This South Sound athletic directors roundtable is the third of four discussions with some of the biggest stakeholders in Washington state high school sports. The roundtables:
Part 4: Academics, with a Tacoma Captains Council student-athlete roundtable.
The South Sound athletic directors roundtable panel: Terry Jenks, Curtis High School athletic director; Scott Nordi, Lakes High School athletic director; Marc Powers, Foss High School athletic director; Korey Sites, Decatur High School athletic director; Rick Wells, Puyallup School District athletic director.
TNT: What are some of the biggest issues and challenges you are facing as athletic directors entering the new school year?
Nordi: Financial costs to run the programs. The revenue isn’t going up but everything else is. Bills are – cost of officials, cost of equipment, cost of uniforms, transportation costs. That’s probably one of the biggest things we face.
Wells: I would say that, plus facilities and the availability of them, the condition of them and the need for them. I would tack on to that the ever-mounting presence of paperwork that gets deeper and deeper every year. Now we got sudden cardiac arrest, just added 24th of July. Coaches have to now get trained in that, parents have to be briefed on that, people have to sign off on that. Somebody is collecting all of that and they are probably sitting at this table most of them.
I had a coach in Puyallup, it wasn’t this year, but it was when the concussion stuff all came out in that 2009-10 era. And he kind of pushed me back on that and kind of sent me an email that said, ‘You hired me to be a coach, not a secretary.’ So I wrote him back and I said, ‘Now that you know the job, next year I don’t want to hear from you. So if you don’t want to do it, now is your chance.’
He never wrote back, and it probably wasn’t the most polite thing to say, but regardless, it’s what the job is now. Coaches just have to get ready for that.
Jenks: Adding on to what Scott started about finances, because of some of the ASB rules in how you can raise money and how you can spend money, that raises some challenges in ‘how do you fundraise in the proper way.’ Because all of our sports now have to do some fundraising in some form or some matter. Whether that is through the booster club and then they donate a check, too, or the kids are actually involved, which we try to discourage because then it takes away from their school and their practice and their playing time if they have to do that.
But then if you take on that, then it’s the question of sponsorships and those donations and you have to work with school board policy and making sure you are doing all right and being fair with your community members.
Rick just shared some information with me about that that we are going to be implementing in (University Place). I think it’s about finding creative ways to make sure we are funding our programs without our athletes having to knock on doors and beg for money. Because it’s getting more expensive.
We get really good crowds for our football games, but we had really bad weather for our last two games last year and our gate went down and it affects your entire budget because without Coke money coming in anymore, I know when we started 15 years ago, it was about $40,000 from our Coke vending revenue and I think we are down to $8,000 now per year.
Wells: If you don’t know what happened with that, state legislature passed nutrition laws that outlawed soda in schools. And that was at least $40,000 in revenue taken away.
Jenks: So to add to that, too, Rick talked about coaches, and sometimes it’s hard to find coaches. Our salaries are not a lot. You have to really coach for a loving and not a living. So getting good coaches is now a part of that funding piece where we can’t necessarily offer that salary that allows somebody to make this a full-time job.
Powers: I just want to reiterate what Terry said and that’s that it’s all about getting my coaches aware that fundraising is a part of their job. And a lot of them just want to coach and that’s understandable. That’s what they are there for. They are there to teach and help the kids and then we go, ‘Guess what? You are going to need to come up with $1,500.’ And they go, ‘What do you mean?’ And just like Terry said, we don’t want our kids knocking on doors after practice and during the season if they can help with concessions.
There are other ways to go about it and we are trying to explore those things. But it’s like, you shouldn’t have to do that. And there is only so much candy you can sell at the school. I know the dentists are happy, but Geez.
The good part about the kids fundraising together is that they develop a sense of camaraderie and cohesiveness, but you just don’t want them to have to do that stuff that isn’t necessary or isn’t necessarily safe in this day and age.
TNT: I was at the WIAA office last week and one of the biggest things Mike Colbrese (the WIAA executive director) stressed was the decline in attendance at high school sporting events. Has attendance been a concern at your schools?
Nordi: I think attendance has been down at our regular-season events across the board, sport by sport.
I manage the state football tournament for the WIAA and I know that attendance is down at that both semifinal and final venues and that is going to cause some changes in the future.
TNT: Would they move it from the Tacoma Dome?
I know that is something we’re looking at. It’s not cost affective to be in there anymore with the way we are being charged. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I just know that we are always being told, ‘Sharpen your pencils, sharpen your pencils.’
Jenks: (Colbrese) shared at the AD conference in the spring that there was going to be a significant jump in what they were going to charge us in the next two years for semifinal football. Which, can we use local high school sites and do the same things? Those are discussions we are going to have to have. At our home events, I’m trying to work with my ASB officers because at Curtis, our adult population isn’t really down. It’s down a little bit, but we aren’t charging for our students because they can get in with an ASB card anyway, but it’s just the environment is just a little more lax than it used to be.
So that’s one of the things we are trying to do is get our students more involved without having to buy pizza or get them a T-shirt every game. We are trying to find ways to build in their investment and get them to come out.
Sites: But it goes back to, whose job is that? Is that us? Is that ASB? It’s trying to figure that out.
Nordi: And I think that’s a collective thing. It’s collective between the athletic department, whether that be me or the coaches and the athletes and the student body, the ASB kids and ASB staff. The kids come up with great ideas they want to do at halftime and when you sit down with them, it may not be feasible. You only have 10 minutes in a basketball game at halftime. What do you fit in? Who do you fit in? Your cheerleaders want to perform, your dance team wants to perform and now your halftime is gone. So there is a balance there.
