‘To End This Way Makes No Sense’

YU officials mum on firing of hoops coach Jonathan Halpert after 42 years.

02/18/14
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In January, Yeshiva University’s basketball coach Jonathan Halpert published his memoirs, “Are You Still Coaching?” In February, the answer is “no,” with Halpert fired after 42 years and more than 400 victories (seventh most in the history of New York men’s basketball).

An official statement by YU didn’t say Halpert was fired, only that he “will conclude his service” after Yeshiva’s final game (Feb. 22), but the coach emailed friends that this was just “the corporate way of telling me that I have been fired.” Halpert said the school never told him why.

Since 1972 Halpert has commanded Yeshiva’s sidelines and the respect of the city’s basketball mavens. This week, all he has left is that respect, with the coach reporting more than 350 emails from former players, opposing coaches, referees and the Yeshiva community, where the consensus reaction was “shocked.”

Halpert admitted to sadness, disappointment. “It rips your heart out,” he told The Jewish Week Tuesday. “To end this way makes no sense. Everyone asks me, why? As if the onus is on me to explain. It’s not fair. I have no basis even for speculation.”

YU President Richard Joel issued a statement praising “Dr. Halpert’s caring commitment, as both mentor and coach, to his players and the YU community has made a difference for more than four decades. His legacy and lasting contribution to the university will be remembered each time our student athletes step onto the court that carries his name.” Just two years ago, YU honored Halpert, who has a doctorate in special education, by adding his “signature” to the home court at Yeshiva’s Max Stern Athletic Center on West 185th Street.

Looking to reconcile Joel’s praise and Halpert’s pain, Joel was given the chance to elaborate, but he told The Jewish Week that he wouldn’t comment further. Requests for comment from officials in athletic department were referred to an official spokesman who wouldn’t comment on personnel issues.

Halpert said, “I got called to [Joel’s] office, last May. We’re not best friends but we had a nice relationship. He says, ‘I’ll let you coach this year (2013-14) but after that I want you to retire.’ I asked why? He said, ‘You’ve been here 41 years. It’s enough.’ I asked, were there were any complaints about me? I don’t understand. A year ago, I was fine. If I’m so bad, why are you letting me coach this year? He said, ‘I’ll give you a victory lap. I’ll make you a party.’ He said, ‘I’m not going to be here 41 years, why should you be?’”

Halpert added, “You named the [court] floor for me, raised $250,000 in my name, made a speech that I was the greatest thing since chopped liver, and now, a year later you fire me?”

In an email to friends, Halpert said Joel “demanded that I announce my retirement…  and sign a non-disclosure agreement. In November I informed the President that I was not prepared to make a decision about retirement at that time and under no circumstances would I sign a non-disclosure agreement. In December I received a termination letter stating that my services were ‘deeply appreciated’ just not wanted any more. … Although I am obviously very disappointed by his decision I will never allow one decision made by one person in one moment of time to negate the wonderful experiences and associations that I have enjoyed over the past 42 years. My love and admiration for Yeshiva University, its administrators, faculty and students remain as strong as ever.”

Some wondered if the firing was about YU needing to save money. “Oh, it can’t be about money,” said Halpert. “I won’t tell you my salary because I’m embarrassed. No, not embarrassed, but people too often value you by how much money you make. When I started at Yeshiva I made $1,000, OK? Then I made $3,000 for many years. I never complained because I had another job.” In 2012, The New York Times reported that over the duration of his career he often earned less than $25,000. Halpert told us, “I always thought of my coaching job as my way of giving back to Yeshiva, giving back to the community.”

He added, “There’s nobody who wanted to see me leave. Nobody.” Even the athletic director wanted you to stay? “OK, very good. Let’s put it this way. We didn’t have the closest relationship. Cordial. About two or three years ago, we had a pretty serious difference but it was resolved and from that point forward everything was fine. This decision was way beyond the athletic director. This decision was made by the president.”

The YU Maccabees have a 4-12 record in the Skyline Conference (Division III) and 6-17 overall, but making the playoffs three times in the last six years. At one point, Halpert had 15 consecutive winning seasons. He coached more than 300 players, including Dave Kufeld, drafted by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers in 1980.

