Until last spring, Edwin Zarowin thought his job was secure. He was 31 years into coaching men’s and women’s cross-country and track and field at Hunter College, after having coached at Brooklyn Technical High School for 21 years. He was 88.
A new college cross-country season will begin this week, but Zarowin will no longer be Hunter’s coach. Unhappy over his situation, Zarowin has filed an age discrimination/retaliation complaint against Hunter, and some current and former athletes have waged an online war. He and his supporters claim that the college unfairly, and perhaps illegally, decided that Zarowin was simply too old.
Hunter officials initially refused to discuss Zarowin or his job status, after proposing that he accept a position as an “athletic archivist” at the college. Zarowin said that Athletic Director Terry Wansart had listed a slow work pace, poor technology skills and resistance to taking directions as factors behind his “unsatisfactory” annual performance review.
Zarowin rejected the job offer in a June 1 letter to Wansart, saying, “If it is your decision that this is the only option open to me, you will — in essence — have fired me.”
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Darnley Stewart, Zarowin’s lawyer, who filed the initial grievance on age discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on July 10, claimed in the complaint that her client was being “relegated to being an office assistant.”
“If you wanted to push him out, there’s a right way to do it, a humane way to do it,” said Stewart, who filed an amended charge including retaliation on Aug. 7.
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Zarowin’s unconventional coaching style of training sprints and hurdles in school gyms and hallways instead of at the 168th Street Armory proved successful in years past. But with Hunter athletes often living off campus and saddled with work and classroom commitments, suiting up enough competitors to fulfill N.C.A.A. regulations became sensitive issues.
Stewart said she had talked to Laura Hertzog, Hunter’s special counsel to the president. “What she told me is that there have been N.C.A.A. violations,” Stewart said in a phone interview, referring to the minimum number of athletes required for a team at a meet. “I said, ‘Please send me a letter.’ That doesn’t exist.”
Asked about conversations with Stewart, Hertzog replied in an Aug. 21 email, “It is my policy never to comment on pending matters in which an employee is represented by counsel.”
Last week, Hunter announced a new coach, Daniel Selsky, who was an assistant at Sarah Lawrence College last year. Stewart said a mediation session under the auspices of the E.E.O.C. had been scheduled for Oct. 15, with Zarowin and Hunter officials scheduled to appear.
The past year has been stressful for Zarowin for other reasons. His wife of 67 years, Mary, died in December after a prolonged illness that required caregiving and schedule adjustments.
“I saw a lot of stress,” said Sidney Milden, who ran for Zarowin at Brooklyn Tech and has been an assistant at Hunter, on and off, since 1986. “But he was still able to give a lot to the program.”
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“He taught me that I can be anything you put your mind to,” wrote Natalia Bonilla of the Bronx, who was among the 126 who signed the petition.
“Under his direction, I became a better athlete,” wrote Tarcizio Rocha of Brazil, class of 1997, who was a member of the Hunter soccer team and was invited by Zarowin to run cross-country. “And even though I didn’t have much time for training due to work, he got the best of me.”
Even without a head coaching job in his future, Zarowin said he might accept a position as a volunteer assistant for a local high school this fall. A group of his former high school and college athletes is planning a “Celebration of Z” event for next spring.
“Coach Z has earned the right to choose when he wants the race to end,” wrote Donna Mahoney, a former Hunter distance runner from Canada. “And he should always have the last word and step down when he crosses that finish line.”