Supporters rally at BOE meeting, demand Santiago's reinstatement as Harding football coach

BRIDGEPORT — Names from Harding High School’s past and present showed up by the dozen at Bridgeport Acquaculture School to speak in support of Eddie Santiago, who was relieved as the school’s football coach earlier this month.

There was Bob Cole, the longtime former coach who spent nearly 30 years with the program. Byron “The Bus” Jackson who parlayed an all-state rushing career at old Hedges Field into an MBA and a playing career in Germany. And there was members of this year’s Harding football and wrestling teams.

They were joined by other community leaders, friends and even Santiago himself Monday night for one purpose: To petition superintendent Michael Testani and the board of education to get Santiago reinstated immediately as head football coach.

“Look at everybody here. I’m so proud of you, Bridgeport,” said an emotional Jessica Martinez, a former Board of Education member and parent who organized the nighttime rally, as she helped wrap up the public comment section of Monday’s meeting. “We’re not stopping until he’s re-intstated.”

Santiago, Harding’s football coach since 2013, declined to comment on the loss of his job as football coach, but did express his gratitude for everyone who showed up.

“I’m just so happy the community is here together, doing something positive in peace — a positive protest,” said Santiago, who remains as Harding’s wrestling coach. “I’m blessed to be a part of the Bridgeport community.”

According to school documents provided by Martinez, Santiago had been given an unsatisfactory evaluation by athletic director Andrew Grosso and Harding principal Dane Brown, who both agreed Santiago should not be reappointed as head coach

The evaluation alleged Santiago displayed poor communication with superiors and team players and parents regarding rescheduled games; that he allowed players to participate in practices and games with expired physicals; and that the team didn’t have enough Harding students, nearly half of which came from other magnet schools.

Santiago noted he disagreed with the evaluation when he signed it. He was officially relieved Jan. 6. Neither Grosso or Brown responded to requests for comment when the news first became public on Jan. 14.

Testani, in his first public comment on the issue, said he was impressed with the “display of support and care for Coach Santago” by the community on Monday night.

But he also felt the public wasn’t fully informed on the facts and suggested there might have been a better course had Santiago appealed to Brown in a private meeting.

“He’s a good principal. He’s a good man. He’s a fair guy,” Testani said of Brown. “His door is open. He would have been more than willing to sit down. And I’m sure he still is.”

Ultimately, Testani said he has the power to reverse the decision. “It’s a wait-and-see I guess,” he said. “I could intervene tomorrow. I need some time to think about it and have some discussions with my principal at Harding High School. There are some other things to be considered as well.”

The 17 supporters who addressed the board during public comment session, including councilman Ernie Newton and community activists Tony Barr and Joe Grits-Thompson, touted Santiago’s virtues as a Bridgeport native son who has sculpted countless boys into men, providing them guidance and support where it is often unavailable.

“I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for Coach Santiago,” said Jackson, adding that Santiago goes “above and beyond” his duties as a coach by getting involved in his players’ lives.

“We need somebody like that in the community. He’s someone the kids can relate to and be inspired by. He’s someone who cares and not be just a football coach.”

Though many of the speakers admitted they knew little of what caused Santiago’s termination, they all agreed the two sides should be able to work on a solution considering Santiago’s value to the team, the school and the community.

Admitting Santiago might be “rough around the edges,” York Mario, a wrestling coach, said what he’s heard wasn’t enough to let Santiago go.

“After all he’s done for this community?” Mario asked. “We’re here to educate and guide the kids and he’d give his life for any of these kids. He’s kept kids off the streets and from gangs.”

Cole asked if Santiago’s termination wasn’t thorough. “All I ask is, have we done our due diligence?” he said. “Do you know how hard is is get somebody to step into these jobs? And we’re pushing Eddie out? There has to be a compromise.”

Tony Dorn, a Fairfield resident and team booster, wondered if Santiago’s firing was just the school district’s way of testing his support.

“Did they fire him so they could see this with their own eyes?” Dorn asked. “So they could see how he’s so loved by these kids? So what is it? …Let’s walk back a couple of steps and get back to drawing board and just communicate.”; @SPBowley