Broward News

St. Thomas Aquinas Fired Coach for Benching Principal's Grandson

St. Thomas Aquinas High recently fired its basketball coach, a decision that's now being called into question.
St. Thomas Aquinas High recently fired its basketball coach, a decision that's now being called into question. St. Thomas Aquinas photo
St. Thomas Aquinas High (STA) fired its boys’ basketball coach for not giving more playing time to the school principal's grandson, a letter to the Archdiocese of Miami charges.

The letter, written by Nick Sortal, an assistant coach for STA's junior varsity team, outlines how first-year varsity coach Ed Nelson was pressured by school administrators to give preferential treatment to some players regardless of merit.

The letter was also sent to dean of students Rob Biasotti, athletic director George Smith, and school principal Denise Aloma.

According to the Sun Sentinel, Nelson was ordered to stop calling up sophomores to the varsity team and to give more playing time to "certain players." In the letter, Sortal said Nelson was specifically pressed to give preference to seniors.

One of the team's five seniors was outed as a likely beneficiary of administrative intervention when he was benched during a tournament game last week.

Nelson, who indicated he tried to abide by his new orders, opted instead to disregard them December 19, as his team trailed at the Kreul Classic, a preholiday tournament in Coral Springs for teams from across the nation. Nelson removed senior guard Devin Aloma, the principal’s grandson, early in the second half. His sub, a sophomore point guard who was not named, sparked a rally to win.

Denise Aloma, who has worked at St. Thomas Aquinas for more than 35 years, was named principal of the Fort Lauderdale Catholic high school in 2015.

Two days after he was forced to resign, Nelson tweeted, "My ability to manage my roster and game-time decisions greatly differ with that of school administration."

After he resigned under threat of termination, he told the Sun Sentinel he felt he had no choice.

"As a coach and as a professional athlete, I have to do what’s right by the players, and there’s a lot of other players on the team also. So I took a stand for what was right and what was earned and what I felt, as an alumni and as a professional, was where the program needed to go.

"I’d rather leave than to be told what I have to do,” he said.

Nelson could not be reached for further comment Tuesday.

Biasotti took over coaching duties in the wake of Nelson's firing.

In his letter, Sortal, who also serves on the city council in Plantation, called Nelson's ouster an abuse of power.

"For administration to select who plays violates the tenets the rest of the school lives by," Sortal wrote. To hold back a talented player "who has sharpened his skills through hard work" in favor of a lesser player, the letter said, is "punitive and unfair to [both] players and against everything that makes this great school (let alone sports programs) succeed."

He called for the Archdiocese to reappoint Nelson as coach.

Archdiocese of Miami Superintendent of Schools Kim Pryzbylski did not respond to inquiries Tuesday.

Athletic director George Smith has not responded to multiple media requests for comment.

Of the charges raised in his letter, Denise Aloma emailed Sortal: "Your desire to do what is right is eclipsed by the lack of factual information which is based solely on conjecture and opinion."

Aloma indicated the Archdiocese had not yet requested information regarding Nelson's termination, and added,  "I assure you there is no hesitation on my part to address this matter with the Archdiocese of Miami."

St. Thomas, most famous for its national championship-caliber football team, has been less stellar on the basketball court, going a combined 28-36 for the three seasons before coach Steve Strand retired this past February after 23 years.

Nelson, age 37, served as an assistant under Strand for two years before taking over as head coach. The Fort Lauderdale native is one of the Raiders' most celebrated alums. Named USA Today's Florida Player of the Year and one of the Top 25 prep players in the nation as a senior in 2001 by Sports Illustrated, Nelson helped lead Aquinas to its only state title that year.

He went on to win Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year at Georgia Tech before transferring to UConn, where he was part of Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun's 2004 NCAA champion Huskies team. After college, Nelson played pro ball in Europe for nine years. He joined his former coach Strand after retiring, at first just helping out and later as an assistant.

Nelson's hire was widely celebrated by St. Thomas' active alumni and viewed positively by local media. This season, his first at the helm for a team that graduated 14 seniors last spring, the Raiders were 3-5 with three consecutive wins before the school fired Nelson. 
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Veteran journalist Teri Berg is an award-winning writer and editor. A native Ohioan, she's celebrating a decade in South Florida.