Plaschke: Mater Dei’s Bruce Rollinson is dodging accountability

He was midfield at the Rose Bowl, a triumphant figure at the center of the national prep football universe, basking on the precipice of parting from a long and illustrious career.

Then why doesn’t Bruce Rollinson want to talk about it?

He appeared on Monday at one of the final stops on his winning streak, a final chance to explain his 34 years of glory, when the esteemed Mater Dei coach attended a press lunch ahead of Friday’s Southern Section Division I championship game at the Rose Bowl against St. John Bosco.

So why doesn’t Bruce Rollinson answer the most obvious questions?

This columnist popped up to ask him about the strange circumstances surrounding his sudden resignation announcement earlier this month. It’s a question asked throughout the prep sports world of Southern California and beyond. It has been the subject of wild speculation and incessant rumors.

Rollinson could have followed his own teachings of accountability simply by providing an explanation.

He refused. He refused to go into it. He refused to talk about it. He said he wouldn’t talk about it until after the season.

A man who recently claimed to be happy in his retirement didn’t answer retirement questions. Period.

It was just another exclamation point in an ugly saga that only got uglier. Far from being a great goodbye, it seems more like a long and lousy goodbye.

The latest chapter was written earlier this month when 73-year-old Rollinson diverted all attention from unknowing players and turned the spotlight on himself by making a massive flip-flop as he announced he would be playing at the end of the season in would retire.

He made the announcement just a month after telling a local newspaper he was coming back.

“I’m pretty confident to tell you that I’ll be back for the 2023 season,” he told Orange County Register’s Dan Albano in October.

He made the announcement in the middle of a playoff run that has seen the nation’s top-ranked team headed for their fourth state title in six years.

“I’m very close to a lot of these young players and I want them to keep getting better,” he told Albano.

He made that announcement, although he doesn’t actually say it anywhere in the five-part resignation statement why he goes in pension.

Nothing about health. Nothing about tiredness. Nothing about spending more time with family.

Rollinson ended a 34-year tenure as arguably the most powerful figure in Southern California esports with no more insight than, “I recently decided that this year will be my final year as head coach of Mater Dei soccer.”

Who does that?

Someone pushed out, that’s who.

There’s no concrete evidence for this, but it sure sounds like it, and it’s about time.

A year ago, this column called for the sacking of Rollinson in the wake of a lawsuit that vividly depicted a vexatious incident while exposing the football program’s culture of arrogance, entitlement and callousness to student safety.

Rollinson initially probably kept his job because, as an affidavit from former athletic director Amanda Waters evoked, the school is about image, about integrity, and most importantly, about winning.

But two things could happen that would make Mater Dei sever ties with the legendary coach and move away from the scandal for good.

Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson speaks to quarterback Elijah Brown.

Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson speaks to quarterback Elijah Brown prior to a playoff game against JSerra Nov. 11.

(Luca Evans/Los Angeles Times)

First, the school could finally complete a safety assessment launched a year ago after the lawsuit emerged, which surfaced video of a former player suffering a brain injury in a locker room during what was allegedly a team-sanctioned fight.

The spokesman for the Diocese of Orange did not respond to inquiries about the status of the assessment. Its slow pace has led to questions about its seriousness. But if student safety is an actual priority for the Diocese of Orange, any valid review will have Rollinson’s fingerprints all over it.

Second, concerns about the valuation results could be compounded by an apparent monetary settlement of the litigation. A settlement complaint was filed in Orange County Superior Court. There’s no indication of the comparative figure, but the lawsuit is linked to Rollinson’s behavior and has certainly sparked safety ratings, neither of which look good for the coach.

The most damning evidence of Rollinson’s tacit approval of the toxic culture could be found in Waters’ previously reported testimony, which portrayed the coach as complicit and indifferent.

See Waters’ testimony of Rollinson’s response to her numerous requests to patrol a locker room where various forms of harassment had become common practice.

“I don’t have time to do this, s-” Rollinson reportedly told her.

The testimony also included Rollinson, who reportedly confirmed the haze combat ritual known as “the body.”

“He said, ‘If I got a dollar for every time these kids played ‘Bodies,’ I’d be a millionaire,” Waters testified.

There were other allegations of violence under Rollinson’s supervision, including an assault charge brought against him in 1989 after a senior Mater Dei athletic trainer accused him of choking her. The misdemeanor trial ended in a hung jury, and Rollinson pleaded no objection to the disturbance of the peace. More recently, a 2019 civil lawsuit accused two soccer players of hitting a basketball player at the request of a teammate.

All in all, despite the glossy paint job of another potential title run, Rollinson looks set to end his tenure in the shadow of controversy. In the absence of valid explanations or clarity, he will retire as a great football coach whose unquenchable thirst for championships eventually put his players, employer and others at risk, a legend Mater Dei simply could no longer afford.

In the lawsuit, Waters testified that Rollinson was “excited” that she wanted to discuss the “Bodies” fight and made it clear that the conversation was over.

“He didn’t like being challenged,” she said. “If he says what he says and he’s stopped talking about it, he’s going to make it very clear that he’s done talking.”

Rollinson may not want to talk about his retirement, but Mater Dei and the Diocese of Orange owe the community an explanation.

How widespread was bullying and how can anyone believe it has stopped? How can anyone trust that the new coach and new culture will be different? How can you trust them with the future if they don’t acknowledge the mistakes of the past?

Still looking for answers on Monday, this columnist put the lingering question to Mater Dei sporting director Joel Hartmann.

Was Bruce Rollinson forced to retire?

“I believe him when he says it was his decision and only his decision,” Hartmann said.

He might be the only one. Plaschke: Mater Dei’s Bruce Rollinson is dodging accountability

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