(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)
High school coaches face long hours, scrutiny and lofty expectations despite limited financial compensation…
High school coaching is as tough as it has ever been. With a demanding schedule that requires coaches to work during the off-season to ensure their team is competitive during the year, parents constantly putting pressure on their kids for playing time and scrutiny or requests for them being fired after a bad season or roster decisions, the idea of a coach spending 30 years with one team or program is becoming less and less of a reality.
Quoted in a 2017 Seattle Times article, the Edmonds Community College men’s basketball coach had this to say: “I know so many coaches who have just stopped coaching because of the parents. And parents who get upset with coaches, pull their kid and go somewhere else.”
Chewelah is no stranger to coaching changes in recent years, but there have also been some long-tenured people. Cougar fans and parents can be particularly passionate about its sports but since 2014, there have been 17 coach resignations.
In Chewelah’s first year in the 2B classification, there was a flood of league titles, state playoff appearances and state titles.
But three coaches will not be back next year in their head coaching capacities and while the changes are for a variety of reason, it is something to note. Any athletic director or coach will tell you that consistency is key, and constantly changing head coaches can severely limit a program’s success.
Sawyer Bardwell, the NE 2B North League Coach of the Year, stepped down from his head baseball coach position, saying that he wanted to spend more time with his young family. He also noted that the demands on current coaches is high. He stated to The Independent he would like to see a change in the town culture when it comes to Jenkins High School coaches.
Despite this too, Bardwell and other coaches noted that many parents are very supportive and provide a good community around their teams.
Geno Ludwig, who has spent more time coaching than most people in town have been alive, boiled the issue of pressure with coaches down to its simplest terms.
“Most parents are very supportive,” he said. “Win or lose, they support the team. But a few squeaky parents can be a pain in the behind. It takes just a few negative comments from dissatisfied parents to ruin an entire sports program. Instead of talking to the coach face-to-face, they talk behind their back to other parents, Cougar fans, and school administrators. Often, the coach is the last person to learn of a parent’s discontent. By that time, their one-sided opinions are all over Facebook and Twitter. So, instead of being able to explain why their child is not getting playing time or is dealing with the issue, coaches finally find out about it when they get summoned to the athletic director’s office.”
Social media can also swing back at the parents and there have been instances where athletes and their parents are brought up on internet posts that some feel are bullying kids.
It must be noted, Geno has also covered Chewelah athletics for the newspaper since the first moon landing.
After interviewing a variety of coaches from Chewelah and outside of Chewelah, the biggest issue that comes up is playing time and attitude.
A small roster of coaches we talked to said it’s hard to break though to a kid about a possible bad attitude when that negative attitude is preached around their own kitchen table. Most of the time, the bad attitude begins with the parents, not the athlete.
Ludwig also pointed out this becomes a much bigger issue in high school than it is at the middle school level.
“Middle school is often the first opportunity for an athlete to learn the skills of a sport like football or track and to play it competitively,” he explained. “It is the place where no one gets cut and coaches try to give every player some playing time. Most middle school parents just want to see their son or daughter on the field or on the court.
“On the other hand, the emphasis at the high school level is on winning. Coaches who do not win do not have their contracts renewed. It’s that simple. Therefore, they have to play their best players regardless of their grade level. This can be a big adjustment for some parents, especially for those of juniors and seniors when a freshman or sophomore is started ahead of their upperclassman son or daughter.
“My dad played softball for the Northwest Magnesite Burners back in the days when we had a men’s softball league here in Chewelah. I still have his uniform. After his playing days were over, he umpired. During one game, he was heckled by a spectator so rudely that he took off his mask, handed it to the woman, and drove home. Although he had a passion for softball, he never attended another game. Likewise, coaches also get to the point where they resign rather than endure the criticism,” Geno said
After several interviews with coaches from around Washington state and the Chewelah School District, a few trends emerged. First, Chewelah youth sports are usually coached by parents, and the town has a good, developed youth program for a variety of sports. This gives parents more involvement in their kids’ sports, but also a sense of ownership or entitlement too when those kids reach high school.
Another source of friction is more specialization of sports. With more nationwide programs like USA Softball or USA Wrestling that really develop kids into successful athletes. This, however, means a higher financial investment for the parents and obviously means they have a bigger investment in how their kids’ careers go in general.
