Three Rivers coach Bess speaks out on troubling issues

Friday, April 4, 2008

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- By his own admission, Gene Bess does not like controversy. Yet the legendary coach of the Raiders basketball team feels it is time to come forward to address some troubling issues he sees at Three Rivers Community College.

In doing so, Bess says he's not doing it for himself, but for the faculty and staff members he works with every day.

"I'm only doing this for the benefit of the institution," Bess said. "I have no axes to grind. I'm here to represent the faculty and a large number of people who don't feel good about the direction the college is going.

"I have been at Three Rivers for 39 years and I have never come forward with a single complaint until now.

"This is not about athletics," Bess continued. "It's about education. Nobody appreciates education more than I do or emphasizes it more than I do. Ask any players I had if I didn't always tell them education was first.

"There have been a lot of good people at the college who have been run off by administration or feel so threatened by administration that they are unhappy in their jobs."

How unhappy are they?

"I think the faculty is really close to bringing in some type of collective bargaining union or something so they'll have a sounding board. There seems to be no recourse for recurring problems. It's reasonable to say [the faculty doesn[']t have a lot of faith in administration]. I don't think anybody wants [a union] deep down, but they realize there has to be some help for them somehow.

"Faculty morale is at an all-time low."

Bess estimated 80 percent or more fell into that category.

"That's one reason I'm here. A large percentage of the faculty doesn't feel like they can rock the boat.

They feel like they'll get fired.

There's no doubt in their mind they'll be subject to some type of retribution. You talk about academic freedom, I don't sense that as being a top attribute of our college.

"[Three Rivers] has been sidetracked in a lot of areas and nothing has been more devastating than the [Southeast Missouri State University lawsuit]."

But for faculty to speak out would not be wise, he said.

Administration clique

Bess knows firsthand how a small clique in administration can make life tough for individual faculty members.

That clique in administration, he says, has gradually over the years managed, through bullying, intimidation and other means, to take total control of the college -- except for the athletic department.

"They want me to get down and kiss their ring, and I'm not good at that," Bess said. "It's like they are trying to draw a line in the sand. They seem to have everything under control except the athletic department and booster club, and that was the impression a lot of people were giving me. What they don't understand is that I like a challenge."

Bess uses his own situation to illustrate what he says has gone on in all levels of the college over the past few years.

"Several years ago they began usurping my opinion as athletic director," Bess said. "Gradually, I had less and less input into decisions [in my own department]."

In talking to people about that situation, Bess said he was told, "everybody says [certain people in administration] want total control and I don't [submit] to them at every opportunity.

"There were rumors [starting about three to four years ago] and conversations with me from people who were supposed to know that I was on their bad list. These people would tell me, 'Boy, you can't believe what administration is saying about you.' It was discouraging to me because I didn't believe I was deserving of that. Gradually it got worse. It wasn't any fun to work in a situation like that where I felt like there was some intimidation going on."

Bess said there were lots of little things -- not on a daily basis -- but little obstacles here and there, things done to undermine or thwart him.

But some, he says, were not so little.

At one point, Bess said, the booster club had a service agreement worked out with a soft drink company that would have provided new bleachers for the Bess Activity Center at no cost to the college.

"It looked like a no-brainer until it was gradually eliminated from discussion by the board of trustees. It looked like there was a clash between the booster club trying to get that done and the board of trustees stopping it. I think it was a slam at anybody wanting to update the activity center.

"This was not to just benefit the athletic department, but to provide the required safety for all events to be held at the activity center. [The board of trustees] eventually spent $100,000 to upgrade the bleachers just to bring them up to safety standards."

Another situation, Bess said, came up during a college-ordered audit of the booster club.

"I know for a fact a couple of board members wanted to get the booster club involved [with the audit]. They wanted to use that as kind of a threat to find out as much as they could against the basketball program. They felt threatened by it or something. To me, the booster club is one of the greatest organizations in town."

'A molehill into a mountain'

But the crowning moment, Bess said, came last summer over an investigation the administration conducted into a situation with a student athlete.

"It was something that should have been an in-house thing and they turned a molehill into a mountain," Bess said.

Bess said he first learned of a problem when "my immediate superior said some people were upset with the situation with a student athlete. I remember telling him he just needed to stop it, to head it off. The next thing I know, I walk in there and I realize there had been an investigative report that had been going on about a month while I was conducting my summer basketball camps.

"I was given the investigative report. It was skewed. Only two people had been interviewed. They hadn't even attempted to find out the true situation or they would have come to my assistant coaches. They said I was rude, unprofessional, that I lost it, and none of that happened. There were three of us in the office when it happened."

Asked if the person conducting the investigation talked to any of those witnesses, Bess said, "Absolutely not!"

"They embellished what they had. I wrote a letter to each board member explaining what happened. The fact that they voted 6-0 [to put an official letter of reprimand in his personnel folder] was a complete shock to me."

The board of trustees, during an executive session at a regular monthly meeting, made the Bess investigation part of its official minutes making it open to the public. Afterward, Three Rivers vice president Larry Kimbrow contacted Daily American Republic publisher Don Schrieber saying that report was available. Board attorney L. Joe Scott also contacted Schrieber as did another official to make sure the newspaper had received a copy of the report.

"I realized they had a purpose and reason for using that investigative report," Bess said. "I think they seized the moment. They were trying to bash me. That's the only thing I could figure out in the whole situation."

After the investigation was made public, John Barham and Randall Lee, two former Three Rivers administrators, wrote a letter to the Daily American Republic in support of Bess.

"John Barham and Randall Lee were both my bosses in succession," Bess said, "and they came out in support of me."

"I've never clashed with a college president since I've been here," Bess said. "They're my bosses. Everybody has to have bosses, but there was a time when it went over and above that. They made an issue out of the [student athlete situation] because they were coming after me. If it hadn't been that it would have been something else."

Despite everything, Bess says he still enjoys his job.

"I enjoy my work and still do. I've never felt better about a job in my life, but I'm more concerned about the future of the college and what's going to happen down the road.

"I have no axes to grind. I pray about it continually. I'm coming forward for the betterment of our community and hoping for positive things to come from it."

Before coming forward publicly, Bess said, "I ran it by many people, my family mainly.

"I don't want to come off as being bitter, but I've seen enough stuff going on behind the scenes. I think a large percentage of the faculty will appreciate what I'm doing. I know a lot of them would like to come forward themselves, but I think most of them realize the same thing could happen to them that happened to me.

"I know I'm kinda out there by myself, but I want to do the right thing. That's my purpose. After all, what more can they do to me. I've been there."

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