It was the ideal ending to a 17-year coaching career, the sort of final curtain call that coaches imagine as their tenure winds down. In the Massachusetts Division 2 boys track and field championships in New Bedford on June 1, North Attleboro High School earned one point in the 4 x 400 relay, the day's final event. Derek Herber had already announced that this would be his last season as coach, and now his team had won its second consecutive state championship, edging runner-up Central Catholic High School, 69-68.
The next day, the headline in Boston Globe told the story: "North Attleboro sends Herber Off In Style." Retiring coaches cannot write a better script than winning a state title by breaking a tie at the very end. North Attleboro's script, however, had a final act waiting to be written a few hours later, and Herber himself would write it.
When the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) posted the results of the state championship meet on its website the morning after the meet, Herber reviewed the tallies to update his personal records. Something didn't add up. When he carefully checked the numbers, he discovered that in the finals of the 110-meter hurdles, meet officials had credited his hurdler with eight points for a second-place finish though the boy actually finished seventh and deserved only two points. The correct calculation would give Central Catholic the state title and drop North Attleboro to third place overall.
If Herber and his assistant coaches had remained silent, no one would likely have noticed the discrepancy and North Attleboro would have kept the state crown. But Herber talked with his tri-captains, who agreed that they "wouldn't want to win that way." The coach and North Attleboro's athletic director promptly reported the scoring error to the MIAA, requested that Central Catholic be declared the state champion, and arranged to return the championship trophy. The Association apologized for the scoring error and complied with the request. "The right team won," said Herber, because Central Catholic "had the most points."
"Most coaches are also teachers," Coach Herber explained. You're teaching other things in sports. You're not teaching just wins and losses." His players understood the lesson. "Winning isn't everything," said one team member, "Being a good sport, that's what [the coach] did. I'm proud of him for it. What Coach Herber did was a great thing."
"It Was the Right Thing to Do"
North Attleboro's athletic director added that the track and field team "didn't want to take something that they did not earn." This column's readers have heard this sentiment before from two other competitors who, like Derek Herber, could have retained unearned accolades by keeping quiet about scoring errors that they knew had benefitted them.
One of these two competitors, June's Youth Sports Hero of the Month, was Falkville (Ala.) High School sophomore high jumper Bram Miller. He was credited with winning the Class 1A state high jump title by setting a state record of 6 feet, 8 inches, but he knew that he had cleared only 6 feet, 6 inches, below the existing record.
Bram told his coach about the officials' scoring mistake and requested correction, which the state Association made the next morning. "I did not deserve the state record because I didn't set it," he explained. "I had to tell someone. It was the right thing to do."
"Something That I Did Not Earn"
The second worthy competitor was Chelmsford (Mass.) High School senior Rebecca Wong, who finished tenth in the state high school alpine skiing championships, the final medal position, in early March of 2010.
When Rebecca watched a video of her slalom run afterwards, she realized that she had missed a gate near the bottom of the course and should have been disqualified. She e-mailed the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to report her infraction and return the medal because "I certainly cannot accept credit for something that I did not earn."
Keeping Good Company
Like others who land in the spotlight for doing the right thing, Derek Herber downplayed his reaction to the scoring error. "I truly believe that . . . any coach in North Attleboro, any coach at Central Catholic, and 99 percent of the coaches in the state of Massachusetts in all sports would have done the same thing," he said.
Maybe any coach would have done the same thing, and maybe not. High school athletes dream of state championships, and so do their coaches. State titles represent the pinnacle that few ever reach, and stepping away from the cheering and celebration takes fortitude. We should applaud examples of extraordinary integrity in youth sports because each example sends a positive message that helps counter the bad news that so often dominates the headlines in professional and amateur sports. The message is that sports can be noble or ignoble, depending on who is playing and how they play.
"School doesn't end in the classroom," Herber told the Globe. Indeed, it does not. By doing the right thing when the price of honesty was so high, the coach taught team members and their classmates a valuable lesson about how they should live their own lives. Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes delivered the lesson about conscience decades ago: "A man has to live with himself, and he should see to it that he always has good company."
Sources: Andrew MacDougall, North Attleboro Sends Herber Off In Style, Boston Globe, June 2, 2014; Dale Ransom, Sun Chronicle (Attleboro, Mass.), North Attleboro Vacates Track Title, June 2, 2014; Christopher L. Gasper, Score One For Honesty, Boston Globe, June 3, 2014.