There appears to be two schools of thought when it comes to playing time: A player is not getting enough time and the coach should be more fair with who he takes off the bench despite them being less talented. The other idea is a player is not getting enough playing time and it’s hurting the kids’ college stock.
“The objective changes in high school to win and not to give every kid playing time and that can be a hard adjustment,” Ludwig said. “Coaches struggle with this and a kid could sit at the end of the bench or play JV. Sometimes teams, especially in 2B, don’t have JV teams so its tough to get games.”
Former Gig Harbor High School Football Coach Darren McKay, interviewed by the Seattle Times about the same subject, said that specialized camps and trainers can pump parents and kids up with unrealistic expectations concerning playing college sports.
“Now the parent wants to know why their kid isn’t getting recruited when the guru trainer says, ‘Your kid is a Division I athlete,’ ” McKay told the Seattle Times. “The fact is, they’re not. The parent sometimes has trouble understanding. That’s getting a little bit worse.”
For Chewelah, Division I athletes are few and far between. They do happen and you can point to Kaitlin Krouse at Washington State University, Keith Garner at Eastern Washington University who nearly had a cup of coffee in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks, Greg Belzer who wrote most of the tackling records at EWU, Kim Hogan and Jamie Webber who were All-American wrestlers, Will Lohman who set all of the University of Nebraska throwing records, Josh Parrish who started at tackle for WSU, Chel-C Bailey who was a national champion wrestler and Wade Carpenter and AJ Proszek who both pitched for Gonzaga University and were in the San Francisco Giant camp.
But these athletes are the unicorns of high school athletics at this level. Lower division colleges and community colleges are also looking for athletes but they are recruited largely because of the effort from the athletes, going to camps to be seen and sending tape to coaches. Grades also determine where a kid can go, as well as coach-ability, body build and if they are self-starters. It has to be stated, college-bound athletes are usually the ones putting in the most hours, money and spend more time with one sport than the average kid spends on video games or socializing.
“I’ve told kids ‘I will work as hard as you want to work,’” Bardwell said.
Many decisions for someone’s future in college sports is largely made before the lights go on at Snyder Field and Pein-Lynch Gym.
Dennis Bower, the althetic director for Onalaska High School, a 2B school in Western Washington, knows a thing or two about coaching as the basketball court at the school is named after him.
The Hall-of-Fame coach has been around small school high school sports for several decades.
“Gone are the days of the barking coach with the whistle,” Bower said. “Now it’s all about how you relate to kids and I always told my players to listen to the message and not the tone.”
Bower would never talk to parents after a game because emotions would be running high at both sides of the conversation. As athletic director, he tries to tell parents to talk to the coach first and work on a solution. He also marvels as some teams can go to the state tournament and some parents still want the coach gone.
“It’s amazing, I ask them, well who do you want to coach then?” Bower said. “When I stepped down as head basketball coach we only had two applicants for the job. The options just aren’t out there.”
Chewelah’s number of applicants for head coaching jobs is also usually limited. While Cashmere took 50 applications for the head football coach position, Chewelah only got two such applications when the same position opened up in their school district. When The Independent covered the head coach search for the football program several years ago, open forums were held for parents where a laundry list of requirements were thrown at the athletic director but only a small number of coaches applied. As a small school, the pay and drive up to the middle of Stevens County can sometimes not be an attractive spot for a young coach growing up in a city environment. Some local teachers with coaching experience have even pointed out that they will not coach at the varsity level because of the way they have seen past coaches treated.
The day of the teacher-coach is becoming less prevalent, as some don’t want to deal with the stress from the parents. The Independent was told about several instances of venomous messages sent to coaches, coaches retired still getting their names thrown through the mud in town, constant calls for resignations and more.
Coaches from out of town tend to have a tougher time as well, as it was told to the newspaper that some people have a mistrust of those from out of town and that they don’t know the culture or how things are done here. This presents an issue for teacher coaches since some teachers are from Chewelah but many are not. Teachers tend to teach at several schools throughout their career.
Loren Finley, the athletic director at Kettle Falls, who taught and coached many years at Chewelah said that some prior state championships can burden coaches with parents saying “well this is how we did it when we won the state championship, so we need to do it that way.” He pointed to his own hometown of Mullen, Idaho where two back-to-back state titles gave that era at the school a kind of aura everybody wanted to get back to in future years.
