In our state, when a coach at Auburn or Alabama gets fired, it’s big news. The story “broke” at 12:13 a.m. two days ago that Mike Shula, head coach at Alabama, had been fired. By 12:45 a.m., all the state’s newspapers were frantically trying to include the news for their morning editions. And so goes the coaching carousel at Alabama in the illusory search for the next Bear Bryant.
Still, the news is further evidence of what matters in big-time athletics in our country. Shula inherited a program on probation because coaches and boosters cheated by offering money to recruits. During Shula’s short stint, there was no hint of any such scandal, and everyone praised him, including the athletic director who fired him, for running the program with integrity. But of course, this didn’t matter as much as Shula’s mediocre 6-6 record this year, or the fact that Alabama has lost to cross state rival Auburn for five years in a row. It’s a cliché, but winning is what matters, pure and simple.
What about in high school programs? What about in Catholic high school programs? What role should “winning” play in a school’s decision to retain its coaches? Idealists may claim that it should not be a factor, but I think, frankly, that school leaders who put winning as a low priority are being naïve: our communities want programs which are competitive, and they expect a coach to build that within their respective teams. An expectation of excellence ought to pervade every feature of a school’s program, whether it’s the performance of A.P. Physics students on the A.P. exam, Band performances in regional and state band competitions, or athletic teams on the playing fields.
How Catholic schools contextualize these expectations, however, makes all the difference. I believe that our schools ought to expect four fundamental things from its coaches, and on these four bases, I believe coaches in a Catholic school are appropriately judged:
First, do they advance the mission of the Catholic school? Coaches, like teachers, principals and staff members, are co-educators, and our common goal is to build students of faith, virtue and wisdom. Athletics in particular can be a powerful “classroom” for teaching virtue: putting team first, striving to be the best, handling winning and losing with grace, handling pressure, to mention only a few. In this context, trying to win can be embraced, for when teams are competitive, coaches can demand more of student athletes and push them harder to sacrifice themselves for team goals. As an example, excellent off season weight-lifting and conditioning programs typical of first rate programs teach athletes to delay gratification, something our culture doesn’t otherwise promote! So winning, then, becomes a means, and not the end, of an athletic program. Coaches should be expected, in their deportment, goal setting and leadership of young men and women, to advance the school’s mission.
Second, though winning is a worthy goal of every coach within this context, the reality is that some years, the athletes just aren’t there to produce lofty won-loss records. Improvement, then, becomes the standard by which a coach ought to be judged. Are the players getting better, both in terms of their individual abilities and in terms of their working together as a team? When coaches do a good job improving their teams, even during the “off-years”, the wild swings between teams being 10-1 one year and 1-10 the next should be evened out over time.
Third, how well do coaches teach as part of their “regular” school day? One of the most common yet inexcusable mistakes that coaches make is to regard their teaching load as a necessary evil to land a coaching job, paying scant attention to preparing their classes, not keeping up with their grading, or even worse, to use class time as an opportunity to prepare for the game that night. Let’s be honest: coaches in Alabama receive sizable stipends that typically mean they’re paid better than a ordinary teacher in a school. The only way that can be rationalized, out of justice, is that the coaching stipend reflects work that is above and beyond a normal teacher’s load. When coaches subordinate their teaching to their coaching as “either-or” and don’t regard it as “both-and”, I believe that’s grounds for firing a coach, regardless of how successful their teams are.
Finally, how well do coaches handle the “peripheral” parts of coaching? For example, do they insist with their athletes to keep locker-rooms clean? Do they protect school inventory? Do they secure the building when they leave? Do they keep fields locked up after practices? Do they insist that practice fields are left free from litter? Some coaches become so myopic about their coaching that they forget these are important barometers of their coaching success from the view point of athletic directors and principals! Coaches must be reliable in these matters.
When coaches do these four things well, they can be powerful, positive influences in the lives of their players and in the whole milieu of their schools. May we find and cultivate such coaches!