TNT: Do you know why attendance is going down?
Wells: I have a theory. It’s the Rick Wells theory. I subscribe to the less-is-more philosophy a little bit regarding attendance.
And that’s this: A couple of decades ago we didn’t have 26 sports offerings at our schools. And what happens is as more and more kids diversify and get into other programs, and coupled with the fact that there are fewer three-sport athletes than there used to be — now kids specialize year round with club volleyball and club soccer and lacrosse. Or it’s, ‘I don’t like basketball players because they knock lacrosse. So I’m not going to support them.’ Now you have more sports, but you have less people interested them individually.
That’s why I say ‘If you have less, you’d have more support.’
I’m not saying we go to three seasons with three sports and that’s it. But what partially drove this was in the late 70s when Title IX came in. And I’m glad there’s Title IX and I’m glad there’s equity, I’m not counterpointing that. But the way Title XI is written, if we have 1,000 kids in our school and they are split even – 500 and 500 – and I have 300 boys participate, I have to have 300 girls participating. I just can’t have three sports each because football is 100 already. So I have to add three more sports just for girls just to add up to that number.
We have bowling, that’s singularly girls. Gymnastics and volleyball, too – so the sports grow because of some legal requirements with Title XI, interest requirements by kids – because we have to do an interest survey every three years and find out what people really want and then offer them.
We did this last year. Lacrosse is huge and I’ve been stalling on that as much as I can. They want that to be a sanctioned program with the WIAA. Terry already offers that at Curtis and I think it’s just a matter of time in Puyallup. I think it would be a lot easier if lacrosse would move to winter because there is nothing in the stadium. They could have the whole thing. That would be great. But that is not their traditional season so they are up against it. I can’t find space in the fall for one more thing in my stadium. So I’ve been resisting it.
Jenks: Nor the spring. We have boys practice I think from 7:30 to 9, the boys lacrosse team. That’s so they can go after soccer and after track.
Nordi: Well, when you talk about the more offerings that Rick brings up and the facility issues, there’s so many choices for kids. On Friday night I have a home girls basketball game, my boys are playing somewhere else and my student body is going to choose which game they are going to go to. They are probably going to go watch the boys play. So my attendance is down for the girls.
Or if the boys are playing in Enumclaw – our kids don’t drive. So they aren’t going to get there. So they might come and watch the girls or they might go do something else. Because we are plugging everything in, you might have something in your gym four or five nights per week. That’s a lot of time for a kid to be out when they are trying to balance school work and jobs and babysitting siblings.
TNT: And they have to update their Twitter and Snapchat accounts.
Powers: That’s what I was going to get into. I think the advent of social media has definitely impacted sports attendance and perhaps participation.
Jenks: Why go when they can get caught up by somebody else who is at the game?
Powers: Exactly. I find out the Foss golf … sorry not golf. My mind is on golf obviously. I don’t know why, the summer is almost over.
TNT: I apologize if we were taking you away from something today.
Powers: That’s OK. It’s a good day not to play. But I’m finding out our basketball scores (through social media). The announcer at Foss for the girls game knows the score of the Foss-Lincoln boys game at Lincoln because he’s checking his Twitter. Hey, how did the boys do? I didn’t have to go.
Scott also brought up something. Transportation is an issue that I think negatively impacts attendance. I’m trying to remember what it was like when we had more of a percentage of students that drove at Foss than we do now — our attendance was quite a bit higher in the student section. Our kids get done with school, they go home and they can’t get back or it’s difficult because they live in different parts of the city, have to take public transportation and have to go home at 10:30 at night and take the bus. Are you going to go to the game or not? I don’t know how many of us would want to go to the game and take a 10:30 city bus home. Or I could just get the updates from my friend.
And parents don’t want their kids doing that. If the game is at Foss and they live on the east side and they got to take two buses home? No, don’t go to the game, stay at home. I think that that is part of it. It is related to social media for one and poverty — or fewer kids who can drive as much as they used to for a variety of reasons — kind of comes into play in attendance. Because that is the issue we’ve been dealing with for the past several years.
When I started at Foss we had a lot of attendance. We had a lot of kids who drove at 5 o’clock. And there was less for them to do so they were going to the game. And it’s not just at our school where I am seeing that. I’m going, ‘Are you kidding me? What are we, ranked No. 8 in the state for basketball and that’s all we got tonight? What?’ It’s mind-boggling for me some times.
Jenks: Our first game of the year against Bellarmine Prep was packed because all those kids know each other and it’s a rivalry. But the rest of the year it was a sprinkling of 15-20 die-hard fans. At girls games I’m debating whether I should bring out the set of bleachers because it’s a fixed expense to get the custodian to clean it.
Powers: That’s part of it too. If Lincoln plays Foss, it’s packed, but if it’s nonleague? I don’t know how many people are going to be there, even if we’re playing a good Lakes squad. That’s the sort of dilemma we have.
The other issue when it comes to cost, I have to staff my gym regardless. And I have to have security. For the most part, I have to pay the security guard who is making quite a bit of money at a certain rate and I have to pay him for four hours. If it’s a girls game, there goes my gate. When you are talking about how much does it cost to use the Tacoma Dome? Well, how much does it cost to use a Tacoma school for a district basketball game?
Wells: Well, eventually, it becomes the old saying of ‘How much can you charge for a hot dog before people quit buying it?’ When ticket prices for the state tournament, what is it now? $9? $10? (It was $9 for the 2014 state football semifinals without ASB card, and $7 for students with ASB card or seniors age 62 and older. And it was $15 for the finals without ASB and $11 with). And you got a wife and two kids coming with you. It’s $40 to get in there.
