It was an issue Reno High football coach Dan Avansino knew he wanted to address for several months.
Avansino, a Catholic, didn’t know when or where he’d air his thoughts on Bishop Manogue trying to build an athletic powerhouse. But he knew it would come eventually. He wrote a five-page letter to Bishop Randy Calvo, the seventh Bishop of Reno, in April 2017 to voice his concerns. He’d met with some of Manogue’s top donors and most influential employees. But that did not assuage his concerns.
Entering this football season, his 17th as the head football coach at Reno, Avansino decided to go public at some point. He didn’t do it for the first matchup between Reno and Manogue this season. He did do it during the second. Before Friday's game started, Avansino made the decision to air his grievances during his halftime interview of Nevada Sports Net’s Friday Night Rivals game between the Huskies and Miners.
With his team trailing 35-7 in a first-round playoff game Friday, sideline reporter Shannon Kelly asked Avansino how his team would respond in the second half. Avansino delivered a 2-minute sermon on the issues he saw with Manogue’s “decadent facilities funded by the elite,” the Miners “openly recruiting” and the school “making the elite more elite, the haves have more,” which he believed contrasted with the church’s overarching message and purpose.
Three days after the interview, Avansino – the longest tenured Northern 4A coach at one school and the only active football coach with a large-class state title – was fired by Reno High. Avansino, who said he was going to give the speech whether his team was winning big or losing big against Manogue, spoke with Nevada Sports Net on Tuesday for the first time since his firing and said he completely supported Reno High’s administration.
“I’m more at peace than I have been in a long time,” said Avansino, who will remain a teacher at Reno High (he teaches P.E. and is English Language, guiding students making the transition to new life in Reno and the U.S.).
Avansino sought to clarify his message from Friday’s playoff football game. While irked by what he believes is Manogue’s increased recruiting – as a private school, the Miners can enroll players not in a specific school zone – Avansino said the issue goes beyond that. His larger concern center on the Catholic ideals of humility, meekness, selflessness and helping the poor being juxtaposed with his belief Manogue (and Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman before it) taking a win-at-all-costs mentality toward athletics hinging on trying to show their excellence, dominance, elitism and power through athletics.
“My main message is simply I feel like the line has been crossed of using the Catholic guise to create this atmosphere of winning and prestige and power and this culture when this cross that you wear on your uniforms really has the opposite representation,” Avansino said. “It’s the exact opposite me personally. That’s my No. 1 message.”
“The recruiting is not just my issue. It’s, ‘What is the overall goal?’ The overall goal for most of these institutions is winning and dominance at all costs and for me that kind of goes against the mission of the Catholic church, which is to help with the poor, the impoverished, the marginalized and different things of that nature. That’s where it crosses the line for me.”
Avansino admitted the timing might have been better, in part because Reno High was holding a major fundraiser that weekend and, as it turned out, Reno and Manogue played in the Northern 4A regional volleyball championship game Saturday night, and his words overshadowed and added animosity to the match.
“I probably didn’t have the foresight for that,” Avansino said. “It just so happened they were playing Manogue High School in this championship game. The contentious atmosphere that I may have created was probably not in the best interest of our school in that regard. We also had a huge fundraiser that night, so to put that kind of emotional stress on our administration probably wasn’t fair on our part in terms of timing. Is that to say I regret my message? It does not.”
Avansino’s halftime comments sparked debate across the community and the social media world (#DefendDan was trending locally after he was fired) and Avansino said he was thankful for how many people have reached out to him. The list has included many former and current players.
“My first thought is the thankfulness for the amount of support I’ve received from former players, current players, staff, coaches around the community, parents,” said Avansino, who led Reno to the 2003 state title. “It’s really validated a lot of the hard work that has transpired over 17 years at Reno High School. The second thing is Reno High School is an amazing place to work. It’s really been like a surrogate family for me. It’s helped me through some very difficult times in my life, losing both my parents, going through a divorce, very, very critical times in my life and I’ve had to rely on Reno High extensively in those times and they’ve been absolutely amazing to me in those times.”
Avansino said his initial comments were not said “whimsically.” It was something he put a lot of thought and contemplation into because he had personally struggled with the contrast of the church’s message compared with the message he believes is being sent by the Miners’ direction athletically. Avansino said the local issue is a microcosm of a larger trend nationally with high school athletics becoming more oriented on winning than personally development. Avansino starred in football at McQueen High before playing for Carroll College, a small private school in Helena, Mont., and had a transformation experience there.
“I went to a Catholic institution in college," Avansino said. "Loved my experience there, particularly in the class room. It was amazing. Played athletics for a Catholic institution. It’s that delineation of what that symbol means, what it represents and how we’re moving forward. There have been a lot of insensibilities in athletics and we’ve lost sight of what high school athletics used to be, which was a ground for cultivating young people, presenting the values and work ethic and discipline necessary to be successful in life. That cloudy vision, particularly when you put it with faith, I think it merits discussion on all sides.”
Avansino said he understands the desire to win in athletics. After all, he’s a football coach. But he said the emphasis he’s seen Catholic schools like Manogue put on athletics has been troublesome.
“I think there’s an emphasis sometimes on the athlete at those schools and not the regular students at those schools who could be down and out,” Avansino said. “Sometimes it is the athletes taken into those schools and further perpetuating the cycle of dominance and the want to be the best on the competitive fields. I understand as a competitor wanting to the best. That’s where it gets cloudy and very confusing. I do as a competitor want to be the best. I always have. That’s why I gave everything I had to football. But when you do it under this guise, you have to be very careful because there’s another representation to it.”
When asked about the recruiting done at public schools – some of Avansino’s best players over the years were not zoned for Reno High – the coach admitted he did not publicly object to it in the past. When shown some tweets accusing him of hypocrisy, Avansino welcomed a further discussion on the topic.
“First off, I want to thank people for voicing their opinions,” Avansino said. “As I’ve said, I’m nowhere near a perfect person and I certainly respect people voicing (their opinions). When you hear the other side, you’ll learn something about yourself. To hear those things, I’m thankful to those people. These things have happened at public schools forever. Whether it’s people having problems with what we do at Reno High School or other public schools, I never had an issue. It never became an issue to me until it became part of this community’s private (Catholic) school, and that’s the fine line for me.”
Avansino said he wouldn’t even have a problem with Manogue’s athletic push if the school didn’t wear the cross on its uniform, but its presence is an issue given how much the symbol means to him. The coach said he's sorry if he offended anybody at Bishop Manogue and added he respects the institution, but he sought to start a dialogue on the topic.
Avansino said the positive feedback he’s received from many in the community is validation his mission as a man to positively influence youth has been fulfilled. He knew his halftime comments could have had a negative impact on his job status, but Avansino believed it was a topic that needed addressing.
“I knew this could be a potential sacrifice and to sacrifice something I’ve loved to do all my life – I’ve been a part of an organized football team since I was 6 – and to have that reality that I’m willing to sacrifice that to start a conversation that I think’s important, that’s why I’m here,” Avansino said. “I’m open to dialogue on all sides. I’ve never thought I was always right about any subject.”
Avansino said it was important to thank his longtime assistant coaches Joe Sellers, Bryon Worthen and George Phipps who have supported him over the years, and added it was too early to tell if he would one day want to coach football again.
“I’m going to take some time to think and reflect,” Avansino said. “I hope to continue these discussions with people, even of the opposing opinion. I’ll never say never to anything because I’ve done that too many times. I’m going to focus on my children who probably won’t be around my household much longer as they’re starting to enter Reno High School themselves. Just really focus on being a teacher, a dad and see where that leads.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.