from this isolated event and note the outstanding sportsmanship that is exhibited across our state by our member schools, teams and coaches each week. Let’s now move forward and accent the positive impact education-based athletics makes daily in the lives of our student-athletes, coaches, schools and communities.”
Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.