Parents will usually pay anything to see their kid play. But I don’t see a lot of fans traveling, especially from Spokane. We are still in an economic recovery – it was really bad in 2008, 2009, 2010, That was a brutal period of time.
Scott runs state football and I run state soccer, 3A and 4A. And prior to those years it was a two-day gate that would be close to $30,000 for soccer. This year it was closer to $19,000. It is a significant difference. Of course, we are in more of a recovery now, but if tickets were a couple of bucks, you’d probably see more people, but you can’t make a living on a couple of dollars.
We deliberated in the 4A SPSL meeting whether we would raise prices this year because everybody else was. I think we decided not to do that.
Jenks: We decided not to, but we had a good discussion on it and we were close to.
Wells: It’s best to raise prices when everybody else is because then you are not the lone duck getting shot at. So when the WIAA was going up and everybody was driving prices up around us we could have done that. But you know what? We are already struggling with attendance, so let’s stay.
Jenks: We are going to sharpen our pencils and turn up managers to hopefully cut our costs as much as we can. We still want to host good events and sometimes it costs money to do that.
TNT: I saw this study from Up2Us Sports that by 2020, 27 percent of high school sports programs won’t exist. Has it been a challenge, especially with education funding, to make high school sports programs a focus of funding and spending and to stress the importance of high school sports? Or are high school sports viewed as the candy section of the dinner table and we’ll fund that as we can?
Nordi: In our building, funding of athletics and in our district funding of athletics is, it sits, with the exception of coaches salaries on the athletic department and the gate revenues. I’m fortunate that my in-building principal, she gave me an option, actually she gave my predecessor an option, of officials or transportation. Now they are getting pretty darn close, but at that time it was, ‘You take transportation and I’ll pay for the officials.
Well, officials for a basketball game, you run three levels and the officials association wants three officials at every game and the speed of the game has picked up and the skill of the kids has advanced. The age of the official has also advanced and you don’t see a lot of young ones coming out. And part of that I think is the beating they take from fans and parents and some coaches.
I feel pretty good about in our league, the 3A SPSL and the teams we play, that the coaches aren’t beating up on officials. But the fans and the parents, the amount of time that we spend I would say collectively here going up into the stands and having to address a parent or a fan – I can’t think of a game where I’m not doing that.
Wells: It’s a very uncomfortable thing to do, too. It’s not anything anybody here wants to do.
TNT: So that is every game now?
Powers: Even at the freshmen level. I could be in one gym and have to go to another to talk to someone there.
Jenks: Having to at least give the stink eye to a parent who is just loud and obnoxious.
What I tell my coaches is that I want you to coach the kids. That’s why I hire a gym manager and that’s why we are at so many events. So that they can focus on being a coach. At an away game? Yeah, sometimes a coach does have to get involved in a fan situation.
Nordi: But when you talk also about retaining coaches – that’s one of the biggest things that runs them out is the parents and the personal attacks on them – coach sucks.
TNT: But that’s just something that has always been around, right?
Wells: But you think of more recent years, and this is another one of those RickWellsisms, but I think that Americans in general feel more entitled to things.
Nordi: I can say whatever I want to say to whomever I want to say it.
Wells: So that’s where they get that, ‘My kid is entitled to play and why isn’t he?’ Or they’ll call me up and say, ‘This coach doesn’t play my kid and he should be playing.’ It’s because of this or that. It’s never because of the talent. It’s always, ‘He stands up for himself and the coach doesn’t like that’ or some other sort of personality issue. That runs coaches out, too.
I make it a practice that if I get a parent complaint, I share that with the coach. Not that it has value or merit, but they should just be aware of the situation. And after you’ve send 4, 5, or 6 of those in a season to a coach, that’s half of your team if it’s basketball. Pretty soon, the coach goes, ‘I don’t need this.’
Jenks: I heard that same quote the other day and I immediately said, ‘No way.’ Again, that’s my culture. That’s my superintendent and principal who support extracurricular activities and what they do for kids to get them a more well-rounded experience as long as it is balanced. So the part of that that might be true is that we are not going to expand anymore. That is where are are now is what you are going to see.
We may not be able to add the flashy uniforms every year but I don’t see (extracurricular activities) going away from public education because it’s an integral part of the whole school program.
Wells: And there are tons of studies nationwide that show that kids that are involved in school stay in school. It’s part of our school board policy to have it, so not to have it would take renouncing those policies and extracting them.
Powers: And it’s corollary to graduation rates. You see that kids who stay in school, are more likely to graduate.
TNT: I just wanted to see what you’ve seen from your own experiences, whether your schools see that by funding athletics, you are also funding academics because of what they do for students in the classroom. Or if you’ve seen administrators view athletics as the candy section and we’ll get to it when we can.
Powers: I think that a lot of superintendents make that connection. They are not that naïve. There’s some that might not put their money where their mouth is so to speak and fully fund it. But when you talk about district funding and which districts are funding and making sure that their athletic programs are taken care of — that they have that realization that kids who participate in athletics will stay in school, they’ll help graduation rates, get good grades, etcetera – that I don’t know.
Wells: I had a parent I was sharing that very thought with who was antagonistic toward the entire idea of athletics and that it was a waste of money. Their kid wasn’t an athlete. They were frustrated that their favorite teacher was being riffed and they gave me their piece of mind about it. And they challenged that whole notion that kids who are involved in school stay in school and they do better in school. His comment was basically that it was a bunch of rhetoric. You have to prove that to me.
