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Don't Mess With The Bull

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Closer - Kings of Leon (mp3)

“Don’t mess with the bull, young man; you’ll get the horns.” -- Principal Richard Vernon, Shermer High School

Our mock trial coach spent 21 years working the mock judicial sidelines for my school. He led our canny young litigators to the mock courtroom to do battle with public schools and, on occasion, the dreaded home schools. (Homeschooled kids are the world’s deadliest mock lawyers, and everyone knows it.)

This guy retired in 2011. Never once was his job endangered because of his mediocre mock trial coaching. This year, in his rookie debut as “head coach,” his replacement led our mock trial team to its first state championship.

When that old coach retired in 2011, we didn’t put on a national search for a mock trial expert. We grabbed a teacher in-house and promoted him, and we didn’t think twice. He probably gets an extra $2,000 or so for his services. And he can do it for as long as he likes, because few people want that job, and no one really cares how the team does year in and year out. If our mock trial team wins five state championships in a row, people still won’t be filling the jury room to spectate this amazing feat, nor will it be discussed at water coolers for long the next day.

Mock trial ain’t a sport, and it sure as hell ain’t football. Ergo, we don’t care about it except just a little.

The South has always placed value on sports success, yet things have changed over the last decade.

First, high school coaches stopped teaching less and “managing” more. Competitive kids increasingly spend their toddler years up involved in “select” sports, and they travel through numerous states and play teams from all over the country. The game is more about landing talent than developing it. Talented teens have played four or five times the number of games they played 30 years ago. They’ve had more coaches, more lessons, and more people telling them how awesome they are.

When I was 12, my all-star baseball team took one trip to Atlanta, and it was a big honkin’ deal. My 10-year-old daughter’s soccer team, in the span of three months this spring, competed in tournaments in Atlanta twice, Birmingham twice, Knoxville and Nashville once each. The intensity and frequency is exponential compared to the ‘80s.

She’ll be more experienced and better-trained when she lands on a varsity team, and I’ll be just one more parent who has watched enough of the sport to think I know it all better than the coach.

Second, in Tennessee, private schools were forced into our own separate league almost 15 years ago. We stopped playing the local public powerhouses -- not by choice, mind you -- and had to travel all over the state. Costs skyrocketed. On the plus side, however, the playoff brackets shrunk dramatically.

In 1982, winning a district title in football (or any TSSAA sport) was damn tough and a big deal. It meant a good regular season and a few wins. Winning the state wasn’t even discussed in a serious way, because it required fighting through three intense levels. The goal was winning Region. Then, maybe Sectionals (or “District”). Surviving all that meant a shot at State. Asking for just a shot at it seemed greedy. Now? One or two wins can get you into a State semifinal.

In the 21st Century, you don’t stumble into a high school coaching job. You need experience. You need a background. Your coaching credentials are far more vital than your teaching abilities. If these two skills were at one point closely related, they are increasingly less so.

Several of our school’s most successful coaches from previous generations began their careers knowing jack squat about their sport and learned on the job. These men were frequently also amazing classroom teachers. Now, most of our private league’s varsity coaches barely teach anything. Some teach no classes at all.

All of this, obviously, is a response to Bob’s post about high school sports. We expect more out of coaches? Metaphorically, coaches sure love that credit card until they discover the hidden fees and jacked-up interest rates. They don’t seem to fuss much with having their statues built and only complain when someone wants to tear 'em down.

Our soccer team made the state semifinals this year by winning one stinking game. Our soccer team’s entire 2012 postseason record: 1-1. One victory got us a mere game away from a championship game! What kind of state championship gets earned with three wins?

A State Championship is easier; it’s made us greedier and our patience thinner.

When the Holy Land moves from a different country right into your zip code, not paying a visit seems less excusable. Especially when the coach was hired for coaching more than any other ability.

Let me be clear. What I want is not this kind of insane and unfair scrutiny for high school coaches. I don’t want people fired, not even baseball coaches or football coaches or even wrestling coaches, and certainly not for their coaching.

I don’t want people fired for bad seasons, for several bad years. I don’t want people hired at a higher salary than a chemistry teacher merely because they’ve spent more time on a football field than earning a master’s in science.

What I want is equal respect for educators who go merely by “Mister” or “Missus.” Coaches get treated to a level of perks and favoritism, and gain a level of higher community stature, than the drama advisor or the debate coach or the AP Calc teacher will ever get. Ever. They get more money, they get more parental respect (when they do well), they get more schwag.

Call me sour grapes, but it’s only reasonable to expect, when you’re reaping all those extra benefits, a greater level of scrutiny. Nobody backseat drives on the mock trial team, but that job comes neither with the clout nor the salary kick that varsity coaching does, at least not in the South. Further, most schools now look for a varsity coach first and foremost for their coaching ability, not their teaching ability.

If we treated our varsity coaches with the same rewards, expectations and appreciation that we treated everyone else in our school community, I would be the first to stand up and proclaim all this scrutiny unfair, the first to acknowledge the ridiculous nature of parents and “sideline experts.” If Cubs managers pulled down a low six figures instead of a cushy and guaranteed seven figures, I might have more sympathy for their long history of suckage, too.

The sooner we lower coaches to the same level of respect and glory as other educators in our midst, the happier we can all be.

Don't worry. I’m not holding my breath.

** -- In response to goofytakemyhand’s comment about winning percentage...
Bruce Weber, Illinois basketball coach until this year had a horrifying .700 rate when he was fired. Thanks to the industrious stat research of a young alum (ahem), I know our school’s soccer coach has roughly a .700 win percentage, but ties in soccer make this stuff tricky. If you count a tie as half a win, it would be closer to .800. His record drops precipitously in the post-season to something like .500.
Dean Smith, for all the criticism about his being unable to Win The Big One, had a a 77% regular season winning record and a 70% postseason winning record. Fairly comparable given the higher intensity and quality of post-season competition.
Just because I can spout these numbers should not mean I think anyone at my school or another school should be fired for this stuff. I’m just sayin'.

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