Fundamentals: The Reality of High School Coaches

In 1996, when University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma watched Norman (Okla.) High School coach Sherri Coale (now head coach at the University of Oklahoma) run a high school practice, he remembers thinking, Man, if every high school kid was coached like this, there would be a lot better players out there.”

Auriemma was acknowledging not only the quality of Coale’s coaching, but its rarity. “A lot of high school girls get the short end of the coaching,” says Auriemma. “Some football coach that doesn’t have anything to do in the wintertime gets assigned to coach the girls. Or somebody that’s a teacher [says], ‘Yeah, I played summer league one time. I can coach girls’ basketball.'”

These days, says Tom May, coach at Indiana’s Crown Point High School for 22 years and winner of two state championships, “schools are putting more priority on trying to find good people, and I see more coaches putting in time.”

Mary Jo Huismann, who recently notched her 500th win at Mother or Mercy High School in Ohio, agrees. With only a hint of irony, Huismann notes, “We used to be able to dominate.”

Nowadays, says Coale, the biggest challenges facing high school coaches are “the demands upon their time and the lousy way in which they are compensated. Getting good people to commit themselves to such a lofty charge,” says Coale, “and to not be compensated financially in the way they can adequately take care of their families is frightening.”

The issues of more time and not enough money are a byproduct of the sport’s growth since Title IX forced schools to fund boys’ and girls’ athletic programs equally. Additionally, the increased number of college athletic scholarships available and the over all visibility of the women’s game, along with the advent of the WNBA, have heightened demands on high school coaches.

“Maybe some people stepped into girls’ coaching a few years ago because they thought it was the easy buck without the pressure,” reflects coach Dave Butcher of perennial powerhouse Pickerington High School (Ohio), but “now [athletic directors] want it to be more important because the public is demanding it to be.” Consequently, schools that are now committing money and resources to programs are expecting dividends.

That pressure to succeed is not necessarily bad – it can solidify a stronger coach and push out the uncommitted – “but we’ve got to be careful,” cautions Beth Bass, CEO of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. “Everything we do has a reaction – sometimes negative, sometimes positive.”

While the positive can be measured by the increased participation of girls in basketball, the improved play on the court and expanding opportunities for players, the negative is the toll on coaches off the court.

The majority of high school coaches are also full-time teachers. That is their main job, with coaching done in addition. The teacher-coach my seem counterproductive, but, says Rick Wolff of the Center for Sports Parenting, “most high schools prefer that the coaches serve as members of the faculty. It gives the opportunity for the coach to work with the child way from the world of competition.”

In some states, any licensed teacher can coach, while others require a certification process. In Connecticut, for example, completing a 45-hour course (15 hours each on care and prevention of athletic injuries, sports psychology and the legal aspects of coaching) would theoretically allow a kindergarten teacher to coach varsity football. Of course, acknowledges Tony Mosa of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, sponsor of the course, “just because you’re certified does not mean you’re qualified. We leave that assessment up to the individual athletic director.”

If a coach does want to develop or maintain a quality program, it takes more than the traditional practice.

“There’s more involved now in the off-season than when I was a high school player,” explains Suzie McConnell Serio. A basketball standout both at Penn State (’88) and in the WNBA, McConnell Serio is in her 12th year at Pittsburgh’s Oakland Catholic High School. “Open gyms, conditioning and weightlifting weren’t as big when I first started coaching. Basketball has become a year-round sport.”

Many teacher-coaches find themselves in an exhausting Catch-22, since they’re paid only a small stipend for their coaching work, regardless of the time they put in.

Scott DeJong’s daily schedule is not an unusual one. A coach for 17 years at Ankeny High School (Iowa), DeJong teaches six business classes a day and also serves as co-chair of the Iowa Girls’ Coaches Association. With several state titles to his credit, DeJong admits that, during the regular season, “it’s not uncommon for me to stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, watch the game we just played, watch the team we’re going to play, prepare a practice, then go to work the next morning.”

These days, off-season means coaches are supervising the development of both their current and future players. Crown Point’s Coach May has individual meetings with every player, breaking down her summer regimen into skill development drills three to four times a week and conditioning program five to six times a week – much of which is supervised. He also works with the local AAU coaches responsible for his feeder program – the elementary age students.

Though Mike Ford of Los Alamitas (Calif.) High School is a little reluctant to calculate his total hours over a year, his estimate is staggering: 30 to 40 hours a week in the regular season, and 15 in the off-season running camps, supervising open gyms, and participating in and organizing fund-raiser for their booster club. All this while teaching a full load of math classes.

As for financial compensation, Sharon Turner-Dean, newly appointed head coach at Cal State Stanislaus, remembers calculating that – simply considering the driving to and from practices, open gyms, and spring and summer leagues – what she earned for high school coaching barely covered her gas money.

“I was actually losing money,” she laughs ruefully. “And that wasn’t even counting the hours I put in.”

When Ron Moyer coached Amherst (Mass.) High School to the state title in 1993, he earned $2,400 for 15 weeks of work. “We just got a huge pay increase,” Moyer boasts dryly. “Because I’m a staff member and have been a teacher for over 20 years, I reached the $4,000 mark for the first time in my career.”