Kufeld told The Jewish Week that the Halpert’s influence on his players extended “way beyond the end lines of the court.” The coach had “a fierce devotion towards faithfully representing everything Yeshiva University has historically stood for, and for maintaining the proper perspective and attitude when experiencing either victory or defeat. … Hundreds of former and current players see him as a friend and mentor in all matters of life, basketball and even religious observance. We are greatly saddened and troubled by the impending end of the Halpert era at YU, and we are encouraging everyone whose lives he has touched to attend the team’s final game, next Saturday night [Feb. 22, 8:30 p.m. versus Maritime at Yeshiva’s Washington Heights campus] to accord him a measure of hakarat hatov — grateful thanks.”

Few coaches can say their whole life has been spent at one school, but Halpert can say it perhaps more than anyone. His father worked there, and Halpert went to Yeshiva University’s high school, then Yeshiva College where he was captain of the basketball team, then Yeshiva’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, before his first coaching job at Yeshiva’s high school.

Not only did Halpert’s players have to balance a dual Jewish-secular curriculum, but for more than a decade, before the Stern Center opened in 1985, Halpert’s teams didn’t have a home court and often had often to travel to “home” games at Brooklyn College, or in high school gyms, sometimes practicing in a school near the Whitestone Bridge. YU’s only gym, in those days, was of limited use, with too low of a ceiling to contain the high arc of some shots.

Halpert was twice named coach of the year in the Skyline Conference, and received the National Association of Basketball Coaches “Guardians of the Game” honor in 2003-04. The Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association awarded him its “Good Guy” award in 1997-98. In 1997, the New York Times included Halpert in “a look at some of the best coaching performances in the metropolitan New York area this season.” In a recent game against St. Joseph’s, Halpert was honored and St. Joseph’s offered to play Hatikvah played before the game, but St. Joseph’s didn’t have a recording.

Yeshiva’s former athletic director, Richard Zerneck, once told the Times: “Jonny is of the old school, of people like Nat Holman and Red Holtzman and our old great coach, Red Sarachek. They run the backdoor cuts and emphasize ‘see the ball’ …. No one knows the game better than Jonny.”

At times getting choked-up, Halpert said, “Everything’s for the best. That’s what we’re supposed to believe. I know who I am. I know what I’ve done. The single most important thing that a coach has, or any leader has, is integrity. Treating players, treating people with respect. What does ‘no comment’ mean? I’m not going to walk around saying I retired when I know I didn’t. Sooner or later it had to end. I understand, but to end this way…

jonathan@jewishweek.org
 

Last Update:

03/03/2014 - 06:56

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Listen it's hard to say weather Halpert could've done better with his recent teams. We would have to look at his roster vs the others and take all things into consideration. I think there are only a handful of people who had exposure to all of that and it wouldn't surprise most people that the folks who made the decision to let him go didn't have that exposure.
It's true that the skyline conference is too weak a conference for the top psal and chsaa players. It may also be that the current YU guys might be able to play for some of the weaker psal teams and start. Some of the better psal teams i would be surprised if the could make. The real challenge for any YU coach is that to win a conference it takes quite a bit more then that type of talent. To give an example i played in the early to mid 90s in those days the team we had to beat to win the conference was nj tech. We were never able to beat them we came in 2nd place twice we played as hard as we could and Jonny coached his heart out losing those games was painful. While it was disappointing It wasn't a reason to fire the coach. They had 4 all Americans that would each tear up the yeshiva league in the worst way possible. While I don't know What the level has been recently in the skyline it seemed at the time that to win a conference you needed nj tech type impact players not just guys who could play at a division 3 school. You needed some guys who could really excel at a d3 program. I still to this day believe we could have beaten those tech teams but it certainly shouldn't have been EXPECTED and wasn't a reason to fire a coach for not. I only really know from my days but the top teams to beat all had all Americans and had players that if they ever played in the yeshiva league would outright dominate. I can't remember if YU ever had any all Americans. Is it possible to win without any all Americans? Of course its possible. The question here is should it have been expected? For the guys that think that coach didn't believe he could win nothing could be further from the truth. The better the team the harder he coached and the harder he pushed us. While I only played for him for 4 years not 42 from my experience he is not deserving of a lot of the basketball criticism he is getting besides There was so much more to his job then the basketball side which has never been questioned. Jonny in my opinion is a heckuva coach and a wonderful man. This is a big loss to the institution.

