Lawrence Central High School, Ind.
Sandra Walter had "no intention of ever becoming an athletic director" when she began her career teaching math and coaching boys' and girls' track and field at Rushville (Ind.) High School in 1992. But that did not last long, and today Walter is Athletic Director at Lawrence Central, one of the largest high schools in Indiana.
Walter got her first taste of athletic administration in 1993 when she became Assistant Athletic Director at Rushville. Realizing she enjoyed the work, Walter accepted a position as Athletic Director at Knightstown (Ind.) High School in 1998, eventually moving to Lawrence Central, a school with 2,500 students and 20 sports, in 2000.
Boasting many strong teams, Lawrence Central's 2010-11 year was highlighted by the football squad's appearance in the Class 5A state finals and Conference Indiana titles in boys' and girls' track and field. Walter has also spearheaded a number of initiatives at the school, including an "Athletes of Character" program. She served as President of the Indiana Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (IIAAA) in 2007-08.
In this interview, Walter talks about increasing revenue, hiring great coaches, and helping two baseball players through this spring's MLB draft.
AM: What is the biggest issue facing athletic directors today?
Walter: Without question, it's the financial struggles we face. The days when you could simply hang a Coke banner in your gym and get $10,000 are long gone. You have to be more creative because companies spend less on advertising now. Additionally, you can't expect that fans are going to pack the stands for a game anymore.
What have you done at Lawrence Central to keep your programs fully funded?
The last thing I want to do is cut a team, but we can't just pass costs on to our athletes' families. We have a $30 program fee for all athletes, and to keep that as low as we have, we've had to come up with new ideas for bringing in money.
One revenue source is a text-messaging service that provides updates on scores. The service is free for fans, but when they get a text, a short text-based ad follows. Two is a ticket scanning service we use on everyone who's purchased a season pass. Not only does this ensure fans won't give their pass to someone else, it also allows us to see how many events they are attending, which can help us set an optimum price for the passes.
How have you kept attendance up?
The key is to make your game the place to be that night, which is difficult for us because we are located in a large suburban area. We've tried to create a small community feel at our games. We have a fireworks display after every home football contest, and we're always bringing alumni and community groups to our games. We spotlight students and community members who have done notable things and that creates a family atmosphere.
When did you become interested in athletic administration?
When I started my career, I wanted to be a math teacher and a track coach. But when I became Assistant Athletic Director at Rushville High, I found I really enjoyed administration. I really liked running events and watching athletes compete. My favorite thing to do was to put on a middle-school wrestling match--we used the school cafeteria and we'd just pull the tables away and watch them go at it.
What is the secret to hiring good coaches?
I look for coaches who understand the importance of athletics in a child's life, rather than those who only see the importance of a particular sport. We are in an era of one-sport specialization, but I expect my coaches to support each other. Our head football coach used to be a wrestling coach, and every season, he encourages his players to go out for the wrestling team. That kind of attitude goes a long way with me, and it's what I hire.
How does your "Athletes of Character" program work?
Like many schools, we have an honor day, which is an award ceremony that all students are eligible for. I wanted to do something specific for the athletes as well, so we started this program about five years ago. Athletes of Character is open to one rising senior in each sport who is nominated by their respective coach. The honor comes with academic, behavioral, and sportsmanship requirements, and these athletes become a public face of the teams. They help us facilitate things like open houses and parents' nights.
Lawrence Central has two athletic trainers and a strength coach on staff. How have they impacted your athletic programs?
These positions, which are funded in part by our partnership with St. Vincent's Sports Performance, help us respond to and rehab injuries as well as prevent injuries from occurring. Our athletic trainers get our injured athletes healthy and back on the field quicker, but since we added a strength coach two years ago, we've noticed a decrease in injuries, specifically in our female student-athletes. So it's our goal to continue with that.
You also have an academic support coach on staff?
Yes. I've always said that if we have an athletically gifted student-athlete who performs well for us on the field, but isn't academically qualified for college, then shame on us. The academic support coach makes sure we keep our athletes on the right track, starting in their freshman year. If our coaches identify an athlete as someone who may struggle academically, she tracks their progress and makes sure they are doing well. And when the athletes enter their junior year and prepare to take the SATs and ACTs, she helps set up that process. She makes sure students know when and where the tests are, and handles the transcripts.
This past spring, you had two athletes selected in the Major League Baseball draft. How did you manage the publicity?
Without a doubt, it generated interest in our program, and I had to make sure the players didn't get overwhelmed by the hype. I had regular conversations with them to see how they were handling it. We also needed to stay on top of them academically. It's easy enough to relax during your senior year, even if you haven't been drafted by a Major League team. But in case either of them decided to play in college, their grades needed to be in order.
Your school has a diverse student body. What are the keys to working with this type of population?
I believe that every student has a different story, which includes everything from their individual character to their financial status. You have to understand those stories and how it impacts the person. I love our diverse population. We have 2,500 stories for 2,500 students. I also think it's great for the students because that's what they're going to experience when they graduate and get out into the world.
What did you learn from serving as president of the IIAAA?
I had served on the board of directors before, and one of my mentors suggested I run for president. I firmly believe that if you're part of a group, you have a responsibility to give back. One thing I've learned from working with the IIAAA is that I am surrounded by a 400-school support system and we are all working for the same reason, because we love athletics and the kids. Having the support of people who know exactly what you're going through is incredibly helpful.