City schools' problems lead Poly coach to throw in towel

December 17, 2003

WHEN FOLKS you work for start using phrases like "globally talented," you know it's time to retire.

For Mark Schlenoff, that time will come July 1, when he officially retires from what, with obvious facetiousness, has been called the Baltimore public school "system." Those quotation marks are quite deliberate. The word system implies some kind of order, some semblance of competence. This "system" doesn't have that.

For the past 13 years, Schlenoff has been the athletic director at Polytechnic Institute, where he also coached baseball and swimming. He has been a coach or athletic director at five other schools for the past 34 years. Schlenoff said he would have liked to hang in there one more year, but he can't stand it anymore.

On Monday, in between gym classes, Schlenoff sat in his office at Poly's Augie Waibel Athletic Center and took a call from the folks down at North Avenue. It was early afternoon, and school officials still couldn't tell Schlenoff if a bus would be available to take the 30 members of Poly's indoor track team to a meet at the 5th Regiment Armory. Schlenoff got another call at 2:45. No bus would be coming. The students, who had been out of class for 90 minutes, waiting for the bus, were sent home.

For Schlenoff, it was an all-too-familiar scenario. As if some staff members being told they would have to be "globally talented" in filling in for laid-off workers in light of the budget crunch wasn't enough, now some student-athletes found themselves the victims of yet another "system" snafu. Schlenoff said he has been dealing with it for years: needed repairs that sometimes take years to get done, no money for assistant coaches (except in football), that little business of Schlenoff being ordered to lend Poly's football field for playoff games and then the "system" not making good on the promise to replace the damaged grass. It's not just any one irritation that prompts Schlenoff's departure as much as a string of irritations.

Things were different when Schlenoff began at City College as a football, swimming and baseball coach in 1968.

"It was a larger group of people," Schlenoff said of the situation then, "who knew what they were doing, who could get a problem solved when you needed a problem solved."

While at City, Schlenoff worked with coaching legends like Gene Parker and Jerry Nathanson. Parker's Black Knights basketball squad won a Maryland Scholastic Association championship in 1969, a controversial co-championship in 1970 and came close to beating Dunbar during the Poets' classic 35-game winning streak in the early 1970s. Nathanson's track and cross country teams won a string of consecutive championships.

"They broke the mold when they made that man," Schlenoff said of Parker. Some folks might one day say that of Schlenoff, who has had some impact of his own over the years.

He was The Sun's coach of the year in football in 1971 -- when he moved to Forest Park -- and again in baseball in 1999. Schlenoff was a member of the MSA wrestling committee for 14 years. Schlenoff started and ran the Baltimore public schools wrestling championships and directed the MSA wrestling championships when they were held at Poly.

Schlenoff was vice president of the MSA -- a joint public-private school venture that had a decades-old tradition -- during the time that Superintendent Walter Amprey was doing his best to dismantle the organization by nudging public schools into joining the annoying, nitpicking, public-schools-only Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association.

"The toughest thing for me," Schlenoff said, "was the last year of the MSA when Vince Bagli was the president. We tried to keep the MSA together and work within the MPSSAA. But there were too many conflicting rules and eligibility requirements."

Still, Schlenoff is one of the few athletic directors in city schools who tries to maintain a relationship with the old MSA private schools. (The other city schools, with the notable exceptions of City and Dunbar, kissed the MSA goodbye without so much as an afterthought.) Poly still scrimmages with Gilman in football, although the classic Poly-Gilman regular-season football rivalry is a thing of the past, courtesy of Amprey.

Poly is scheduled to play Gilman in basketball, has already played Calvert Hall and will meet Loyola in baseball in the spring. Those wrestling fans who want a taste of our beloved MSA wrestling tournament -- ruined by some guy named Amprey -- can do so when Poly's grapplers face Friends next month. Schlenoff describes his efforts as "keeping some semblance" of the old MSA -- brought to an end by you-know-who.

Whether Schlenoff's successor makes such an effort remains to be seen. But he has some sage advice for the soon-to-be-harried soul who ventures to fill his shoes.

"Go down and buy yourself a fireman's helmet," Schlenoff cautioned, "to put out all the fires."

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