WARREN – Prior to the Ferndale boys varsity basketball team's district semifinal game Wednesday against Detroit Mumford, Eagles coach Tom Staton, along with senior guard Joe Baker and junior forward Willie Harvey were suspended by school officials pending an investigation by Superintendent Gary W. Meier.
After 's 67-41 loss, Eagles athletic director Shaun Butler said the investigation was in the early stages and wouldn’t comment on the issue that caused the group to be suspended.
“It’s all pending investigation,” he said. “We still don’t know all the facts, so we’re investigating.”
He also declined to elaborate on what prompted the school to open the investigation on Staton and his players. Butler would only say that the process started in the afternoon Wednesday.
"We began our investigation earlier today," Butler said. "Early in the afternoon."
The coach and players were notified before getting on the bus for Wednesday night's game at Warren Lincoln. Butler confirmed that all three were part of the team's practice Tuesday.
Baker and Harvey transferred to the school over the summer. Transfer players have to sit out a semester before gaining eligibility at their new school. The two didn’t play their first game for Ferndale until the second half of January.
Asked if the suspension was related to the players' eligibility, Butler again declined comment. “I don’t want to say anything because we’re still in the early stages of investigating everything,” he said. “Once we go through and do our due diligence we’ll let you know.”
After hearing the news, Clawson boys varsity basketball coach Bill Shellenbarger Jr., one of Baker’s former coaches, called it an unfortunate situation. “He could have had a phenomenal high school career,” Shellenbarger said.
At one time, Baker was considered a Division I prospect. Instead of showing off his talents on the court, he spent most of his high school career transferring from one school to another. “He started at Southfield Lathrup, came to Clawson, left Clawson, went back to Lathrup, sat for a semester and ended up at Ferndale after wanting to come back to Clawson again,” Shellenbarger said.
Baker played for Shellenbarger the second semester of his sophomore year and first semester of his junior year before he and the school had a “mutual parting of ways.” He contacted the school over the summer about a possible return, but Clawson High School has a rule that doesn’t allow it to accept senior transfer students.
That prevented Shellenbarger from having to think about accepting Baker back to the program. He said it wouldn’t have been an easy decision. “There’s got to be red flags from a coaching perspective if a kid lands in my program and it's his third program,” Shellenbarger said. “I’m going to make a few calls to those other programs.”
He said that neither Lathrup nor Ferndale called to talk about Baker.
“There’s so much transferring that goes on right now,” Shellenbarger said. “Me, as a coach, I’m going to call like crazy, no one has ever called me. Not that I would say one bad word about any young kid, but due diligence.”
Ferndale Principal Herbert Ivory gathered Baker's and Harvey's teammates to announce the suspensions. He also told them that assistant coach Herb Goliday would be coaching the team in their district game later in the day.
“I actually found out when I got on the bus to come to the game,” Goliday said. “I found out some changes were going to go on before this game.”
No timetable was given for how long the investigation would take or when a resolution would be announced.
It’s an unexpected turn in what was a feel-good story for Ferndale. Staton graduated from the school in 1975 and remains one of the most accomplished players to have worn an Eagles uniform.
Staton was All-State three times during his high school playing career and then went on to play basketball at the University of Michigan. He was part of the 1976 Wolverines squad that made it to the Final Four. He was named coach of the basketball team in 2010 and quickly turned things around. Last season, the Eagles won their first conference title since 1995 in the Oakland Activities Association Blue Division and made it to the finals of districts.