When the head football coach position became available at Queen Anne’s County High in April, a brief inkling popped into Cambridge-South Dorchester athletic director Kareem Otey’s head.
She wondered if Al Waters — whom Cambridge-SD hired as head coach in March, but also has extensive history at Queen Anne’s — would go for the job.
Otey brushed it off, believing Waters to be all-in at C-SD.
But then, weeks later, she received calls from two Bayside football coaches asking if C-SD was looking for a head coach. Otey thought it was odd, and told them the program still had Waters. The coaches responded, “Oh, Al’s still there?”
Otey didn’t make much of it at the time, but called her head coach for reassurance.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’ve gotten a couple calls asking if the head coaching position was vacant, and they brought up the Queen Anne’s job,’” Otey said. “I said ‘You’re not jumping ship, are you?’ And (Waters) specifically said ‘Absolutely not. I’m all in at Cambridge.’ Thinking back at the timeline, he was more than likely doing the interview process at Queen Anne’s.
“So that’s why I was surprised because somebody who demands respect and is supposed to be full of integrity and of good character flat-out lied.”
The story is emblematic of the hard feelings the Vikings felt when Waters left for Queen Anne’s.
Most — if not all — within the Cambridge-SD athletic program realize Waters’ motives for the move. Waters is a Queen Anne’s alum, spent 15 years as a Lions assistant, and lives 10 minutes away from QACHS in Church Hill.
But many inside the program harbor resentment over the way Waters handled the move so soon after accepting the C-SD job.
Waters’ hire at Cambridge-SD followed two years as Vikings defensive coordinator, and his players were excited to play for him. They felt he’d pick up where departed head coach Gaven Parker left off and continue the momentum of the team’s 10-3 record and state semifinal appearance in 2019.
He’s a disciplinarian, something the players though would benefit them in the upcoming season.
“(Waters) is a great dude,” sophomore tight end and middle linebacker Dillon Meekins said. “He had a lot to do with our success last season. He’s a very good defensive coordinator, and he was really good at coaching.”
Waters’ brief tenure as C-SD head coach coincided with the coronavirus pandemic, which prevented him from ever meeting with his team in person as head coach. He was still in regular communication with his team while they were at home with school closed. He posted in the team group chat on Hudl often, encouraging players to stay on top of grades and workouts, even setting up pushup or situp competitions.
But during the last month, Waters communicated with the team less frequently, and his players could tell.
“He wasn’t texting as much,” junior running back and outside linebacker Donald Banks said. “He wasn’t communicating with us as much as he used to when he first got hired at CSD. He kind of slacked off.”
“We noticed that he didn’t text the group chat like usual,” sophomore running back and middle linebacker Tayon Fletcher said, “but we didn’t think anything like this would happen, that he would go back to Queen Anne’s.”
Waters referred to C-SD as his ‘dream job’ when he was hired as Vikings head coach in March. But really, Queen Anne’s was the job he dreamt about for years. Because he has a one-year-old child, coaching 10 minutes from home is a significant difference from coaching an hour from home. And he returns to a program he has so much history with.
The decision was clear for Waters in every way except one: Leaving Cambridge-SD hanging, particularly so soon after accepting its head coach position, was difficult.
“For coach (Eric) Otey and Kareem, they were fighting for me to get the job in the first place, (that was) huge,” Waters said. “Telling them two was probably the hardest. They did so much for me to get the job in the first place. It was pretty tough.”
But even knowing that was the hardest part of the decision wasn’t enough to ease Kareem Otey’s mind. She took exception with the way Waters let C-SD know he was leaving — he sent his resignation letter in an email, and sent his players a short note in their team group chat.
He never explicitly told his players he was taking the Queen Anne’s job — he told them he was “taking a new job closer to home.” Multiple players didn’t realize he meant he was going to Queen Anne’s — they thought he may have referred to a job outside of football. Those players didn’t connect the dots until reports emerged on social media.
Kareem Otey expected more.
“To send an email? I mean come on,” Otey said. “If he claims that he appreciated what Eric and I did for him and all that stuff, at least give us a call! Don’t send an email and a text message. That’s like breaking up with your girlfriend or boyfriend over text message.”
Cambridge-SD is focusing on graduation this week — a three-day event because of social distancing concerns — before coming together to develop a plan going forward.
With fewer than three months until the scheduled start of the season, a new coach won’t have much time to get acclimated before things ramp up. But Kareem Otey ruled out promoting an assistant coach to interim head coach for the season and revisiting next offseason.
“We thought we had already found a long-term solution,” Kareem Otey said. “So yeah. We don’t want another band-aid that just covers up the issue for a year. We’re definitely going to be looking for somebody that is going to want to stay in the position for a bit.”
For the second time in the same offseason, Cambridge-SD players have to operate without a head coach to lead them through workouts. For this to happen so close to the season made it even more shocking for some players.
In some ways, having experienced offseason work without a head coach so recently makes it easier for the players to go through again. They know what it’s like, both in working hard without a head coach’s guidance and in waiting to see who gets the job.
But in other ways, it’s harder the second time around. The anxiety about who will lead the team will only grow this close to the season, and with schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, players can’t come together as a group to get through it the same way they did before.
“At the beginning of the (offseason), we knew that we had coaches that applied,” Banks said. “But now, it’s scary because we don’t know who’s applying and who’s not. We don’t get to see all of our teammates, we only get to see some of the people that want to get better that come out to the field. But not all of our whole team comes.”
Regardless, it leaves C-SD players in a position Kareem Otey think is unfair. She doesn’t think Waters handled the situation properly on his way out.
“It’s frustrating because, fantastic, he’s now at his dream job. Meanwhile, the kids that he hyped up are now left to pick up the pieces,” she said. “He can be excited about the new job. But have some respect for the kids that you left high and dry, is all I’m saying.”
Follow me on Twitter @SethTow. Follow us on Instagram @StarDem_Sports.