By Mal Boright
The shocking sudden passing last week of Champlain Valley Union High Director of Student Activities (athletic director) Kevin Riell leaves a saddened CVU and community at large with an emptiness that will be with us a long time.
Kevin was the consummate professional, plus a warm personal friend and treasured associate to his colleagues and associates who reported to him in their roles as coaches and advisers.
To this reporter, he was always cheerful, helpful and quick to respond to the occasional question that might arise in the telling of a CVU sports tale. He would even discuss the latest mostly bad news from his beloved New York Giants with a smile and twinkle in his eyes.
“Kevin was a professional,” said former head football coach Jim Provost last week. “He did the job. He was the best athletic director I ever worked for.”
A veteran of many coaching years, Provost considers the athletic director’s job “the second toughest job in a high school behind that of principal.
“He was very well organized. He would be juggling a lot of balls in the air and none ever hit the floor.”
Provost added that Kevin “let the coaches coach, and we really appreciate that.”
Ute Otley, head coach of the girls basketball team (51 straight victories) said Saturday that as athletic director, Kevin “made the (coaching) job easier by taking care of things that in other places could drive you crazy.
“He was so dependable, so organized and competent.”
Another perspective of Kevin came from CVU athletic trainer Tony Lora, who has been working at the school since 2006.
“He backed me up on more than one occasion,” said Lora, who would have to give players and parents the news that an injury or concussion would mean loss of playing and practice time, news not necessarily well-received.
“He was always on the side of safety,” said Lora. “He would talk with parents who thought their kids should go back to playing sooner rather than later.”
On the subjects of players and injuries or rehabilitation, Lora said he spoke with Kevin almost every day.
“He always kept track,” he said.
And Lora, as many agreed, noted that Kevin “was never about winning. He was for sportsmanship,” and the overall positive experiences of sports participation.
Girls basketball assistant coach Dick Carlson, who came to CVU at about the same time as Kevin, was head girls basketball coach when Kevin took over the athletic director’s position in the very early 90s.
“He was a personal friend,” said Carlson, adding that there was still the line between employer and employee.
“Kevin was friendly, upbeat and with a great sense of humor who could laugh at himself. I knew I had his support and he would be there for me. If a problem arose, he would be upfront about it.”
A longtime colleague of Kevin, South Burlington High Athletic Director Ed Hockenbury, was at the conference in Washington, D.C. Dec. 15 when Kevin died.
“He had a very good perspective on high school sports,” said Hockenbury, who was athletic director at Essex High for many years before taking over at South Burlington at the beginning of this school year.
“He wasn’t all wrapped up in winning,” he said. “Kevin wanted the coaches and players to represent the school in the right way.”
Hockenbury praised the success of CVU sports—an average of five or six state championships per year lately—but added that Kevin preferred to work behind the scenes and not out front taking credit.
Provost stated that Kevin was always open to new information and measures that could improve player safety.
“He was at the forefront on how to deal with concussions,” Provost said of the medical issue that has surfaced not just in football, but many other sports at all levels.
“He was well-versed in issues like that. Usually, when someone has been in a position as long as he had, they want everything to stay the same. Not Kevin.”
Otley observed that she and the CVU community is still “trying to come to grips with this.”
A celebration of Kevin’s life will be held at the school the first Saturday of the new year.
Last Thursday night, at the start of the boys’ home basketball game with Mount Mansfield Union, timekeeper and public address announcer Gordon St. Hilaire called Kevin “a personal friend,” in his emotional call for a moment of silence in his memory.
Yes, many, many have lost a personal friend.
But Kevin lives on in those students who, in their own lives, would become cheerful, unassuming and competent leaders.
In other words, grow up to be like Kevin.