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Legendary coach Frank Sumbera out at Grosse Pointe North

By David Goricki
The Detroit News
Frank Sumbera

Frank Sumbera, one of the most successful coaches in Michigan high school history, is out as head football and baseball coach at Grosse Pointe North.

Sumbera, 70, said he was blindsided Wednesday when he was told by Grosse Pointe North administrators that if he didn’t retire or resign he would be fired.

“They terminated me as the football and baseball coach, said they had some parents on the baseball team that said I was giving their boys mental anguish and not treating them fairly, putting them supposedly in an unsafe environment, which I don’t know what that even means,” Sumbera told The Detroit News on Friday.

Sumbera has been involved in coaching Grosse Pointe North football for 49 years. He has been the head football coach since 1981 and the head baseball coach since 1973.

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“I was in a meeting with them at 9 o’clock Wednesday morning and Kate Murray, the principal, was there with athletic director Michelle Davis and the human resources person, Nicole Pilgram,” Sumbera said. “They told me as of June 27th that I was being terminated as the head football and baseball coach and I go, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’ They said they did this investigation amongst some players, and parents wrote letters, asking them to get rid of me. I asked them, ‘How many of the other parents did you talk to?’ and they said they couldn’t give me that information. They wouldn’t even show me the letters. … I just don’t understand it.”

Multiple messages were sent to Davis by The News on Friday but were not immediately returned.

Grosse Pointe North issued this statement:

“On June 27, 2018, Principal Kathryn C. Murray sent an email to North Varsity Baseball and Football parents and players, stating: Today, we received notice of the retirement of Grosse Pointe North High School Head Baseball and Head Football coach Frank Sumbera, effective June 29, 2018. We understand that transition plans have to be made. The coaching staff has been notified. Michelle Davis, our Grosse Pointe North High School Athletic Director and Assistant Principal, will keep the baseball and football parents and families informed as we move forward.

“Frank Sumbera has been head of our varsity baseball and football programs for nearly fifty years. His dedication to the Grosse Pointe North High School student athletes, assistant coaches and community will long be his legacy. We want to thank Frank for his years of service and wish him the best in his retirement.”

Frank Sumbera is the third-winningest coach in Michigan high school baseball history.

Grosse Pointe North Board President Brian C. Summerfield said: “The Board was made aware of the retirement announcement shortly before it was made. It is unfortunate that social media is spreading misinformation, particularly in this offensive manner.”

Sumbera is the third-winningest baseball coach in state history with 1,097 victories, including a Division 1 state championship in 2006 and a 21-12 record this past spring. He also has more than 200 wins as a head football coach.

Sumbera said administrators weren’t prepared when he told them he would not retire or resign.

“I wanted to know what the terms and the conditions were for my termination, in other words, ‘Why?’ and they didn’t know what I was talking about,” said Sumbera. “They told me I had to do it by 3 o’clock Wednesday afternoon and I never did it. I wasn’t going to retire. If they wanted to fire me, fire me.

“I wasn’t going to retire or resign because I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m a Christian man and I don’t yell at the kids. I haven’t touched the kids. I talk to them in a positive manner. I don’t let my assistants use profanity. I don’t allow the players to use profanity. I was just totally blindsided by the whole thing.”

Grosse Pointe Superintendent Gary Niehaus said he is sticking by the statement.

“He gave us a verbal retirement on Wednesday, made in front of three our administrators, so I don’t know where you’re getting the word ‘terminated’ from unless you’re getting it off of social media,” Niehaus told The News. “The principal was in the meeting with him as well as the athletic director. I think they did a fair and equitable investigation and I think the outcome was shared with him. I think he did give a verbal retirement.”

Dan Griesbaum has coached against Sumbera for the past 35 years as head coach of Grosse Pointe South, which won the Division 1 state championship this month, defeating North during its postseason run.

“I can tell you that the coaching fraternity is finding this extremely difficult to understand because they know Frank, have competed against him and know what he stands for,” Griesbaum told The News. “I have never in 35 years of competing against his teams ever seen anything objectionable in terms of his treatment of players. I have never witnessed anything abusive, either physically or verbally. I hope that somehow this can be rectified and he can continue doing what he loves to do.

“He has done so much for that school and those kids for so many years, and to allow this to happen because of disgruntled parents is puzzling to say the least.”

Sumbera’s former players were also shocked by the news.

“It’s just really hard since this is a man I’ve known since the 10th grade and have great respect and admiration for,” said Billy Babcock, who played for Sumbera in the early 1980s before playing professionally. “I was born and raised in the Woods (Grosse Pointe Woods) and my whole family went to North. My son, Luke, will be a freshman at North this year and I was really looking forward to him playing for Frank.”

John Hackett was one of the first players to play for Sumbera back in 1981.

“I’ve had the pleasure to both play for Coach Sumbera and coach against him for 25 years while at Grosse Pointe South,” Hackett said. “He has been a great mentor to myself and so many other players over the years. He has developed very strong bonds with his players and is an icon in not only Grosse Pointe but throughout the state of Michigan. Both Coach Sumbera and Dan Griesbaum are MHSAA Hall of Fame coaches and are two of the most respected coaches in the state of Michigan. He will be missed by many.”

Craig Como played for Sumbera in the mid-1980s and said: “Learning of Coach Sumbera’s dismissal was devastating. What’s even worse is how Grosse Pointe North’s administrators treated this man after 50 years of service. I played for Coach Sumbera in the mid '80s and can honestly say that next to my own father, he is the best coach, friend and mentor I have had in my life. For anyone to disparage his name and question his character acts that way out of selfishness for themselves or their children."

"Coach Sumbera did a great job of balancing accountability while keeping it fun for all of us,” said Jon Palazzo, who also played for Sumbera in the mid-1980s. “I loved playing for Frank and thank him for all he did for my teammates and I.”

Another former player, from the early 2000s, Charlie Kaiser, said Sumbera “is a man with great integrity and is a foundation of the Grosse Pointe community. Even though he has many great accomplishments in his career, his greatest accomplishment is the positive influence he has had on so many of our lives.”