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Judge reinstates Atlantic City’s Gene Allen as basketball coach

The veteran coach's case will be the topic of a special Board of Education meeting set for Friday night.

Former Atlantic City head coach Gene Allen (right) celebrates with fans after winning the Group 4 state semifinal in 2013.
Former Atlantic City head coach Gene Allen (right) celebrates with fans after winning the Group 4 state semifinal in 2013.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

In basketball terms, Gene Allen called for a full-court press and forced a key turnover.

With a big assist from a Superior Court judge in Atlantic County.

Allen was reinstated Wednesday as head boys' basketball coach at Atlantic City High School by Judge Michael J. Blee. The judge issued a temporary restraining order for the school district's Nov. 20 decision to not reappoint the popular and highly successful coach.

In response to the coach's lawsuit against the school district filed on Tuesday, Blee wrote that "Allen is immediately reinstated as coach of the ACHS boys basketball team until further order of the court."

Blee also ordered the Atlantic City Board of Education, the defendant in Allen's lawsuit, to appear in his courtroom on Dec. 10 and show cause why an order should not be issued:

1. Declaring defendant in violation of Open Public Meetings Act;

2. Ordering that action taken against Allen on Nov.  20 is null and void and shall have no effect;

3. Directing defendant to immediately reinstate Allen as coach of the Atlantic City High School  boys basketball team for the 2018/2019 winter sports season;

4. Directing defendant to allow Allen to immediately resume his coaching duties of the ACHS boys basketball team;

5. Directing defendant to remove any reference to the non-reappointment from Allen's personnel file;

6. Enjoining the defendant from taking any action against Allen or interfering with his ability to coach the ACHS  boys basketball team for the 2018/2019 winter sports season;

7. Granting other such relief as the court seems equitable and just.

The ruling would seem to clear the way for Allen to remain as the Vikings' coach through this season, although it's unclear whether the board of education will vote to reinstate him or try to defend its decision in court.

The board's next regularly scheduled meeting is Dec. 11.

In response to the court ruling, district athletic director Chris Ford Jr. said, "Due to impending litigation, I am not permitted to comment."

Allen's suit contends that he was unfairly dismissed without the chance to defend himself.

"I have to protect my rights," Allen said.

The board decided to not reappoint Allen in closed session during the Nov. 20 meeting. That was a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act and Allen's rights to due process, his lawyer, William Donio, said in the suit.

"We have argued to the court that the board violated New Jersey law, board contracts, and Mr. Allen's rights, and did so at the last moment, after tryouts had already started, and in a way that deprived Coach Allen the fundamental right to hear the discussion about him or speak on his own behalf," Donio said in a statement.

Allen's surprising ouster resulted in intense pressure from residents and the state basketball community to return the popular coach to the sideline.

In a statement accompanying the lawsuit, Donio, wrote, "Coach Allen is taking this action because the student athletes deserve better. The student athletes deserve not to have their season disrupted by what appears to be petty personal politics."

In addition, Donio wrote, "Coach Allen has always coached what he believes — to stand up for what is right — and that is why he is taking this action."

Donio noted that "Coach Allen did not receive proper notice that the board would reject the superintendent's recommendation" that the coach be reappointed. Allen has said he was stunned by the board's decision and would have attended the meeting if he knew his job was in jeopardy.

He said the parent of a former player persuaded the board to not reappoint him. He said the parent complained about a number of topics but made a major issue of a text-message thread that Allen shared with his players after last season.

Allen acknowledged 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 to Wildwood Catholic and to eventual state champion Shawnee in the South Jersey Group 4 tournament.

On the text thread, Allen said he didn't believe the team had accomplished anything meriting a special banquet. Ultimately, the team did have a banquet.

Allen is widely regarded as the top coach in Atlantic City basketball history and one of the best coaches in the state. His teams have won 336 games, six South Jersey titles, and three state titles — the first three state crowns in program history — since 2003.

Allen's former assistant coach and player, Elijah Langford, was installed as coach at the Nov. 20 meeting.

"He has done a great job of trying to maintain order through all this distraction," Allen said of Langford.

Atlantic City is scheduled to open the season Dec. 14 vs. St. Joseph in a battle of top teams in the Cape Atlantic League.

Allen led Atlantic City to Group 4 state championships in 2005, 2012, and 2013. Under the demanding coach, the Vikings have been known for their high-pressure, man-to-man defense and their ability to execute in close games, especially in the state tournament.

Allen's career record is 336-101. He is 17 wins away from becoming Atlantic City's all-time leader in coaching victories.

"I feel bad for the kids," Allen said. "They didn't ask for this chaos, and neither did I."