Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Fall edition of GameTimeCT Magazine, which was delivered to home subscribers of Hearst Connecticut newspapers.
Dave Johnson has worn many hats during a professional career spanning more than three decades. He’s been a teacher, coach and, most notably, administrator — all positions of authority in which communication is essential.
When he was the athletic director at Bunnell High School in Stratford, from 1981-2015, Johnson carved out time in his jam-packed schedule every year to meet with parents who had a child involved in athletics. It was an opportunity for Johnson to answer questions and to calm any lingering concerns about a smorgasbord of topics.
“I would always have our preseason meeting in terms of educating parents — and obviously we would have medical training and would inform parents about all the medical laws and concussions — and one of the things I would always remind parents was that my door is always open,” Johnson said this past summer. “You could always come and talk to me or give me a call on the phone if you ever have a concern about your child, whether it’s about academics or some personal issue, whether it’s about a health issue or it’s about advice for college, anything.”
Well, almost anything.
“The one thing I would always tell parents,” Johnson continued, “is we’re not going to have a conversation regarding your child’s role on the team or your child’s playing time.”
Johnson always stressed that those conversations were to remain between the athlete and his or her coach. He would tell anyone who objected that participation in athletics is a “privilege, not a constitutionally protected right.”
When that stance went ignored, Johnson’s job became infinitely more difficult. It’s why, even now, as he finds himself in an all-encompassing role as commissioner of the South-West Conference, Johnson sympathizes with the athletic directors — and, by extension, coaches — whose jobs have been complicated by overbearing parents.
“The vast majority of parents are great people,” CIAC associate executive director Gregg Simon said. “They want the best for their child, they root for everybody else’s kid, they have a great time at games, and they love the high school experience. It’s really a small minority of parents that just go over the top and become very overzealous with their child’s athletic career and just take it all out of perspective. … It’s unfortunate the small minority have become so vocal.”
The overwhelming consensus among administrators and coaches is that they’re having damaging effects.
“We’re starting to see what we call a critical mass issue, where we’re finding it hard to find coaches in some sports,” said National Federation of State High School Associations executive director Karissa Niehoff, who formerly held the same position with the CIAC. “One of the reasons they give is concern from the pressure they feel from parents.”
It’s a question that SCC commissioner Al Carbone has seen many young, enthusiastic coaches ask.
“Many high school coaches are saying, ‘Why is it even worth it to do it?’ ” Carbone said. “It’s a 12-month-a-year job that doesn’t pay 12 months a year. … ‘Why do I want to deal with parents berating me for the small stipend I get?’ ”
Carbone, of course, needs no reminder that this conversation involves far more than dollars and cents. Having spent the last 15 years directly involved in high school athletics, Carbone knows it has more to do with the increased pressure that coaches face to satisfy everyone.
“When I first became commissioner 15 years ago, we had a lot of veteran coaches, coaches who had been there for years and years,” said Carbone, who points to Bob DeMayo (North Haven baseball), Tim Kohs (Mercy-Middletown girls basketball), Joe Maher (Guilford boys soccer), Lou Pane (East Haven boys hockey) and Sue Bavone (Cheshire girls volleyball) as a few examples. “You’re not seeing that now. You’re seeing rapid turnover. Now, it’s 25 years as a league, and there’s probably a handful or less than a handful of coaches who have been there the entire time. I would also say there’s less than maybe two handfuls of people who have been there in my full tenure. Why is that?”
When the responsibilities of the job clash with the demands of parents in a win-or-else culture, problems are bound to arise. Carbone has seen the scrutiny surrounding coaches amplified tenfold, not just throughout Connecticut but nationwide.
Paul McNulty said he resigned from his position with the Staples-Westport boys lacrosse program over concerns about interference from an incoming group of parents. After coaching high school sports for 50 years, McNulty came to the conclusion that the job was no longer worth the time, stress and aggravation.
“I was warned there was a group of people coming into the high school and their goal was for a regime change in (other sports) and lacrosse,” McNulty told Hearst Connecticut Media in June. “I realized I had just finished my 50th year as a coach in either football or lacrosse, and these parents were going to be there for four years before they cycled through. If I was 20-something years old, fine, but I figured that I’d rather go. That’s enough. Let somebody else deal with it.”
An even more egregious example occurred in May, when a plane towing a banner advocating for the dismissal of two coaches — “Fire Coaches Schrader & Kowalczyk,” it read — flew over a high school baseball game in Westchester County.
While these are isolated incidents, they also are emblematic of a disturbing trend in which vengeful parents overstep their boundaries, seeking to drive out high school coaches, even those who are highly successful.
Often, say coaches and administrators, parent-driven complaints stem from frustrations over playing time or in-game strategy. Perhaps it’s because most coaches feel they have nothing to gain by discussing either topic outside of the team huddle.
“I have a relationship with all my parents to a certain extent. I want them to feel like they’re involved,” said Greenwich High football coach John Marinelli, who led the Cardinals to a state title and the school’s first No. 1 ranking in the GametimeCT/New Have Register Top 10 poll, all at age 32. “But when it comes to playing time and schemes, the scheme thing is wild to me. The amount of former college players that are now parents and think that they know it all — the game has changed from when I first started coaching not so long ago. … Compared to when they played, it’s impossible to even connect the dots in the game of football.”
