Sam Mellinger

Recent dismissals of high school coaches shine light on thankless profession

The problem with our obsession over the games that don’t matter is that it clouds the way we look at the ones that do.

In the professional and major-college games we watch from a distance, coaches are paid millions. They are hired and fired based primarily on wins and losses or who they know. New general managers usually like to hire their own football coaches, and new college athletic directors often want to bring in their own basketball coaches.

So the coaches come and go, paid plenty for their troubles. This is the business of sports as entertainment.

But the rules should be different when sports are education, not business.

In recent weeks, two area high school basketball coaches with success on and off the court were fired without anything resembling a satisfactory public explanation.

William Chrisman girls coach Lindsay Thompson was fired after winning three conference championships in seven years at a school that doesn’t otherwise enjoy much athletic success. Students and players wrote letters to administrators and wore T-shirts to protest the decision.

Lawrence High boys coach Mike Lewis was fired after a 17-5 season in which his junior-varsity coach died of cancer. Parents and students have loudly protested the move, including at a school board meeting this week. Players told the board, “I want him back.” One parent said the message received is that “Nice guys finish last.” Another called it “administrative bullying.”

At William Chrisman and Lawrence, decision-makers gave vague explanations that amounted to “going in a different direction.”

If there is a legitimate reason for either dismissal, it has not been conveyed to the people most affected. Thompson and Lewis, if they pursue other coaching jobs, will have to answer this question while the administrators that unseated them can hide behind red tape.

Thompson was replaced by Scott Schaefer, a successful coach from Gardner Edgerton. Parents in Lawrence are holding out hope that the administration will reverse its decision on Lewis.

High school coaches are not well-paid. They work on one-year contracts, their coaching status not subject to the types of procedures that protect their teaching jobs. They typically make between $5,000 and $7,000 for their time, which is sweatshop pay if you do the math on the hours they spend performing what have become 12-month-a-year jobs.

This is the corner of the sports world where coaches sometimes use the I-want-to-spend-more-time-with-my-family line in walking away — and they actually mean it. The ones willing to make the sacrifices for the better interests of our sons and daughters should be cherished, not dismissed without explanations.

Look, there are good reasons to fire high school coaches.

They are not all saints, not all in it for the right reasons. There are cases of abuse, stealing money from booster accounts, broken laws and broken morals. Those cases are no-brainers for dismissal. There are also coaches who grow stale in the job or bitter, who may be the last ones to realize they’re just going through the motions, or in it for an ego boost. Those coaches need to go, too.

We’d be naïve to think that high school coaches aren’t occasionally dismissed based on wins and losses, too. Frank Wheeler, the athletic director at Blue Springs, used to coach basketball and recalls once being told matter-of-factly that he needed to win more games to keep his job.

This side of high school sports isn’t always as dark as it sounds. In conversations this week, several coaches described it like this: Your administrator may not be technically (or even consciously) firing you based on wins and losses, but your weaknesses as a leader and the complaints against you are more obvious when you’re losing. Sometimes, change is best for everyone involved.

So there are legitimate reasons to fire high school coaches, reasons that everyone involved can understand.

But the good coaches are different, regardless of how many games or conference championships they win. The good coaches should be treasured. The men and women who find a way to connect with high school students — to bring out sacrifice and hard work and the lessons in winning and losing — should be appreciated and complimented and supported.

This is a growing concern among high school coaches. As one put it, “If we start losing jobs for political or business reasons, they better start paying a whole bunch more money.”

That particular coach isn’t asking for more money. His point is that high school coaches are making sacrifices. They are making choices that affect our sons and daughters. Some of them have turned down opportunities to coach at higher levels. Most of them are turning down opportunities to spend more time with their families. They could choose less stressful, more peaceful lives.

And most of them are coaching for noble reasons. They give up some things, but they gain a lot. At their best, high school coaches are some of the most influential leaders a lot of us will ever have. We should be making it easier for them, not harder.

High school sports aren’t business. They’re supposed to be better than that.