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Naples Daily News (Florida)


Former Barron Collier High School volleyball coach Robert Ritchie was fired in October and barred from coaching for Collier County Public Schools for failing to report players' use of alcohol and drugs, according to a school district investigation obtained by the Naples Daily News.

Ritchie was suspended in early October after allegations were made that the coach had inappropriate physical contact with players and was present when alcohol or drugs were consumed.

A Collier County Sheriff's Office investigation found no evidence that Ritchie committed any crimes, including inappropriate contact. However, in a sworn statement to an investigator, Ritchie admitted learning a player drove a car after drinking and not reporting it to the girl's parents. The coach also admitted he told players "if you are going to do marijuana, do it with someone you trust."

The allegations were made, Ritchie said, by parents upset that their daughters were not getting enough playing time.

"None of this is accurate," Ritchie told the Daily News in a Jan. 18 phone interview. "That's the frustrating part of it all. It comes down to parents trying to control youth sports. If their kids don't play, they take things out of context.

"It doesn't portray the truth. It's all exaggerated, uncharacterized stories made to sound salacious. If any of it were accurate there would have been charges."

Ritchie denies the allegations of inappropriate contact. Detective Scott Peterson of the Collier County Sheriff's Office Special Crime Bureau and Special Victim's Unit interviewed nine of Barron Collier's 13 varsity volleyball players, and all nine denied ever having been touched inappropriately by Ritchie.

Peterson said in an email to school district officials that he planned to interview the remaining four players, but the investigation report does not include his follow up.

With the Cougars since 2013, Ritchie was the Daily News Volleyball Coach of the Year in 2017 after leading the program its first regional championship. Ritchie also was one of three finalists for the Daily News' first overall Coach of the Year awards given for the 2016-17 school year.

Though he was a coach, Ritchie was not a full-time employee of the school system. He earned an annual coaching stipend of around $2,000 and was on a year-to-year contract like all coaches. Before recently taking a job in business management, Ritchie's sole source of income was coaching - high school, travel teams, the beach volleyball club he owns, and private lessons.

Ritchie said the incidents in question - discovering a player's drinking and the suggestion about marijuana - happened during club volleyball season, not during Barron Collier's season. Therefore, he said, the incidents should not fall under the school district's jurisdiction.

Collier County Public Schools says Ritchie's actions are violations of ethics and code of conduct policies.

"As an employee of Collier County Public Schools, you are held to exceptionally high standards," district coordinator for staffing and recruitment Andrei Ghelman wrote in an email to Ritchie dated Oct. 30. "Your actions and professional judgment can no longer be trusted nor can they be tolerated. Your conduct of placing students in harmful situations, not reporting potential harmful behavior ... and in a sense condoning those behaviors through your actions is inappropriate, unprofessional, and unethical."

One of the players interviewed by Peterson said that in a group text with club players, Ritchie offered his boat as a place where they can smoke marijuana safely. Ritchie said that did not happen and that his boat wasn't working at the time.

However, Ritchie admitted telling players that, if they are going to smoke marijuana, to only do it with people they trust.

"It wasn't me trying to get them to do something wrong," Ritchie said. "It was me giving them advice as somebody who cares about the kids. Today, kids are starting to try (drugs) in middle school. They're going to do it regardless. I was trying to get them to be safe."

Ritchie said his relationship with his players goes beyond a coach-player dynamic. He has known many of them for years, even before high school, and considers himself a friend to the players and their parents.

Concern for safety also is what led Ritchie to set up an Uber account for the player he found out had driven a car after drinking. In his sworn statement, Ritchie said the girl had made bad decisions in the past and had gotten in trouble with her parents because of it. Ritchie did not want her to get in trouble again.

Ritchie set up the Uber account using his own credit card so the player could use it if she had been drinking and needed to get home.

"I wanted to protect the kid, that's why I did it in the first place," Ritchie said. "I wanted to look out for a kid I care about."

The original complaint made to the school district included allegations that Ritchie provided alcohol or drugs for players and consumed it with them. Those allegations were not proven by the investigation.

Ritchie admitted in his sworn statement that he was present when parents did shots of alcohol with their daughters at an end-of-the-year club team banquet.

After the allegations, Barron Collier principal Jose Hernandez reached out to Jill Fitzgerald, Ritchie's former assistant coach with the Cougars. The investigation report includes a four-page letter Fitzgerald sent Hernandez accusing Ritchie of coaching with alcohol on his breath and having sexual contact with players.

"(During the 2014 season) two (players) told me that Rob had had sexual contact with one of the girls on the team," Fitzgerald wrote in her letter. "I honestly didn't believe it. ... Then his roommate told me the same story. And then another coach at USA South told me the same thing."

In an email, Fitzgerald agreed to do an interview with the Daily News. However, she said she was unable to respond to a follow-up email.

In May 2014, Ritchie was mentioned during an investigation into Robbie Baker, who was the Lely volleyball coach at the time. Baker resigned his positions of coach and math teacher at the school after admitting he kissed a 16-year-old player. No criminal charges were filed because the kiss was consensual.

During the Baker investigation, rumors surfaced that Ritchie had sexual contact with a player. Peterson, the same Sheriff's Office detective who investigated the coach in October, interviewed the girl, her parents and Ritchie. All parties denied the claims, and the case was closed due to lack of evidence.

In addition to Fitgerald's letter, the documents from the school district's October investigation include seven letters defending and supporting Ritchie from players' parents and a coaching colleague. Five of the letters are from parents of current Barron Collier players, all of whom also have played for Ritchie's club or beach volleyball teams.

"There was never a time when we had any cause for concern over his behavior with players," wrote the parents of a Cougars senior. "We have never heard stories of anything inappropriate. He cares deeply for the kids that he coaches and their families."

"We never witnessed any inappropriate behavior," another set of parents wrote. "We have seen Coach Rob on numerous occasions at practices, social settings, dinners, banquets, tournaments and in hotel settings. And, have never seen him act inappropriately to any of the girls."

Still upset by allegations against him, Ritchie said he is not coaching at all right now. He's focused on his new job, the first full-time job with benefits he's had after coaching for nine years.

Ritchie was removed from the team right before Barron Collier started the playoffs. The Cougars won a district title, their second straight regional championship, and advanced to the state finals for the first time.

Ritchie watched with pride and talked to some of the players during the postseason, he said. However, after the way his tenure at Barron Collier ended, Ritchie said he probably won't coach high school again.

"It's completely killed my fire and my passion," Ritchie said. "I dedicated everything to these kids for five years. ... Now I've separated myself from it all. I don't even play anymore. It's completely turned me off to everything."

"It wasn't me trying to get them to do something wrong. It was me giving them advice as somebody who cares about the kids. ... I was trying to get them to be safe."

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January 29, 2018


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