Marinelli, whose father Lou has notched a state-record 350 wins at New Canaan, said he strives to be “fair, firm and consistent” with parents. He sees them as his biggest supporters and wants them to feel involved. But, he said, there are limits to that involvement.
“They’re there to support and they’re there to help every kid have the opportunity to be successful,” Marinelli said. “Outside of that, they’re stepping out of bounds if they come in and try to have conversations that really they’re not privy to.”
Johnson watches the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament religiously, tuning in from the First Four to the Final Four. Millions of others are known to share in that tradition.
While Johnson finds most of March Madness to be compelling theater, there is one aspect of the viewing experience that always made him feel uneasy as an athletic director.
“I always said, every time the television camera pans on the parents at the … national championship game, they’re kind of making my job a little harder,” said Johnson, who feared the image would create unrealistic expectations from parents watching from home. “You have high school parents sitting there, (thinking), ‘Oh boy, maybe that can be me someday, sitting in the stands watching my son or daughter play for a national championship.’ “
Coaches, to varying degrees, feel pressure to not only win games, but also help players develop their skills. After all, every parent wants to see his or her child experience success.
But problems arise when those same parents run out of patience.
“There definitely is an interesting phenomenon,” said UConn legend and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, who is also a volunteer assistant girls basketball coach at Northwest Catholic. “I’ve seen it just by watching my own kids play baseball, soccer, softball and basketball. Parents are really, in some ways, overly invested in what their kids are doing in the field or on the court. They have weird parent goggles that they wear, that they only see positives in the results of what their kids are doing and don’t really understand that everything has a process.
“When parents think about the ends, I think they think of college scholarships or an all-state award instead of realizing the end is to enjoy that particular 9-year-old Little League game or to watch the joy on their kid’s face as they’re running down the soccer field, even if the kid doesn’t score a goal.”
Simon believes that mentality regarding scholarships can be traced back to the rise of AAU programs throughout Connecticut in the mid-90s.
“When I first starting coaching in the early ’90s, you had one or two kids on your team thinking that they were going to go ahead and play in college,” said Simon, who, aside from coaching girls basketball at Newtown High School for 11 seasons, also served as athletic director from 1999-2016. “You did their (recruiting) videotape for them. I remember shoving them those envelopes and getting coaches’ addresses and sending them off. Now, so many different organizations are promising kids this idea that they can play in college when perhaps they can’t.
“That’s made it very difficult when a parent is shelling out thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to hitting coaches and instructors and everything else. They’re not maybe seeing the return on their dollar and … it creates kind of a toxic atmosphere.”
The statistics show the stark truth: It’s incredibly difficult to secure a college scholarship. According to the NCAA, only 424,707 of the 7.2 million individuals who competed in high school sports in 2016-17 went on to play in college.
Every house, no matter how big, needs a strong foundation to survive a storm. The same can be said for high school athletic departments, all of which have been subjected to complaints from parents at one point.
For a program to remain stable, it might receive solid support from administration.
“Anyone can complain, anyone can do something,” Carbone said. “If you get the right people with the right message, that’s a drawback. That’s an obstacle. That’s the job of the athletic administrator and administrators, is to protect their coaches and work with them.”
When a parent with an axe to grind complains about about playing time or X’s and O’s, coaches want to know that their bosses will have their back. Many insist it’s the only way they can survive in an ultra-competitive, results-oriented business.
“(Parents) feel empowered once they know administrators have their ear,” said Vin Laczkoski, who coached basketball at both the high school and college level in Connecticut for 36 years. “If an administrator doesn’t have their ear, and there’s a lot of places where administrators don’t have their ear, then they can’t get away with what they want to get away with. If they know they can get an administrator’s ear, you know what they’re going to do. We’ve seen it happen all the time. It happens all the time, not just in basketball but in all sports, and it’s pathetic.”
Laczkoski said he is still bothered by the lack of support he received from his bosses at Notre Dame-Fairfield after he was accused in 2016 of physically abusing one of his players. An investigation into the incident found Laczkoski to be innocent. Laczkoski, though, did not have his contract renewed after the season, his 10th with the program.
“How many Barry McLeods and Buddy Brays are left?” said Laczkoski, referring to two of the state’s longest-tenured high school boys basketball coaches from Bridgeport Central and Trumbull, respectively. “There’s two great examples of coaches who have survived because they’ve had strong administrations behind them, so they could coach. Don’t think for a minute that those two who have been around for a long time haven’t had their [chops] busted. It just goes with the territory now.”
Marinelli, who both played and coached under his father at New Canaan before landing his first head coaching job, believes incidents regarding parental interference can shine negatively on a school if handled improperly. It’s a reason, he thinks, why some established assistants would rather stay where they’re comfortable. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
“I look around the state,” Marinelli said, “and there are some great coaches that are assistants. Honestly, why would they go off and start a new program when there has been parental involvement and it’s a direct reason why that head coach has left?”
Administrators stressed the importance of having a rigid process in place for when complaints arise. In such instances, Simon said, it’s vital that the first conversation be between the athlete and his or her coach, not the principal, superintendent or anyone else.
Even then, some coaches can’t help but feel vulnerable because of how volatile the profession has become.
“The AD makes what, $90,000 a year? A principal makes ($150,000) a year and a superintendent makes ($200,000) a year,” Laczkoski said. “A coach makes ($5,000) a year. Who do you think is going to feel the heat the most?”