-the yeshiva league is a wonderful entity and has given orthodox jewish kids the ability to play ball and compete against each other in a nice atmosphere. We are now seeing the negative side to that.It has distorted the views of the people involved. People around the league have glorified players who in most cases wouldn't even make a psal team. The psal has put hundreds of players in the nba and hundreds more playing overseas over the past 42 years and thousands into the NCAA. How many college players did the yeshiva league produce other then YU? A handful at most and those were all d2 or lower and nobody had a notable career (to my knowledge). So to the anonomys guy who thinks yeshiva kids are good and can play at psal I just proved to you that they can't and how inferior they have been. To sit back and say that Jonny should have won something with these kids is ludicrous and an unfair knock on coach Halpert. People say he should have won championships. Which champioship?the skyline? Ecac? NCAA? Do you even know anything about these conferences or are you saying well you coached for 42 years you should have won the champioship. If you don't know then judge and criticize a mans life work.

PSAL teams have some players who are way too good for the Skyline Conference, and many who are not good enough to get time on YU. Not every PSAL player is college basketball material. This over glorification of non-Jewish players is simply the" Jewish ghetto mentality" alive and well at YU. Most of the YU present day starting five could have started on most PSAL teams in the city. Not the top ones, but there is a huge range of talent in the PSAL. Feld, Ritholtz, Weissberg, Rosenberg would all start on most PSAL teams, no question. They would have been recruited to D3 schools because of their ability, both academic and athletic. I was a recruiter for a very successful small college basketball program for years. Those who underestimate the talent at YU simply don't know what they are talking about.

I read with some amusement the opinions of the no nothings who post ANONYMOUSLY about Coach Halpert's dismissal. I am a Yeshiva College graduate who had the privilege of officiating college basketball for thirty years. so I can opine with some degree of expertise about the Yeshiva situation
a- NO COACH, and I mean Wooden, Coach K, Louie, or Dean Smith can win under the parameters set forth at Yeshiva. It is a Division Three program with NO scholarships, a 40k+ tuition and a pool of applicants who are never going to make the NBA. They will however sew up the professionals knees, manage their portfolios, and invest their monies.
b- Yeshiva High School players DO NOT and cannot compete with the PSAL schools. To say that they can proves the ignorance of the author. PSAL school not only have better athletes, but they PRACTICE 10 HOURS a week at the minimum with better gyms, more time, and with a student body where academics come in third.. College teams, even low level D3 programs like Brooklyn College practice a minimum of 10 hours a week, and have unlimited gym time and unlimited weight room time. Yeshiva athletes don't have the resources, the time, or the strength to do that with the double curriculum. For an authority like Anonymous to state that Brooklyn College proves HIS point is ludicrous. Brooklyn has over 6000 students, including some very good PSAL and CHSAA ballplayers. And the Brooklyn Coach learned HIS craft from Jon Halpert.

Most importantly, I state the following: At referee meetings I have attended over the past three decades, my peers know I am a YU graduate. And invariably, those peers approach me with the following statement: "Hey, I had YOUR GUYS last week at the [xyz]school. They did good, and THAT JONATHAN can sure coach.

THAT Mr. Anonymous, says it all.

When the search committee gets down to interviewing potential coaches, they will easily find a group of fresh, upbeat, hungry-to-win candidates, and at last, the stench of hopelessness that permeates the Washington heights campus today will disappear. YU will challenge for a league championship within 3 years because our kids are great. They overachieve. They possess intelligence and courage. They will win if all the negative nellies would just get the heck out of their way!

I disagree. The out of town schools that play against public schools play against POOR public school competition. Our yeshiva high schools in ny would not rank well in psal. Probably at a c level. C level psal players usually don't play college ball. We had a yeshiva kid named Tamir goodman our "Jewish Jordan" he was the most highly rated yeshiva high scool player perhaps ever. He went as far as being a 7th or 8th man for a school named Towson state and played one maybe 2 seasons.
To judge how many of our high school kids are recruited by other colleges? Very few if ever. How many play at other colleges? Your probably going to give the same excuse some other yeshiva players like to give. I could've played but I'm Shomer Shabbos.