In a 2017 Seattle Times article about the same issue, the newspaper pointed out a California baseball coach who had a lawsuit filed against him for repeatedly benching a player, and a coach with a 63-game win streak in Massachusetts resigned after trouble with parents
Expectations to win are ridiculous now, Finley said, explaining that it usually takes five years to establish a program from the ground up. Three coaches for Chewelah currently have been coaching their program for more than five years.
Beyond just the pressure, the nature of the job has changed as well, while the pay has been flat. When you’re a coach now, you’re going to get pulled in every direction.
Finley echoed this sentiment. “Today, a kid wants to be wanted on the team,” he said. “I tell kids I want you to participate and be a part of the program.”
A wide variety of coaches interviewed said the job has changed from just being a coach to also being a mentor and helping kids through tough family lives and serving as a part-time counselor.
“You’re never off the clock,” Finley said. “You’ll get calls from players at 2 a.m. and you figuratively have to talk them off a wall for a variety of reasons.”
During the “offseason,” coaches are still handling offseason camps, opening weight rooms, checking up on players and getting ready for the next year.
This for a stipend that can equal a few thousand dollars once all is said and done.
“We also end up sometimes buying our own equipment for programs,” Finley stated.
Then there are the parents wanting to talk or text late at night for a variety of reasons. Bower said he turns his phone off at night because of this. Bardwell stated that texts late at night from parents can be constant and problematic because it gives them the idea they can dictate many issues pertaining to the program.
“It’s just a garbage idea that ‘teachers get time off,’” Finley said. “If you add all the hours up in the season and offseason, it really is ridiculous.”
Factor in that in a small town like Chewelah, everybody shops in the same stores and goes to the same places. For a coach, being out in public might mean he will hear off-the-clock comments from parents and community members about the job they’re doing. Like other small towns, it’s a fish bowl of sorts.
“It’s hard to define the line with parents at school, especially if you’re teaching at the school,” Bardwell pointed out.
The pressure is so bad that even winning coaches are resigning after a handful of years.
Sam Tudor, who led Bigfork to the Montana Class B boys basketball state title in 2018 and 2019, stepped down this year. According to the Flathead Beacon newspaper in Kalispell, it was the time commitment that burned him out, but it was also the relationships with his players that will keep him coaching in some form.
The issue is the off-season time requirements. If you want to win, you’re going to have to have your players working on travel teams during the offseason. Tudor’s Bigfork players played more games out of season than during it. This is in Montana which typically has smaller and more rural schools. Washington is like this as well, but at a much higher level.
For Tudor, he didn’t have time to simply clean his garage, much less spend time with family. The time commitment if he wanted his squad to be competitive was simply too much.
Some of Chewelah’s most successful programs have offseason travel teams. It’s a requirement now simply if you want to be able to compete, and the coaches do not receive compensation for this.
It’s certainly not all bad, and coaches still had good things to say about the majority of parents.
“It’s still a great and noble profession,” Bower said. “You have more impact on young players in a few years than most other adults do. You serve as a role model and a second parent. Some kids will listen to their coach more than their parent.”
Some current coaches told the Independent that the support, especially during winning seasons, has been great and they can’t wait for next year as well. The school district is going through some budget problems, however, and that can also put additional pressure on everyone.
The biggest sticking point locally seemed to be coaches feeling parents are going over their heads to their superiors before bringing a problem to them. They also added they hope parents foster a “team-first” philosophy they’re trying to build with their programs. Comments about coaches around the dinner table do make an impact on kids.
“Varsity coaching is a lot of pressure because the buck stops with you,” Ludwig concluded. “It’s the coach who wears the bull’s-eye on his or her back.”
When asked what the community could do moving forward with its Cougar Athletics, new Chewelah athletic director Shirley Baker responded to an Independent inquiry and said that people need to support and trust their coaches and understand they are dedicating their expertise and effort with the best of intentions.
“I don’t see any of our coaches working with youth for the wrong reasons, they work with our athletes for all the right reasons,” Baker said. “We have had coaches leave Chewelah where if they were involved in any other role, they would be regarded as accomplished, valued members of our athletic programs.”
Baker said that everyone participating in school sports needs to have the mindset of “releasing their child” to the coach and the program and trust the school has hired the best possible candidate for the position so that Chewelah, coaches and players can enjoy the positive experience of sports.