I said, ‘Well, first of all, there is a GPA requirement. You have to have a 2.0 to even be on the team. And you have to maintain it to stay on the team. What other programs have that? Do you have to have a 2.0 to stay in math? No, you can flunk it and stay there every day of the school year. Or band. We make sure kids are toeing the mark and staying ahead and we check on them every few weeks to make sure they are. They go to intervention programs to make sure they are. It speaks for itself.
Jenks: So I’m the graduation coordinator, that’s my assistant principal duty that I still have. I see the nongrad list, the 8-10 percent that we have that do not make it to the final line. I would say that it’s maybe one of every three years that I see an athlete show up that list. Everybody else, because of what we do to keep them involved, because they know that they have to come to school and because they have to achieve at a certain level, they do.
Most kids want to achieve. They want to please us and do what they can to be successful so they will follow that.
Nordi: They also aren’t the kids you see in the vice principal’s office being disciplined. Because of they get suspended, they can’t be at practice or the game.
TNT: I think this also ties into participation and how do you make sure as many students as possible participating. What is the participation like at your schools and have you seen it change?
Nordi: We saw a dip. But last year it came back up. Across the board. Both genders in all sports. I think right now, at least at Lakes, we are seeing an upswing. We shoot for offering as many sports and teams as possible. We had a C-team girls basketball team last year that we offered for the first time in four years. But we saw a decline and we saw that decline elsewhere, too.
There were a couple years we saw other programs always had C-team girls programs and fastpitch there was always a JV. And then there were years we saw those school struggling and we were struggling at that same time.
But that comes back to that whole economic downswing that we went through and the costs involved to the parent and the family to play. For us, we are not a pay-to-play district. We have vowed that we won’t’ go that way and I hope that we can stay that way. We are one of the few that isn’t pay-to-play or never went there. Some have come off of that. But our ASB is $45. That’s a pretty big chunk that they have to come up with. And then they have to buy shoes and the other things, physicals.
The costs are for some families prohibitive. But as the economy improves, I think that’s why we’re seeing the numbers jump back up.
Powers: And I think that negatively impacts certain sports more than others.
Some of my girls fastpitch costs a little bit of money to get that equipment on their own – their own cleats, their own glove, their own pads or whatever they need. And last year I couldn’t believe it when I saw Wilson, which has had some pretty good fastpitch teams, but they didn’t have a JV. I was like, ‘Wow, really?’ You start to see things like that that are surprising.
TNT: Have you seen sports become more expensive over the years?
Jenks: Yeah, certainly.
Wells: There’s the insurance now that you have to pay to keep your kid eligible. You have to have insurance to play or you can’t.
In a way, this might be good for discussion here, wealthier schools with wealthier kids do better athletically. I think that is why private schools do so well. Look at Bellarmine Prep – every year. That is a 2A-sized school and they are winning 4A state championships every year. Maybe because those athletes have access to more.
They have more club opportunities, their kids are sending them to camps, they get the best shoes, bats, rackets, clubs – the rich get richer.
TNT: Do you see that any given year, any given team can win in your leagues? Or have you seen that certain programs are going to be good and certain programs are going to be at the bottom based off of how much money each school has for athletics?
Nordi: It’s sport-specific. Volleyball – they are going to play 16 games at the high school level. Sixteen regular-season games. And they are going to work with those coaches at the high school for a couple of months and then they are done.
Well, the programs that are really successful, those same girls are going to play club and they are paying to play club.
Baseball, fastpitch – you are going to play 20 games in a high school season and 80 outside. That school over there, their soccer players go and play on select club team, so they are going to be better than the other school. It is sport-specific in a lot of aspects.
Wells: I think kids also know how to play the waiver game. They do in our district.
Nordi: That is getting bad.
Wells: Puyallup High School has had the Huards, Billy Joe Hobert, they’ve had Dane Looker and all these great football players. So if you want to play on a great football team, your parents look at that and they are telling you in the fourth grade that you had better go to Puyallup High School. Emerald Ridge has been 0-forever for forever so don’t play there.
So that’s why you’ll see all these football players who happen to be taking culinary arts in the Magnet Program. And that’s why they are at Puyallup High School.
We don’t sign waivers for athletic reasons. But they can choose academic magnet programs and they can be approved. So they know that game. So the great volleyball people go to Emerald Ridge, the great football players go to Puyallup.
Now in our league, there are schools that are known for being powerful every year such as Curtis’ football and Kentwood football. So that doesn’t help the Puyallup three schools any, but within our district, kids will gravitate toward those successful programs.
Nordi: And kids are learning to play the transfer game, too. With a lot of our apartment renters, they are month-to-month. They aren’t on a year-long lease. So if this coach upset you, ‘I’m tired of the head coach so I’m going to go over here to this school.’ They literally move and there is a change of address and they are eligible. And we’re going, ‘Well, we know that they moved because of athletics, but it was legal.’
And it’s not just going from Lakes to Curtis, which is closer. Or something like that. It’s Tacoma-area schools to Bellevue. It’s Tacoma-area schools to Eastside Catholic. They are going great distances and then you still see them in your neighborhood. They are still around.
Sites: We have choice kids who come to Decatur for our wrestling program. That’s one of the few programs, though, where we have kids coming in rather than leaving. The other thing that I’ve seen a rise of is people in the community who are kind of recruiting and helping kids transfer from behind the scenes. There are these key players who aren’t actually a part of the high school program who are really guiding these kids to transfer.
