Sports Desk: Spinella’s heart is in the right place

Riverhead girls coach Dave Spinella goes over instructions with the Blue Waves at practice. (Credit: Robert O'Rourk)
Riverhead girls coach Dave Spinella and his team at a practice earlier this season. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk, file)

The best in people can emerge during trying times.

I have known Dave Spinella for a dozen years or so. I have seen him develop players, make them better, prepare them for the varsity level and assemble winning girls basketball teams for Riverhead High School. I have seen him win the right way, with class. I have seen him handle defeat with dignity.

And yet, for all he has done as a coach on the basketball court, Spinella’s shining moment, for me, came the day after Christmas when he issued a public apology for making public comments critical of his team following a loss.

Spinella found himself in the crosshairs of some who took exception to his remarks to The Riverhead News-Review following a 54-50 loss to Eastport/South Manor on Dec. 22.

One could tell that Spinella was angry over what he had seen (or didn’t see) from his players in that non-league game in Manorville. After emerging from a postgame meeting with his players, Spinella was met by a reporter seeking his thoughts about the game. The interview wasn’t long, but it packed a punch.

“We have no energy, no heart,” he told the reporter. “We have no fire. We don’t have passion.”

The resulting headline, “Spinella says Blue Waves lack ‘heart’, didn’t go unnoticed. Of the reader responses to the original story, all but a couple of them were critical of Spinella. Some called for the coach to be reprimanded.

Spinella said he later spoke with an angry parent of one of his players, and their conversation prompted some thinking on his part. His reaction was admirable and responsible.

Spinella issued a public apology, not for what he said, but for saying them to a reporter for public consumption. The comments he had made directly to his players carried over to the interview.

“This is no way near who I am or a reflection of what I stand for,” he said.

“My kids work really hard,” he continued. “They show up when I ask them to, they do what I ask them to do and they deserve better than that. I’m not a man of pride or ego. I have no problem admitting I made a mistake.”

Coaches, like players, fans, referees and reporters, aren’t perfect. They make mistakes. But did Spinella make a mistake?

Whether Spinella should have felt a need to apologize, in the first place, can be debated. Is it wrong for a coach to call out his players?

Here we enter the slippery arena of political correctness, the scourge across the land. Is the heated reaction to Spinella’s original postgame remarks further evidence of a societal trend toward babying our youth?

One online comment signed by Adamlee Barthalt read, “I am sorry, but when in the world did coaches become nannies??”

Good point. That reader may have stumbled onto something.

More perspicacity was provided by a baseball coach, Todd Van Scoy, who wrote: “Coaches are in a no win situation in these cases based on society today. While we speak candidly without singling out any individual, we are only allowed to say something positive, growth and learning are achieved by understanding your failures not only from receiving praise for our accomplishments.”

It is true. You learn from your mistakes, more so than from your successes.

Coaching isn’t easy. It’s hard, consuming work. I firmly believe those who coach do so, first and foremost, because they love it, not for the money or other benefits. Our local coaches have an added complication to their responsibilities that coaches in other school districts may not have: the press. Dealing with reporters and public scrutiny comes with the job.

By Friday morning, there were 20 comments appended to the end of a followup story about Spinella’s apology. Supporters of Spinella spoke (wrote) up.

As those who know him will tell you, Dave Spinella is not only a good coach, but he’s a good guy. He is in his 12th year as the team’s coach and his 14th year in the program. His résumé speaks for itself. His players and his school district are fortunate to have a quality coach — and person — such as him. His heart is in the right place, and that’s the important thing.

R031209_Liepa_RBob Liepa is the sports editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected].