The game ended and it was another loss. “The coach has to go.” “The coaching is incompetent.” “No, it’s coaching malpractice.” “Our kids deserve better.” These were just a few of the comments uttered in frustration by spectators.
The superintendent and a few members of the school board were standing in their usual location along the fence – close enough to been seen, and usually out of earshot, but not tonight. After a promising start to the season, the team was struggling and this game represented a heart-breaking loss to a crosstown rival.
On Monday, the phone calls started and so did the discussions at the local restaurants and favorite gathering places. Next came the public comment at the school board meeting. Disappointment and frustration bubbled over in the community. A win might stem the tide, but the next game would be against a perennial powerhouse. The team played better, but when the final whistle blew, it was just another loss. The call came from the school board president, “The coach has to go!”
If you are a superintendent or a board member, chances are that you have found yourself in a similar type of situation.
Before you react and fire the coach, there are some basic questions that need to be considered. These questions go to the core of why athletic participation in secondary schools is vital and valuable. As a school community, what are your priorities? Do you hire teachers who can coach or community members to fill coaching positions? Are the expectations we place on our coaches in line with our values? Do we have different expectations depending upon the sport? And if a coach is struggling to meet your expectations, do you have a support system for those expectations?
If the community places an emphasis on winning athletic programs and values this goal above all else, then these expectations might be understood. Athletic contests will be won and lost, coaches will come and go. When the community, however, views athletics as an extension of the classroom, and an opportunity to develop skills, character and form lifelong friendships, winning or losing becomes secondary. The role the coach plays becomes pivotal in shaping student-athletes.
In a random sampling of superintendents, principals and athletic directors in Delaware, not one respondent rated having a winning team as the most important factor in the hiring or firing of a coach. In spite of this finding, it is also not a surprise that very few ever removed coaches with winning records. However, it is notable that those sampled believed that having a knowledgeable leader who was able to teach the sport,
develop skills and build character in their student-athletes was what was most desired.
These are the standards that a coach needs to be judged on and a winning program is just a byproduct. The survey also acknowledged the difficulty in finding enough individuals willing to coach that meet those requirements. This results in a learning curve on “both sides of the ball.”
It should come as no surprise that the essential component in the development of a support system must be the school’s athletic director. For any system to succeed, it must also include an educated administration and school board. In cases when a decision is made to remove the coach, the administration and school board may face alumni and members of the community who still support the coach.
In addition, there may be the added dilemma of having a former coach who remains at the school as a teacher. While the collective bargaining agreement in most states allows for the removal of anyone in an extra duty position without providing an “improvement or support plan,” this is not the case with a teaching position. By dismissing a coach or coaches, therefore, the administration could face a staff of disgruntled
ex-coaches, upset members of the community and the difficult task of finding a new coach who will also meet the teaching needs of the school. This, combined with a shortage of experienced coaches, makes the development of a coaching support and evaluation system a necessity.
Therefore, what support system is available for a new coach, let alone a coach whose team is struggling or is having other difficulties?
This process must begin with the interview and selection process. From the beginning, values must be aligned. Next, an evaluation process that measures goals and expectations must be established and discussed. Coaches must have an open line of communication with the building principal and regular meetings with the athletic director.
It is also important that the coach finds a mentor, some other coach, who can serve as a sounding board. Visits to the local colleges and universities can provide a new coach with organizational strategies and practice schedules. The state athletic/activities association can also provide valuable resources. Coaches must also be allowed to grow by attending coaching clinics and to develop their different skillsets by taking online education courses through the NFHS Learning Center (www.NFHSLearn.com).
In addition, school board members need to understand that there will always be those parents who believe that the coach should be fired – unless their child plays in every game, scores the winning points, is named to the all-star team and receives a full scholarship. School board members should also recognize that there will always be those disgruntled alumni and community members who will recall their “glory days” and demand the coach be fired for not winning enough or winning a championship.
It is up to school board members and administrators to stay above the fray and keep athletics in its proper perspective – an extension of the classroom. This does not mean that a coach should not be held to a high standard or should be permitted to fail to live up to the values, goals or expectations established during the evaluation process.
Sure, there will be great years, average years and mediocre years. Coaches will make great calls and timely substitutions, while at other times, they might be second-guessed. The same high school athlete who makes a great play today may make the game-changing mistake in the next. After all, it is high school athletics and nobody is perfect except a school board and administration when they support the coach!
Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald is superintendent of the Caesar Rodney School District in Delaware and a member of the NFHS Board of Directors.