If Hickory, Indiana had Jimmy Chitwood, then the town of Eaton, Colorado most certainly had Sean Carson.
Chitwood told the townspeople, “But, there’s just one thing… I play, Coach stays. He goes, I go.”
Carson told his town’s people, “If you get rid of Jim Danley, I won’t play for any other high school or any other coach. I won’t play baseball for the rest of my life.”
Norman Dale stayed. Chitwood stayed. Together, they made it all the way to Indianapolis and hoisted the 1952 Indiana State Basketball Championship trophy.
Danley had to leave.
So Sean Carson packed up and went to Wyoming.
Hickory is a fictitious place. Eaton is as real as the wind in Cheyenne.
Carson’s words hit the town hall meeting like a sledgehammer, but he was just a kid, a junior in high school; surely he couldn’t be serious. He was. Maybe they didn’t care. Or maybe they didn’t believe him. Either way, his promise failed to change fate. Neither he nor his coach could defend the state title they’d just won for the town and the school that was about to tell them both goodbye.
“That’s the field I want to die on,” he later said. “If I had a choice between Yankee Stadium and Eaton – Eaton’s baseball field with the Danleys – I’d choose Eaton.”
A strong statement, made by a distant relative of Mickey Mantle – the family tree confirms that to be true. Carson’s sweet swing provides visual evidence of the bloodline.
“Not many 17-year-olds have the balls to do what he did,” said his mother Bridget.
Nor would many of them want to stay if they’d done what Carson did, if they’d spoken the words he so mightily said. After all, he had openly blasted the group of adults that was powerful enough to run a legend – a coach with 44 years of hard-earned credibility, a closet full of hardware and generations of backers – out of town like he was some hitchhiker passing through. Carson was too good, a top-50 junior in the state, and staying would put that status and the only thing he ever cared about – playing baseball – at risk. He was already being recruited by a few colleges; he’d already been invited to camps put on by major league ball clubs. Why risk it? Especially amidst the authority figures that had just proven, very publically, that they couldn’t be trusted.
Said Bobby Fernandez, a reporter for the Greeley Tribune, “Maybe Sean Carson felt his safest bet was to go to a team with his best interests in mind.”
And that’s how Carson wound up attending Central High School in Cheyenne, playing for the American Legion “Post 6” club baseball team instead of walking the halls of Eaton High as the Reds starting left fielder and cleanup hitter. Post 6 is expensive – “Legion ball costs $1,200,” says Bridget – but a damn good team, nonetheless. They practice six times a week, three hours a day and have produced the likes of 22-year-old Wyoming native Brandon Nimmo, who was added to the Mets 40-man roster back in November. With the nudge of his former coach, Carson had already decided he couldn’t live without baseball, but he wasn’t about to go back on his word, offering that swing – Those clutch hits! Those RBIs! That power! – to those who had betrayed him.
“It was the hardest thing for me,” he said. “I’m not going to lie.”
Post 6 would have to do. Still, it’s wasn’t Eaton.
What would have become of Jimmy Chitwood had Hickory told him thanks but no thanks? Would he have had the stones to go play for Terhune? Or would the movie have simply ended, making it a cinematic flop for the ages.
Or, more likely, would the story have just begun?
The story of “What Happened in Eaton” is a tale told by two parties – those who talk, and those who don’t.
Over the years, as is often the case in small towns, bits and pieces of this saga will bubble to the surface. Plenty of folks know plenty of stuff, meaty morsels that will slowly spill out over cups of coffee at the back corner tables of Steven’s Grill on 1st Street. The 11 state baseball titles the town’s high school now boasts will remain forever, but the details of how they earned them – or perhaps, as some have suggested, how they’ll stop earning them – will grow like roots, spreading and sprouting deep into the dusty soil nine miles north of Greeley.
Just six months removed from the biggest story that ever rocked the little town of Eaton, the wound still bleeds. What happened won’t soon be forgotten. The accounts of Jim Danley and the Eaton High School baseball program divided a town and oozed into the outside world.