Wells: There’s no rule against someone outside the school telling people to come to a certain school.
Powers: That’s what I was definitely thinking about earlier today. It’s not always coach driven.
TNT: So is there anything you can do to control the people within the community?
Jenks: I had an AAU coach deliver me a Form 5. (Room laughs). Literally, I’m not kidding you. AAU basketball coach delivers me the Form 5, make sure this gets submitted to this school because you don’t want to hold this kid back.
TNT: And what is the Form 5?
Jenks: It’s the WIAA appeal for a transfer-student, the previous school’s statement so I get a chance to say, ‘Do I know anything about why this student is transferring?’
Wells: it’s page five of about an eight-page document that we call ‘Form 5.’ It’s for the previous school’s AD to see if he or she has heard anything or knows anything of why that transfer should be held up.
Jenks: And usually, the ADs, when we decided to declare whether an athlete is eligible we’ll send an email that says, ‘Hey, can you fill this out, what do you know about this kid transferring or moving?’
Wells: I really can’t talk to the community because they aren’t doing anything wrong by their set of rules. But I can talk to coaches, ‘Stay out of hot water with this.’
In Sumner there is a Diamond Sports center where there are a ton of batting cages and all of that. There are a ton of coaches who sell their time to parents. Our coaches, some of them work in there and they get extra money for the holidays and weekends and stuff. But I tell them, ‘Listen, you cannot talk to a Puyallup kid. If they are in the batting cages, you get out.’ And they know that. But people who know that (the coaches) coach over there don’t know that. It’s our job as ADs to really educate our coaches on the rules and expectations.
But as far as the community, there’s nothing I can do.
Powers: It’s impossible. We had an incoming freshman at Foss, his parents went to Foss, they want him to go to Foss, community members in the Lincoln community, not the coaching staff, are giving them phone calls, ‘You have to send him over to Lincoln.’ And the parents get that sort of pressure.
Wells: And then they will explain how to do it all legally. Change apartments, you know.
Sites: We had a basketball player who within a year was eligible at Beamer, Federal Way and Decatur because of that. Totally legal (because of moving).
TNT: But is this really that dangerous for high school sports? I hear the analogy of the band kid who goes to a school because it has a great band program, or a math student who wants to go to a great math program. But if a kid wants to go to a certain school because it has a good basketball program or a good basketball coach, well, there is the issue. But what is the issue with recruiting in high school?
Jenks: Because the philosophy of the WIAA is that, and our schools, is that you are in that community, so that is your school. Therefore you are local kids. When people start infringing on that or don’t follow those rules, that sets up those magnets for programs that become All-Star programs. And they are no longer a representative of that community.
Sites: It makes me wonder what the overall goals and values are of high school athletics. Is it to get kids college opportunities and scholarships? I don’t think that is the main goal should be, at all. I think that is a benefit, but when all of the sudden you have student-athletes transferring, No. 1, I don’t think they have the relationship with their coaches so that you can help them with the character side of things.
I know that from my experience as a coach when I’ve had kids who have transferred in for one year. I had a very high-profile baseball kid who moved in, totally legal, two years ago. I know the kid and like the kid, but I wasn’t able to develop him whatsoever for four years.
So when you have that, I think you lose a lot of that ability to work on the soft skills.
And the other problem is for the overall health of high school sports. If you look up Decatur girls basketball, it’s not healthy for the team to be as bad as it is. Granted, we haven’t had a lot of talent, but any talent we potentially have doesn’t end up at Decatur. And that is something we are working on and all of that.
But for the overall health of the Curtis’ and Puyallup’s and the rest of the 4A SPSL, we can’t have that. It’s 60-3 pretty quick at our girls basketball games. It’s not good for the whole.
Powers: Who is that good for?
Nordi: Success of a program, at least for most of us, isn’t measured on a scoreboard. It’s measured in the person, the individual, their academic success, their growth as a citizen and a person and being able to come out of that a team member, a team player. And that’s one of the things that isn’t taught in the classroom – teamwork, discipline.
That kid that was involved in an athletics program that went 0-20 learned something and is a better person and is going to be more successful beyond high school than a lot of kids who were on teams that went 20-0 and that kid sat and did nothing and was a noncontributor.
For a lot of kids, wearing the uniform is more important than anything else. They want to be a part of something.
Jenks: We talk a lot with my coaches about our philosophy of a program kid. If you have two kids who are equal, I want you to really value and take a hard look at when you’re considering replacing that kid who has been a part of your program for three years and cutting him or not giving him that experience. Because I think there is a lot of value in being part of the team and contributing.
We also talk about, ‘Yes, our community expects us to win at Curtis.’ They expect us to win in every single sport. But we are not going to compromise that for developing the soft skills and character and giving them a quality experience. And that’s what our superintendent expects, too, that every kid is going to have a good experience. Not just winning.
Winning is fun, winning is good, but it can’t be about winning at all costs. We’ve got to be able to develop program kids, which is going to be successful at the more important things that aren’t just found in wining – it’s about doing your best and being a part of something, being disciplined and working hard.
So we want our coaches to really take a look at that. Every preseason meeting, ‘Hey, how many program kids are you going to have? How many kids are going to be four-year kids for you?’ And have them really focus and think about that instead of just cutting them their senior year because one kid is a freshman that might be just as good talent-wise. We want to value that four-year kid and give them an opportunity.
TNT: So less attrition of talent and more development of talent?
