Whether they were losing in the fourth quarter, behind in a division race or going through a tough stretch of the season, Gene Allen always told his players the same thing: Don't give up.
Allen has decided to take his own advice.
Allen, who led the Atlantic City High School boys' basketball team to three state titles but was not reappointed to his position as head coach in a surprise move by the Board of Education on Nov. 20, said Monday he intends to try to return to the sideline for the Vikings.
Allen said he plans to attend the Dec. 11 Board of Education meeting to campaign for his old job.
"I've always told the kids that you have to stand up for what you believe in," Allen said. "That's why I feel like I have to do this. I have to fight this."
It's unclear whether the board will consider reappointing Allen, who was the Vikings' coach from 2003 through last season. Atlantic City athletic director Chris Ford Jr. directed all inquiries to the superintendent's office. Superintendent Barry Caldwell did not return a telephone call.
What has been clear since news of Allen's situation spread has been the support for the veteran coach in the Atlantic City community as well as the state high school basketball community.
"It's been over the top," Allen said. "It's really been overwhelming. I've heard from so many people, all over the state.
"That's what really has led me to do this [attempt to return to the team], the support and also the kids. I want to be there for the kids."
The Dec. 11 meeting is just three days before Atlantic City is scheduled to open the season against St. Joseph in a Cape-Atlantic League clash of teams likely to be ranked in the Top 15 in South Jersey. Allen's former assistant coach and player, Elijah Langford, was installed as the team's coach during the Nov. 20 board meeting.
Allen said he has been in regular contact with Langford.
"I'm deeply disappointed that they put him in this position," Allen said. "But he has done a great job of trying to maintain order through all this distraction."
Allen said the shock over his dismissal, the outrage in the community and the push in some quarters for his return has created an atmosphere of uncertainty around the program.
"It's beyond belief," Allen said. "The kids didn't ask for this chaos, and neither did I."
Allen is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the state. He also is extremely popular with his peers. In a Facebook post, former Linden and current Elizabeth coach Phil Colicchio wrote, "No better coach in NJ. … Always a gentleman off the court and no coach cares more about his players."
Rancocas Valley coach Jay Flanagan was among several South Jersey coaches to express dismay at Allen's dismissal. Flanagan said he was likely to attend the Dec. 11 board meeting in support of Allen or write a letter to the board on his friend's behalf.
Allen said the parent of a former player pressured the board not to reappoint him as coach. He said the parent made an issue of a text-message thread that Allen shared with his players after the season.
Allen admitted using foul language on the thread and said he was dismissive of the players' request for an "elaborate" postseason banquet. Atlantic City was 25-5 last season but lost in the Cape-Atlantic League tournament and in the South Jersey Group 4 tournament, and Allen said he didn't believe the team had accomplished anything meriting an extra-special banquet.
Ultimately, the team did have a banquet.
Allen is a demanding, no-nonsense coach who insists on defensive diligence and unselfish offensive play from his athletes. He changed the perception of the Atlantic City program, which before his arrival had a reputation for producing top individual players but falling short as a team in state-tournament competition.
Before Allen became its head coach, Atlantic City had never won a state title. He led the Vikings to Group 4 state championships in 2005, 2012, and 2013 as well as six South Jersey Group 4 titles.
Allen's career record is 336-101. He was 17 wins from becoming Atlantic City's all-time leader in coaching victories.
Allen, who has maintained his position as a teacher at Atlantic City High, said his decision to try to return as coach is part of an effort to use this situation as a "teachable moment" for his players.
"I want this to be a teachable moment for them and for me," Allen said. "I always would tell them not to give up, never to give up, that you always have to fight. … When you feel like you've done nothing wrong, it's incumbent that you stand up."