.So you are asking why YU isn't recruiting kids that nobody else is interested either.
If you were an Israeli basketball player that could play for a real program why on earth would you go to YU? The schools in one of the worst neighborhoods in America. The school has no girls and no campus. It's also 40k to go there. With YU cutting back on aid how could you recruit a player. People need to be realistic. In the last 30 years the yeshiva league put out maybe a handful of players that can really play ball not just yeshiva ball. I can name a few guys who had the size and athleticism to compete.Eric Davis, Abe Dweck, Ike Dweck Dan Aaron,Maurice Levy.There may be another few but not more. Jonny got 2 of those guys (the other 3 are Sephardic)but unfortunately they never played together.
If YU finds a good coach from the basketball end of things That coach may or may not win more games then Jonny did. If he does win 4 or 5 more games even 6 does it really matter to the school. Does anyone really care? They play in division3 in a conference nobody cares about. Do those 6 wins (maybe) mean more then the respecting the man who has represented them so well for the last 42 years? To a school that is supposed to be at the forefront of a religious movement?Could they have discussed the end with him rather then telling him it was time to go? They couldn't ask him how much longer he wanted to coach and cut him a deal? Let him have a little say in who they hire? There was no menchlike way to handles this? That's what the issue is here. People talk about Jewish basketball. There is nothing jewish about the way this was handled This was not the right way to end the reign and continue the relationship.
YU clearly shouldn't be worrying about wins and losses but more about how it conducts itself as a religious institution. This is certainly another major loss for them.

It's unfortunate for Mr. Halpert that his many years of service had to end in this manner. All indications are that he is a fine person, was dedicated to building the religious and moral character of his players, and certainly deserves a pension or payout of some sort.
A far more relevant issue, as debated above, is whether he has performed competently during his many years as coach, and whether he has the competence to continue in that position. The statistics clearly suggest he does not.

It's true there were numerous difficulties in the early years of the team (ie. no home gym,) and many that for a player today evaluating where he would like to play set YU apart. The religious environment, the double curriculmn, and the high tuition with no full scholarships, are obstacales that make recruiting difficult. But these are not reasons for so weak a basketball product. The cause was primarily a result of Mr. Halpert incompetance in several areas.

1. His game is rooted in 1940's and 1950's basketball. He professes to have learned his basketball from his "Rebbe," Red Saracheck. As one of Mr. Halpert's assistant coaches once noted, basketball then was known as the "Jewish Game." That's not the case anymore. His slowdown and hold-the-ball strategy has long been surpassed by fast break basketball. Unfortunately he has misused many of his better players, some possessing great speed and quickness, only to have these most valuable assets wasted.

2. He failed at recruiting. The most natural draw, the Metropolitan Yeshiva High School League (now with approximately 20 teams) puts out numerous high quality, some terrific players each year. Very few of them, and very few of the better Jewish players around the country ever get to YU. That's because he hardly ever goes to those games, or even knows who those players are. Further, many great Isaraeli players play for some top US colleges, but hardly any of them ever get to YU. Why?

3. His approach, reflected in his lament that "we just can't run with them," creates a losing mentality, and thus creates a team accustomed to losing. The YU team, representing the Jewish people, as he has so often noted, is an honor. True. But getting beaten badly is not. It took YU a while, but they finally did the right thing.

I agree that after 42 years he deserves a pension. I also think that after 42 years, YU is entitled to change coaches. That's 42 YEARS that they didn't ask him to retire, and he should at least be grateful for that. Coach Halpert should not be criticizing the University in public. This is most likely not a monetary issue for the University, because the article quotes Halpert saying that this was not a main source of income for him.I wonder if the real reason Coach Halpert is unhappy is because his son, the assistant coach, is not taking over the head coach job.

