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Published in Print: September 1, 2003, as Forget the Gipper

Forget the Gipper

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Today's coaches stand on crumbling pedestals.

If you played sports in high school, maybe you remember your coach as the gray-haired legend who packed the display cases with trophies or the soft- spoken father figure who always had time to listen. Maybe he was the General Patton of the school, strutting down the hallways as if inspecting his troops. And maybe you dumped him into the showers after that big win.

Hey, maybe you even loved the guy, or at least respected him from a distance.

Not anymore. Today, any form of adoration is rare, and too many high school athletes have adopted the belligerent attitude popularized by pros like Albert Belle and Dennis Rodman. Frank Romano, a coach at Kent State University and a coaching veteran of more than 30 years, recalls, "If [the coach] said something in the '50s or '60s, you not only jumped real fast, you'd also respect it without any question. But things have really changed....We're peons now."

When their teenagers take the plunge into high school sports, parents often expect the coach to be a surrogate parent who can motivate like Vince Lombardi, teach like Socrates, and win like John Wooden. These days, coaches are increasingly men and women who consider the job a disastrous part of their teaching duties, one that makes them feel demoralized, defeated, and desperate. When I started teaching English and coaching more than 25 years ago, the two went hand in hand. Today, less than half of all high school coaches are also teachers.

Modern-day coaches are treading water, unlike their 1950s counterparts, who could almost walk upon it. And many are going under. They're struggling to keep kids interested, parents happy, and administrators satisfied. Sure, sports are important to any school, but how important are they to today's youth? Kids cared a lot 30 years ago. Now they couldn't care less. These uncommitted athletes frustrate coaches. "They're just not as physical or as hard-nosed as they once were," one says, bluntly.

Knute Rockne would panic if he exhorted today's athlete to win one for the Gipper. They might laugh at him. Kids don't want pep talks—they just want the trophy. Or the varsity letter. Or a position on the first team, whether the team wins or loses.

Parents are often part of the problem. What many want are baby sitters, not coaches. When they pick up their kids after a practice, they don't want to see the same child they dropped off that morning. Instead, they want the new and improved model who is ready, like King Kong, to dominate his or her opponents. In some states, like Minnesota, where many parents spend more than $1,000 a year for hockey equipment and ice time, they're looking for a return on the dollars they spend.

And if coaches want to coach more than one season, they had better do what they're told—and when they're told to do it. Administrators want results, not problems. If you, as a coach, want respect, win games. If you want new uniforms, suck up to the booster club. And if you want peace of mind, stay out of the athletic director's office. Most coaches, their authority stripped away by principals or superintendents over the past few decades, feel powerless when structuring sports programs. If a parent complains, for example, coaches learn that they're on their own. Administrators, already burdened by the difficulties of supervising hundreds of other teachers and students, neither want to help nor to be hassled. Romano's advice to fellow coaches is simple: "Don't make waves."

Thirty years ago, the coach coached. Practices were spent teaching and learning the techniques and strategies to defeat the next opponent. Now coaches are stuck in an assembly line of paperwork, and failing to keep up has ruined many young careers. Before coaches even blow their whistles for the first practice, they must distribute and later file a cabinetful of forms for their athletes. These include the competition and season-practice schedules, the athletic department's rules and regulations co-signed by parents, the emergency medical authorization form, an insurance waiver, a physical examination card, an equipment inventory sheet, a participation form, a gym lock and locker card, a scrimmage-dates form for the state athletic association, and a waiver that warns players in football, baseball, and lacrosse about the potential head, neck, and spine injuries caused by wearing helmets. Drop some fund-raising raffle tickets on top of that stack, and the coach is simply overwhelmed. Dick Bliss, an athletic director for more than 20 years at Aurora High School in Ohio, has often been disappointed by coaches who "lack the willingness to follow through with the administrative paperwork and equipment responsibilities at the end of the season."

And when they mess up? "I fire them," he says.

In some schools, diminishing athletic department budgets mean the coaches' sports suffer also. One veteran athletic director says that heavy restrictions on uniform and equipment purchases have made him highly dependent on the school's booster club for funds. "I'm not an AD anymore," he says, "I'm a beggar."

