Today's high school athletic directors need to be made of patience, confidence, and new ideas. And that's just a short list of what veteran coaches say they want to see in their bosses.
By Mike Phelps
Mike Phelps is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. He can be reached at: mp@MomentumMedia.com.
In his 26 years of coaching, Keith Menard has worked with a number of athletic directors. Most of them were top-notch, but one played a role in Menard leaving the school.
Currently the Head Football Coach at Catholic High School in New Iberia, La., Menard says there were several reasons he left that former position, but a big one was that he felt the athletic director did not support him. This supervisor questioned him in public, which led to a deterioration of the working relationship, while making Menard feel his program was being undermined.
Today's high school athletic directors need to be many things to many people. They need to be organized and resourceful. They need to make sure their department runs smoothly. They need to answer an array of questions every day. They need to see eye-to-eye with upper-level administrators.
But, above all, they must be leaders to their coaches, each of whom may present a different challenge. They have to work well with the first-year coach who has never seen an eligibility form before, the experienced coach who does not want to be micro-managed, and a variety of personalities in between.
So how does today's athletic director be a successful supervisor to those in the trenches? What do coaches want from their bosses? To find out, we asked veteran high school coaches to articulate what they see in outstanding athletic directors. In Menard's view, a show of support tops the list. Other coaches cite a person with vision, someone with great communication skills, and an effective mentor.
FRONT & CENTER
A lot has changed in high school athletics over the past 10 years. From the budget crisis in public education to increased parental involvement to fewer teachers who want to coach, high school athletic directors have a lot of off-the-field issues to handle. It's not surprising, then, that today's coaches say they want, foremost, an athletic director who has a strong public presence.
"When a coach, parent, or player has a question or problem, they need someone to go to and they need to know who that person is," says 23-year coaching veteran Jim Rhoads, now Head Boys' Basketball Coach at Hereford High School in Parkton, Md. "They can't be thinking, 'I don't really know him because he just sits in his office and fills out paperwork.'
"An athletic director needs to be on the front line seven days a week," he continues. "Whether it's putting on a cross country race or talking to boosters, the athletic director needs to be there. My athletic director is a good manager and he has administrative skills, but more importantly he's the face of our athletic program."
Tom O'Connell, who has been coaching baseball for 33 years, including the past 11 at Central Catholic High School in Burlington, Wis., echoes that sentiment, adding that his favorite athletic directors have been outgoing members of the community who can relate well to student-athletes. "Good athletic directors should be personable and make the athletes feel welcome," he says. "When athletes are signing up for a sport or turning in their physicals, the athletic director should make a connection with them. That way, if there are problems with coaches, athletes will be comfortable going up to their athletic director to say whatever is on their mind.
"I've had athletic directors in the past who weren't very personable," O'Connell continues. "They were great managers and organizers, but they didn't like to get into the limelight. I think it's important for an athletic director to have an outgoing personality. My current athletic director can make anyone feel at home within 30 seconds."
Coaches say that an athletic director who has his or her finger on the pulse of the department wards off problems before they start. "If you have an athletic director who's not very open, coaches start to wonder what's going on," O'Connell says. "I've experienced situations where there's negative talk among the coaching staff about the athletic director and some of his or her policies. An athletic director has to be involved and continually make time to talk with everybody and learn what's going on."
David Kreller, a veteran head coach with 11 years of cross country, track and field, and basketball experience who is now an assistant track coach at Pikesville High School in Baltimore County, Md., has liked working with athletic directors who exhibit ownership over their program. "You want to know your athletic director is really in charge of the department," he says. "You don't want to take things like scheduling and meetings lightly, but there's a leadership quality that you want your athletic director to have. I like the athletic director who makes it clear, 'This is my program.'
"You just have the feeling that they're in charge," Kreller continues. "They have a vision for the whole department and they make sure all of the coaches follow that vision. For example, they won't bring in a basketball coach who curses and yells and screams and belittles kids. They have an outlook they make sure their coaches share."
O'Connell describes this leadership quality as making sure everyone's on the same page. "Some athletic directors just manage scheduling, athletic awards, and things like that, but don't set any kind of tone for the department," he says. "It's important for an athletic director to be not just a manager, but a leader and a motivator and someone who holds the staff together.
"For example, coaches should get together every so often and have social interaction and make sure we're all in sync, which is something an athletic director can organize," continues O'Connell. "That can help create a community atmosphere."
