When Larry Veronica heard that Bennett’s football team had been disciplined by Section VI for using for an ineligible player, the memory came rushing back, like a punch to the gut.
“It was essentially the same thing,” said Veronica, a Bennett High coaching legend and Buffalo Sports Hall of Famer.
Back in 1995, a year before his retirement, Veronica coached a Bennett basketball team that went unbeaten in the Yale Cup — beating the great Traditional team with Jason Rowe and Damien Foster for the city title — and had a good chance to win a state championship.
But during the sectional playoffs, Bennett was nailed for using an ineligible player. Michael Carter, their fine senior point guard, had transferred that year from Turner/Carroll.
Carter, couldn’t afford Catholic school tuition. He wanted to go to Kensington but lived in the Bennett district, a couple of blocks from the school. Veronica assumed the transfer rule didn’t apply to a player from the Catholics. He was wrong. An opposing coach blew them in for failing to provide the necessary paperwork. Their title hopes were finished.
“I put in 35 years in the Buffalo Public schools,” said Veronica, who coached 76 seasons in various sports over 27 years at Bennett High and won numerous championships. “Of all the good times and nice people, and some bad times, that was the worst day of my teaching career, when I got that phone call.”
So, he could commiserate with current Bennett football coach Steve McDuffie, who found out last week that his team had to forfeit six games because he had used an ineligible player.
Like Veronica a quarter century earlier, McDuffie had misunderstood the Section VI transfer rules. He failed to file the required paperwork for a freshman varsity player who had played on the junior varsity at Sweet Home last fall.
“It is very disappointing,” said McDuffie, who was suspended for one game because of the violation. “It was out of my control, something I was totally, totally unaware of.”
McDuffie said he filed transfer papers for six players this season. It’s a routine thing in a district where so many kids move. The state transfer rule stipulates that a student is ineligible if he hasn’t changed residence and played as a 9-12 student in the previous year. He didn’t think it applied.
“He was an eighth-grader going into ninth and moved into the district,” McDuffie said. “That was my question. This was a registered Buffalo Public School student. How does he apply to the transfer rule when he’s never attended a day of high school?”
“I didn’t get an answer,” he said. “I still don’t know. I just feel it’s very tragic. This was a paperwork error, a lack of understanding, and it could have been easily rectified because I believe there’s a whole lot of schools in Section VI out of compliance with this.”
McDuffie said no one from Section VI has spoken to him about the situation. Mark DiFilippo, executive director for the section, did not return a phone call to News 4, but issued a statement Thursday.
“All Section VI member schools are expected to follow and uphold the rules set forth by NYSPHSAA,” the statement reads. “Section VI is committed to quickly and appropriately working through this matter with Buffalo Public Schools.”
Like Veronica, McDuffie was hurt by the bureaucracy of a large school district that has far fewer administrators looking after the sports teams than its area counterparts. Unlike suburban schools, the city doesn’t have individual athletic directors, just a citywide director and a small staff to oversee programs.
Michael House, assistant superintendent of athletics for the Buffalo schools, told News 4 that the district has 18 high schools and hundreds of middle school students entering those schools every year.
“It’s a lot easier to manage four to six students transferring into a suburban school each year,” House said.
As House suggested, it seems to become a problem only when a team is winning. No one bothered to look into Michael Carter in ’95 until the Bennett hoop squad ran through the Yale Cup and was standing in the way of suburban sectional hopefuls.
House quoted John Wooden, who said, “The more success you have, the more criticism you get.” McDuffie, who took over a downtrodden program at Bennett in 2011 and built a high school football power, can surely relate.
McDuffie, whose son Isaiah plays in the NFL for the Packers, is guilty of winning too much. He admits there are times when he asks himself, “Why do these things keep happening to us?”
“We have had seven years in a row that there’s been an issue at Bennett High School,” McDuffie said.
Last year, the Tigers were forced to play two state playoff games four days apart. The state rescheduled a quarterfinal game for Rochester McQuaid, which had 11 reported cases of Covid-19 but filed a restraining order against Erie County to avoid playing with a reduced squad.
Earlier in the spring of 2021, Bennett was removed from sectional playoffs when the program went on pause because one player had tested positive for Covid.
“A lot of people don’t know this,” McDuffie said, “but I am the only coach in Section VI history who has appeared in sectional title games at four different classes.
“They moved me around every year. In 2014, we started in B. Then in 2015, they moved me to C. In the year of 2016, they moved me to A. In 2017, they moved me to AA. My question was why they moved me from C to A. They said it was because of the ‘dominant’ rule.”
In 2020, the section wanted to place the city’s AA schools in a separate football league from the other top AA schools in the area, but Bennett resisted the move.
Literally, Bennett was too good. McDuffie couldn’t remember any suburban schools — say, the great Sweet Home teams of a while back — being moved up in classification because they were too dominant at their existing level.
There has been a furious reaction to the action against Bennett. The BPS intends to appeal the decision to the Section VI executive committee. Phil Rumore, head of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, asked for an investigation into the issue.
“Oh, our parents are very angry,” McDuffie said. “The community is very angry. The alumni are very angry. A lot of people feel that this could have been easily corrected.”
Bennett, which lost in the state AA final at the Carrier Dome last year, can still make a run. The Tigers are officially 1-6 after a win over Niagara Falls and can gain the third seed in the sectional playoffs by defeating Hutch Tech on Saturday.
“As least we still have an opportunity,” McDuffie said. “I think the kids will play harder now. My thing is, if we are going to be eventually the Section VI representative, it would be very nice for us to get some support from Section VI.”
“We are going to try our best,” he said. “I’m dealing with resilient kids I’m so proud of. We’re going to stay focused and locked in and face the job at hand. We’re going to do our best to make our community, our school, our parents, and everybody proud.”
Larry Veronica didn’t have any such consolation. When his wonderful ’95 Bennett basketball team got sanctioned, their hopes and dreams were dashed. After 27 years, the emotional pain persists.
“As soon as I heard, I said, ‘Now they pulled the same story on somebody else,” Veronica said, “over a piece of paper that wasn’t filed.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.