John Comerford can still picture the scene. It was the middle of June 2019, in a driving rainstorm, when the Williamsville East softball team arrived home from Glens Falls after becoming the first girls team in school history to win a state championship.
“I was there that night when the bus came home with those young women,” Comerford recalled. “Our whole community was there waiting for them. It was like that scene from ‘Hoosiers’, where they’re following the bus through the corn fields.
“That’s what we should remember and be thankful for.”
Chris Durr, who coached that team, remembers it fondly. It will be his last chance to take the Flames on a state championship run. Early this month, Durr decided not to reapply for the Will East head softball job he had held with distinction for a decade.
Last fall, the Williamsville Board of Education had decided not to reappoint Durr as coach of the East girls soccer team, a position he had held since 1995. The board provided no explanation for turning down the recommendation of three district administrators – which included overall district athletic director Steve Mucica and the East AD, Nicholas Suchyna.
Durr, who teaches physical education at East, was never given a reason for his soccer dismissal. He did not attend the school board meeting in September, when a number of parents and players vented their anger and disappointment to a board that rejected Durr, 4-0, with four members abstaining and one absent.
“I will not and cannot coach under the current conditions,” Durr said in his first public comments about the board’s decision. “Not when evaluations don’t matter, when the opinions of the three people that observe you on a daily basis, your three immediate supervisors, don’t matter.
“All three recommended me to coach,” Durr said. “They were as blindsided by this as I was. No one went to them and said, ‘We need to sit down with Coach Durr because there was an issue last season.’ And that’s how things should be handled.
“If you want to fire me, at least give me a reason, so I can defend myself. I don’t understand how a school board is in charge of school-level decisions, hiring and firing people. There’s a lot there, two years removed from a state championship at 27-0.”
Teresa Leatherbarrow, the board president, didn’t comment on the Durr decision at the time, saying it was against policy to discuss personnel matters. Superintendent Darren Brown-Hall also declined comment, as did other board members.
Leatherbarrow, Brown-Hall and five board members declined comment when WIVB.com reached out for comment this month on Durr’s decision not to apply for the softball job. The district athletic directors were also instructed not to talk about Durr.
Thus ends one of the most accomplished high school coaching careers in Williamsville East history. Durr began coaching there 29 years ago, one year after graduating from Canisius College. He began as the girls varsity tennis and junior varsity basketball coach before taking over as girls head soccer coach.
During one five-year stretch, Durr served as head coach for three girls’ varsity sports at the same time: soccer, basketball and softball. His teams won 29 division and 21 sectional title among the three sports. Those teams won more than 800 games and sent 15 athletes on to careers at the Division I level.
A month ago, if you had asked someone involved with high school sports who was the most respected and accomplished girls coach in Western New York, they might have answered, “Chris Durr.”
Durr remains the Section VI chairman for girls basketball and soccer. Late last year, he was selected for the New York State high school girls soccer Hall of Fame as a coach/contributor, three months after the board took his soccer job away.
He said he would trade that honor if he could continue coaching. The reason for his removal as soccer coach remains a mystery.
The one public blot on Durr’s record came during the 2019 soccer season, when the district canceled the varsity season in mid-September after 13 players violated the school’s athletic code of conduct. There was alcohol involved and team pranks — a so-called scavenger hunt — that were circulated on social media.
Durr, who has been the deputy recreation director for the Town of Clarence since 1998, had no advance knowledge of the pranks. He said he learned long ago not to socialize with his players and he has no social media presence. He also had no say in the five-week suspensions, which were a district mandate.
Some parents felt Durr should have called up his junior varsity players to finish the 2019 soccer season, but he felt that would have been unfair, and in some cases unsafe, for the younger players.
The following season, Durr allowed his players to pick captains for the first time. There was apparently resentment among a handful of parents about the choice of captains, and a feeling that in some cases he didn’t advocate enough for certain players.
“Shortly before the board made its decision, there were rumblings by parents,” said Comerford, who had a daughter on the JV team. “It dealt with playing time, with kids not getting certain accolades, such as all-Western New York.
“Personally, I felt those concerns to be trivial,” said Comerford, a lawyer who specializes in mesothelioma cases. “Suddenly, the board gets involved. What really concerns me is there’s a safety net to make sure we have good coaches, and it was circumvented. It’s very troubling to me.”
It was certainly troubling for Durr to know his judgment was being questioned. He has always prided himself on being a professional. He began umpiring softball and Little League when he was 16. He is an active official in high school sports today. Good judgment has always been a paramount concern.
“My father worked for Tops for 45 years,” Durr said. “He started as a guy pushing carts and worked his way to the upper echelon. So professionalism and judgment and treating people with respect had always been instilled in me by my parents.
“I always felt the field was an extension of the classroom,” he said. “It’s like another class, and if I wouldn’t do it in the classroom I wouldn’t do it on the field. When I was younger I was a yeller, I was fired up. As you age, you start to calm down a little bit. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the relationships with kids and parents and those kinds of things.”
