NAPLES — As a coaching colleague and a good friend of ousted Lely football coach Steve Pricer, Thom Popoli said the former Trojans coach didn’t get a fair shake when he was forced to resign last week.
Popoli isn’t the only one who feels that way. The volunteer assistant coach and Lely booster put on a rally for Pricer in the school’s gym Wednesday evening, hoping to generate enough support for the coach to get him reinstated.
Between 70 and 80 people showed up, Popoli said, and the group took the first steps in organizing a campaign to put Pricer back on the sidelines.
Popoli, owner of nearby Foxboro Sports Tavern, which hosts Lely football team dinners, said the coach’s supporters will petition the Collier County School Board and superintendent Dennis Thompson through e-mails and phone calls to consider bringing back Pricer.
“People weren’t angry, but they were upset,” Popoli said of Wednesday’s meeting. “We want to show (the school board) how much Steve Pricer is loved and adored and appreciated.”
Media was not allowed at the meeting. Popoli said Lely athletic director Paul Ruby told him earlier this week that reporters could not attend.
When a Daily News reporter showed up at Lely’s gym, Popoli said Lely principal Ken Fairbanks had closed the campus to the media. A Collier County sheriff’s deputy at the school said the campus was closed since Pricer resigned Sept. 10.
Pricer said earlier that he resigned rather than be fired after a dispute with Fairbanks when Pricer kept players on the practice field when a lightning meter was on, signaling players to go inside. Pricer contends the meter was malfunctioning.
At Friday’s Lely game at Gulf Coast, Pricer, who was in the stands, said he also disagreed with Fairbanks over the treatment of star running back Darion Hall. Pricer wanted to suspend Hall for his poor attitude, but said Fairbanks would not allow him to do so.
After Pricer resigned, Collier County schools issued a press release saying Pricer stepped down for health reasons. Pricer said later that day that the claim was false.
Pricer and interim coach Dave Miller, who moved up from defensive coordinator, were at Wednesday’s meeting Popoli said, but could not be reached for comment afterward.
Ruby and Fairbanks did not attend. Ruby also could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.
Ruby and Fairbanks have said multiple times since Sept. 10 that they stand by their claim that Pricer resigned because of concern for his health.
“It takes a really strong man to admit he’s made an incorrect decision,” Popoli said. “To reverse that incorrect decision, it takes an even stronger man. We’re hoping that the school board or the superintendent has the strength to make that decision.”
Popoli’s group is petitioning the school board because it doesn’t think Fairbanks would welcome Pricer back.
In an interview with Daily News columnist Brent Batten, superintendent Thompson admitted the school district’s release about Pricer’s resignation was misleading.
“There were some health issues. They’re not major,” Thompson said. “It’s partially true but it’s obviously not the main reason.”
The superintendent also said he wished the district had handled the situation differently and that the decision to rehire Pricer, who remains a social studies teach at Lely, would ultimately belong to Fairbanks.