The occupational tools for high school athletic directors do not include a fire extinguisher.
Not yet, at least.
The dynamic between parents and coaches seems as tenuous as ever, with athletic directors often trying to play peacemaker before brush fires turn to raging infernos. The chasm rears its ugly head most noticeably at the end of each sports season, when parental influence can sometimes play a part in a coach losing his or her job.
The most recent scene played out at Gilbert, where football coach Leland Rodgers was fired after just one season. Some parents claimed he treated the players improperly, while Rodgers and other supporters fervently disagreed.
It’s often an allegation nearly impossible to conclusively prove either way, because one person’s “hard-nosed” punishment is deemed too severe by another. There is no clear line which coaches can’t cross, and it forces everyone into judgment calls, sometimes tenuously.
Some allegations go away quietly. Others result in discipline. A few, like in the case of Rodgers, result in the loss of a job.
Scottsdale Rancho Solano Prep athletic director Matt Harris, a former basketball coach, has a hard time believing the parents in most of these situations. Instead, he said it’s the easiest avenue for them to make waves.
“They’ve found a means to an end,” Harris said. “They’re not happy with the coach for another reason; their son is not the starting quarterback or their daughter’s not the starting setter, so they’ve found ways and certain buzzwords that will get administrators weak in the knees. It’s a lot easier to find a new coach then to fight this, say, prominent booster, and the question becomes: Do we really want to go through this in the newspaper or through a legal battle?
“Look at how many open high school basketball jobs there were (in the past couple years), and most of the jobs vacated were coaches making lateral moves. I even joke about it, like maybe after five years we should all just switch schools. Parents think we’re horrible, so let’s just flip-flop.”
When a player goes home and complains about how he or she is being treated, it’s second-nature for a parent to protect their son or daughter. Even if the facts are somewhat muddled, Red Mountain athletic director Jim Gowdy said it’s important to remember the parent’s thought-process.
“They want what’s best for their kid,” Gowdy said. “Regardless of what the concern is, we’ll always listen to a parent’s concern. No matter what perspective you have on a conflict, the coach, the parent and the administration has the same viewpoint in that we all want what’s best for the student. Sometimes we lose sight of that common ground.”
McClintock football coach Matt Lewis spent time as an athletic director at a small school in Texas. He is cognizant of the possible pitfalls of parent-coaching relationships, and takes precautionary steps to avoid them.
He does his postgame huddles near the bleachers so everyone can hear what he’s saying to the players. He also passes out postseason exit surveys to his players which include questions pertaining to mental, physical and verbal abuse.
Lewis said 119 of the 120 responses this year came back positively, which made him feel like he was doing the right things.
“It was kind of like my report card,” he said.
Playing time and other issues will always result in a certain level of conflict between coaches and parents. Losing teams also seem to have more issues than winning ones.
However, in a time where administrators are stretched thinner than ever, communication may be the most important factor in keeping everyone on the same page.
Many times, a small issue will fester as the season moves along, and by the end, a segment of parents are ready to see the coach go.
“Once a parent gets disgruntled it’s the same thing that happens in the locker room when a player gets disgruntled: they start to complain about it and everyone agrees with them,” Lewis said. “The parents will say, ‘Yeah, your son is definitely better.’ That kind of starts that cycle. Then, at a certain point, a parent or child loses any sense of objectivity.”
Gowdy said Red Mountain has made a big push with social media and email updates to keep parents in the loop. The Mesa school district ascribes to a “90-10” line of thinking in which 90 percent of problems can be fixed by simple communication, which allows for plenty of attention to be given to the more serious 10 percent.
“Coaches have had to establish trust within the parents and within the community,” Gowdy said. “If the parents know their coach beyond the title, I think when that happens they’ve bought in. When things come up, rather than jump to conclusions, they give the benefit of the doubt and gather more facts.”
That’s the hope of nearly all athletic directors: to nip problems in the bud before they expand.
But even with steps in place, the process is not foolproof. Sometimes the parents will have legitimate complaints about coaching philosophies. If enough issues are brought up, it may force the hand of the administration.
“I think your job as the AD or administrator is to have a good handle on your coaches the same way you have a handle on your teachers,” Harris said. “You investigate and look at the whole big picture.”
It’s a lot of pressure on athletic directors, and many times it ends up alienating either the coach or a set of parents.
But it has to be done. That’s the job description.
“When that complaint comes in, you don’t want to be the guy that turned the blind eye and doesn’t look into it,” Lewis said. “When stuff goes bad, it goes really bad. A good administrator, when they get calls from parents all the time, they have to be really good filters on what’s a concern and what might not be.”