Former assistant coach of the Fairfield University swimming and diving program, Daniel Vener, had been instrumental in the program’s success for almost three decades. Why then was he invited to leave without so much as a warning?
Vener spent a remarkable 29 years with the Stags, having been a member of the program’s staff since the 1990-1991 season, specializing in diving.
On Friday, Aug. 30, Vener returned to campus from his summer break for what he understood would be a typical pre-season meeting. Instead, he was met with the news that he was to be relieved of his duties as an assistant coach. It was then that head coach Anthony Bruno told Vener that his services were no longer needed, letting him know that the program was looking to go in a different direction in terms of leadership this season. The abbreviated interaction would be the extent of the explanation that Vener would receive from Bruno, after dedicating over half of his life to the job.
“The fact that it came out of the blue is very surprising and disappointing. I don’t believe it to be performance related,” admitted Vener, who was named the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference diving coach early in his career in 1992. His accolades extend beyond the MAAC, as Vener was also recognized first in the 2013-14 season by the Eastern College Athletic Conference as their co-men’s coach of the year, and again most recently in December of 2018 at the ECAC Winter Championships when he was named men’s diving coach of the meet. Women’s swimming and diving are the twice reigning MAAC champions, and last year in the 2018-19 season, two of Fairfield’s female divers placed among the top 15 athletes in the One-Meter Diving in the championship meet.
“If it was performance related I feel like this would happen at the end of last season in March, maybe in June when the school year ends…but three days before the first practice is bizarre to me,” he said.
Vener remained adamant about his respect for the authority that head coaches have in choosing their staff, acknowledging that assistant coaches are filtered out all the time. He mentioned that the “culture of the program is changing. It is the prerogative of the head coach to define the culture.”
Vener noted that he spoke further with the Athletics Department, not needing or wanting an explanation for their choice. “I told him that I was disappointed that I seemingly got blindsided.”
He valued the time as a way to communicate to the administration that he wishes he had more support from them. Vener did not manage to make contact with director Paul Schlickmann.
Head coach Bruno failed to respond to The Mirror’s request for comment regarding the situation, while senior associate director of athletics, marketing and communications Zach Dayton provided a statement from the athletics department via email:
“Fairfield University Athletics is committed to our men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs and proud of recent achievements including back-to-back MAAC Championships for the women’s program. We are pleased to welcome new diving coach Devon O’Nalty under the leadership of Head Coach Tony Bruno and we look forward to continued program successes.”
Connecticut is categorized as an “at-will” state, meaning that “private-sector employers and employees generally have the right to terminate employment ‘at-will’, that is, whenever either party wishes, without giving a reason,” according to the Connecticut General Assembly’s official website. However, there are exceptions to this right, where “in certain states, employers do not have the right to terminate employees ‘at will’ if the termination violates public policy, an implied employment contract, or an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.”
Vener said he was let go without a reason or forewarning, stating that he had “had no contact with anyone from athletics for months prior.”
The former diving coach was deeply ingrained in the history of our university, employed long enough to see five head swim coaches, three athletic directors and three presidents of the university take office. In addition, Vener is a graduate of Fairfield’s Dolan School of Business where he received his Master of Business Administration degree in 2005.
The bonds built with the athletes he has coached have been maintained far past their athletic careers at Fairfield. Alumnus Rob Penwell ‘06, who dove under the direction of Vener for four years from 2002-2006, reached out to The Mirror, hoping to draw some attention to the situation, which had received no coverage by the school. Penwell was passionate about the importance of Vener’s leadership, saying, “He encouraged sport/life balance and continues to be a valuable mentor to myself and other members of the team and alumni.”
Despite Vener’s abrupt discharge, he has maintained an overwhelming sense of dignity in his long career and utmost respect for the university. He exudes class amidst a precipitous state of affairs, and expressed the most sincere wishes to his former team.
“My message to them has been sent and is clear. I have enjoyed my time with them, I have enjoyed my time here. I am sad that it ended and I am disappointed in the way that it ended,” Vener said.