Stepping back, coaches keep feet on ground

On High Schools

High Schools

February 20, 2005|By MILTON KENT

EAGLES SINGER Don Henley once observed that life in the fast lane would make you lose your mind. Steve Baker didn't need a catchy song lyric to tell him that.

Baker was an assistant coach for Loyola College the last time the Greyhounds made the NCAA tournament back in 1994, so he has felt the pull of big-time basketball.

But high school basketball, where the work is a lot less glamorous, but ultimately a lot more rewarding, kept pulling Baker back. Now that he has made his way to a good spot, the New Town boys team, the lure of the big time may never have a hold on him again.

"I don't miss the getting on the airplane and all the travel and recruiting," Baker said. "I like to be in a leadership position. I love being a head coach and I don't see it on the college level. Right now, I am enjoying this and I want to relish it for as long as I can."

Look around the area, and you'll see a number of former college coaches, who, for one reason or another, decided that home, hearth and a high school gym held more of an attraction than the recruiting trail, the possibility of a "Big Monday" appearance on ESPN and chatting up Billy Packer or Dick Vitale.

And who can blame them? For all the joy that the month of March can bring college coaches, especially on the Division I level, there are inordinate pressures, too, for coaches on both sides of the gender aisle, and not all the pressures are on-court related.

"I think every college coach who goes back to high school and every high school coach who goes to college would say the same thing," said Bob Clark, who is coaching the girls team at Chesapeake High in Baltimore County after 20 years of coaching women's college basketball, the past six as the lead assistant at Georgetown.

"You have more responsibility in college, and the primary responsibility area is recruiting and the promotions aspect of the program, selling the school you're at, trying to get some attendance, trying to get some money, alumni donations."

Calvert Hall's Mark Amatucci spent 10 years in the college ranks, seven of them as coach at Loyola College, before returning to Calvert Hall in 1993. For him, the game - and everything that comes with it - are the same.

"Going to college was a different kind of challenge, but, basically I was still trying to motivate and teach values, putting the student in front of the athlete and letting them know that if they work hard and you're committed, good things will happen," Amatucci said. "Going back to high school wasn't a whole lot of difference in terms of my philosophy."

For Baker, 38, coaching at New Town, the Owings Mills school in its first season, gives him the opportunity to spend quality time with his wife and 3-year-old son without having to scramble for planes once a week.

It's also a chance to mold a program from scratch, to etch his ideas into what are essentially blank slates, particularly on a team with juniors and one freshman in the starting lineup.

"That's exciting because you're not replacing a legend or anything like that," said Baker, who also coached at Parkville. "You set the bar for the level of achievement. What you build and what you start is where the bar is."

Baker's reference to replacing a legend is to his one year as coach at his alma mater, Loyola High, where he replaced Jerry Savage, who retired after the 2002-03 season after 35 seasons and more than 600 wins.

The Dons went 7-24 last year, and Baker resigned, finding a home at New Town. The Titans were 11-10 this season and got one of the top four seeds in the Class 1A North region for the coming state playoffs.

Add the chance to make something your own and put your kid to bed tonight and you get solid reasons for wanting to stay out of the fast lane for a good long time.

"That's my rationale for not chasing that pinnacle forever," Baker said. "There are college assistants who have been assistants for 20-plus years and they're still hoping and chasing. I thought I'd found a level where I could be happy and I am. I'm glad I took the route I did and made the choice I did. I'm extremely happy where I'm at and I want to be at New Town for a long time."

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