North Gwinnett High School student athletes, graduates and their families are appealing for the reinstatement of a volunteer track coach they say has built up the team’s membership, improved runners’ times and — most importantly — boosted the confidence of many kids.
A former Atlanta Falcons running back with years of youth coaching experience, James Primus volunteered to coach at North Gwinnett about four years ago when his daughter joined the team.
There were about 20 sprinters at the time, and Primus recruited by showing up to events at the school and encouraging anyone who “had the look of a runner” to join the team. The roster has about 90 sprinters now.
The track team is in the midst of a successful season, with members excited for a strong showing at big end-of-season meets.
Despite a winning track record, Primus was dismissed from the team March 7 following a meeting with the head coach, according to district spokesman Bernard Watson. “In his absence, administrators at North Gwinnett High have instituted a plan to support the student athletes impacted by this decision through the remainder of the season,” Watson said in a statement.
Primus hasn’t been involved in meetings among administrators, athletes and coaches this week. He’s not heard as of Tuesday afternoon if he may have a chance to return to the team, according to Primus’ wife Jacqueline Hay-Primus.
Primus said in a phone call he believes the reasons for his dismissal include differences in opinion and style among coaches and his efforts to break up a student argument.
About a dozen team members, alums and parents advocated at a recent school board meeting for Primus’ reinstatement, and about 30 others attended to show their support.
“Throughout track seasons, coach James Primus dedicated his time, energy and knowledge to not only me, but to others on the North Gwinnett High School track team,” Caelynn Louis, a sophomore, said. “It was his effective coaching methods and motivation that pushed me to excel in this sport.”
Parent Jeffrey Fox said the coach’s guidance helped his son find focus and a specific skill set in running hurdles.
“Coach Primus has changed my son’s life,” Fox said.
A member of the team started an online petition to reinstate Primus, and it gained more than 700 signatures in a week.
Primus said the outpouring of support made him “very emotional” and “provided a sense of confirmation that I’ve been an effective coach.” He said he loves seeing runners improve times just as much as seeing them blossom as young adults.
He and others have said some at the school may not like the way he speaks, contributing to his dismissal. Primus has a booming voice that he uses on the track, but he insists he never said anything inappropriate or cursed at anyone. He also believes interpersonal conflict among athletics personnel and disagreements about the allocation of coaches’ time were a factor.
One incident appears to be the final reason for Primus’ dismissal.
Two teammates were arguing during a track meet over a mishandled baton pass, and Primus held one boy back by his shoulders to help de-escalate, according to multiple accounts. The mother of the boy whom Primus held back was thankful he intervened. Brenda Holmes told the board her husband saw the interaction and spoke with Primus. The parents were both grateful Primus was nearby. They believe others disapproved of the coach’s actions.
“We know that this coach has (our son’s) best interests at heart,” Holmes said.
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