It was back in 2003 that we all learned how a couple of Independence cross-country coaches had turned out to be scheming frauds.
For a short time, the dastardly coaching duo, Tom Billington and Chris Earley, became big news -- even making the pages of USA Today and The Washington Post.
Their crime? After taking their Truman High School teams on a five-day trip to California in September 2003, they returned claiming to have run a big race against La Jolla High School (Billington's boys won, Earley's girls lost). But soon, it seemed that the "meet" was little more than a frolic on the beach. Exposed as liars, the coaches were suspended after the Independence School District found that the coaches had also done hinky things with public money (though none was missing).
Billington and Earley lost their coaching jobs but worked out a settlement allowing them to keep their teaching jobs, as well as their seniority and future retirement benefits.
It was a pretty sweet deal, considering what nefarious rascals these guys were. In fact, even after two years, something about the Billington-Earley affair still didn't smell right, and the Strip began to sniff around.
And before long, we found the origin of that stench in the rotten carcass of a long-forgotten newspaper story.
Turns out that a humble sports roundup item printed on September 24, 2003, in the Independence Examiner sparked the entire controversy.
"The Patriot boys defeated La Jolla 23-32, while the Patriot girls dropped a 23-37 decision in the dual meet held on a 3.4-mile beach course at Balboa Park," the unsigned article announced, after quoting Billington as saying a fine time was had by all.
But the event had actually been little more than a practice. The run hadn't even been held at Balboa Park, and the runners' parents knew it.
Believing that Billington was lying to the Examiner, parents complained to the school's administration. Other news organizations piled on, believing that Billington had returned from California telling the Examiner that the teams had competed in a formal meet, when that wasn't true at all.
Meanwhile, school administrators told Billington and Earley to keep their mouths shut, so they refused to talk with the press.
Nearly two weeks later, on October 7, when the Examiner reported that the coaches had been fired because of the La Jolla trip, a story included this quote from an unnamed parent: "What I do have a problem with was reading in the paper that the team had won and that there were times and places of the order of finish, and some of the cross-country runners had already told friends and relatives that they didn't run a meet."
What that October 7 article didn't say was that this unhappy, unnamed parent was Ron Bruch, stepfather to one of the runners. Bruch was something else as well: assistant to the school district's superintendent.
Billington's alleged lies to the Examiner, in other words, had pissed off powerful people.
"It appeared that the [September 24] story may have played a part in the firings," wrote Examiner sports editor Karl Zinke on October 7.
But Zinke also wrote that the story's unnamed writer had done something unethical. A quote ascribed to Earley, the correction claimed, had allegedly come from Billington, and the mysterious, unidentified Examiner reporter had not bothered to check it with Earley himself. For that, the paper had suspended the writer.
As for the rest of the nameless writer's story? The scores? The times? Even those, Zinke acknowledged, had been "brought into question." But Zinke reassured his readers: "We believed the results were true at the time they were reported."
Over the past several weeks, however, your proteinacious narrator went back over the matter. Billington and Earley, silent for so long, are finally telling their sides of the story. And the Strip also spoke to runners and their parents, who were largely ignored when the controversy first raged. And most importantly, we tracked down the mysterious Examiner writer.
So sit back, relax, and let this chuck steak start from the beginning.
Before Tom Billington was labeled a conniving liar and an embarrassment to the Independence School District, he was considered one of the finest cross-country and track coaches in the metro. Billington had started coaching at Truman in 1981, and later helped found a metro coaches association to help push the sport. Other coaches looked up to him not only because he turned out winning teams year after year, but also because he promoted the sport so doggedly. For years, an event that Billington developed and hosted -- the Truman Invitational -- was the biggest early-season meet on the high school track calendar.
Billington pushed players. He pushed other coaches. He pushed reporters. And in recent years, Billington had found himself pushing against an immovable object: the notoriously stubborn Missouri State High School Activities Association.
