What is this craziness that seems to be infecting Arizona high school sports?
Remember when high school athletics were about kids having fun playing the sports they enjoyed? And the coaches were there to guide the development of the players as athletes, but also as students and contributing members of society?
It was an awesome task and carried a ton of responsibility because the coaches played a significant role in a youth’s life . They were considered role models, whether they wanted to be or not. They were supposed to build character.
Oh yeah, they had to win games, too.
But lately it seems all the emphasis is on the latter – winning. Even if it means stepping over some good people to make it happen. At least, that appears to be the case at a growing number of high schools around the state.
The latest example is the uproar taking place at Mesquite High School in Gilbert where the school’s boys’ basketball coach, Tom Saltzstein, submitted his resignation last Friday and then had a change of heart and asked to withdraw his resignation on Monday. His request was denied by the administration. One report said that Saltzstein had been asked to resign in the first place.
Saltzstein’s team had a 25-5 season and won the 5A-I Central Region tournament. But they lost in the first round of the state tournament.
The coach was told he could continue teaching, but not coaching.
So, if Saltzstein was winning, what’s the problem with him continuing to coach? A school spokesperson said she didn’t know why his request to rescind his resignation was not accepted.
Mesquite may lose other coaches, as budget cuts threaten teaching positions, which create a domino effect into the coaching ranks. Parents are confused because they’re not getting answers. A group of them has even set up a Facebook page to solicit support for their side of the issue, wanting to protect the quality of teaching and coaching they have enjoyed at the school.
But Mesquite is just the tip of the iceberg lately.
At Desert Vista HS in Phoenix, the boys basketball coach, Doug Harris, was also dismissed earlier this month. The only reason he was given was that the school “was looking to move in a different direction.”
Harris has run the program for the past seven years, making it to the state championship game in 2004, to the semi-finals in 2006 and 2007, and won the state championship in 2008. But the Thunder has had a couple of down years, going 11-15 this season and 8-17 the year before.
So, does that mean he was winning, but not winning enough? That’s usually one of the most frequent translations for the term “moving in a different direction.” It just allows the school to make the change without attributing it to a lack of wins. No school wants to admits it would put winning ahead of concerns for the players.
And in the football ranks, the situation this year has been just as bad, probably worse.
Curt LeBlanc lost his head coach job at Queen Creek HS after taking the Bulldogs to the state playoffs in seven of his nine years there. He guided the football program through a series of division changes, going from 2A up to 4A.
LeBlanc was asked to resign, but refused to do so. So he was removed. It appears on the surface that school administrators had their collective eye on a popular athlete in the area who had experience playing at the college and professional level. The school wanted him as its coach. LeBlanc became expendable.
And if you think he was surprised, what about Jim Jones, who is no longer with the Red Mountain HS program in Mesa, which he ran for 22 years? He, too, ‘resigned’ but it was generally accepted that he was nudged to the door. Jones won two 5A state championships.
Over in Chandler, Basha HS has just made a move to stir up things in that school to the boiling point. Basha not only fired Tim McBurney last month, the football coach that started the program eight years ago, but it just hired a new coach that had been accused of abusive treatment of his players in past coaching jobs and was eventually fired at Mountain View HS in 2002 after allegations of physically and mentally abusing his players there.
But Bernie Busken wins ball games. He compiled an impressive 82-9 record while he was at Mountain View, and has three state championships in his resume.
McBurney had a 45-24 record and five consecutive playoff appearances, including a trip to the state semi-finals. Prior to his tenure at Basha, he won the 1996 state championship while at Tempe HS.
Last season, McBurney’s team went 8-4 and lost in overtime in the state 5A-I quarterfinals. Was eight wins not enough? Did he need to have gone farther in the state playoffs?
The Basha administration went through 11 interviews before settling on Busken. He’s not even living in the state, he’s in New Mexico.
Is that what it takes to land a top-notch coach these days? We’re dealing with a national search for a high school coach?
This isn’t the NCAA, but high school sports is beginning to resemble it in all the wrong ways. The hiring and firing of high school coaches is too often done for the ‘good of the school’, without the athletes in mind.
Perhaps the wrong questions are being asked by the schools. “Will he be good for the players?” is being replaced with “Can he win lots of ball games and make the school look good?”
Don’t think for a minute that this is a sudden epidemic of stupidity on the part of school administrators. This sort of thing has been going on for years upon years. It’s just that now, the age of technology moves information at lightning speed and parents are beginning to enjoy a sense of empowerment. The Facebook page that the Mesquite parents have put up is a good example of that empowerment. Over 300 parents had posted notices of their support just days after it went up. There is strength in numbers, and they want to be heard.
It’s not a good thing when parents begin sticking their noses in school business. But the school administrators often bring it on themselves. They fail to communicate their reasons for making changes that effect the children. Or the communication becomes a one-way street, without allowance for input on both sides.
Parents decide that someone has to stick up for the kids. They’re the ones getting the short end of the stick. The kids are the ones who have formed relationships with their coaches and generally aren’t ready for that sudden separation.
And most of those kids just want to be able to have fun playing the games they love. The winning is just icing on the cake, and a reward for working hard.
It shouldn’t be about the school. It should be about the kids.