Wells: I have the same philosophy as Terry. And I share this with our school board and various coaches at meetings — that it’s hard to learn in Algebra the values of teamwork, work ethic, commitment, determination, dedication — you learn those out on a field. And that makes people into better citizens down the road to be able to survive hardships that come into their life. They get a skill set that I’m 100 percent behind.
But the rub comes when the general population doesn’t care about training that kid that way. They want a winner in their neighborhood. And that gets fed by, I know I’m at the TNT so please don’t throw me out, but the media.
They don’t focus on a team’s hard work and determination on the front-page article. They have somebody running the touchdown catch into the end zone for the No. 1-ranked team in the state. When people see that kind of emphasis placed on success, they tend to ignore the real success. And they want that focus and they want the athletes in their program like Bellevue has who will get them there. And that causes people to do whatever they can do to bring them in.
We’re already seeing headlines about, ‘this guy is going to set the NFL on fire, we just got this new tight end.’ It’s all about how great they are going to be and nothing about whether he has a jail sentence.
But I don’t think that is ever going to change. I think that is what people want and that’s what they’ll get fed. I think they know somewhere in the back of their mind that there are other values at stake here. Hopefully they are teaching that to my kid, but hopefully they are winning, too.
Jenks: Regardless of whether you are printing the scores in the paper or not, people are going to talk. People are going to keep track. So it’s not all the TNT’s fault.
Wells: In our junior highs in Puyallup, they have their own league. Seven junior highs, we are our own league – the Puyallup Athletic League, your PAL. We have this philosophy – we don’t print standings and we don’t crown a champion. We play our schedule and we’re done before the next season starts.
But every parent still knows every kid’s stats, they know who has the best record, and they are putting banners up on the fence line that they are the champions when we don’t even declare that. They are already going to figure that out.
TNT: That is a great point – is the emphasis too much on winning?
Wells: If you’re not winning this year, get rid of the guy, find somebody who will win next year.
Jenks: It spins back a little bit to our economic situation. Who doesn’t want their kid to get some money to go to college? So if I can do that because my kid has a great athletic experience in high school, I’m going to do everything I can to advocate for that to make sure he can open as many doors and he can. So there is a parent perspective also that puts an athlete or coach in a difficult position.
Sites: I think it has just trickled down with sports being a business. Between professional and then, in my short lifetime, the college level. That is the biggest issue is how much of a business is sports and you just see that at our level right now even more, too.
Powers: That’s the balancing act. Especially when you have this player who helps his team, whatever team he is on, it helps the kids get the experience of just getting to play with him. Because he’s an exceptional talent. I got a chance to play with Hillary Butler (a former University of Washington and Seattle Seahawks football player) at Lakes. That was amazing. I wasn’t very good, but I remember playing with Hillary. It made my high school experience.
Well what if Hillary decides he’s going to go play at the school that is going to give him more publicity or the chance of going D-I? That might not be a great example because he went to UW, but you have these kids that locally are helping these schools out with pride, keeping participation levels up, all out of the things we hit upon today. But all of the sudden they are going to go transfer because they want D-1 exposure.
And this is sort of the business side of things. Now that team is missing that player that these kids were going to talk about for the rest of their lives.
Sites: And I think that kid loses out, too. The high-profile kids the way they transfer and the way they are treated in some cases.
Powers: What about those opportunities to be a leader?
Sites: They just lose so much of those opportunities for growth.
TNT: The term has always been student-athlete, with the student being first. But how are schools in emphasizing the student-first aspect of the student athlete? I know there are rules in place that you can only fail one class, but do you find your students are able to focus on their grades when they are athletes?
Nordi: We just changed our academic policy. It’s kind of an experimental year for us because for my first 11 years in the district, it was 2.0 minimum, no Fs. You fail a class, you are ineligible. And that’s not the WIAA standard nor is it the standard with most districts within our league. So competitively you are at a disadvantage because you are not playing with a full deck.
We just changed this fall and we announced it in the spring so that our fall athletes would focus on things as they were wrapping up. We stayed with the 2.0 with no Fs, but we added that if you have a 2.5, you can have an F because now you are at the WIAA standard. We kept the GPA and put that higher piece up there.
What we saw in the spring, and Dave (Miller, the Lakes football coach) and I were talking about this morning in the spring – and Dave was the first to say this to me – I only have one kid who made the 2.5 with the F. But what we saw was that kids were busting their butts in the classroom because they knew, ‘I’m not going to pass chemistry.’ Chemistry is tough. But under our old policy, that kid knew going into September that he was going to be on academic probation and not eligible.
But we said, if you are at a 2.5 or higher, and he was at a 2.2, he worked his butt off in his other classes. He didn’t get to a 2.5, but he got to a 2.45. Which that’s huge. That’s success. So we saw the academic piece because we gave them that window of hope.
For a lot of kids, and it’s not just at our school, the only reason they come is because of athletics.
Jenks: And this is a lot easier issue with my coaches than the recruiting issue. Because they take pride in this. We talk about the academic state championships. Our baseball team won one this year. And that is something they feel they have a tangible control over because they are student-athletes.
So Tim Kelly (the Curtis boys basketball coach) everyday they do study table. They do a study table. They go to his room or they check in and go to the math teacher or the chemistry teacher and they do that every day because, yeah, it’s important for them to keep up with those grades. Those are easy things for us to monitor.
And, yeah, we will declare students academically ineligible when we have to. And, you know, I sit across the table from parents a lot of times and their kid is a sophomore and he didn’t make it and this Fall he’ll have a 10-day window where he is not eligible, or the five-week rule, which is really, if we are talking about impacting the rest of that kid’s high school career, if that kid can miss games now and learn his lesson now as a sophomore, he’s going to get the message and he is not going to be in this position again.