“It sounds like a witch hunt,” Christy Alexander, who works at Steven’s, told the Denver Post in September of 2015.
“I don’t know all of it, but it certainly doesn’t add up,” Chris Barber, who grew up and played baseball in Eaton, said this past February.
“There were a lot of things there I just didn’t even get,” Littleton High School baseball coach Bob Bote said on the eve of the 2016 season.
Who knows where it all began? That’s part of the problem. Those who do either didn’t say back then, or won’t say now. What “it” is has also been hotly debated in Eaton.
“Those who stood for Danley seemed to be more transparent, more outspoken,” said Fernandez, who has covered prep sports for the Tribune for 11 years now. “Those who wanted to see him gone were not as willing to provide clear-cut examples of what he was doing wrong.”
Perhaps for good reason. As former Denver Post columnist Benjamin Hochman wrote last summer, “Eaton lives and dies with baseball.” Fooling with this place’s lifeblood is no joke, as Tim Croissant, the Eaton school board president and the market president of the Bank of Colorado in Eaton, has supposedly discovered of late. There are rumors within the community that Croissant has lost a substantial amount of business because of his role in what happened to Danley.
Croissant did not confirm or deny that rumor, as he is among the many who won’t return a phone call or an email these days – not if the request is pertaining to the “Eaton baseball situation.” Alongside him in that action (or lack thereof) are several of the significant figures who ultimately had a hand in relieving Danley of his coaching duties. Eaton superintendent Dr. Randy Miller, athletic director Steve Longwell, school board member Luke Lind and parent Sara Mondragon, who spoke out against Kirk Danley, Jim’s son, at the Eaton school board meeting last fall, all failed to return phone calls and/or emails.
Their presumed complaints, however, have been well-documented. Jim Danley detractors did not like Kirk, nor did they like how he dealt with Eaton’s baseball players. They believed the multi-sport athlete was not supported. They did not like how Eaton’s summer baseball programs were run. They felt that bullying – from players, from coaches – was too prevalent in the dugout. Or, as Eaton senior shortstop Matt Burkhart, who spoke on behalf of the players and said they neither supported nor opposed Danley, more simply put it: The Eaton baseball program was in need of a “culture change.”
But why change a winning culture?
Danley’s record speaks for itself: 44 seasons, 807 wins (and just 163 losses and two ties), 11 state titles, 79 consecutive league wins, a three-time national coach of the year. The numbers don’t lie – Eaton is baseball.
“As a former Red, I wouldn’t even want to live in Eaton any more if you got rid of Jim Danley,” Bo McLavey, a product of Eaton baseball, wrote in an email to Miller.
Another former player, Logan Hall, who claimed to have played in Danley’s programs from age 5 to age 18, and who played four years of college baseball largely because Kirk helped him obtain a scholarship, emailed Miller and Longwell: “I earned five total state championship rings – three with baseball in Eaton, one with basketball with [coach Dean] Grable and one with [the] GoJos [baseball club] in the summer on a team with five Eaton players. The one constant thing was that we knew how to win. We learned how to win playing baseball. We learned from Coach Danley.”
If you ask Jim or Kirk Danley, they believe the root of the problem stems from an assistant coach named Dalton Cox, who joined the team prior to the 2015 high school season. As was often the case, Danley’s staff regularly featured recently graduated college baseball players who were interested in coaching; it never hurts one’s resume to have worked under a national coach of the year.
Cox, as even the Danleys would admit, had – and still has – a likable personality. He was young – just 24 – and quickly related to players. But early in the season, they said, Cox started to cross boundaries; Cox was conducting workouts outside of regular team practices, initially unbeknownst to Danley. According to both Jim and Kirk, he was representing himself as a coach to college recruiters, and offering advice to players that wasn’t always in parallel with the goals of Danley’s high school team. Essentially, it was insubordination.