Coaches must be better prepared and less idealistic. The fatherly legend is out, the frustrated leader is in.

Facing a money crunch in the early 1990s, the Parma, Ohio, school system instituted a "pay to play" program in which each athlete had to contribute $885 to play football, $730 to play basketball, and $465 to play baseball. Seventeen Connecticut districts adopted pay-for-play programs, including South Windsor High School, where students paid $80 for the first sport and $40 for the second. The problem, administrators say, is that after parents pay, they expect their kids to play—and play often. In short, pay-to-play has devastated many programs, prompting fewer kids to join and more parents to complain.

Small wonder why fewer and fewer teachers are choosing to coach, prompting ADs to scour the community for volunteers. Whether a teacher or not, today's coaches certainly have much more to learn. Organization, motivation, psychology, inventory, finances, public relations, scheduling, and statistics are just some of the items coaches must master along with developments in the techniques and strategies of their sport.

Even more distressing than failing to win games or manage funds is the threat of being sued. Litigation by parents against coaches is increasing in almost every state. The parents of a New York City football player demanded $1.2 million after he was compelled to play in a game against a more competitive team in the public schools' athletic league and was injured. A college baseball player in Iowa sued his coach after being struck by a foul ball. Back in 1984, a Minnesota cheerleader sued her adviser after suffering injuries in a car accident while "bannering" football players' homes at5 a.m. before the first game of the season. All these athletes won their cases.

But it's more than the fear of a lawsuit that makes coaching frustrating and strenuous; it's the athlete who wants the easy win without paying the price. An Illinois coach remembers that his "best memories as a young person have been associated with athletics. The reason I chose to coach was these memories and to pass on new experiences to my athletes. But I'm disappointed when they say I don't treat them fairly and when athletes seem to forget me."

Even worse are the kinds of injuries suffered by Lori Eaton, volleyball coach for Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton, Florida. Although liked by her players, she was attacked by a student and barely defended herself for fear of being accused of hitting a kid. "What kind of respect do students have when they think they can hit a teacher, and a teacher is afraid to fight back because she's afraid to lose her job?" she asked a newspaper reporter. Violence has crept slowly, yet substantially, into amateur sports—a problem rarely dealt with 30 or 40 years ago. In New York City, a6-year-old T-ball player pummeled an opposing infielder after he was tagged out. "That's what they do in the majors," he explained later.

Add to these worries the increased abuse of alcohol and drugs—especially steroids—among teenage athletes, and the coach's mental anguish increases. When stress builds, as it does for many competitive people, the coach can become wary, distanced from colleagues, and isolated.

"There's too much pressure on the coach," says Vince Dooley, former football coach and now athletic director at the University of Georgia. "What made some of the coaching greats into legends was longevity, and we're probably not going to see that many long, classic careers again."

Coaches aren't on pedestals anymore. Those have crumbled fast in recent years, as students look to MTV or the more obnoxious professional athlete for idols and the media reports more on players' touchdowns than coaches' tactics. The old role model was on a cereal box; the new one is too often getting arrested.

As long as there are sports, there will always be coaches, probably men and women who once felt the dramatic influence of a high school coach. They, however, must be better prepared and less idealistic. In fact, they'd better study the sport's rulebook and a law manual. Today, the fatherly legend is out, the frustrated leader is in. Maybe Ryan Massey, a middle school football player, offers the best advice: "A great coach has to be in charge of everything, and he's gotta be funny, like cartoons, and act cool."

Vol. 15, Issue 1, Pages 42,44-45

:: Web Resources

  • "A Trophy and a Smile," an essay by author, educator, and wrestling coach Keith Manos suggesting one way to make sure athletes are recognized and appreciated by their coaches. "The key is to show pride in the team, and make sure there are lots of smiles," Mr. Manos writes.
  • The National High School Athletic Coaches Association, "created in 1965 by coaches, for coaches," has posted its "Coaches Code," outlining the conduct and requirements of each of its affiliated coaches.
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