The Pitch has written about MSHSAA's obstinance before. In 2003, then-staff writer Joe Miller produced an acclaimed series about how Central High School's remarkable debate team -- so talented, it was being invited to prestigious competitions around the country -- was being hurt by the myopic bureaucrats at MSHSAA, whose rules wouldn't allow inner-city Central to travel long distances, even though it meant missing out on amazing educational experiences.
Track coaches like Billington could relate. The same rule dictated that sports teams needed special permission to travel more than 250 miles for a competition.
Billington hated the rule. And partly, he conceived the La Jolla trip as a pushy way to thumb his nose at it. Billington had found a seemingly nonsensical loophole in MSHSAA's rules: The state would allow Truman to go to California, but only if the team competed in an almost-forgotten form of cross-country competition.
The dual meet.
At one time, dual meets -- races between only two schools -- were so common that a school might participate in three of them in a single week. But over the last 20 years, larger meets -- where many more schools compete in mass runs -- became the norm. Now, dual meets are almost unheard of.
Billington could only remember one or two dual meets that Truman had held in more than a decade.
And the dual meets that did take place, coaches say, evolved into such informal affairs that they could hardly be called "meets" at all. Other coaches say dual meets have become glorified practices.
But Billington had other reasons for making the trip. He wanted Truman's runners to have some fun. Two of them, after all, were his own kids -- his son, Ryan, competed on the boys' team; his daughter, Lindsay, ran for Chris Earley's girls' team.
This impertinent porterhouse asked Billington if anyone had complained that Billington's own kids would benefit from a trip to a swanky town like La Jolla.
"You ever take 14 children across country? You think that's anyone's idea of a family vacation?" he says. Parents, he adds, seemed to understand that Billington wanted the trip to be a culminating experience for someone like senior star Jared Kreissler as much as for his own children.
Planning for the trip began the previous year. Kreissler, now a sophomore runner at Missouri State University (the new name for Southwest Missouri State), says athletes who competed for Billington were accustomed to doing fundraisers for special events. And over the summer of 2003, he and the other jocks raised cash by selling entertainment discount books, asking grocery stores to donate proceeds, doing hard labor and helping the school district by smoothing out a new jogging track at a middle school.
In the spring, Billington had contacted La Jolla High School's athletic director and its coach. With a tentative agreement to make the trip, Billington turned over the La Jolla officials' telephone numbers to his own athletic director, Gary Bressman, and then focused on getting formal permission from MSHSAA.
That was when he made his first mistake, Billington says. He assumed that Bressman would take care of formal arrangements with La Jolla. Billington says that's always the way things had worked in the past.
Earley also assumed Bressman had handled communications with La Jolla. "Clearly, the AD wasn't doing his job to call out there and make sure everything was taken care of," he says.
La Jolla officials told the press in 2003 that they had heard almost nothing from Truman High School before the trip and were actually surprised to hear that the team was still coming for a Thursday, September 18, meet.
In fact, La Jolla really didn't even want to compete.
Billington says that La Jolla made Truman feel welcome and gave the students a grand tour of the impressive campus at the wealthy school, but La Jolla's boys' coach, Chuck Boyer, told Billington that his runners weren't in any shape to race. They had run the night before in a fundraising event, and on Saturday planned to participate in a large, multi-school meet.
"He didn't want them to race, but to do an 8-mile training run with us instead," Billington says.
Immediately, Billington says, he thought about MSHSAA rules. He admits that he was worried. Kreissler, his star runner, was gunning for a possible state championship and a scholarship. "I knew I had to protect his eligibility," he says.
But Billington also had been a coach for 22 years, and he understood Missouri rules intimately. He knew that even such an informal event -- two schools leisurely jogging down to the beach and back -- would qualify as a "meet" according to MSHSAA rules.
Just to be safe, he says, he pulled Kreissler aside and told him that with 1,500 meters left in their casual run, he was to "hit the afterburners."
Billington says today that he should have done more than just tell his kids to kick some ass.
"I should have called our athletic director at that point," he says. "This is where I used poor judgment."