“I tell people coaching is a get-quick-rich scheme,” Moyer adds. “It’s just not a very good one.”

Ironically, the increased popularity and subsequent possibility of revenue generation have caused an additional drain on coaches. May at Indiana’s Crown Point fought for equal salaries, practice time and, just like the boys’ schedules, games on Friday and Saturday with cheerleaders and a pep band. His reward? Thousands of spectators. While the same happens in Massachusetts (a parent threatened to sue) Moyer admits that afternoon games were one of the reasons he initially decided to coach girls. “I could be home – even on a game day – by 7 or 8 o’clock. Now, it’s like two jobs – 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., then the bus leaves at 3:30 and I’m not home until 11.

On top of that, coaches are also expected to develop their skills.

“If you’re a good English teacher,” explains Auriemma, “you have to constantly stay on top of what’s being taught, how it’s being taught [and] what are the things that are effective.”

Ed Janka has been running the Nike Championship Basketball clinics since 1980 and has seen a marked change in who attends. Initially a mere three to four percent of his attendees were women’s basketball coaches, but the number is now closer to 20 percent.

“When I was a high school coach,” recalls Turner-Dean, “if I wanted to go to a clinic, it was coming out of my pocket.” As someone who now leads clinics, Turner-Dean still encounters some coaches who must foot their own bill.

High school coaches always have been a part of the recruiting process. While the summer AAU tournaments and exposure events have usurped some of their role, most coaches still send out hundreds of letters, make highlight videotapes, field phone calls from college coaches and sit in on home visits. Now, with Division I college scholarships on the line – some valued at over $125,000 – many parents are becoming more involved.

“Ten years ago, moms and dads were content to let it ‘just happen’ because it was girls,” says Pickerington’s Butcher. “Now, all of a sudden, with the exposure, the opportunity and their assumed knowledge [of the game], their expectations are higher.

The coach becomes, Turner-Dean notes, “the person who is supposed to make sure their [child’s] education is paid for.”

McConnell Serio takes it all in stride. “When their daughters come to play for me, [the parents] expect them to be successful,” she says. “We’ve won four district championships in a row, and we’ve been to the state finals the last three years. They feel if they’re coming to play for me, they’ll get a scholarship. These players earn what they get. I don’t think anything is ever a gift. They earn playing time, they earn recognition, they earn the honors.”

Not all parents are willing to rely on a coach’s judgment. Wolff of the Center for Sports Parenting identifies three distinct types of parents: The Discreet Parent, who meets several times with the coach during the season to “check up” on their child’s progress; the Befriender, who hopes the friendship can be parlayed into more playing time for their child; and the Loudmouth, who screams and yells from the stands at both the child and the coach.

While some cross the line, Wolff understands the parents’ intensity. “If you’re a parent,” he explains, “you’ve been chauffeuring your kids around to basketball games from the time they were 5 or 6 years old, you’ve been there for tryouts and travel teams and AAU teams. By the time the child is in eighth or ninth grade, you’ve invested quite a bit of your time, emotion and, of course, your finances in making sure your kid is going to be a star player. Now you’re handing your kid over to a coach who may not see your kid s the same kind of star you [do].”

“Coaches biggest complaints, almost universally, are dealing with parents.

Since the reality is that only about one percent of high school girls’ basketball players get scholarships, a coach needs to mange the parent’s expectations. Preseason meetings between coaches and parents laying out the coach’s ground rules and philosophy are essential. “Those meetings were a nice gesture or convenience 15 or 20 years ago,” says Wolff. “Now you must have that meeting.”

Not surprisingly, there’s a glut of high school coaching vacancies and far too few new coaches. If former players do move into coaching, more often it’s as college assistants, so they can coach full-time and earn substantially more money.

“There are some young coaches coming,” notes Huismann. “You try and counsel them, but they’re blown away with all that’s involved. [Older coaches] have gradually gotten to this point. But the job then – it used to be simpler. To take over a high school program now is so time-consuming.”

In Iowa, DeJong cites studies that show an average high school coach’s tenure is a mere three years. “They’re not moving up, they’re moving out, he says bluntly. “For the amount of money and time, people don’t think it’s for them.

How then, does one tempt them to join and, more importantly, stay at the high school level, since it is they who will continue to fuel the growth of women’s basketball? Solutions such as partial teaching loads or increased salaries are impractical, considering communities would have to pay more taxes, other coaches would want the same considerations, and teaching unions would undoubtedly raise issues.

But, as Auriemma observes, “One of the things that has always been true in high school sports is finding people who are going to put in the time and not necessarily get rewarded for it – because they love teaching the game, they love coaching, and they like the interaction they have with the kids in the high school.”

“You have to believe,” explains Huismann, “‘What I’m teaching is way beyond all that (titles and college offers).’ That’s why I keep doing it. I can go back to my kids, and these people are doing great jobs. When people say, ‘You only expected the best from us,’ that’s such a simple line to say, but yeah, you got it right. We only expect the best. Our women, when they get out of here, think they can do anything.”

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