What do you do when one of your teams continues to be unsuccessful with no signs of improvement? Rebuilding a program takes patience and persistence--and a well-designed plan.
By Jim Fornaciari
Jim Fornaciari recently retired as Head Baseball Coach at Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, where he continues to serve as a history teacher. His team went to the state finals in 2002 and 2003 and his program produced a number of college and professional players. He can be reached at: James_Fornaciari@glenbard.org.
The struggles of the University of Notre Dame football program over the past few years have been well documented. The firing of Head Coach Charlie Weis and hiring of Brian Kelly this winter has many armchair quarterbacks preaching how to best rebuild the Fighting Irish.
While a similar situation at the high school level doesn't generate the same national debate, it can be just as difficult to tackle. When a sport program is not fulfilling its mission, similar questions arise: Do we need a different coach? How do we get motivated students to join the program? Can we convince the community to support this team?
Of all the responsibilities that high school athletic directors have on their plates, the process of rebuilding a struggling program is among the most challenging. But it is important to take it on if we want to give our student-athletes the best experiences possible. And it is extremely rewarding when all the hard work pays off.
I had the wonderful opportunity to rebuild the baseball program at Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, Ill., from 1999 to 2005, after serving as an assistant coach at neighboring Naperville Central High School for 11 years. That experience, as well as watching other successful coaches, has helped me put together a blueprint for turning a failing program into a great one.
DIAGNOSING A DECLINE
In most cases, high school athletic programs do not fall apart overnight. If athletic directors monitor their teams closely, they will begin to observe a series of symptoms that exist in declining programs. By analyzing these warning signs as they relate to the school's particular athletics mission, athletic administrators can decide if change is necessary.
The symptom most often associated with failing programs is a lack of strong student participation. One of the key missions of high school athletic programs is to provide opportunities to students, and if they are not taking advantage of the opportunities, a problem exists.
Hand in hand with a lack of student involvement is often a drop in attendance at meets or games. Sometimes this is important for gate receipts and supporting the department financially. But more significantly, it may indicate the loss of a strong community connection.
A head coach who is constantly replacing his staff is another cause for concern. Why would quality coaches come and go from a particular program so quickly?
The scheduling of contests or events is also key. Highly motivated coaches are interested in providing the best possible competition for their athletes and fill their allotted competition dates in a thoughtful manner. Decaying programs look for ways to cut games from their schedules.
When kids begin to lose interest and assistant coaches are leaving, another glaring problem becomes painfully obvious: losing. Although no high school coach should be fired simply for a losing record, winning at the high school level is nevertheless important. Just as school administrators work to maintain high academic standards in the classroom, our athletic leaders need to demand those same high expectations on the playing field.
Other factors to consider should be based on the goals of the specific school and athletic department. If, for example, coaches are expected to help student-athletes find opportunities to play at the college level, evaluate if the coach is doing this. If pride in facilities is important at one's school, assess whether the team maintains its field or court in a first-class manner.
When enough symptoms are present for the diagnosis of a failing program, an athletic director should carefully record the problems and provide feedback to the coach. At the same time, the athletic director must keep the school principal up to date on the issues with the team and there should be constant dialogue about them. If the coach is not receptive to change and an athletic director decides to dismiss him or her, it is important to discuss the reasons with the school principal and perhaps even members of the district office staff.
IN WITH THE NEW
Once an athletic director has decided to rebuild a dead-end program, he or she must focus on the hiring process. In hiring a new head coach, it is important to find a high energy person who has the vision to rebuild. I have often observed athletic directors select "caretakers" who are a safe choice, but don't bring about any significant change.
It is also important to be aggressive in finding candidates. Ideally, athletic directors should constantly keep their eyes and ears open to up-and-coming coaches. If there is an assistant coach at your own school who seems to have promise, start a dialogue with him or her about goals and ideas. In addition, try to notice the freshman team coach from an opposing school who seems to have all the right stuff. An athletic director should not hesitate to contact colleagues at other schools who may have an assistant coach ready to take on the challenge of building his or her own program.
As you begin the search process, develop a list of characteristics you would like to find in your new coach. It is key to find candidates who have high expectations--for themselves, their assistant coaches, and the athletes. A coach who speaks of lofty goals will most likely be someone willing to put time into the rebuilding process.
Another important characteristic is the ability to foster relationships. You are going to ask your coach to rebuild a program that has fallen apart, and this cannot be done without a leader who can reach out and inspire people. You also need a person who exudes passion.
In addition, look for a coach who speaks of the entire program and not just about the varsity squad. A coach who talks about attracting more student involvement through the development of a new facility understands the big picture. For example, a baseball coach might pinpoint a goal of building new batting cages and a concession stand. A candidate who speaks about developing community events to promote the team is another good find.
Once you start interviewing candidates, be sure to ask questions that will give a clear sense of whether an individual possesses these characteristics. (See "Key Questions" below.) You can tailor the questions to fit the specific goals of your athletic department.
I would also encourage the athletic director to be involved in the hiring of assistant coaches. The quality programs I have been involved with and observed not only have strong visionaries in leadership positions, but also recruit great people to serve as assistant coaches. When possible, try to hire assistant coaches from within the building, who can help talk up the program during the school day and be magnets for the team.
However, the new head coach also needs to be very clear with potential assistant coaches about the time commitment involved in the program. This is especially true if the assistant is a holdover from the previous staff. Be sure to discuss expectations for off-season conditioning, summer workouts, and attendance at clinics.
It's also critical to hire assistant coaches committed to teaching fundamentals and strong work habits. I liked to use one of my strongest coaches at the freshman level because this is such a key time to work on skills. Be wary of assistants not willing to work at the lower levels because they think they "belong" at the Varsity level. These types of coaches most likely will not buy into the concept of a program.