Chris Earley, meanwhile, says that nothing seemed out of the ordinary to him. He'd assumed a dual meet would be informal. The trip had been for fun, after all. Both coaches had been open about that. Before the trip, Examiner sports columnist Bill Althaus had even quoted Billington as saying "I'm going to draw a line in the sand at the beach, and we're going to run against La Jolla High School."
But Kreissler says that what started out as a practice didn't stay that way. "They were trying to compete with us. They kept asking who our best guy was. I wanted to beat their best guy, and he wanted to beat me."
Kreissler did outrun his rival, finishing first in the return leg to the school. But nobody took any times. "I didn't bring a watch," Kreissler says.
Two days after they got back, the coaches got a call from the Examiner.
Jim Conaway had been a stringer for local newspapers -- writing stories on a freelance basis -- for 18 years. "The Star pays the best," Conaway says, but over the years he's written for the Kansas City Kansan, the Topeka Capital-Journal and the Sedalia Democrat. In 1989 or 1990, he says, he began stringing for the Examiner.
He and Billington went way back. In the early 1970s, he says, "Tom was a runner at Raytown High School. I ran for Raytown South. Then after college, we became active as cross-country coaches. ... I consider him a friend. I still do to this day. I just hate that everything turned out the way that it did."
In the fall of 2003, the Examiner was paying Conaway to write a Monday round-up of local teams and their weekend events. But by Tuesday, September 23, Conaway says he still hadn't heard from the Truman coaches about their previous week's La Jolla trip.
He managed to catch Earley first, calling the coach at home. But Conaway says Earley begged off, saying he was too busy for an interview. So Conaway then called Billington.
Earley disputes that, telling the Strip that he did speak briefly with the Examiner freelancer -- long enough, anyway, to tell him that the event in La Jolla hadn't been a newsworthy event. But Conaway asked if there was a Web site where he could get the results. Earley says he repeated what he'd already said: "No, Jim, it was just a practice."
Later on Tuesday night, Conaway called Billington at home. The first thing Billington told him? "He explained that dual meets can be loose in structure and informal affairs. The team score wasn't even figured," Conaway tells the Strip. "He proceeded to give me his list of boy runners and where they finished."
Conaway insists that Billington also gave him times for the boys' runs, and then did the same for the girls' team. "From there, with it just being two squads, we figured out a team score."
Now, let that sink in for a moment.
Conaway, who would go on to write the brief Examiner item that got two respected coaches suspended, says now that Billington told him from the very beginning that the event in California had been informal.
But when we asked him why his news story gave the complete opposite impression -- that a formal meet had taken place -- he says that was just the way things were done at the Examiner. Although dual meets had evolved, he says, the format for reporting on them hadn't changed since the 1950s.
"I knew that, yes, this meet ... was more loose-knit in nature," he says. But his story didn't reflect it, he admits, because he was adhering to a news style laid down half a century before.
Still, today Conaway seems to believe that he only stepped over a line when he asked Billington for a quote from Earley.
"Then the part I guess that I did wrong," he tells us, "was that Tom gave me a comment on how the boy runners had performed. And then the quote I used for Chris Earley was not verbatim from Chris." But Conaway says that this wasn't unusual at the Examiner. "There have been lots of times at the Examiner, say, maybe an assistant coach will call in a score, and we will not talk directly to the head coach. But that assistant will give us a statement for how the head coach felt about the game. It's done all the time."
Billington denies that he gave Conaway the Earley quote or that he gave him times. In fact, he points out, almost nothing about the story was correct. Conaway had the teams attending a football game (didn't happen) and running their event with La Jolla from Balboa Park (it actually began at the high school), and had the event happening on Saturday (it occurred on Thursday).
Ten days after his article appeared, Conaway heard that Billington and Earley were in the process of being fired. "I felt responsible," Conaway says. He says he wrestled with his conscience for a day, and then, Sunday night, October 5, called the Examiner's sports editor, Zinke. "I told him exactly what had happened ... I had put in the quote without talking directly to the source."
But, we asked, did he also indicate to Zinke what Billington had said from the beginning of their conversation, that this had been a loose, informal event and that Conaway and Billington had added up the scores together? "I told him that, yes."
