PARENTAL POWER PLAY: Parent-coach friction often a matter of (playing) time

If a list was made with the most likely reasons for a parent of a high school athlete to undermine a coach, it might look something like this:1. Playing time2. Playing time3. Wins and losses4. Playing time5. Wins and lossesOver the past few weeks...

Many parents have expressed displeasure with coaching decisions and sought removal of their children’s coaches. Clint Austin /

If a list was made with the most likely reasons for a parent of a high school athlete to undermine a coach, it might look something like this:
1. Playing time
2. Playing time
3. Wins and losses
4. Playing time
5. Wins and losses
Over the past few weeks, the News Tribune spoke with coaches and other athletic officials across the region about what has become a disturbing trend - the seemingly increasing power wielded by parents of prep athletes.
They represent a tiny fraction of all parents, the overwhelming majority of whom are positive. The disgruntled ones, though, emboldened by unchecked influence, can cause a ruckus by targeting coaches. They might mask their motives by slinging figurative spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks, but the biggest noodles are born of perceived playing-time slights.
Those situations can be especially volatile if a freshman or sophomore is playing ahead of an upperclassman.
One area boys basketball coach, who asked to remain anonymous, said he’s had parents criticize him for being too intense. Other times, he was called too stoic - “Well, it just doesn’t seem like you care, and because you don’t care we want to get rid of you.”
The coach knew better.
“The only reason they’re saying that is because their kid isn’t playing or the kids aren’t playing well,” he said.
Regardless of a team’s success, some parents will never be satisfied, coaches and administrators say.
“Everything has to be best for their kid,” said Kevin Merkle, an associate director for the Minnesota State High School League.
During a turbulent three years as boys basketball coach at Carlton, Adam Bailey had one parent suggest playing time be distributed equally.
A couple hours after Duluth East’s boys hockey team defeated Moorhead in the 1995 state championship game, Greyhounds coach Mike Randolph encountered a few parents irked by their children’s minimal ice time. But, Randolph says, coaches don’t decide who plays.
“Players decide,” he said.
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey coach Dave Esse, who kept his job after a group of parents sought his removal in 2013, has each of his players rank themselves and, anonymously, their teammates by position. So if a third-liner, or his parent, thinks he belongs on the top line, Esse can reference those rankings and show the player he was slotted - by his peers - as the eighth-best forward and thus is receiving a commensurate amount of time.
Randolph says players are better equipped than their parents to accept lesser roles because they repeatedly are inundated with “this isn’t about you” reminders and pleas to put the team first.

“I tell our kids, ‘You know, your parents love you - they only see you,’ ” Randolph said. “So when you go home, be respectful to them, but keep in mind all they care about is you. And if we all just care about ourselves, we’re going nowhere.”

