Love of game not enough of a draw

Shortage: The rewards for coaching sports at public schools -- low pay, aggressive parents and pressure to win -- have created a shrinking applicant pool.

February 07, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

A humble plea popped up recently on an Internet job search site: "Positions Available Girls Lacrosse School name: North Carroll High School."

Never before had the school in Hampstead advertised for coaches in any sport. But these are desperate times. The lacrosse season begins March 1, and North Carroll is short two assistants. No teachers have stepped forward, and the school has found only a handful of candidates in the community.

Number of responses to the school's Internet ad: 0.

If North Carroll is disheartened, it is not alone. Across the country, a shortage of high school athletic coaches has surfaced, because of meager salaries, interference from parents who want to see their children in the starting lineups, and pressure to win. School systems that were accustomed to a handful of openings each year now find a quarter of their coaching jobs vacant.

Five years ago in Carroll County, public high schools began the school year with all but 4 percent of their coaching positions filled. In September, schools began with 29 percent of the positions empty, about half of which remain unfilled with the start of spring sports a few weeks away.

Confronted with the shortage, athletic directors are looking beyond school buildings to find former athletes, club-sports coaches and other noneducators to take the posts. This trend makes educators uneasy -- and could alter the character of high school sports -- but they have little choice.

"It's a philosophical problem," said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association. "Coaches should be teachers first. If you can't say that, there is no reason to have the program."

This marks a change from the 1980s, when classroom instructors were expected to double as coaches and stick with their teams for years. Some became legends in their schools, racking up wins and respect, encouraging players to push themselves to the brink on the field as well as on the next day's biology exam.

Mike Mohler is typical of the change. At night, Mohler coaches girls basketball at Catonsville High School, where he has taken his team to the Baltimore County championship game twice and the state Final Four once.

During the day, while his players are in class, Coach Mohler sells beer.

Mohler, director of mid-Atlantic distribution for Guinness/Bass Import Co., is what Maryland law calls an "emergency coach." The term applies to people who lack a teaching certificate but are hired to fill a vacancy for one year, until a teacher can be coaxed to step forward.

"It's a total departure from what I do in daily life," he said. "As opposed to a person in the school who's been beaten down and had some bad classes, I'm not around kids all day. It's a huge plus."

In 1985 in Baltimore County's public school system, about 80 percent of assistant coaches and 98 percent of head coaches were teachers, according to Ron Belinko, coordinator of athletics. Today, about 60 percent of head coaches and about half the assistants in the county work in the classroom.

Coaching associations and athletic directors around the country say they have observed a trend which mirrors that in Baltimore County. They also say situations don't always work out as well as the one in Catonsville has.

"You hear horror stories -- and they're scary -- of someone who is hired from the outside and they're not an educator. Their demands on kids are so strong, following guidelines is not tops on their list, and it's `me, me, me,' " said Curt Nelson, who coordinates athletics at Maquoketa High School in Maquoketa, Iowa.

Even Nelson can't be choosy. He has head boys track, assistant boys track, and head girls softball coaching positions to fill.

"You finally find a way," Nelson said. "You might not get the most qualified person, but as long as the program can survive and everything is done on the up-and-up, its OK. It may not be the best, but it's OK."

Teachers know the drill

Athletic officials say having a teacher coach a team is preferable. Many of the demands of coaching -- dealing with teens, making schedules, building confidence -- are those of teaching, and hard to learn from scratch.

But these officials also complain of having nowhere to turn. Given the demands from parents for more teachers to reduce class size, school officials don't give coaches' salaries much attention at budget time. As a result, teachers can't easily be wooed into coaching sports.

Salaries are low. Pay depends on experience and the sport. Head football and basketball coaches generally earn the most, and assistants in lower-profile sports earn the least. In Carroll County, the starting salary for a head track coach is just under $2,000 per year. Duties include, at a minimum, two-hour practices every school day and eight-hour track meets on the weekend during a season that runs March through June.

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