“He was real divisive,” Jim said.
Danley brought this to the attention of Longwell, who recommended that Cox not be let go in the middle of a championship run. Danley obliged, but about a week before the Reds won their 11th state title Kirk informed Cox he would not be a part of the summer baseball program.
And that’s where things started to go wrong. And where plenty of “he said, she said” began to enter the fray. Parents accused Kirk of becoming territorial with regard to recruiting. The Danleys believed that Cox was in the ear of the seniors to be. A division began to form.
The problem, however, was that Cox was also an employee and family friend of Luke Lind, a baseball parent and member of the school board. That relationship, the Danleys now believe, proved to be significant.
Those who support Danley, however, don’t ultimately point the finger at Cox. Instead, they pin blame on arguably the oldest problem in high school sports – parents. And in the case of Eaton, Danley’s supporters believe that a particular group of parents were just nasty enough, and had just enough power in the right places, to swiftly change the course of history for Eaton High School baseball.
“We left four years ago to play somewhere else because the parents [at Eaton] made it miserable; it was absolutely horrible,” wrote Dawn Hass in an email to Miller in support of Danley. “I have never seen people be so ugly toward children and people in my life.”
Ironically, this kind of trouble created by parents was nothing new at Eaton. In recent years, the school had waded through several similar incidents. In 2011, after seven very successful years on the job including a state championship in 2007, boys basketball coach Dean Grable was nearly fired.
Grable told Fernandez of the Tribune that the decision to not renew his contract appeared to be a result of his coaching style being criticized.
“Language is a concern in the [end-of-the-year] evaluation,” Grable explained. “A disconnect from my kids, and calling players out. That was their term. My term is: Holding [players] accountable. That was the three reasons they gave me.”
In the spring of 2015, Mike Armstrong, Eaton’s tennis coach who possessed 33 years of teaching and coaching tenure for the Reds, resigned amidst a controversy involving his No. 1 girls’ singles player and her parents. Armstrong said that threats had been made to his daughter, who was on his coaching staff, and that Longwell was unsupportive when it came to communication with and about parents. When Armstrong told the school he’d had enough, his staff of six followed him out the door.
Now highly distrustful of Eaton’s administration, perhaps Armstrong relates to Danley’s situation better than anyone.
“The district owed Jim more,” he said.
These previous incidents did not go unnoticed by parents and townspeople who supported Danley.
“I’m noticing a disturbing trend in Eaton Athletics,” Michal Logan wrote in an email to Miller on Sept. 13. “In the last few years I have seen a basketball coach nearly fired, a tennis coach forced out, and a cheerleading debacle. It seems that there is a direct breakdown in communication between our athletic director, coaches, parents and players. I find it unacceptable that this is the second Eaton coaching situation that has blown up and been played out in the media in the last six months.”
“…to think that a few disgruntled parents can ruin a man’s life and legacy is disturbing,” added Kyle Ottoson, an Eaton product who spent two years in the San Diego Padres organization.
“What you’ve got is a bunch of angry senior parents who feel like their kids should be the superstar,” said Bridget Carson, the mother of outspoken ex-Red Sean, “And they’re not. The Danleys play who’s got skill. It’s not about your mommy and daddy or money. It’s about skill. And that’s why they win. It is a complete and total outrage.”
Greg Hall, who watched his two boys go through Eaton’s baseball program over the course of seven years, made a humble plea with his letter to Miller and Longwell: “Please don’t let the parents run the programs at Eaton.”
Michael McKay understands how parents can be – “[it’s about] Johnny didn’t get to play,” he says over the phone – but he also understands how leaders should be. While Eaton’s parents raised issues that may or may not have been exaggerated, or even insurmountable, McKay dubbed the actions of Eaton’s leaders, namely Miller, Longwell and the school board, “an embarrassment.” He told them so in a letter he wrote on Sept. 7.