The issue is that the end if his line was never discussed until he was told he had to retire that season.
He was certainly owed more then that. He is also owed the say in how the transition between him and his successor would take place.There is no transition here. They told him he's out.Jonny essentially created the team and the schedule as it is today.He kept the program going during years when rabbis and presidents were never really comfortable with the athletic program to begin with. He had a lot to do with the gym being built and the entire athletic department expanding. People don't realize there may not be a real program without Jonny. So to say that the school who should be worried about academia and Torah education had a right to simply fire him abruptly is not fair. People just assume that the school created a program and then hired Jonny as coach. It didn't work that way. Coach had to fight for so much over the years for that program. Practices. Gym time, road trips funding etc.Now people who have no idea about what he did come in and say it was time and that he should thank the school for not making him retire the other 42 years. It is obvious that people are ignorant to what Jonnys role was in this program. To say that he has nothing to show for his 42 years is another ridiculous statement by someone who probably has no understanding of the talent pool and the situation in the skyline conference. No recruiting limited practices and a talent pool of poor yeshiva league players that all think they are superstars but couldn't last 5 minutes in the psal system. Before you make baseless comments do a little research.

The better yeshiva kids could absolutely play and compete very nicely in the PSAL. Yeshiva high schools all over the country regularly play against non-Jewish private and public schools. The fact is that with the proper preparation, it is not "the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog". It is so ironic that the name of the team is the Maccabees, and the prevailing thought is that they can't win because they are too small and rweak. Perhaps they should be Renamed the Runnin Rabbis so that no one will have expectations beyond their supposedly limited capability.

1 Are the circumstances today any different from 1972 when a young Jonathan Halpert replaced the venerable yet aging Red Sarachek.

2 Athletics at YU, including the basketball program, have always been placed at the bottom of the administration's agenda. It was no different when Sarachek coached and it will remain this way for Halpert's successor. There's always been a reason for this. As far as I'm aware, cable networks aren't clamoring to broadcast YU basketball games , so there is no revenue stream being generated. in other words, it costs the college money to operate the program.

3 Had Halpert accepted YU's proposal to retire, I'm sure there would have been a smooth transition where he would have had some input. If you're suggesting that he should have selected his successor, forget about it. Even the legendary coaches who retired in Division I rarely have such input.

4 It's fair to categorize Halpert's overall coaching performance as fair to poor. The bottom line at every level of athletics is how many championships you've won. Halpert failed to achieve any. Wasn't it Vince Lombardi who proclaimed, "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." While you are correct in stating that there is a paucity of basketball talent in the metropolitan area's yeshiva high school league, YU has been successful in recruiting superior (in relative terms) basketball talent from other parts of the United States, other continents and Israel. Yet, the trophy shelf continues to remain bare.

The bottom line is that Halpert may be a great guy who has been incredibly devoted to YU and his players. However, from a n objective perspective, it's very easy to understand why YU wishes to move on.

‘To End This Way Makes No Sense’

Actually, this is one of the few moves that YU has made in recent memory - at least during the Richard Joel era - that does make sense. By Halpert's own account, YU attempted to prevent any humiliation bu having him retire. Rather than agreeing with Joel that 42 years was quite a run (especially for someone who will never be confused with Adolph Rupp, John Wooden, Dean Smith or any other legendary NCAA baskeball coach), Halpert apparently decided to take a page from the Rex Ryan playbook and have his current and former players, in addition to sympathetic media personalities, lobby on his behalf and apply sufficient pressure that results in him retaining his job. Sadly for Halpert, this effort is doomed to fail since, unlike Rex who at least reached two consecutive AFC Championship Games, he has nothing to show for his forty plus years of "coaching" YU basketball.

It is apparent that Anonymous (above) has no knowledge of basketball and specifically YU basketball. His only gripe seems to be put down Johnny Halpert. It is uncalled for and immature and apparently a very weak person for not even entering his name. For all who know Johnny, he has been a dedicated coach, mentor and friend worthy of the positive accolades that he has been receiving in this most trying and emotional time for him. We all wish him well in his retirement and look forward to seeing him more in Israel.

