The financial restraints placed on high schools in the U.S. have created a challenging environment for athletic directors in terms of hiring the right coaches. In Florida, budget cuts have reduced coaching stipends to the point that some of the state's top football coaches have fled north to the financially greener pastures of Georgia.
After leading Seminole Ridge High School to two state quarterfinal appearances in the past three years, head coach Matt Dickmann left the program he had built to take over at Harrison High School in Cobb County, Ga. Dickmann's stipend is significantly higher than what he made at Seminole Ridge, and with other financial supplements, his football-related duties could net him $20,000 to $30,000 on top of his teacher's salary, according to The Palm Beach Post. "You hear of places where the booster club can supplement the income of the coaches, but we just can't do that here," says Seminole Ridge athletic director Scott Parks.
A similar story played out at Palm Beach Gardens a few years earlier when head football coach Chris Davis took over the Cedar Shoals program in Clarke County, Ga. The reason behind the move was simple, according to Palm Beach Gardens athletic director Bill Weed. "I think money was the primary reason he left, but when you're jumping some place for the money, you better win," he says.
Filling coaching voids on all levels has created a coaching crisis nationwide, and due to increased teaching demands and decreased compensation, many ADs are being forced to cast their nets beyond campus borders for candidates.
RISE OF OFF-CAMPUS COACHES
Filling a vacant head coaching position internally can be a challenge, but filling an assistant coaching or lower level position, such as a freshman volleyball coach or an assistant track coach, can be close to impossible. "There's usually a pretty good selection of people that are interested in the head coaching positions. It's these other coaching positions that are the most difficult to fill," says Scott Thornton, athletic director at Kimball High School in Tracy, Calif. "There's just not that interest, so you have to rely on your head coaches to get the word out within their respective communities."
That is, if you even have a head coach. Thornton's head varsity football coach resigned in June, forcing a frantic search for his replacement. He ultimately hired an elementary school teacher outside the district for the position. Despite proving to be a successful hire, there have been challenges - most notably, communication. "The only time I can communicate with him if something comes up is when he checks his email or texts between classes or on his lunch hour or prep period," says Thornton. A recent example of off-campus communication challenges involved a case in which the water heater broke in the school's pool and Thornton had to potentially cancel water polo matches the following day. His girls' coach was a teacher at the school, so he walked to her classroom to discuss options. But his boys' coach was off-site, which meant waiting to hear back on an email to confirm everyone was on the same page, despite the need for an urgent solution.
Accessibility is a problem that many ADs have with off-campus coaches. "I'd much rather have an on-campus coach, because you're around the kids more, you can control the kids, and you're more familiar with school district policies and procedures," says Weed, acknowledging that he has several off-campus coaches. In fact, his two most successful coaches are not staff members.
Whether athletic directors are hiring coaches from within or outside the school, one obstacle remains the same: compensation. Coaches make less than minimum wage when balancing the stipend versus the hours they put toward their coaching responsibilities on and off the field. As legendary coach Joe Kinnan puts it, "You can work at 7-Eleven and probably make three times as much money."
Kinnan, the athletic director and head football coach at Manatee High School in Bradenton, Fla., going on 30 years, has seen numerous quality coaches come and go, and like his AD peers, his preference is usually to find solutions in-house. But Kinnan has noticed a trend - fewer and fewer teachers wanting to take on coaching responsibilities.
DECLINING TEACHER INTEREST
"What I saw early on is that we had people who would want to coach because it helped them get a teaching position, and once they would reach tenure, they would give up coaching," says Kinnan. Five years ago, the state of Florida eliminated tenure except for those grandfathered in, keeping teachers on annual contracts. But those grandfathered in would opt to stick with teaching only, forcing Kinnan and other athletic directors to pursue coaches off campus.
Part of the problem can be attributed to the increased pressure being placed on teachers, according to Parks. "With these standardized tests and having to show how much their kids have improved, teachers are just under more pressure these days," he says. "Sometimes they just don't have the time or the energy to coach after all that."
Thornton noticed a shift in teacher interest in California approximately seven years ago, when many school districts were required to make cutbacks, forcing teachers to do more with less in the classroom. "Teaching five classes, then having to coach for two to three hours after school, and then go home to grade papers - not to mention if you have a family - it's become too much," he says. "We still have teachers who want to coach, it's just not as many as it used to be."
In today's environment, athletic directors are struggling more than ever to fill coaching positions with the same quality candidates found 10 or 20 years ago. Compensation and interest have dwindled, forcing ADs to look outside their respective schools for the right person who will help that sports program achieve sustainable success, be strong mentors for their athletes, communicate effectively with parents, be a positive role model in the community - all while earning maximum scrutiny and minimum financial reward. Says Parks, "Ultimately, they have to love it."
PROCESS MAKES PERFECT
Hiring an off-campus coach can be a tricky proposition. There are candidates that look great on paper but fall flat in the interview process, while candidates that may not appear strong on paper turn out to be shining stars. This is what Kimball High School athletic director Scott Thornton encountered over the summer when he conducted an emergency search for a head varsity football coach. After a two-week internal search that yielded few results, Thornton looked outside his Tracy, Calif.-based school for help. Out of 30 applicants, Thornton brought in seven possible coaches, including one veteran coach with an impressive resume, and one younger coach with limited experience.
If Thornton was basing his decision solely off resumes, the veteran coach would've been an easy selection. "On paper, this guy looked like the second coming of Vince Lombardi," Thornton recalls. The younger coach, by comparison, didn't have the same strong resume but impressed Thornton enough during the screening process that he chose to bring him in for an interview.
"This kid came in and blew us away," Thornton says. "He came in with practice schedules. The entire panel was extremely impressed with him." Weighing the merits of both candidates, Thornton ultimately chose to go a different direction, hiring a coach with more experience despite debating for several hours whether or not to offer the position to the young coach.
The veteran with the strong resume was never considered due to a poor interview. Based on his experience, he was offered an assistant position but two weeks into the job he resigned - something Thornton admits he should've seen coming. "He had bounced around quite a bit. That should've been a red flag for us." Meanwhile, the younger coach was offered a position on a lower level and has been flourishing in the role. Thornton believes a head coaching role is in his future and, as he put it, "We're hoping we'll be able to keep him here." - D.V.M.