Penn Cambria School District superintendent Mary Beth Whited wants it known that no incident caused Ernie Fetzer's sudden, shocking departure as the Panthers football coach on Wednesday with the team still in the heat of the playoff race, nor was the 30-year veteran head coach forced into stepping down.
It was simply a case of a man being out of answers and not believing he had anything more to offer.
"We wanted him to finish out the season," Whited said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon, a little more than 24 hours after Fetzer tendered his resignation as football coach and athletic director to her in person and exited the school's administrative offices. "There was no problem. This isn't one of those cases where we wanted him to leave."
Whited informed the assistant coaches of Fetzer's decision around midday Wednesday. She then told the team just before practice.
"It caught us all by surprise," said Tony Tomaselli, Fetzer's defensive coordinator who will serve as the interim head coach through the end of the season. "We didn't expect it."
Fetzer had told the Mirror in August that there was a strong possibility this season would be his last, and Whited confirmed Fetzer planned to step down at the conclusion of the year. She said she and Fetzer discussed reasons he might not coach through the end of his contract last year and they were personal reasons based on spending more time with his family. This was the final year on Fetzer's contract; Whited said that was by Fetzer's choice.
Messages left on Fetzer's home and cell phones were not returned by the time this story went to press.
Fetzer stepped down with the Panthers on a four-game losing streak, but still 4-4 and in control of their own destiny in regards to making the District 6 Class AA playoffs, which begin on Nov. 9. Penn Cambria plays at Westmont Hilltop on Saturday afternoon and hosts Somerset in its regular-season finale Nov. 2.
Fetzer has posted a career record of 182-127-3 in 30 years as a head coach and went 48-36 in eight years in Cresson. He guided teams at Ferndale, Johnstown Vo-Tech, Westmont and Somerset in addition to Penn Cambria and also coached track and field, girls basketball and gymnastics at various points.
This year's Panther team was considered to be potentially one of his best coming into the season. Penn Cambria returned most of a squad that went 9-3 and made the district semifinals in 2011. This year's senior class was undefeated as a freshman team.
"Ernie doesn't like to lose. He doesn't take that well. He takes it personally. He doesn't blame it on others. He always feels he's let people down," Whited said. "We ... he had very high expectations for this team. He loved these kids, and he wanted to see them succeed.
"As the season went on, it was harder and harder for him to bounce back from a loss."
After starting off with four wins in which they were virtually unchallenged, the Panthers lost by six at Bishop Guilfoyle, by seven to Cambria Heights, by two in overtime at Forest Hills and by 18 to Richland after being tied heading into the second half - all of those teams are playoff-bound and have a combined record of 26-6.
"He felt the Forest Hills game," Whited said Fetzer told her, "was the most devastating loss of his career."
Whited said she was not aware of several posts critical of Fetzer on social media accounts that appear to belong to Panther players in recent weeks, but she reiterated several times that she wanted to see Fetzer remain for the rest of the season, if not longer.
"He brought respect, sportsmanship and character back to our athletic program," Whited said. "A lot of people here respect him, and that will never change."
Whited said she tried to talk Fetzer out of resigning.
"The timing is not what I would have liked, but he just felt he couldn't do what he wanted to do to help the team," Whited said.
Without Fetzer, the Panthers still will try to make the district playoffs. Penn Cambria currently is tied for ninth in the district standings and only the top eight make the playoffs, but the Panthers would get enough points by winning their next two games to qualify for the field.
"We didn't see [Fetzer's resignation] coming. As far as me, I'm working through it by trying to get the team ready for Westmont on Saturday and keeping the team focused. That's what Ernie would want. He'd want us to continue business as usual," Tomaselli said.
Tomaselli said he felt the Panthers' four coaches could make the necessary adjustments, although they were still working out who would fill Fetzer's role calling the plays.
Whited said she hopes the school has a football coach and athletic director in place by January or February and would begin advertising the positions after Fetzer's resignation is formally accepted at the Nov. 20 board meeting. Ironically, Bishop Guilfoyle, which started Penn Cambria's slide, is coached by Penn Cambria graduate, middle school administrator and former Panther assistant Justin Wheeler.
Tomaselli said people have already been asking whether he'll pursue the football coaching position.
"I just want to get through this week," Tomaselli said. "I really haven't had time to think about that."