BY JEFF FALK
The difference in the definitions of the words is so subtle that some might have a hard time distinguishing between the two. ‘Semantics’ others might contend.
But one has come to suggest the presence of outside forces, an underlying or unspoken pressure. The other suggests more going out on one’s own terms.
But rarely have the differences in the meanings of the words ‘resign’ and ‘retire’ been as blatant as they are in describing the compelling case of Ron Berman. Ron Berman has ‘resigned’ from his position as the head coach of the Palmyra girls’ basketball program.
Berman recently tendered his – heartfelt – letter of resignation to the Palmyra school district’s board of education, not many days after the Cougars completed a somewhat overachieving 13-10, 2015-16 campaign. While no one directly forced him to resign, Berman grudgingly felt compelled to do so.
“As of today, I have resigned,” said Berman. “Am I actively seeking another job? Absolutely not. My goal for 2016 is to be a heck of a basketball fan and a heck of a football fan. Life’s short. If 2017 comes around and I’m not miserable… I don’t ever want to say never. But I can’t picture myself coaching anywhere besides Palmyra.
“I loved coaching. Absolutley,” continued Berman. “In the last week, it’s been very emotional for my wife and I. But it’s been more tears of joy. I’ve gotten hundreds of emails, phone calls, messages, presents from former players and parents about the things we accomplished in their lives. I always believed we’re here to make a difference. I loved every minute of it. I always believed I was a role model.”
While Berman and Palmyra parted on amicable ones, they weren’t the best of terms.
His resignation may have been the result of about four years of ‘coming to a head’. In his letter to the school board, Berman cited a number of issues concerning the girls’ basketball program – 11 in all – that he had brought to its attention, but that he contended had not been addressed.
At the top of the list was the reinstatement of a girls’ 9th grade program that had been dissolved four years ago. Many of Berman’s other points revolved around financial issues and the availability of facilities.
“Every year I re-evaluate my position: ‘Do I want to continue coaching?’,” said Berman, 68. “When I went to the board last time, in August, it was to bring back the ninth-grade program and it was shot down. And I was very discouraged when I went to the superintendent. I obviously didn’t expect all of them to get done. None have been done and two have been addressed. My feeling was that after seven months of not having the support I wanted or needed, resigning was on the table.
“My wife and I sat down and made a list of reasons to resign and to continue coaching,” Berman. “We prayed a lot about it. We decided if I can’t put my players where they need to be competitive, it’s just not the way I want to coach.”
Berman’s resignation was a lot about not having the resources to run a program to his high standards, and nothing about an ultimatum not being met. Berman, a Palmyra Cougar through and through, harbors no ill will toward the Palmyra school board and can even see its side of the issue.
“I don’t have a difficultly seeing it,” said Berman. “They’re trying to be fiscally prudent. But you need to understand, we have kept adding new programs – and they’re great sports – but we haven’t added facilities. We haven’t added a gym. We keep squeezing things into current facilities. Yeah, I understand their position. I just don’t support that part of it.
“I try to set standards for the program,” added Berman. “But I also try to set standards for my team and myself. I try to be fair. The board doesn’t see the importance of athletics to the point I see it. I believe athletics are very important in a school system.”
Berman, who has been Palmyra’s number-one proponent of remaining in the Mid-Penn Conference, is a man of morals, beliefs and principles. So much so, that he was willing to walk away from one of his true loves.
“The most important one, by far, was no ninth-grade program,” said Berman, who retired from his United States history teaching position at Palmyra 11 years ago. “There’s nothing in that letter that we didn’t have (before). They were things that were taken away from us. We’ve been without a ninth-grade team for four seasons. We didn’t want to lose it. We understood it. We tried, over the last two years, to get it back. It’s been in the budget for the last two years, and when it comes time for the budget, it gets cut.
“The salary was $6,080, after 27 years of coaching,” Berman added. “We haven’t had an increase in seven years. Some coaches in the Mid-Penn get $10,000 and get paid for open gyms. But the thing that really got me was no ninth-grade team. When you put those things together, the frustration builds.”
Berman was – and continues to be – truly one of a kind.
He once told this reporter that he enjoyed practices way more than he does games. He likened practices to the class room, and games to exams.
“I taught 35 years,” said Berman. “I love teaching. I was excited to teach United States history. I absolutely, thoroughly enjoyed it. Basketball is the perfect class room. You have 15 people who are excited to be there. To me, it’s an extension of the class room. Games were for players and parents and fans. We had to prepare so we didn’t cheat our fans. And if we didn’t do that, we had to be responsible for that.”
Though his coaching methods may have seemed old-fashioned to some, no one could argue with Berman’s results. His players certainly responded to those methods, and year in and year out, Berman extracted every bit of effort out of his charges’ ability.
Palmyra is a season removed from one of the greatest spans in Lebanon County girls’ basketball history, and one of the most successful periods in all of local sports history. The Cougars reached the state Class AAA final four in 2014, and then again in 2015 as a Class AAAA program.
The 2015-16 campaign represented Palmyra’s 15th straight winning season and its 14th straight District Three tournament appearance. During Berman’s 16 years at the helm, the Cougars won or shared six Keystone Division championships, captured an overall Mid-Penn Conference title, wore one District Three crown and finished as the district runner-up three other times.
“We had two undefeated regular seasons that were certainly very special,” said Berman, whose clubs compiled a 325-116 overall record. “With the schedule we played, to never stumble during a regular season is quite an accomplishment. We won 29 straight (in 2013-14) and finished 29-1, and that was special. But to me, winning the overall Mid-Penn Conference was more important than winning the district championship. We got to the state final four in our first year in quad-A, when a lot of people thought it was too much of a task.
“But each has its own excitement,” continued Berman. “I thought our 13-10 season this year was one of our greatest years of coaching. We had 11 close games and won eight of them. I thought our kids had a really, really good year. You’ve got to have a strong staff to trust things are going to be done the way you want them to be. You need the program. I don’t feel like I have all the steps in line. But I didn’t want to cause a problem.”
Despite the absence of a freshman team, Berman, who has always taken great joy from serving the community in which he resides, certainly isn’t leaving the Cougars’ cupboard bare.
“It was an extremely difficult decision,” said Berman. “We have a great program. We have a great staff. We have as much talent and size coming up as we’ve ever had. We just had a whole lot of players (on this year’s varsity team) who were not playing where they should’ve been. I felt bad for their development. It’s based on the fact that we play in the Mid-Penn Conference and at the quad-A level. We have to compete with Central Dauphin and Cumberland Valley. I don’t mind the size of the schools, but we have to have the type of program we need.”
Before taking over the girls’ program in 2000-01, Berman spent time on the Palmyra boys’ basketball bench.
“I am certainly a different coach now than I was with the boys,” said Berman. “I’m more experienced now, and know what’s truly important. Some of it is the changing times. You can’t rant, rave and scream at players like you could in the (19)90s. I’m in a completely different time period and spot in my life. The thing you’ve got to do with girls is get them to be more competitive early. Now everyone in our program expects to win. That was never an issue with the boys.
“I do believe girls are more emotional than boys,” Berman continued. “They wear their emotions on their sleeves, and that’s more a positive than a negative. They each (gender) have their own charm. At my age, coaching girls was the perfect level for me. I was very happy in my last 16 years. The game was played the way I liked it to be played.”
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