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Otis Might Be Rehired as Coach at Dominguez

He built high school basketball power in Compton before a controversial departure.

November 22, 2002|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

A coach whose final days on the job were racked by controversy and whose dismissal nearly two years ago led to the breakdown of his school's nationally renowned basketball program appears close to getting his old position back.

At a school board meeting Monday, the Compton Unified School District is expected to approve the hiring of Russell Otis as coach of the Dominguez High boys' team, sources close to the basketball program said.

Otis, 40, was coach of the Dons for 13 seasons, guiding them to four state championships and a No. 1 final national ranking in 2000, before he was arrested in November of that year and later charged with sexually molesting a former player.

He vigorously denied the allegations and a jury later acquitted him. But Otis was fired in February 2001 because school officials said he had failed to obtain a permanent teaching credential.

Neither Jesse Gonzalez, superintendent of the Compton school district, nor Kelcey Richardson, Dominguez's principal, would comment about Otis. Gonzalez did not return phone messages and his secretary refused to schedule a meeting with a reporter. Richardson declined repeated interview requests.

A source with ties to the district said officials were trying to keep the coach's nomination quiet to avoid public debate before his candidacy was considered by the school board.

"They don't want the process to be polluted to the extent that people are getting calls from [school officials in] Sacramento and other places saying, 'We don't want this guy back,' " the source said.

Otis spent last school year as a teacher at Gardena High. He has finished his work on acquiring a permanent teaching credential and soon expects to receive written documentation by mail, a source said. Reached at his home, Otis declined to comment on the Dominguez job.

This isn't Otis' first attempt at regaining his old position. Otis requested reinstatement as coach in July 2001, but Randolph Ward, the state administrator who ran the school district at the time, instead hired Mack Calvin, a former USC standout and longtime NBA assistant coach.

With Calvin, the Dons finished 15-12 last season, losing more games than they had in the previous three seasons combined. Then, citing a need to attend to personal priorities, Calvin resigned last month. That opened the door for Gonzalez and several members of the school board, which has reassumed control of the district, to spearhead a drive to bring back Otis.

Even after the sexual molestation charges were leveled, Otis remained wildly popular in Compton, credited with building the Dominguez team into more than just a winner.

"Next to the Williams sisters and rap music, the Dominguez basketball team is the best thing to happen to Compton," the Los Angeles Sentinel, a leading African American newspaper, wrote.

At first, Otis won with local talent. But later he began to attract top players from other areas, such as eventual NBA lottery pick Tyson Chandler, who lived in San Bernardino when he first attended Dominguez. Nike also played a role by supplying the Dons with footwear and uniforms -- and by giving Otis a lucrative consultant's contract.

Dominguez won a third consecutive state title in 2001 under interim coach Steve Singleton, previously an assistant to Otis. But the Dons fell fast from glory last season, playing before half-empty gyms and losing in the second round of the Southern Section Division III-AA playoffs.

Things could get even worse for Dominguez this season -- especially if a new coach isn't in place before its opener Dec. 2. The Dons return three starters, most notably Travon Free, a 6-foot-7 senior forward who has committed to Long Beach State, but they still seem to lack the talent required to make a run deep into the playoffs.

Former Don basketball player Joey Aubrey and his father, Horace, have conducted informal practices this week as interim coaches. Joey, who played for Otis in the 1998-99 season, said a permanent coach should be in place as soon as possible.

"The team needs a coach to give them some direction to give them a shot at winning league and even going into the playoffs," he said. "They're hearing a whole bunch of different things about who's going to be the head coach ... so I know it has to be frustrating."

Aubrey said he would like to see Otis return as coach. "He deserves it," Aubrey said. "It would stabilize the program."

Otis' coaching peers have little doubt he could quickly restore the program to national prominence.

"If anybody can do it, I know he can," said Compton Centennial Coach Rod Palmer. "It's going to take a couple of years, but he knows the blueprint already."

Said Santa Ana Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight: "He's so ingrained in that area, just his name attracts a lot of players. I would think he could get it going again."

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