A high school football coach whose reputation for physical and verbal abuse shadowed him through multiple jobs in a half-dozen states is getting another chance, not far from the school where it all began.
After being ousted from a Phoenix-area high school nearly a decade ago for his tough and often controversial methods of motivating players, Bernie Busken has convinced a rival school that he is a changed man who has only his players' best interests at heart.
But is Basha High School in Chandler, Ariz., turning a blind eye to a history of physical violence, intense berating of players and an acceptance of hazing? Or is Busken, as he says, a newly humbled person who has moved past the incidents that once made him a pariah in the Southwest?
“It comes down to whether or not you believe in second chances,” said Mark Heller, sports editor of the East Valley Tribune, which reported heavily on Busken's bad behavior from the mid-1990s until 2002, when he was dismissed by Mesa Mountain View High School. “Basha clearly does, and I do, too, to an extent. But given all the allegations and things that happened in the past, and given all of the other potentially qualified candidates, I would have gone a safer route.”
Matt Pryor, a former assistant coach under Busken who resigned after witnessing the abuse first-hand, said there's no way the coach should be back in town.
“I just don’t think it’s appropriate to put him in charge of 15-, 16-year-old kids,” Pryor told the East Valley Tribune.
No one disputes that Busken was a highly successful coach at Mountain View; his players won three state titles and once reeled off a 40-game winning streak. But the allegations against Busken garnered as much attention as the victories.
Mountain View officials suspended Busken when he failed to stop the hazing ritual known as “pinkbellies,” in which a player would be held down on the ground while another player slapped him in the stomach with an open hand. Mountain View fired him in 2002 after an investigation revealed a pattern of verbal and physical confrontations. Allegations included the slapping of players, occasionally on the head, and pushing players to the ground.
Other hazing practices included a game in which players fought on their knees for a towel wrapped in tape, with the winner using the towel as a weapon against the loser.
One player said the verbal abuse was enough to send him to seek mental health counseling, for which Busken later mocked him.
After leaving Mountain View, Busken backed out of a position at Ponca City High School in Oklahoma after officials there learned of past complaints, and he was later also investigated for slapping players during a two-year stint at Southern Utah University.
Busken has also coached at schools in Mississippi and Texas, and most recently he led the football program at Western New Mexico University. He sought to return to the Chandler area because he still owned a home there and would be closer to his daughter.
“It’s not all quite accurate, but there are some things I did wrong,” Busken said in an interview. “For those things I was wrong, and I’ve got to move on from that. And I’ve spent eight years in college correcting those things.”
Busken declined to discuss the past in great detail, but said he always believed that "for every one person that wasn't happy, there were another 1,000 that were."
"But it doesn’t do any good to go back and forth," he said. "I’ve moved on from that. We had some people in the Chandler School District check on some things, and they felt comfortable enough. This is the United States of America and a lot of people get second chances, and I’m glad to have one here.”
Anti-hazing advocate and author Hank Nuwer, who wrote about Busken in his book, "High School Hazing," said criticism of the coach's behavior has been well-deserved. But he said Busken deserves another chance, provided he is sincere about changing his ways.
“I believe in redemption, and monitoring is always possible,” Nuwer said. “The coach is setting himself up for a real challenge, because today’s generation is a lot different. If he can do this, more power to him. But if he can’t, he should take himself out of the game, literally.”
Busken’s hiring at Basha High received the unanimous support of the Chandler Unified School District’s Governing Board and of the school’s principal, Ken James, who said he conducted a thorough background check on the coach and received positive feedback from several of Busken's past athletic directors.
“We had lots of applications and his application came in and my first thought was, ‘I don’t want to go there,’” James said. “But we had him come in and talk to the [hiring] committee and he just soared to the top. I was expecting some big, brash egotistical person coming in and saying ‘this is how we do things,’ but he was the most humble, gentle person.”
Busken is not the only coach to have found himself in trouble over his techniques. Last year, David Jason Stinson, a high school football coach in Kentucky, found himself on trial for reckless homicide and endangerment after a 15-year-old player collapsed and died during sprint drills with temperatures in the 90s. Stinson was acquitted of all wrongdoing, but the case has placed extra attention on the methods of many coaches and the schools that hire them.
It is that attention, Heller said, that makes Basha’s hiring of Busken a mistake.
“It’s not worth the effort and time and energy Basha is going to have to put in to make sure everything is run above the board,” Heller he said. “They are setting themselves up for frivolousness from parents or kids in the program if he lays a finger on somebody, fair or not. I just don’t see why Basha wants to set themselves up to potentially deal with that.”
James, the school principal, said he hasn't imposed a zero-tolerance policy toward Busken, but he said he told the coach that he would watch him closely, like “his shadow.”
Busken, for his part, says he just wants to make the most of the new opportunity.
“I just want to do the best I can and help these guys,” Busken said. “I missed helping make a difference for some people. I’ve changed quite a bit, and am working on being a better person and a better Christian man.”