Specifically, McKay was referring to the manner in which the school board had conducted its business. They’d written a string of private emails amongst themselves, outlining how they would vote with regard to the extension of Danley’s contract as head baseball coach. What they didn’t realize was that by doing so, they were actually breaking the law; the Colorado Sunshine Law states such discussions about public business should be open to the public at all times. Miller later acknowledged the error.
“I think the process behind the scenes was slippery and not above board,” McKay says.
He was also stunned by a 13-point “Performance Improvement Plan,” which had been issued to Danley by Miller, Longwell and the school board.
“I am appalled by your tactics, thought process and the poor quality of your ‘13 Point Document.’ I am assuming you and Mr. Longwell drafted this document. The school board should be embarrassed,” he wrote in the letter; he later called it “lackadaisical” and done with “no thought.”
McKay is qualified to address Eaton’s leadership in this blunt manner. He is not just any Eaton High School alum; his history as a Red and as a professional, speak volumes.
He vividly remembers Danley talking to a group of kids on the playground during a fourth grade recess: “‘Look around. Some of you kids are going to have a chance to be professional athletes,’ he told us. And I thought he was talking to me. And Mike Anderson thought he was talking to him.”
Mike Anderson did become a professional athlete. He was drafted by the California Angels in 1986 and spent three years with the organization before beginning his coaching career. He went on to become the head baseball coach at Nebraska from 2003 to 2011 and was named the Big XII Coach of the Year in 2003 and 2005. Today he’s an assistant at the University of Oklahoma.
McKay didn’t become a professional athlete, but he did win the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2007; at the time he was the president and CEO of Dallas-based eSports Partners. He’s a member of the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame and a business partner with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Through business, sports are still very much a part of his DNA.
When McKay first heard of the situation in Eaton, he immediately called Anderson, who called Miller and Longwell to set up a meeting. The two former Reds hopped on a plane with hopes of helping.
“We have a question: ‘Do you want Jim Danley to be your coach this spring?’” they posed to Miller and Longwell in a meeting held on the morning of Sept. 14, the same day of the public school board meeting. “And they both unequivocally said, ‘Absolutely.’ I said, ‘Okay, if that’s the case, then I’m willing to go through this process. But I want to make sure that you guys are wanting – not if you’re willing – but you want him to be your coach. Randy Miller said ‘Absolutely’ – that was his quote. Then Mike and I turned and looked at Longwell and said ‘What is your view?’ And he said, ‘Yes, we want him to be the coach.’ So that was how we started.”
That night, both men spoke on behalf of Danley at the meeting.
“I’ve never been in a more crowded room in my life and I’ve seen a bunch of things,” said McKay. “I don’t know how many people were in the room, but you have the school board in the front of the room, and everybody got to come and speak if you signed up to speak. Speakers in attendance were 95 to 98 percent ‘for Jim Danley.’ There was a faction of less than 5 percent – and that’s probably very accurate – that was there… actually, it wasn’t against Jim Danley, it was that they wanted ‘Johnny’ to play more. That percentage is probably pretty accurate throughout the community. I mentioned that afterwards to Superintendent Miller; I said, ‘Don’t you think there’s a message here?’
“And they took it as the opposite.”
The next day, McKay, Anderson, Miller and Longwell went to work on what McKay called a “new” Performance Improvement Plan, a revision that was reasonable and that had mutual concessions by both parties.
“The athletic department had to clean up their act,” too, McKay suggested. “Normally you’ve have the support of your athletic director – it would never even get to the superintendent. That was eye-opening for me. How in the world does the superintendent ever have to get involved in something like this? That’s what showed me how weak the athletic department had become over time.
“At any level – the collegiate level – you always support your coaches. You just do.”
The process of revising the P.I.P. went well – or so McKay, Anderson and Danley thought.
