Ford: Bessemer HS football

Freeman’s dismissal doesn’t make sense
By Hunter Ford
Ten years ago Bessemer Academy was at a turning point. The school was broke. It couldn’t afford to pay teachers. According to an award-winning story “About Face: A New Game Plan” that ran in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2005, the school turned to football to help solve the problems.

“Right before Christmas break in 1997, school officials informed the teachers that the school wouldn’t have enough money to pay them until after the new year. School leaders huddled,” reads the story.

Facing dwindling enrollment, Bessemer Academy “Needed to get the school back in the public eye, so they set out to do the one thing guaranteed to bring attention to a high school in the South: build a football powerhouse.”

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The story goes into fascinating detail about how Mark Freeman, a car salesman and Pee-Wee coach was hired and immediately turned the school into a statewide sensation.

The Rebels won 102 games in ten seasons under Freeman, claiming four AISA state championships in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2007.

The story recounts how Freeman attracted black students to what it referred to as a “segregation academy.”

Freeman also hired a black assistant coach, which the Times-Picayune painted as a risky move.

But the Times story seemed to me to be a mostly positive portrayal of Bessemer Academy, of Freeman, and of the football program.

It reads a lot like “Remember the Titans.”

Freeman’s football teams not only won on the field; they learned life lessons and inspired the community.

The state legislature even passed a resolution recognizing the team for its achievements.

Earlier this month a strange plot twist occurred in the Bessemer Academy football story. The school is in poor financial shape again, the current board of directors says. This time, instead of turning to Freeman to bolster its image, the school is letting him go.

I called the school’s headmaster last week and didn’t get a return call. I talked to one of the board members and was mostly given the “no comment” response…no details.

I’m surprised that we haven’t received any phone calls this week at The Western Star. I know that some people care about the situation, because “on the street” I’ve heard a lot of speculation.

The school’s official reason for letting Freeman go is that it has to focus on retaining teachers. Freeman was more of an administrator, the school board said, and had to be sacrificed.

But Freeman had worked to get his college degree, something he did not have when he began coaching at Bessemer Academy. He had also been teaching classes called Christian Living, and he was willing to teach other classes if asked.

Furthermore, one former board member said a group of private investors may have been ready to pay Freeman’s salary if asked, or allowed to.

The scenario doesn’t make sense. Bessemer Academy’s football team under Freeman was providing positive publicity. It was virtually the only thing people ever heard about Bessemer Academy and it was all good news.

Freeman was not only producing championship teams, he was producing scholarship quality athletes. Two of his players from last year’s team have committed to Auburn. With Freeman’s departure those players have decided to play at other schools next season.

What will happen now at Bessemer Academy?

The football team may continue to be successful. The school is right to place top priority on academics, but will it lose its ability to recruit new students if the athletic department starts to flounder? Don’t forget, other sports were thriving. The basketball team won a state championship last year too.

How important is Bessemer Academy to the West Jefferson community? Is it going to survive? Losing a good football coach is one thing, but can it even keep its doors open?

New schools are being built all around the county thanks to new tax money. Will Bessemer Academy be an attractive option for as many families as it used to be, or will they be happy to send their kids to the new public schools?

I don’t have any answers. And I’m not hearing any from anybody in a leadership position. The more I think about it, the more questions come up. It’s an interesting situation. I’d love to hear the rest of the story.