I’ve been at this position over 15 years and I’m confident that I have very few repeat offenders in academics because they figure it out.
Powers: And that’s what I end up doing in the hallways. In the afternoons if I’m not in the office, or during passing period, ‘How are the grades?’ ‘How are you doing? Good?’ And you encourage them and tell them, ‘You can do it’ and monitor them.
When I took an athletic director position, I was like, ‘I didn’t think that was a part of it,’ but it ended up being something that I try to be really proactive about and we have study tables and we have interventions if we need to.
Like Terry said, the upside of that rule is, ‘Yeah, when the kid misses the district playoffs as a freshman or a sophomore it won’t happen again.’ It’s very rare that it does. Or if they miss two or three football games and they really want to be on that field, it won’t happen again. That is the upside.
Wells: I think the day of faculty members and people faking grades for kids so they can play in Friday night’s football game, with the advent of No Child Left Behind, AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), which Puyallup’s school district has gone to, kids not making standard is what is tied to teacher evaluations. So they are making sure people are toeing the mark in their class so they can keep their job.
I don’t think it’s about, ‘Let’s give this kid extra credit for emptying out my trash can so he can play in tonight’s football game.’ I mean, those days are over. I don’t really see that anymore.
TNT: What is your relationship like with the WIAA and is that organization doing enough to help you as athletic directors to do your job?
Wells: Most of the time. I got a little frustrated with the WIAA’s mandate this past winter that all coaches have to meet heads-up football requirements. And they gave us this summer to do it. That was a little frustrated. They didn’t vet that out well enough. They should have given us more time. They rescinded that a little bit so it’s just head coaches now. That did help.
So I think sometimes, not very often, but something comes up like that that we are pulling our hair out over. But I support them and they support me and I feel good about that relationship I have with them.
Nordi: They are there to assist us and serve us. I think the people who struggle with the WIAA are the people who don’t pick up the phone and call them and ask questions. That’s the biggest way to get yourself in trouble is not asking a question.
In our area, the District 3, I think we do an above-average job of getting the word out to new ADs and ADs in general that we have a good network and it’s OK to call Terry or Rick or Scott and ask a question. And call a few people, get a few different answers. Call the WIAA office. I think sometimes the frustration is that they don’t answer the phone, but we are all busy and I’ve never had them not call me back.
Jenks: That’s my response, too. I’ve had very good support from the WIAA and good response. Like Scott said. And I’m not afraid. I would say at least once per month I call with a concern or a question or something. Sometimes my radical parents will call and say, ‘my AD is telling my coaches this and that. Is that true?’ And it’s good, the WIAA will then call me and tell me, ‘Hey, I had a parent call me and what not.’
I think the frustrating part is they’ve had issues lately where they haven’t asked the membership and they haven’t sought advice like we seek from them of ‘Hey, let’s use experienced people, people who are in the trenches and doing this 15-20 years, of how this is going to affect you.’ Have you asked Rick about that, to get that, ‘Hey, I’m all about USA Football, but let’s have a transition period here. Let’s have time, let’s get resources around so we can pay for coaches to do it and do it right.’ I think you’d have better response.
And then the high-profile things like Rainier Beach going to the national tournament kind of opened that box. Had they asked ADs what do you think about this? I think they would have got some good responses that would have guided their decision because there are some black-and-white rules in the regulations that we follow and believe we are following and when we see those rules jump over because of the WIAA, then it makes us question ‘what is our job, what is our rule?’ It makes that recruiting question, or why do we have to follow out-of-season rules? My coaches say, ‘Hey, how come these coaches get to do this thing but we don’t?
I would say kudos to the WIAA, they are doing a good job, continue to listen to the membership and when they feel that knot in their stomach of ‘What should we do?’ Call some ADs. I wouldn’t be able to do this job without Tim Thomsen (the Sumner School District athletic director) over the years and Scott occasionally and Rick I call, what, every other week? Right?
That’s the only way to survive. Because we want to be fair to each other. That is our job. We want to be good league members and good district members and good members of the WIAA.
Nordi: And they are in a tough place. They are dealing with big 4A schools, lawmakers, and down potentially to the small 1B schools and the issues that they have to address and deal with are different from top to bottom.
I think they re getting to a point now where they are realizing that one size does not fit all and we can’t just have a set of rules where we all fit in this box. Because issues on the east side with small schools are a lot different than what we see in our bigger schools. So I don’t envy their position where they have to figure things out. That is a tough deal.
TNT: That actually brings me to one more question I wanted to ask and that is about classifications. What are your thoughts on the current six-classification system?
Nordi: Well, I’m glad it’s going to a four-year cycle and won’t be a two-year cycle. I think the four-year cycle was very disruptive to leagues. We were in a league and then we weren’t in a league. Even Clover Park, it was a 3A and then all of the sudden a 2A and now where do we go play? Do we opt up? Do we opt up? Do we not opt up? What’s best for our kids? I don’t think opting up was a good thing. I think playing where you fall and playing like-size schools was a good thing. But every two years you just get to know the people you are working with and the league you are in and then the landscape changes.
Powers: I almost wish we were a little more like Oregon and California where they have almost something between 3A and 2A. Because as a school that opts up with 850 students competing in 3A, we get our butts handed to us in certain sports no matter what because we don’t have the athletes.
And part of that goes with finances. How are we going to go to Yelm? How are we going to get to Montesano if we went 2A?
I would like to be able to play more 2A school instead of being stuck in the Narrows League where we have to go against 4A schools in crossovers. And there is really no chance for our girls tennis team.
