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Shame on coaches for trying to win

Saturday, July 22, 2000

If you're looking for the last true bastion of athletic competition, look no further than high school sports. Love of the game is what high school sports are all about for the athletes involved.

Love of the game is what high school sports are all about for the coaches involved, too. With very few exceptions, they make little money. They put in untold amounts of time for little reward beyond the satisfaction of helping kids and whetting their thirst for competition a bit.

But coaching high school sports in Western Pennsylvania just isn't worth the trouble anymore.

The parents have seen to that. If you coach scholastic sports in these parts, your job is about as safe as a midnight swimmer in a "Jaws" movie. That's true even if you win.

Ask Jim Garland, forced out as Mt. Lebanon High School girls' basketball coach this week despite an excellent record. Garland apparently "played favorites" and ran practices that were too long and hard. From what I hear, Garland's idea of "playing favorites" consisted of giving most of the court time to the best players. Those with a functional brain call that "coaching to win," not "playing favorites."

As for practices that were too long and hard, God forbid a teen should learn anything about work ethic and commitment. About laboring hard with a goal in sight.

The real reason Garland was forced out -- the only reason -- was because he didn't give enough playing time to some player (or players) whose parents got the ear and sympathy of a school board member or a superintendent.

Garland was 143-48 in seven seasons at Mt. Lebanon. The Blue Devils were 76-87 in the seven prior seasons. It's not like Garland had a bad season this past winter, either. Mt. Lebanon made it to the WPIAL Class AAAA final and the state semifinals. It would take a bunch of morons to dump a coach like Garland. In fact, it did.

Here's the scary part: Situations like that occur all the time. It can happen to any coach no matter how much he/she wins or how sterling his/her reputation may be. All it takes is one relentless parent with an ax to grind and a couple of dumb school officials.

North Hills High School football coach Jack McCurry is the Chuck Noll of the WPIAL. McCurry consistently wins despite coaching at one of the Class AAAA level's smallest schools. He has sent countless kids on to college football. You rarely hear a disparaging word about his character, commitment or coaching skills.

Yet McCurry nearly got dumped at North Hills this past spring. Saving his job took an eleventh-hour rally by the community, support from coaches such as Pitt's Walt Harris and Penn State's Joe Paterno, and mammoth LaVar Arrington making a dramatic appearance at a North Hills school board meeting. Arrington credits McCurry for much of his success. The fact that Arrington seemed ready to crush somebody's spleen probably didn't hurt McCurry's cause.

McCurry was accused of neglecting his duties as principal to devote time to coaching. Of course, his real crime was not playing the offspring of a few school board members.

The jackals who malign high school coaches rarely face accountability. Administrators decline comment to the media. Parents hide behind anonymity.

The Garland and McCurry incidents are merely the culmination of parental subversion. Scholastic coaches actually get stabbed in the back by parents on a daily basis. They field a myriad of complaints by parents. For every coach who goes against the parental flow and stares down potential unemployment like Garland and McCurry, 10 coaches give in and play inferior athletes just to shut up their parents.

Some high school athletes have good, cooperative, parents who don't interfere. But the bad parents are beginning to outnumber the good ones. Why? Because the jerks all too often get their way.

Playing scholastic sports is a privilege, not a right. Yeah, I know, everybody pays school taxes, so everybody should play. I guess everybody should get a turn at being President, too. High school sports can be the first time a human being faces the harsh reality of life separating the wheat from the chaff. If it's handled right, it can be a pleasant experience. Backup players on scholastic sports teams can learn to play a small but often times meaningful function. That experience is useful in life. It would be nice if everybody got to be a star. But, as Ted Knight said in "Caddyshack," the world needs ditch-diggers, too.

The high school sports experience is being ruined. It's being ruined by the parents, who just don't understand that the games aren't being played for their sake.

It's being ruined for quality coaches such as Garland and McCurry.

It's being ruined for the kids, too. Do you think most kids want their parents to complain? Do you think most kids want playing time not because they've earned it, but because mom or dad has successfully politicked for it?

High school sports are supposed to be so pure. So unfettered. So uncomplicated.

They're not. Not anymore.

Don't blame the coaches. Don't blame the kids. Blame the parents. Period.

Mark Madden's talk show is heard 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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