Menard also wants his athletic director to be a forward thinker. "You have to be thinking about what's next," he says. "It starts with a vision. If you have a vision, know where you want your school to be in three to five years, and have a plan laid out, people buy into that. What they don't buy into is, 'We want to have a fundraiser, and we're just going to put the money in a general athletic fund.' When an athletic director says, 'We're doing this because we have a specific set of goals to accomplish,' that sells."
Along with wanting a confident leader, many coaches say they desire an athletic director who stands behind them--in good times and bad. To do this effectively, the athletic director must be in tune with each team.
"For a coach, it's important to feel like your athletic director is there to support you when you need it," Menard says. "There will always be parents coming into the athletic director's office and complaining that a coach isn't doing something right. I want an athletic director who can say, 'I've been at his practice, and I know they are doing that correctly.' By being an active athletic director, you'll have the knowledge to support your coaches in those situations."
In cases when their athletic director doesn't have all the information, coaches want a face-to-face meeting before the athletic director responds to the parent. "Athletic directors are going to get phone calls before the coaches do," says O'Connell. "When that happens, I think the athletic director has to go to the coach, sit behind closed doors, and debrief the situation. Then together, you have to figure out how to best handle it.
"The athletic director almost has to act like a judge in certain situations," he continues. "He or she has to sit and listen. It's a key skill to not have preconceived notions--but to listen and then make decisions."
Coaches also want their athletic directors to support them publicly, even if they privately disagree with decisions that have been made. "Parents and fans will always question why a coach does something, but as an athletic director, you need to be very careful and cautious about how you respond to challenging questions," Menard says. "You can really destroy a coach and his rapport with his team and the parents by questioning him in public. I just don't think that's a positive thing at all. When that happened to me, it was an undermining that eventually led to me leaving that school because it wasn't a good situation."
Providing support doesn't have to be limited to the times when something has gone wrong, however. Many coaches appreciate an athletic director who takes the time to come to their team's games or practices.
"Our athletic director has coached basketball and football, so I know those are his favorite sports, but you'll also see him at a softball game or a swim meet," says Joe Bursick, who has coached wrestling at Hampton High School in Allison Park, Pa, for the past 18 years. "He puts in a lot of extra hours to do that, and it shows his passion for all sports. We host a huge two-day wrestling tournament in December, and he'll always spend time with us there."
Coaches also appreciate when the support extends to the student-athletes. "It's important for an athletic director to be known by the kids," says Kreller. "If they come to games and practices, they know the kids by name, and the kids pick up on that."
"I like athletic directors who you can tell have a legitimate interest in the kids," says Clyde Conti, a 39-year coaching veteran now in his first season as Head Football Coach at Butler (Pa.) Area High School. "You get a feel for who is just punching the clock and who truly loves athletics and cares about the kids. For example, if an athletic director talks to one of my players about the choral group he's involved in, that goes a long way in showing he or she cares."
And sometimes it's the small things that show the most support. "I've had athletic directors who would send out a department-wide e-mail congratulating, for example, the girls' volleyball team on making it to the regional finals and encouraging others to go support the team," says Kreller. "Something simple like that sends a strong message to others in the department and helps build camaraderie among coaches."
"Before our season starts, our athletic director will have a preseason meeting for all winter sports coaches," Bursick says. "He'll put together a handbook with important contact information and similar items, but he also includes some motivational articles--things I've really taken advantage of during the beginning of the season. Other athletic directors I've worked for didn't go to that extent. I don't necessarily need those articles to coach wrestling, but it shows his support for us and how passionate he is to help us to find success."
"Recently my athletic director and I both had to be at a meeting, and he offered for us to drive to it together," Conti says. "When you're in a car with someone, you're locked in with that person, and you start to bond. You get a feel for the other person. Our athletic director spends time with us, not just to see what's going on, but to talk. He does not come off as being elite or above, but someone who is tied in and legitimately cares about us."
Another small gesture is lending a helping hand. "Maybe one of your coaches is teaching five classes and has a big game that night," Menard says. "Approaching that coach and asking how you can help out means a lot."
ROLE AS MENTOR
How do coaches want to be mentored by their athletic directors? They say it depends on the amount of experience the coach has. When a coach first comes on board, there should be a lot of hands-on help.
"Athletic directors can't just hire someone and throw them to the wolves," says O'Connell. "When I hire a new assistant coach on my staff, I have Saturday morning breakfast meetings with him to give him the lay of the land. Even if it's someone I already know, I want to make him feel a part of what we're doing and teach him the attitude I want to foster with players. I think athletic directors can do the same thing with coaches."
