BY JEFF FALK
Is the concept of tradition a thing of the past? Has loyalty fallen by the way side? Is respect an out-dated notion?
One must excuse Gary Bouchette if he’s a bit of out sorts these days- bewildered, confused, emotionally torn. For in less than one week, Bouchette had his life turned upside-down, not once, but twice.
It’s safe to say that Bouchette has been more loyal to the Northern Lebanon administration and athletic department than they have been to him. The question Bouchette is currently struggling with is: Why should he be loyal to a school district that hasn’t been loyal to him?
In one of the most bizarre coaching developments in the history of Lebanon County scholastic sports, Bouchette, the Vikings’ head basketball coach and the biggest proponent of the sport in his school district, has been offered a job that five days earlier he had been fired from.
On Wednesday, February 18 – two weeks after the Vikings had concluded their 2014-15 campaign – Bouchette was summoned into Nate Artz’s office and Northern Lebanon’s second-year athletic director unceremoniously canned him. Five days later, on Monday, Feb. 23rd, Bouchette and Artz met again behind closed doors, and Bouchette was offered his old job back.
But at the time of this writing that offer remained on the table. So as he mulls the offer, Bouchette is not the Northern Lebanon boys’ basketball coach: the former one, yes; the future one, perhaps; but not the current one.
Bouchette is proceeding with caution, quite understandably. Who’s saying the Northern Lebanon administration won’t continue to look over his shoulder, won’t continue to micro-manage his program, won’t jump to future conclusions without considering both sides of an issue?
Ultimately, what Bouchette’s decision could come down to is whether or not he can put his pride aside and follow his heart.
“I was offered the position back,” said Bouchette. “Go figure! It’s a tough one. It’s that ‘trust’ word.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” added Bouchette. “I’m not sure. I don’t know what the deal is. Why am I good enough to coach one day, and the next day I’m not?”
Artz and Northern Lebanon superintendent Don Bell neither immediately returned messages seeking comment for this piece. By so doing, both avoided facing questions on the record about Bouchette’s coaching ability, his character, whether or not his performance this season met their standards, whether or not they engage in micro-managing, who’s duty it is to determine playing time on Viking athletic teams and who exactly complained to them about Bouchette.
“At that time, I wasn’t given a reason why I was being let go,” said Bouchette of his initial meeting with Artz. “I was told the position was being opened up. After I pressed it, the reason was playing time. That’s what I was more upset about than anything. There was nothing mentioned all season. Everything’s fine. Boom. Done.
“One thing Northern Lebanon has always said to players and parents is that it’s up to the coaches to determine playing time,” said Bouchette. “My job is to play the people necessary to win games. Correct (someone complained to the administration about him). But it might not have been, it might not have been, a current player.”
To Artz’s and Bell’s credit, if they were caused to act by someone chewing on their ears, they may have changed their course on Bouchette for the same reason. When news first broke of Bouchette’s dismissal, the outpouring of support for Mr. Viking – the ninth-year head coach who bleeds blue and gold – from the Northern Lebanon community, current and past players and parents, was overwhelming.
“It does mean a lot to me,” said Bouchette of the support he has received. “It’s been great. I could sit here and twist everything back on the school district. But I’m thankful for the opportunity to coach. All in all, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been enjoyable watching some kids break records. I really have no regrets, no complaints.
“That’s huge. I enjoy the competitive aspect of coaching,” Bouchette continued. “It’s the same reason I teach. Just all the kids who have contacted me and thanked me for what I’ve done, that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
But who’s to say things don’t happen for a reason? And while maybe not his time, maybe now is the right time for Bouchette to walk away from a program which he has been a part of for most of his natural life.
A man in his late 30s, Bouchette is a husband and the father of a young son. It would be hard to imagine Bouchette coaching at any other place.
“My comment to my wife has always been, ‘If I don’t enjoy coaching any more, I won’t coach,” said Bouchette, who teaches science, among other things, at Northern Lebanon. “It’s so fresh right now. We’ll see.
“I don’t know,” continued Bouchette. “I definitely will coach again. I don’t know where or when. I’ve been approached by a couple of schools about being an assistant. I wouldn’t have a problem being an assistant coach.”
On the heels of one of the most successful campaigns in the history of the program, Northern Lebanon struggled to a 7-15 overall mark this winter.
“There were so many things that went into play,” said Bouchette. “Was I expecting more? Yes. And our section (Three of the Lancaster-Lebanon League) wasn’t easy. We battled. We were competitive.
“For starters, we had two starters missing to injuries,” Bouchette continued. “You’re down two starters, that’s huge, especially at a school our size. There were four games where we got blown out, but in the rest, we were in the game.”
After serving as then head coach Steve Eshleman’s assistant for six seasons, Bouchette took over the Vikings’ head coaching duties nine years ago.
“Esh left after (star point guard) Beau Moyer left and I took over the program,” said Bouchette. “To be honest, I just like to coach. I don’t need to be a head coach. When Esh left, it opened a door. I knew the work that went into it.
“I’m not going to say the program is in tip-top shape. I’m not going to say it’s in bad shape,” Bouchette continued. “I’m going to say it’s in better shape than when I took over. We’re not a basketball school. We’re trying to get the youth programs on board. Things are in place. I feel it’s going in the right direction. There’s some good coaches who are willing to put in the time. That’s half the battle.”
During his playing days at Northern Lebanon in the early 1990s, Bouchette was an athletic, post player around whom many Viking successes were built. Bouchette is still recognized as one of the finest defensive players Lebanon County has ever produced.
“How do I respond to that?,” said Bouchette, when asked if Mr. Viking does indeed bleed blue and gold. “Basketball has been part of my life since the third grade. It’s a big part of my life today. Some of the things I’ve done for the program have gone unnoticed. I coached JV, junior high varsity and varsity all at the same time because we couldn’t find coaches.
“Just going beyond basketball, there’s a lot of extra things I do at school,” added Bouchette. “Things like overseeing the weight room. The time, the commitment, there’s so many extra things I do. I do put a lot of time in at school.”