Here's the deal: BYU has never been good at good-byes.
The school is terrible with breakups. Ask Roger Reid. Ask Rondo Fehlberg or Norm Chow or Tony Ingle. Ask Frank Arnold or Elaine Michaelis.
Ask Val Hale.
Things always end in a messy way. Coaches and administrators either leave unhappily and angrily, or they get fired in a way that is awkward and embarrassing for all parties. BYU just can't get it right.
But not everybody has lost the art of a farewell. A few days after Hale was unexpectedly fired by BYU, Hale was relaxing at home on Sunday when his son Chris, a wide receiver on the BYU football team, told him he better go to the door and check out something.
"Everybody is down at the park (at the end of their street)," he said. Hale went to the front door and, to his astonishment, there were about 500 people, the same ones who had gathered in the park, walking down the street and standing in front of his house. When Hale appeared on his front porch, they broke into a long, sustained applause. Then began a long line of hugs and tears.
"I felt like George Bailey in 'It's a Wonderful Life,' " says Hale, his eyes welling up with tears at the memory. "I'll never forget it my whole life."
It has been one month today since he was fired as athletic director at BYU, and the pain has finally eased. He has a new job, at Utah Valley State College. He has been invited to be a guest columnist with the local newspaper. He plans to return to officiating high school basketball games. A publisher has asked to write a book (he has been working on one for years, based on interviews with top LDS athletes about subjects such as playing on Sunday, drugs in sports, profanity, etc.).
"It was hard for a few days," Hale says of his firing. "It was probably harder on my family and extended family."
The truth is, no matter what you think about what's happened to BYU's football team, Hale deserved better. He is the truest of the true blue. He grew up in the shadow of BYU. He played football for the BYU freshman team. He took a degree in communications there. He has worked for the school since 1979. Except for the nine months he worked as a writer for the Provo Daily Herald, he has never had another employer. He turned down job offers from other schools over the years to stay with his alma mater.
Even after his sudden dismissal, he said all the right things.
There were no bitter words.
He said he wanted only the best for BYU. He said his firing was BYU's prerogative. He noted that he had told BYU officials several times over the years that if they ever wanted to replace him, all they had to do was say so.
But he never expected this kind of treatment. On Sept. 8, he reported for his bi-monthly meeting with BYU Advancement Vice President Fred Skousen. He handed Skousen a copy of his agenda items, and Skousen handed it back. "I've got some bad news," he said. "We're going to let you go." Just like that, he was finished. Outside the office, he found women's A.D. Elaine Michaelis, a coaching legend and pioneer, waiting her turn.
Moments later, she was fired.
To this day, Hale doesn't know why he or Michaelis were fired.
Skousen tried to lay it off on an organizational restructuring, but why the hasty, ill-timed press conference? Nobody bought that one, even though there will be a restructuring.
Hale guesses, like everyone else, that he was the fall guy for the poor performance of the football team on the field and especially off of it. "Maybe I was the scapegoat," he says. Which is ironic, because no administrator did more to try to persuade athletes to take the Honor Code seriously than Hale. The recruiting practices of the football team — signing players who had no experience with the BYU lifestyle or the Honor Code, resulting in suspensions and embarrassing publicity — might have contributed to his downfall.
After being fired, Hale scrambled to tell family members before they heard it on TV or radio or from friends. His wife Nancy, a schoolteacher, was unable to leave class, so Hale told her on the phone. She broke down crying in front of 30 kids. He also managed to break the news to his three children.
Relaxing in his home where he has lived for 18 years, Hale remains loyal to BYU and what he considers its mission. When he and his wife returned home the day he was fired, they immediately knelt by the living room couch and prayed that they could move on and do so without bitterness. Hale finds it ironic that a few months before his firing, he delivered a talk in a church meeting on forgiveness.
"Now I realize that talk was for me," he says.
All this notwithstanding, Hale still has unresolved issues with his dismissal. "The way they did it," he says. "I had told them several times, just tell me if you want someone else. If they had just called me in and said let's decide how we can do this in a way where we both come out in the best light possible, Elaine could have announced her retirement.
"They could've given me till the end of the football season or I could have called a press conference and announced I was leaving. I had given serious consideration to resigning anyway because of the pressure. I didn't expect a public flogging. I don't argue with their right to make a change, but to this point I've never been told thanks for your 22 years. That was a shock.
I'm surprised they told me to leave the university. "
Hale was wounded that he was not even offered another position with the university. After all, he had held four different positions with the school previously and each one had led to a promotion. He had bypassed positions as athletic director at Utah State and Weber State, and BYU had helped lure him back with promises of bigger responsibilities to come. He is certain he could have had the A.D. job at Nevada last spring, with a hefty pay raise, if he had wanted it.
"I always thought if the day came that they didn't want me as athletic director, they'd figure out something I could do to help the university," he says. "I must have done a good job previously because I got promoted all those years.
At the press conference, Skousen noted that the firings were an "important first step in creating a distinctive, exceptional athletic program that is fully aligned with the mission and values with BYU and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That is our objective."
Hale calls that an "insinuation that Elaine and I hadn't been in line with the mission of the church. That hurt. Anyone in the department can tell you no one tried harder than we did to do that. We did more to emphasize the Honor Code, religion, education and graduation than any of the three A.D.s I worked for. We made it a point of emphasis. I just don't know why he made that statement. And Elaine feels the same way."
Which brings us to the last issue that Hale has with the dismissal: Michaelis. "I can honestly say I felt worse for Elaine than for my own situation," he says. "She had been there 44 years. Her accomplishments at that university rival LaVell Edwards', except they were on a smaller stage. LaVell went out with fireworks and they named the stadium after him. She went out with 72-point headlines: 'Michaelis fired.' Something is wrong with that picture. That hurt me."
Now BYU is searching for its fifth athletic director in five years, which would seem to indicate deeper problems than the man who holds the job. Hale believes that the announced restructuring of the athletic department, which was based on a study the school conducted, will make the job for the next athletic director much easier. But he thinks there's one thing that shouldn't change.
"The thing that has made BYU great is the people," he says.
"That's why people like to come work there. (Former A.D.) Glen Tuckett used to say that working at BYU is terminal. People work there till they die because they love it and stay forever. If they quit treating people the way they have in the past, if they treat it like a business and that's the sense I got out of the university report — then BYU will be like every other institution."