Durr said he’s gone through the classic stages of grief since the board’s decision. It started with anger and disbelief, and the concern about his good name and reputation. He considered legal action, but what would that accomplish? How would that help the girls who are still in the soccer program?
He said people in the know will understand that he didn’t do anything sinister. Otherwise, he wouldn’t still be teaching. But lacking any explanation, an outsider might wonder if Durr did something monstrous to justify knocking him out of his coaching job after nearly three decades of principled service.
“Four of my daughters played various sports with him,” said John Rumschik. “Not only was he an excellent coach, he was somebody you had confidence and trust in to be teaching and working with your kids. He taught them life lessons, too.
“I’m concerned about coaches today, good coaches, who won’t want to coach because of things like this,” Rumschik said. “And who gets hurt? The kids.”
Marissa Birzon was one of the kids who gives Durr credit for her success on the field. Birzon was a two-time Western New York soccer player of the year who left Williamsville East as the school’s career scoring leader. She recently graduated from Ohio State, where she played college soccer and was all-academic Big Ten four times.
“At the end of the day, he always cared about the girls on his team and who we played against,” Birzon said. “He always said even if we won 7-0, it wasn’t about the score, or how badly you might have beaten a team. It was about getting other people onto the field and everyone having a good experience.”
Birzon said she has spoken to other former players about the Durr case and no one knows why he lost his job as soccer coach. She said he was nothing but supportive during her six years in his program and never mistreated any player.
“So, while you may not have an answer why, he can leave knowing he’s had an impact on so many people,” she said,” and that everyone in the community wants the best for him. That speaks for itself.”
Al Day, the former Williamsville East AD, was stunned when Durr called to tell him he’d lost his coaching job. Day hired Durr in 1993 when he was fresh out of college. He felt Durr was mature beyond his years, an ideal candidate to coach young people.
“I could see his potential,” Day said. “It was staggering. I knew his parents and it’s proper parenting when a guy is brought up to be what Chris was early on.”
Day, who is retired and spends his winters in Florida, was also outraged to know that a board had seemingly allowed a small group of disgruntled parents to sway them.
He was reminded of a similar case from a decade ago, when long-time Williamsville South boys basketball coach Al Monaco lost his job after 24 years because of a parent’s complaint about playing time and supposed bullying.
“When I was hired way back in the early 70s, people on the board were really statesmen,” Day said. “They knew they were there for policy-making procedures and to steer the district. Now it’s like people are on Board of Education because they have an axe to grind, or they want to be a quasi-administrator.
“It’s just a shame. That a district as good as Williamsville would dip into that category is very disturbing.”
Comerford shares that disdain for the school board, which he says has devolved into a “family and friends” program. He said he’d like to see a return to the statesmanlike board that Al Day recalls from the past.
“Williamsville is a big school system,” Comerford said. “I’m looking to run three people for the board — one from Will North, one from Will South and one from Will East. I want to put together what I call a Holy Trinity of new blood for the Williamsville school system that puts kids first, because what I’ve witnessed here is just the opposite.
“You know what speaks volumes to me? Whatever they have on Chris is rank speculation. It’s just not correct. My gut as a trial lawyer tells me, the cards they’re holding about what he did, it if was so bad that he’s banned for life from coaching, why was it such a tight vote. Why did four people abstain?”
Durr has never received an answer. Not one word from anyone in the district. He was on the golf course when he got word that the board wasn’t going to reappoint him. He said his sister told him it could be a blessing, that not coaching would remove one of the biggest stressors in his life.
“Gil Licata (the principal and long-time coach at Starpoint) gave me some great advice,” Durr said. “He called me immediately and told me to take the high road. So I was professional during this entire process. He said, ‘Let other people fight your battles for you. People that know you, know you. Players that have had you, know you.’”
The players came out in support when Durr lost his coaching job last fall, just before the soccer season began. He said it was remarkable how they handled it in public. The Will East girls eventually suffered a huge upset loss in the sectionals.
“Yes, I lost the ability to coach them,” he said. “But it was really the kids who were paying the price. They lost their season in 2019, when a lot of them were sophomores. Then come back and there’s a shortened season because of the pandemic. Then they got it stuck to them again.
“They still don’t understand. Parents don’t understand. I think it really is crazy that I have no idea what I did. Would they approve me for softball? I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Durr figured it wasn’t worth the grief. He didn’t put his name in. It’s hard to imagine the board that felt he wasn’t worthy of coaching soccer would flip and approve him for softball. At 52, he’ll probably coach again. But it’s not likely to be in Williamsville.
Next month, there will be a new softball coach for Williamsville East, which is still technically the reigning state champion. The state playoffs were not held the last two years because of the pandemic.
So, the Flames will defend their title without him. Durr’s supporters are left to wonder why more wasn’t done to defend him.
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.