Coaches say that it's important for athletic directors to have patience with new hires when it comes to off-the-field aspects of the job. "Some things that trip up young coaches are eligibility paperwork, uniform storage, putting equipment away after games, and things like that," says Rhoads. "In Baltimore County, players and coaches are responsible for setting up and tearing down everything on game nights, which can overwhelm a young coach. A good athletic director will take some of that responsibility off the coach's plate. This allows new coaches to get their feet wet, bond with their players, and get their game plan together instead of dealing with other tasks."
Rhoads also believes athletic directors can help younger coaches with practice planning. "I learned a lot about planning a practice from watching other coaches when I was younger, but a lot of coaches don't have that opportunity," he says. "They may understand how to hit and field ground balls or shoot free throws, but that doesn't mean they know how to organize a practice."
"One successful approach I've seen is for the athletic director to be around at practice and help from a distance," says Menard. "The goal is to observe but not jump in, and then later have conversations with the coach about how they're organizing their practices.
"Mentoring young coaches is so important today because there are now young people one or two years out of college becoming head coaches," he continues. "Years ago, we'd have to work for eight to 10 years before becoming a coordinator or head coach. Being a head coach is more than the knowledge of the game--it's managing the overall program and it's easy to struggle with that."
More experienced coaches, however, want their athletic directors to be more hands-off. "My current athletic director knows what's going on with my team and can describe my coaching style and how I run practice," says Rhoads. "But he's not a micro-manager. He's not constantly checking on me. He trusts me. I think the best athletic directors are the ones who nurture young coaches along, but when they have head coaches who are experienced and know what they're doing, they're just there for support.
"The administrators I've really respected are the ones I didn't have to put on a dog-and-pony show for," he continues. "It's nice to be able to simply come in and do your job and have someone there who can help you when you need it."
O'Connell agrees. "Athletic directors have to trust that their coaches know what's best for their teams," he says. "Some athletic directors want to do everything, but the good ones don't try to interfere with the day-to-day activities."
While coaches want their athletic director to be a leader, a supportive supervisor, and a mentor, they do appreciate having an organized administrator who looks after everything. "Athletic directors have a lot of work, and their ability to organize, categorize, and prioritize is their key to success," says O'Connell. "If it's not done well, it usually has a negative effect.
"For example, athletic directors will often know about scheduling changes before a coach does," he continues. "Communicating those changes in a timely fashion is huge. There have been a couple of instances in my career when I wasn't notified about a change until that week, when it had been arranged several months earlier. That kind of information needs to be disseminated quickly by the athletic director to the coaches."
And whether they tell you or not, your coaches notice your organizational skills. "When I walk into my athletic director's office, his desk is spotless," says Bursick. "I don't know he does it. He's so prompt and deals with things so quickly. Invoices come in, and they're paid immediately. Schedules come in, he completes them, and they get filed. I have a bin on my desk that constantly accumulates things, so I'm impressed that he's able to have a clean desk. He's just always on the ball."
Sidebar: FACING FEEDBACK
Athletic directors may be surprised to learn that coaches don't begrudge their end-of-season evaluations. In fact, they see them as a positive, provided they are meaningful and sincere.
"One of my former athletic directors would write up very formal observations of how the season went and what I did," says David Kreller, a veteran head coach of cross country, track and field, and basketball who is now an assistant track coach at Pikesville High School in Baltimore County, Md. "He had a standardized form in terms of performance, how you handled equipment, and a number of other things. Then he'd write a full page of comments. Another athletic director I worked for was very informal. She preferred to give little bits of feedback on a daily basis. Both evaluation methods worked for me.
"In either case, the process makes you think about what you learned, how you grew as a coach, and how to not repeat mistakes," he continues. "Through talking to the coach during an evaluation, the athletic director can also gain some insight that he or she may not have fully gleaned from coming to practices and taking notes."
Joe Bursick, Head Wrestling Coach at Hampton High School in Allison Park, Pa., believes the evaluation process has made him a better coach, even if the news that comes from it isn't always positive. "Our athletic director rates us, then we rate ourselves, and we compare and contrast to see if we're on the same page," he says. "When you have to look in the mirror and face the bad news, it's not easy. But it forces you to take a deeper look at yourself, which has helped me grow as a coach."