If your new coach is interested in using volunteer coaches, be sure these volunteers understand the mission of the athletic department. I have encountered volunteers that bring a solid knowledge of the game but really do not understand or appreciate the goals of educational athletics.
With a passionate, energetic coaching staff on board, the next step is to encourage students (and their parents) to invest in the program. This is where it is critical for the athletic director to consistently demonstrate support for the new coach and help him or her refine plans. Your new coach is going to bring about tremendous change and will need your guidance.
How can coaches encourage true investment? It cannot be done by simply implementing tougher workouts and giving a few motivational speeches. Coaches who are going to ask more of their players both on and off the field need student-athletes to buy into an entirely new culture.
One idea that works well is to develop a specific "on-field" trademark the program can call its own. I observed a softball coach working to bring about a significant change to a program a few years ago. His athletes were accustomed to a very slow moving style of practice with a great deal of time spent standing around. This kind of pedestrian, low-energy practice made its way into the game mentality of the players and helped lead to the downfall of the program.
The new coach decided a complete change in mentality was needed, starting with improved practice habits. The girls began to sprint from station to station, drill to drill, field to dugout. Opposing players, coaches, parents, and umpires took notice and the new program became known in the region for quality softball with a special trademark.
It is also possible for a program to do some "off-field" activities to develop a new culture. I admire local coaches who take their baseball teams on trips to warm weather destinations each spring. I have also observed the bonding developed when basketball coaches arrange for their squads to take part in a team camp.
Several years ago, my athletic director encouraged my program's involvement in a special alumni weekend focused on welcoming back Don Burns, who had previously served as the baseball coach at Glenbard West for 30 years. Around 200 of Don's former players traveled from across the country to be part of this special day, and my players enjoyed visiting with and then playing in front of them. From this event, my players understood the lifelong significance of making the most of your high school career.
Sometimes, implementing change simply takes perseverance. Asking for more will be met with resistance at first until players become stakeholders. My players struggled with the concept of 5 a.m. workouts the first three weeks of the season just as they struggled with the demands made to improve their academic standing. But as the players and staff became accustomed to hard work, they began to feel a camaraderie they hadn't felt before--and they cherished it.
In some cases, participation may decline at first. The new expectations can create a culture shock for the athletes and their families. If you receive a phone call from a parent complaining that the "kids are not used to this kind of time commitment," that is okay. Your coach is holding the athletes to the high expectations discussed in the interview process. Maintain constant communication with your new coach to be sure changes are within reason and continue to support him or her. In some cases, the athletic director should help the new coach prioritize his or her goals so they are eased in, in an appropriate way.
When changing the culture of a program, it is not only important to get staff and players to be investors--you will need the parents to buy in as well. The key here is communication and giving parents a role to play.
To get relations off to a positive start I always planned a program-wide potluck dinner to open each season. This allowed me to chat with parents while addressing overall goals and operations. I explained to parents that their job was no longer to coach their child (no more "little league" parents offering advice every pitch of every game), but to support the program. I talked about how our coaching staff was filled with experienced, knowledgeable people who were now responsible for coaching their sons. Another part of the discussion was about how hard work is necessary to bring success, and what exactly such work entails. If possible, the athletic director should attend this event, which sends a clear message of support for the new coaching staff.
A coach can then further parent buy-in by using them as a resource. Parents are especially helpful in fundraising and facility improvement roles--but be sure to let them know there are no favors given to athletes whose parents lend a hand. Working on "off-field" projects with parents offers a great way for the coach to foster relationships with them.
Another group to get on board is local youth programs, and the athletic director can help develop these links in the early stages. One idea is to put on a local coaching clinic where staff and players can demonstrate key fundamentals to youth teams. This is a great opportunity for the new coaching staff to connect with members of the community and build passion for the sport at the lower levels.
As your coach is busy building important relationships, he or she might find it helpful to employ a few organized methods of communication. To start, all coaches should have a team Web site. Parents have come to expect an accurate and updated Web site.
I also found it useful to send out program newsletters several times during the school year. These newsletters highlighted team and individual accomplishments both on and off the field. The players and parents appreciated the public recognition the newsletter presented, while youth league players and coaches were given some insight into the program. In today's world, coaches can also send out an electronic version of the newsletter via e-mail.
SPREADING THE PASSION
As athletic directors help to foster the rebuilding of a declining program, they need to be prepared for some questions and perhaps even some uneasiness from other head coaches. But this can actually be a positive for the athletic department.
When a veteran coach questions the energy of a new coach, you can suggest they ask the new coach about his or her methods. A healthy collegial interaction among coaches can be encouraged by the athletic director, and you may even find veteran coaches rebuilding their programs themselves.
When change needs to be made, the selection of a passionate coach with a clear vision of the program's future is needed. And with the support of a strong athletic administration, a new coach can rebuild a once decaying program into a model while helping to encourage pride in an athletic department and school.
SIDEBAR: KEY QUESTIONS
In finding the perfect coach to help you rebuild a program, it's critical to ask great questions during the interview process. Here are some suggestions:
• What is your coaching philosophy?
• How do you define success?
• Academics are a priority in this building. How would you support our academic goals?
• What are the key relationships that you would need to build as a head coach? How would you go about doing this?
• What methods would you use to develop a commitment from student-athletes?
• Describe a difficult season you have encountered in your coaching career. What lessons did you learn from the experience?
• What role do you see the athletic director playing in your program?
• Describe a difficult situation you encountered with a parent in your coaching career. How did you handle the situation?
• Describe a difficult situation you encountered with a fellow coach. How did you handle the situation?
• Describe the vision you have for our program.
• Describe an experience you have had in making your program connect with the community.
• Describe an average practice.
• How would you support the other coaches in the athletic department?
• What are the first three things you would address in taking this position?