To The person at that feels we need a new coach YU hasnt won anything. Are you kidding? YU is a tiny school that is forbidden to recruit or give out scholarships. The school is also private with a large tuition. The pool of athletes are limited to Orthodox high school kids who are religous and want to go to YU and can afford it. To disagree with you The Yeshiva high school players are lousy the teams compete in the PSAL A B or C divisons.
The biggest part of it is the limited amount of practice time.Most schools even division 3 schools practice every day and often twice a day on weekends. YU is in no way capable of parcticing that much between the dual curiculum and shabbos. The talent and the conditioning is what these teams have over YU. To give you an example Brooklyn college has over 16,000 students vs. YU aprox 1000. Their tuition is aproximately 5k a year vs. 40k They can aproach any (not just jewish and orthodox) high school kid who can play ball and offer him a spot on the team and with financial aid he can attend their school play ball and in many cases not pay anything. Brooklyn has become a decent D3 program. I played for YU and in my day we beat Brooklyn by 20 points.
Coach Halpert is resposible for the athletic program even existing. To say that we need a new coach for a team that without halpert may not even exist today is foolish.
Coach Halpet probably knows more about basketball then all of the coaches in his conference combined and they all know it and respect him. He is respected by coaches at every level as he was a student of the game under the great red sarachek also a mentor of Lou Carnaseca. If you think that the issue of no titles at YU is the coaching you are in for a rude awakening. Unless they give out basketball scholarships, recruit non jews, get rid of shabbos and dual curriculum the program will be heavily challenged.

Perhaps the the most damaging part of the Halpert legacy is that he convinced so many that YU can't win. There are styles of play that enable lesser talented teams to compete and even win against geater talent. Your Brooklyn College story only proves that it can be done. No one who knows the game would expect YU to win every year, or even most years, but some years...absolutely. If you don't think you can win, don't coach at the only institution for Orthodox players. Some of them believe, and deserve the opportunity to win. They should also travel as a team to out of town tournaments, which they almost never do. The average yeshiva high school has a more professionally run basketball program, with higher expectations than YU. Tha Halpert era has been one of excuses and undetachieving as a rule. Enough crying already. Get a real coach and get to work!

You have missed the point.Nobody is making excuses. Just trying to put things in perspective.
The issue with what you are saying is you are assuming that the team never believed that it could win. That coach never believed it either. That's not true and that's not what I said. Coach didn't make the statements about recruiting and he didn't make that excuse.
Coach instilled confidence in his teams and always believed he had a chance to win every game. He did have overachieving teams as he had underachieving teams as well.
My point was simple if Jonny or his predecessor don't win NCAA berths it doesn't necessarily mean they are doing a poor job. They may be overachieving you just won't see it in the form of a title or a playoff birth. For a school like duke a 16 seed in the tournament is a failure. For a school like Towson state it would be the greatest accomplishment in its history. It's relative. Our new coach shouldn't be EXPECTED to hit some of the milestones you mentioned. As far as the program being more advanced I couldn't agree with you more and I'm sure Jonny does as well. Coach always pushed for more tournaments and more travel trips. The school always gave him push back. Richard Joel recently forbid the team for traveling on the one weekend trip they usually take. There's also a difficulty in scheduling games because the schools break is in mid January when other schools are in December (there I go with the excuses again)

I hope they will pay him a pension!

It's about time! YU basketball has been terrible for decades. Not one championship, not one finals appearance, no NCAA invitations, no 20 win seasons, and this is division 3!!!! There are no lower divisions. Either yeshiva kids are incapable of winning, (which is not the case) or this man is not a good coach. What is abundantly clear after 41 years is that this coach will never win anything. He might be the greatest guy in the world. So invite him to Shabbos lunch, but please, let someone else coach already!!!!!

You sound like you whole life has been one big winning season. Maybe you should step up and show the rest of us how to couch some nice Jewish kids to play the game.

Before I donate one more penny to YU, at the very least, we alumni are owed an explanation.

A sad story, well told. How deeply disappointing to hear that someone who dedicated so many years to his work and did it well was so poorly remunerated, and now apparently cut loose in an unmenschlich manner. From your story, it sounds like they "don't make them like that any more..."

OMG! A fine example (lshon sagi nahor) of hakarat hatov--recognition of good/gratefulness by my alma mater. And I do remember fondly the YU gym with the low ceiling and consequent low-height arcs by the basketball players. If YU is short of money Richard Joel should volunteer to trim his salary a bit. Kol tuv.

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