EAST LIVERPOOL - East Liverpool Superintendent Ken Halbert announced Friday that Pat McNicol has been suspended as head football coach of the Potters after admitting he paid players for on-field achievements.
Halbert said at a press conference that he learned earlier this week that several student-athletes had received $20 payments for the first hit in a game with the intent being to motivate the players.
"This is a democratic society," Halbert said. "A society that functions best only when we follow rules and guidelines that are prescribed in our life. It's a matter of doing the right thing. The school district will continue to put kids first."
With the Potters in action Friday against Wheeling Park, Halbert announced that Al Johnson would be serving as the interim head coach until the investigation is complete.
"In our spirit of always putting the kids first, we have an interim head coach who's already working," he said. "Al Johnson is the most senior assistant coach that is on the staff."
Johnson was summoned to the high school by Principal Jack Cunningham and Athletic Director Bob Shansky Friday afternoon. He arrived on campus at approximately 1:30 p.m. and was present when a meeting was held with the remaining members of the football team.
After speaking with Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) Assistant Commissioner Deborah Moore, Halbert learned that any student who received a cash payment would be ineligible to participate in any East Liverpool football games this year.
Three players were informed Friday that they were suspended from the football team.
"They have already been told as of (Friday afternoon) that they will not be playing or practicing until further notice," he said.
Names of the players were not released due to privacy issues.
What is less clear is whether McNicol's action would require East Liverpool to forfeit any games. The Potters are now 2-7 with one game left this season.
Halbert said those issues will be dealt with by the OHSAA after the investigation is complete.
"As far as other consequences I can't comment at this time," the superintendent said.
Since the investigation is still unfolding, the exact number of individuals involved - players or coaches - could not be determined at this time.
"That can be best answered soon," he said. "I'll tell you it would be just a few, and you know by definition what few is. I'll know a lot more by (Friday) afternoon, but it would be just a few."
In its contact with the OHSAA, the district has been informed that a written report was to be submitted by the end of the day Friday, and that all payments made to players were to be collected.
"This is uncharted waters," Shansky said. "It's uncharted for me, (the players) and the whole staff."
School officials were made aware of the situation Tuesday and contacted the OHSAA immediately. Halbert said an OHSAA representative advised them to collect any payments given to any player, and school officials were "told of specific, prescriptive measures we should take and, once done, we could go on."
However, Halbert said school administrators "double checked" on that advice and spoke to Moore, director of eligibility with the OHSAA Friday morning. After telling Moore of the situation, Halbert said Moore responded by saying, "Uh-oh. You have bigger problems."
The alleged action by McNicol impacted on a player's eligibility, and the three football players who received any money were suspended from the team for the rest of the season.
According to Halbert, coaches and players were aware that payment to athletes was not permitted.
"Our athletic director, principals all review matters of eligibility," he said. "We cover these kind of things."
McNicol, who compiled a 9-29 record since he took over the program in 2005, has not been relieved of his teaching duties. McNicol currently teaches mathematics at East Liverpool High School.
"This is a coaching issue and a supplemental contract issue," Halbert said.
McNicol made $4,507.72 per season with the Potters and had one year left on a three-year contract.
Halbert said he was suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.
Halbert said he considers McNicol's coaching contract and teaching contract as two, distinct, issues.
"In the mathematics classroom, he does a very fine job," Halbert said.
McNicol could not be reached for comment Friday.
With little time for the team to process the news, Shansky said a meeting was held with the players Friday afternoon.
"It seemed successful," he said. "We tried to make them understand and explain it to them."
Johnson, a 1974 East Liverpool graduate, was an assistant to Bob Thayer during his tenure at Wellsville and returned to the Potter sidelines in 2003.
"He's been there for a long time," Shansky said. "He'll be fine. We have a lot of confidence in him."
Wheeling Park defeated the Potters, 41-6.