Athletic directors and coaches agree the first point of contact for parents should be the coach. One of the first questions Cloquet athletic director Tom Lenarz asks when he’s approached by a discouraged parent is if they’ve talked to the coach. If not, he asks them to do that first. Ignoring the so-called chain of command and going right to an athletic director or principal can escalate the matter, Ely athletic director Tom Coombe says.
The hope is for a parent and coach to sit down and reach a middle ground. Being proactive and engaging in respectful dialogue often works.
But not always.
“You’re never going to please all the people all the time,” Coombe said. “If there’s a parent whose end goal is to get his or her son or daughter playing time all of the time, and that athlete isn’t one of the better players or more talented players on the team, I don’t think that parent will ever be satisfied.”
If playing time is the headliner of parental complaints, wins and losses are next. That should never be the case, Merkle says, not in education-based athletics, where relationships and character-building are supposed to outweigh winning percentages.
“We know of situations where coaches are doing a great job and all the things we expect them to do, but they get fired or let go because they’re not winning at the level people think they should be,” Merkle said.
Perhaps no obstacle was greater to overcome for former Ely boys hockey coach Kurt Mattila than his program’s incessant losing. Mattila’s status became uncertain following the 2014-15 campaign, his 10th on the Timberwolves’ bench, and remained in limbo until Ben Johnson was hired as Mattila’s successor last September. Ely habitually struggles to compete in Section 7A, and the Timberwolves managed a combined seven wins in Mattila’s final three seasons.
At the small school where participation numbers are consistently low, Mattila said hockey is “totally recreational.”
Students get an opportunity to play the sport, but “you’re never a Hermantown, you’re never a Duluth Marshall and you’re never going to be a Duluth East,” Mattila said. “I’m sorry. Your class sizes are 35 to 40, if you’re lucky.”
Bailey, the ex-Carlton boys basketball coach who walked away in 2014, says he was similarly plagued by unrealistic expectations. The Bulldogs had enjoyed success in the not-too-distant past, but “the problem is the numbers just aren’t there” now, Bailey said.
Things started going south in the early 2000s, many coaches say. Some blame social media and the informality of communication. It’s easier to denigrate someone online than it is face-to-face. And the vitriol spreads quickly.
Others cite the proliferation of competitive youth sports. Parents spend big money on club and travel teams, and the time demands can be excessive. Hockey, at least locally, used to take the brunt of the criticism for being year-round and overly expensive. But when isn’t basketball in season, thanks to traveling leagues and the Amateur Athletic Union circuit? When, if ever, does soccer season end? Likewise for volleyball. The list goes on.
It’s only natural, perhaps, for parents to expect a return on their investment.
“They just feel like their kids are entitled because they’ve put in the time, the energy and the money and that they deserve it - this is a right,” Esse said.
At a time when many school districts have eliminated funding for junior high athletics, club teams and community associations fill the void. They provide opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist. But they are largely parent-driven, which can muddy the transition to high school sports.
“When they get to the high school level, they can’t seem to separate the fact that this is no longer a parent-controlled entity,” said John Erickson, executive director of the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association.
Erickson noted another pitfall stemming from the structure of youth sports. If a parent doesn’t like a coach, it’s relatively easy to recruit a new one or change teams.
Dick Swanson, who coaches softball at Duluth Denfeld, witnessed that mindset firsthand when he resigned his post from the school’s girls basketball team in 2008 after a 22-year Hall of Fame career. Part of Swanson’s departure could be attributed to fatigue from coaching two sports and serving as an assistant in football. It became a grind.
But he also was tired of overzealous parents intent on forcing his ouster.
“These people wanted me out,” Swanson said. “They had their own coach picked. A lot of times these people think they can control the school district.”
Problems also can arise when athletes who excelled on youth teams don’t pan out in high school. Merkle, who used to coach football at Northfield High School, ran into trouble once when one of his players received a most valuable player award at a summer camp.
“And, of course, that player didn’t play much come fall because they really weren’t all that good,” Merkle recalled. “But then the parents are wondering why they’re not playing because they were the most valuable player at summer camp.”
The carrot dangling in front of many high school athletes is the college scholarship, the chance to prolong careers and receive a free education. That’s supposed to be the payoff for all the hours and all the dollars spent practicing, playing and traveling to tournaments, camps and showcase events.
Reality suggests otherwise. For every Alex Illikainen that gets recruited to Wisconsin, there are countless others whose playing days end as prep seniors.
According to the NCAA, about 480,000 of 8 million high school athletes will compete at an NCAA school. That’s 6 percent, a figure that deviates based on sport. Consider the numbers below:
• Football: 6.7 percent of 1,083,617 high school players - 2.6 percent to Division I
• Girls basketball: 3.9 percent of 429,504 - 1.2 percent to Division I
• Boys soccer: 5.7 percent of 432,569 - 1.3 percent to Division I
• Baseball: 7 percent of 486,567 - 2.1 percent to Division I
The percentages become almost infinitesimal when describing advancement to professional ranks.
Which is why, Erickson says, high school athletics should be viewed as a supplement to the overall education, a vehicle for teaching life lessons.
At Carlton, that was Bailey’s objective.
“I knew that there wasn’t a single kid in my program that was going to get paid to play basketball,” he said. “And I wanted them to learn responsibility, to learn about teamwork, to learn about life isn’t always fair and I wanted them to be able to grow as men.”
Erickson says he never had a Division I recruit while coaching football, basketball and track and field for 19 years.
“We know the percentage is very, very minute (for) the number of athletes that will go beyond the high school level,” he said. “That’s usually an end-all experience for them.”
Thus, while everyone’s pursuing athletic scholarships, there aren’t nearly enough to go around. Parents - and players - though, don’t want to hear that. And who can blame them? It’s when those ambitious goals cloud a person’s judgment that things can start to unravel and strain relationships with coaches.
Few coaches are immune to kickback.
Randolph, a two-time state champ and member of the 500-win club, still is challenged. But he, like so many of his counterparts, says 95 percent of parents involved with his program are “super.”
“If you’re a coach and you’re working hard and you’re doing the best you can, I think the majority of people see that,” longtime Barnum boys basketball coach Rich Newman said.
The ones who approach Randolph, whether it’s with questions about playing time or strategy, are likely to share a common thread.
“This is the most famous line every time I talk to a parent - ‘Please don’t tell Johnny that I talked to you,’ ” Randolph said.
The vast majority of parents remain in the background. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to step back and “butt out,” as Bob Dow put it. Dow’s youngest son, Luke, was a senior for the Greyhounds this past winter.
The elder Dow did some coaching while his three hockey-playing sons were coming up through the ranks. Once they reached high school, dad’s advice suddenly was secondary to that of Randolph and Brendan Flaherty at Duluth Marshall - Dow’s oldest two sons played at Marshall, and Luke started with the Hilltoppers before playing the past two seasons at East.
Dow’s role morphed from hands-on to dropping his boys off at the rink and entrusting their development to someone else.
“That’s a hard thing for parents,” Dow said. “It’s hard to do, it’s hard to watch and not comment. I want to give him advice - I’m a hockey guy.”
Dow’s resolve was tested during the 2014-15 season, when the Greyhounds employed a defense-first, three-
players-across-the-blue-line scheme aimed at bottling up potent opponents. Luke, a slippery and slick-passing playmaker, had to alter his style to fit the game plan. His offense took a hit.
Dow’s inclination was to tell his son “go to the puck,” but that’s not what Randolph wanted.
The reward came in February and March of that season when the disciplined Greyhounds advanced all the way to the state championship game.
“I have a lot of respect for Mike,” Dow said. “He’s a great hockey mind and I know what he brings to the table. Afterward, we were obviously just excited to make that journey.”
While Dow has refrained from badgering his sons’ coaches, he understands what motivates parents to take a different tack. For starters, Dow mentioned the cost and intensity of youth hockey. The price tag for a typical bantam player, for example, ran his family between $5,000 and $8,000 per season.
More importantly, Dow says, no parent wants to see his or her child dejected. The instinct is to fix the problem.
“Your kid comes home and he’s frustrated, that’s a tough deal,” Dow said.

MONDAY: Now more than ever, high school athletics are a labor of love for coaches who deal with powerful parents, unrealistic expectations and year-round demands, all for a salary of a few thousand dollars.

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