“Miller called me and said he’d gotten support of Croissant. I was getting on the plane at DIA – I’ll never forget it,” said McKay. “He called me and said, ‘Hey, two things… you’ve got to keep Jim Danley out of the press, because I don’t want any more in the press.’ Because they were getting hammered. I said, ‘I’ll be happy to keep Jim out of the press; it’s a free country, but I’ll advise him. But you’ve got to follow through on your part. I said, point blank, ‘Where are we? He said, ‘I and Longwell are in support of the new mutual P.I.P. And I’ve gone to Croissant and Croissant is in support of it.’”
But that was the last he heard. According to McKay, Miller later told the press he was never in support of a revised document, that the district’s attorney’s would never approve it.
“If Miller wasn’t on board, why did he spend over two hours with me reviewing and editing the mutual P.I.P.?” McKay posed. “And secondly, why would he forward it to the district’s attorney?
“In Texas, we call that CYA.”
Two weeks after McKay departed Denver, Eaton High School posted a job opening for a new head baseball coach.
McKay and Danley were stunned.
A dirt-covered Eaton Reds hat is now stuffed in a Wyoming closet belonging to Sean Carson. He’s traded it for the navy blue of Post 6.
The nine hats that dot the baseball field at University High School in Greeley in the bottom of the first inning on March 22, 2016 are starch white. More specifically, they are clean.
That’s not unusual, considering that date marks the start of the high school baseball season. But it is unusual because it’s Eaton. In Eaton, a dirty hat used to be the tradition.
But there’s been a clean break. That was the past. This is the here and now. Those were Jim Danley’s teams. The one that will ultimately beat University on this day belongs to new head coach Bob Ervin. Many are quick to point out the irony that Ervin was Danley’s longtime assistant.
When Ervin accepted the job, his first team meeting included a handout for all his players. The cover sheet said “Eaton Reds Baseball.” Among some of the program changes outlined inside was a telling line.
Dirty hats are out; clean hats are in…
…We are the defending state champions, and we will look like the state champions, not the Elm Street Eagles.
Is it a dig at a legend and the traditions that were built over nearly five decades? Or is it only a reminder: It’s the dawn of a new era in Eaton.
“Oddly enough, it felt like business as usual,” said Fernandez, who was in the stands to cover the Reds season opener for the Tribune, “other than looking down the third base line and not seeing Jim Danley.”
He’s not there because he’s in Phoenix. Danley is preparing with his new team – the Littleton Lions – for a tournament game against Saint Viator, a team from Arlington Heights, Illinois.
Danley was brought onto the Littleton staff by his old friend and coaching mate Bob Bote, who said he had zero reservations about teaming up with a coach who had just been dragged through the muck of controversy.
“Not one,” Bote is happy to reiterate.
Littleton, Bote’s alma mater, has not had much baseball success of late. He and Danley are inheriting a group of seniors who qualified for the state tournament last year, the first time the school had made the postseason in baseball in 25 years.
Heading into the tournament in Phoenix, the Lions have already experienced some early season success; they placed third in the Scorpion Invitational down in Farmington, New Mexico. Danley is in charge of pitching – already teaching his Littleton pitchers that legendary knuckle curve – and it was his hurler who pitched a complete game in the consolation match.
“He struck out last kid with the tying run at the plate,” Bote says. “It was like winning a championship, even though it was just a silly third-place game.”
Danley’s former team is still expected to be good. They entered the season in their familiar role as the Class 3A favorites. But not everyone in Eaton believes that will last.
“I don’t think they have any idea what it takes to build something like this,” says Armstrong.
“What Eaton doesn’t realize, is that they’ve ruined Camelot,” says McKay. “Ten years from now, they’ll wish they had him back – I’ll guarantee you.”
But as Bote believes, Eaton’s loss is Littleton’s gain.
“[Jim] asked me if there was anything I wanted him to do specifically,” Bote says, referring to the conversation that took place when Danley was added to his staff. “I said, ‘nope, nope… well, yea, I do… I want the same results we had at Eaton.”
And why wouldn’t he? What happened at Eaton was nothing short of great.