Mitchell opinion: Honestly, the truth about Rifle football is easy to see
Bruce the Plumber seems like a pretty honest guy.
He owns Brohn Plumbing & Heating Inc. in Rifle, but hat hasn’t been his lifelong profession. Bruce the Plumber has even been Bruce the Photographer and, for a brief stint, Bruce the Retailer. For three years in the mid-1980s, he said, he was the head photographer at the Glenwood Post, before it became the Post Independent. Before that, he was a photographer for the Associated Press in Denver and sometimes spent six nights a week covering pro teams at old McNichols Sports Arena, including the Alex English-era Denver Nuggets and the NHL’s Colorado Rockies before they relocated to become the New Jersey Devils.
But Bruce the Plumber is now likely known by some people over on the Front Range of Colorado as Bruce the Videographer. That’s because Bruce Harper — his real name — was on the sideline when Rifle High School’s football team was playing Fort Morgan on Nov. 22 in the Class 3A semifinals at Bears Stadium in Rifle.
Harper was a volunteer videographer for Rifle-based Align Multimedia, which is co-owned by Ryan Mackley and Aron Diaz. Mackley, who has been producing highlight videos of Rifle High football since VHS tapes were cool, had known Harper for years and didn’t hesitate to say yes when Harper offered to help take footage for those highlight videos. Harper drove from one end of the state to the other on his own dime to record Rifle’s football team.
Then, he got footage of an incident unlike any he ever expected while he was on Fort Morgan’s sideline. It was of Fort Morgan Athletic Director Kyle Bules.
“It was the first time that I’d seen him,” Harper said.
According to documents obtained by the Post Independent through the Colorado Open Records Act, Bules might label Harper as Bruce the Liar, or maybe Bruce the Play Caller. A letter that Bules wrote to the Colorado High School Activities Association dated Nov. 24, 2014, might as well have called the school wearing blue and gold “Rifle the Cheaters.”
The letter said Bruce the Plumber was “calling in our plays” from the Mustangs’ sideline.
Bruce the Plumber feels sick about it.
“This has been the biggest rip in my gut,” Bruce Harper said. “Why do they go after the program and the kids? I’ve lost a lot of sleep over this.”
According to Harper and video provided by Align, Harper was on Fort Morgan’s sideline taking footage in the third quarter of Rifle’s 35-7 victory when Bules approached Harper and began yelling at him before Harper eventually left the sideline. Harper, afterward, walked to the other side of the field to tell Mackley, who is also an assistant coach at Rifle, what happened.
“He thinks I’m calling plays,” Harper told Mackley about his encounter with Bules.
Bules, according to the letter he sent to CHSAA Assistant Commissioner Harry Waterman, noted in his first paragraph that “Harrison Chisum (head coach — FM) told me to come talk to him. He told me that Rifle had a videographer on our sideline that was calling in our plays.”
Harper said he thought Bules, when he approached him, “was just some fan who was angry at me. I had to ask him three times who he was before he would identify himself. I wouldn’t expect a school official to act like that.”
After the game, according to a letter from Rifle Athletic Director Troy Phillips to CHSAA dated Nov. 25, Bules was approached by Mackley — whom Bules mistakenly identified in his letter to CHSAA as Rifle head coach Damon Wells. Mackley said he showed the camera equipment to Bules, explained how it worked, told him that the equipment didn’t give Harper the ability to communicate with another person and handed Bules a business card. He said he showed Bules the headphones Harper was wearing.
Bules, two days later, wrote the Nov. 24 letter to Waterman, saying “the videographer was completely unprofessional. He touched/tapped me on the shoulder a few times while saying, ‘Is that better buddy.’ He was a complete distraction to our team and unbecoming of the Rifle Bears program …” Photos Bules provided to both CHSAA and the PI do show Harper extremely close to Fort Morgan’s coach at one point. Documents from Rifle High show that Harper acknowledged being where he shouldn’t have been — at one point, he said he wasn’t paying attention as he filmed.
The day after Bules wrote his letter, Phillips wrote a letter to CHSAA disputing the accuracy of Bules’ letter, apologizing that the videographer “inappropriately placed himself in areas,” and adding that “we will no longer allow any filmers or photographers to be anywhere near the opposing sidelines from now on.”
That was the last written communication Rifle High provided prior to CHSAA’s Dec. 4 letter from Waterman to RHS Principal Todd Ellis, which stated that Rifle’s football program had been placed on restriction for “flagrant and unethical use of equipment on the opponent’s sideline during a semifinal contest.”
That’s what Harper at first was the most upset about, saying he initially felt like the infraction was his fault. What he and Align are most upset about now, though, is that they were never approached by CHSAA officials to tell their side of the story. Then again, Harper broke no written rule because none existed at the time that prohibited media members from being in the coach’s box.
That was noted during the CHSAA football committee’s annual meeting on Dec. 9, according to Wells. That rule, which was approved in CHSAA’s legislative meeting in January, was presented at the meeting by Elizabeth Athletic Director Chris Cline — a former Rifle High coach. Bules was a proponent of the rule that Cline proposed, Mackley said.
By January and as recently as last week, CHSAA and Fort Morgan were backpedaling, saying in documents that they didn’t really believe Rifle was cheating or had intended to cheat. Bules’ letter clearly suggests he believed otherwise, and Waterman’s notice of restriction refers to “flagrant and unethical use of video equipment.”
The penalty levied against the program — the second-highest penalty CHSAA can give outside of completely suspending a program in its entirety — stands.
Something’s not right here.
Rifle’s restriction can be removed if it follows through with the plan of action Ellis submitted to CHSAA, which essentially adheres to the new sideline boundary rule that will be put in place next season. Rifle wants its head coach back on the sidelines when it opens the season at home against Grand County out of Moab, Utah, in August, which won’t happen unles the penalty is reversed or reduced. Angelico said in an email Jan. 14 to Re-2 Superintendent Susan Birdsey that, under CHSAA bylaws, “all restrictions require the head coach to miss a game … as part of the condition of removal” from restriction.
Just in case, Bruce the Plumber said he’ll do his part to make sure Rifle can eventually be eligible for the postseason.
Rifle Principal Todd Ellis told CHSAA in a letter Dec. 9 that “the plumber who was videotaping” … “will not be allowed on the sideline in any capacity again.”
Harper said, “That eats at me because I love high school football and being around the kids. But I want what’s best for the kids.”
That’s about as honest of a statement as you can make, I think.
Jon Mitchell is the sports editor of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and Rifle Citizen Telegram. He can be reached at 970-384-9123, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A lot of seemingly random things are in short supply these days — including sports officials.