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Sluga hoped to teach players restraint

Former West coach says he’s not racist, he’s just passionate

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George Sluga wanted the young men standing before him to understand the powerful emotions that might boil inside them when they heard the taunts other players might fling at them on the basketball court.

He wanted them to feel the sting, the anger, the urge to extract revenge, and then he wanted them to ignore it. Instead, he asked them to stand at a white stripe while someone insulted their mother, girlfriend, race or ethnicity and make freethrows that might win basketball games.

"I was teaching them," Sluga said, referring to an incident that occurred at a summer practice that apparently led to his firing last week. "I was trying to avoid a fight, even a riot. I wanted them to ignore the name-calling and insults, and I want them to make the foul shots. Then, I told them, I want you to go play defense. Don't say anything; don't give him the finger or insult him. Help us win the game. After the game you come to me and I'll figure out how to handle it."

In an effort to drive home his point, he used insults, including the N-word, but he said it was not directed at anyone. It was simply an example of what opponents might say to try and get under their skin, inside their heads and cause them to lose their focus and even their tempers.

He did on that June afternoon what he's done for 41 years of coaching basketball. He tied what the players learn about a game to something that he believes will help them in their life off the court.

"I love the kids," he said of why he agreed to take over West's 1-9 program two years after being fired by Bingham's administration for not improving his sideline behavior. "I love to teach them lessons through basketball about life. Being a good team player will help them be good fathers, husbands and employees."

Sluga was stunned last Tuesday when West principal Margery Parker called him and told him he was fired. When Sluga asked for a reason, he didn't get one.

The next day he met with a lawyer and district officials and slowly it came out that he was being fired for using the N-word. Apparently it didn't matter why.

"The parents are upset," said Steve Towner, whose son plays at West. "It's supposedly just that one incident, but things just don't seem right."

Towner had never met Sluga until he went with him and other parents to a meeting at the district office last week.

"It's tough to be critical of someone when they go the extra mile and put their heart and soul in it," he said. "We just don't have enough information . . . I feel sad, I feel angry, and I feel embarrassed."

Parents have been rallying around Sluga and gathering to defend him. With just two hours notice, about 60 parents met at the Salt Lake School District Offices this week. Among those was Bill Poulos, who also met with Superintendent McKell Withers Wednesday afternoon.

"My son was there, and he witnessed the entire incident," he said. "He used (the n-word) in an instructional way . . . none of those student-athletes, the two coaches who were there, parents, no one has been talked to about this."

He is frustrated because he knows firsthand how good Sluga is at teaching basketball to teenage boys. Poulos played against Sluga's teams when he attended Cyprus High and coached against him when he coached at Olympus.

"George is the best coach in the state," he said. "It was an absolute coup to get George Sluga to even consider taking over West's program. One-and-nine programs don't get a chance at coaches who have six state championships."

Poulos said he's most disturbed that Parker has had no dialogue with the parents about who complained or were offended, and why it warranted firing Sluga.

"The thing that upsets me," Poulos said, "is that leadership is hard. Conflicts happen. The most difficult thing to do is when conflict happens, bring people together, sit down, work things out and clear up misunderstandings. There's just no leadership here."

The 62-year-old drivers-ed teacher said he just wants his job back. The irony is that his daughter-in-law is Haitian and he has two Haitian-American grandchildren.

"I'm not racist; that's just stupid," he said. "I'm just passionate. I give it everything I have."

He points to the fact that he often went home after games to discover bruises on his chest and stomach.

"I was hitting myself, telling my kids to play with heart," he said. "In another state my sideline behavior would be admired. My mind to coach, even in Utah, is admired. I'm just energetic."

E-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com