We do our best with other athletic directors to schedule nonleague games where the competition level is the same. So the kid have games where they have a chance. But I sometimes wish we had one more classification where we could have a little more flexibility.
But as far as classifications go, opting up — which is what Foss does, so I can speak for my school — it costs us in certain sports.
Wells: I think a counterpoint to too many classifications, not that I believe this, but what we hear from smaller schools. If you have a high school like Rogers High School with 1,950 kids, one more kid is not going to make a difference in a team. One more kid at a 1B school is going to make a big difference. You take one great athlete and you put him on a basketball team that is playing against schools with other athletes, they win.
So when they are looking at a four-year cycle, they can be on the border and fluctuate by two kids and that could move them up or down. It makes a huge difference. I see why that would be resisted by smaller schools. Big schools want a four-year cycle because they tend to just hover at that number all of the time and it’s not affecting them. Two kids, five or even 100 don’t really make a difference in how competitive you are.
So the downside of two years is big schools get bumped around and leagues change and you don’t know who you are playing and you get people in your league you don’t want in your league. So stuff like that is frustrating to us. But the downside of fewer classifications is now instead of 64 teams vying for a state berth, you have 120 teams. Your chance just got cut in half that you’ll ever go to state. It used to be you could go to state just by being a 1A school.
We talk about how district and state tournaments tends to be the thermometer for success in your programs and the fewer classifications you have the fewer chances you’ll have of being one of those teams. So I understand the rationale of going to more. But it has a cutting edge of both sides.
Sites: As a school that opts up, the other issue goes back to the purpose of high school athletics – are we supposed to be community based? Because if we are then (Decatur is) 4A because the other high schools in our district are. If the goal is to compete at the state level or district level, then (Decatur) needs to be 3A and maybe 2A.
We’ll see what happens here, but we are projected to be at 2A numbers – projected by Korey Sites, so not very official. But I’ve spent a lot of time looking at it. So it’s really made us kind of evaluate. But what happened with the two-year cycle is that our numbers aren’t really changing that much, but depending on who is in leadership at the district level or the building level, all of the sudden our priorities change so that’s why we were down and that’s why were now back up.
So being one of those schools where classifications are really a difficult decision for us, I think the four-year cycle at least we won’t be quite pulled back in forth as much and I think that is healthy.
TNT: Is there anything else you didn’t get a chance to talk about that you think should be said?
Powers: I think one of the things I wanted to mention that I’m just concerned about a little bit is the direction that Tacoma is going in thinking about adding a third sort of de-facto Charter School. That’s on the agenda right now and the board of director is looking at that right now with the public. It has impacted sports in all of our schools in a negative way. I went and crunched the numbers last year, and between School of the Arts, and SAMI (Science and Math Institute) we have 1,400 high school students at those two schools. And they don’t have high school sports programs. And they have a day that gets done at 3:30 sometimes or 4 and they can’t get to practice. They have all sorts of different scheduling issues with the comprehensive high schools. So you take 1,400 students out and you look at their participation numbers – some of them will go swim at Stadium or play volleyball at Foss, but it’s 4 to 4½ percent participation at those schools.
They have outreach programs to the middle schools in Tacoma, and I don’t know if Harrison Prep (in Lakewood) is doing this or not, but they go out and say, ‘Yes, your kids are going to be able to go and play athletics and they can participate at their local high school and this and that’ and they are sold this way. They don’t say that you are going to have to take a bus downtown.
Jenks: Or that you are going to have to provide transportation.
Powers: Right. So this is something that I wanted to bring up because it’s an issue that we face acutely at Foss and I know it’s an issue at Lincoln and Wilson as well. What are we going to do about this? Because if we keep going in this direction where we open up another option, of let’s say 400-500 students that are going to be taken out of Tacoma Public Schools. I did hear a presentation from Harrison Prep in Clover Park’s school district and at least they are honest. ‘Hey, if you’re going to go this school, good luck playing at Lakes or CP. You can do it, but this is when you get out.’
Nordi: They didn’t always used to do that. I would get calls from parents saying, ‘My son is interested in playing soccer or whatever.’
‘OK, this is what you need to do, this is the process and by the way, where do you live? What is your address?’
‘What do you mean what is my address?’
‘Well, you have to play where your home school is. You don’t get to come play football at Lakes just because we are better than CP.’ And then all of the sudden they can’t get there until 3:30 and they’ve missed an hour of practice. There is a WIAA rule that says you can’t make an exception. And then you get pushback from the parent. ‘What? But they said…’
And then you get pushback from the school, ‘Well, they get an opportunity.’ Well, yes, they do, but we are not going to impact 109 other kids because you are one. We aren’t moving practice back to 3:30. It’s just not going to happen. It’s a tough deal, I know exactly what you are saying.
Powers: Even when they first opened up, I was coaching volleyball. Somebody would go down to SOTA and I’m like, ‘Bye, best of luck, nice coaching you.’
Jenks: What volleyball club do you play for? Because that’s going to be your volleyball experience.
Wells: Or here is an address of a club you can go play for.
Powers: And they used to start School of the Arts in 10th grade. So at Foss and the Tacoma Schools we would get them in ninth. They could get in the cross country program or the tennis program and then they would stick with it. But now they start in ninth grade so we don’t get any exposure to them. Even if the nearest school is Foss, it just doesn’t work. Not to mention trying to get to Lincoln from Point Defiance every afternoon.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Part 4: Academics, with a Tacoma Captains Council student-athlete roundtable.