Zinke denies that Conaway had told him that he'd added up the scores, but he did acknowledge to the Strip that Conaway related Billington's insistence that the meet was more a practice than a championship event.
When Zinke wrote his correction on October 7, he apologized to readers for the Examiner's use of the Earley quote and reported that he'd suspended Conaway (without naming him).
But he still denies that the Examiner did anything wrong by failing to correct an impression that had doomed the two coaches' careers: that Billington had given the Examiner a false picture of what had happened in California.
When we asked Conaway if his original story -- or Zinke's ensuing correction -- could have been worded to reflect the actual nature of the event as Billington described it, he said, "That is a valid criticism."
One of the charges the school district leveled against Billington and Earley in the ensuing investigation was that they misrepresented the nature of the La Jolla event to school administrators as well as to the press.
But Earley says he can explain that: It was that damned word again -- "meet."
No one seemed to know what it meant.
Notes from a confidential meeting, in which school administrators questioned Billington, show that the coach insisted that the Examiner story was correct -- at least about the Truman teams competing in a cross-country meet.
Billington says he knew his state rules. Even the untimed, half-assed scramble down to the ocean qualified as a meet.
But Earley, questioned separately, says he insisted just as strongly to administrators that what had taken place was only a practice.
Earley now says his ignorance of MSHSAA rules may have helped sink both of them.
Actually, both coaches were correct -- the event, run like a practice, still qualified as a meet. But as Earley points out, administrators understandably got the impression that at least one of the coaches was lying, which is confirmed by internal documents written by administrators and obtained by this meat patty.
And as for making Independence administrators nervous, the coaches' timing couldn't have been worse.
In the fall of 2003, Superintendent Jim Hinson was beginning his second full school year at the helm of the district. The Strip was not able to contact Hinson before press time, but sources tell us he came in with the force of a hurricane, sources tell us, establishing a top-down, heavy-handed budget-cutting style that produced enormous resentment among teachers.
In its investigation, the district raised questions over how Billington and Earley had handled expenses on the trip. The coaches had purchased airline tickets, for example, without obtaining purchase orders. Billington and Earley kept several thousand dollars in fundraising cash in their own possession instead of depositing it into district accounts. And some receipts for the trip's expenses hadn't been submitted in a timely manner.
In the Examiner's pages, the charges sounded dire. KCTV Channel 5 also breathlessly reported that the trip had cost more than $13,000.
But parents we talked to -- even Ron Bruch, who had been so angry about Billington's alleged media deceptions -- say concerns about money were overblown.
"[The money] was never a personal concern of mine," Bruch says. He never doubted the outcome of the investigation, which found that not a dime of public money was missing.
And though Channel 5 was stunned by the $13,000 price tag, Martin Kreissler, Jared's father, says the trip was a bargain. Because of the team's fundraising efforts, Billington only asked Kreissler for an $80 check to cover Jared's expenses.
As for the cash in his office, Billington says it was something that all coaches did. "If I'm going to buy a group of kids some sports drinks and fruit for after a hard practice, it's hard to get the time for a purchase order."
At one point, Earley and Billington believed they might lose their teaching jobs as well as their coaching positions. But just before a scheduled public hearing before the school board, they reached a settlement that saved their jobs.
Today Billington teaches physical education and health at Independence Academy, an alternative high school. Since his firing, cross country and track at Truman have suffered a steep decline -- the Truman Invitational, once a premier metro event, no longer exists. Earley still teaches at Truman High School, but recently he was hired in another school district -- at Fort Osage High School -- to coach cross country.
Finally talking about what really happened two years ago, Earley tells the Strip, feels like a ton of bricks lifting off his shoulders.
And the Examiner? Karl Zinke rejected this cutlet's suggestion that his newspaper did more harm than good in its coverage of a story that briefly became a nationally reported scandal.
"I was told by the administration that our story had nothing to do with the firing of the coaches," he says.
Well, if that's what helps you sleep at night, Karl, then good for you.