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Cook: Bad parents are pushing out good coaches

Sunday, March 10, 2002

The conversation took place years ago at a Final Four. Joe DeGregorio, a longtime Western Pennsylvania high school and college coach, clearly remembers former DePaul coach Ray Meyer pulling his son, Kyle, aside.

"The other coaches were telling him not to even think about getting into coaching," DeGregorio recalled. "But Ray encouraged him. He told him, 'We always need good people in coaching. Our young people deserve that.'"

It's just as true now as it was then.

That's why what's happening in high school and youth sports is so frightening. It's not so much the horrific story of the Massachusetts hockey dad beating his son's coach to death in front of the team. That's extreme and rare, thankfully. It's the parental interference that's going on every day with virtually every team in the country. It's enough to make all coaches ask: Is it worth it?

More and more, the answer is no.

Our children are the big losers.

The latest problems -- at least, the latest publicized problems -- are happening at Upper St. Clair High School. A couple of disgruntled parents, who are school board members, are trying to get football coach Jim Render and basketball coach Danny Holzer fired. Holzer is a good man and a caring coach. Render is nothing less than a coaching icon, one of the best in WPIAL history.

This isn't the first time at Upper St. Clair. It brought back painful memories for DeGregorio. Seven years ago, he got fed up with parents' abuse and quit as basketball coach. But don't kid yourself into thinking the same foolishness isn't happening in your school district. "You could randomly call up 48 athletic directors and 46 would have similar stories," said Seton-LaSalle Athletic Director Chuck Rutter.

Two years ago, another successful football coach -- North Hills' Jack McCurry -- was sitting on Render's hot seat. Five years before that, it was North Allegheny baseball coach Greg Manesiotis. McCurry and Manesiotis were strong enough to survive the coup attempts, but other good coaches weren't so lucky. Many others, like DeGregorio, simply decided the ugly battle wasn't worth fighting.

"Parental involvement today is beyond unbelievable," Rutter said. "It's just amazing what some parents want. It's got to stop."

It's up to school administrators -- the superintendents, principals, athletic directors and board members -- to lead the push. They can't buckle the first time an angry parent comes to them with a complaint. Physical or emotional abuse is one thing. But a dispute over playing time or what position a kid plays? The administrators need to make it clear they're behind their coach.

Sports need more Jack Fullens. He's the assistant superintendent of the Blackhawk School District and the athletic director at the high school. There is no stronger or more respected administrator in the WPIAL. It's no coincidence Blackhawk basketball coach John Miller and football coach Joe Hamilton are among the winningest and most enduring coaches in the WPIAL.

"I know Jack always has my back," Miller said. "If you're going to last and be successful, you need that support."

But administrators can do only so much. In the end, it's the meddling parents who have to regain their sanity. They have to realize they're hurting their children, not helping them.

Kids aren't dummies. They know who the better players are, who deserves to be the quarterback and the point guard, who should be the starters. In most cases, they can accept their coach's decisions. They're thrilled to be on a team. The benefits they get from it -- discipline, dedication, teamwork, sacrifice -- will help them the rest of their lives.

But then the kids have to go home and listen to their parents.

"Why aren't you starting?"

"You're a lot better than Johnny Smith ..."

"I'm not going to sit back and watch this lousy coach cost you a college scholarship."

It's sad, but true.

The parents look at their son and see a future NFL millionaire. The coach looks at the same kid and sees him for what he really is -- a good person, a good student, a good team guy and a backup offensive tackle.

The parents end up confronting the coach or try to get him fired. This doesn't just embarrass their son. It doesn't do him any favors later in life. Down the road, he will apply to a college and be rejected. Or he will apply for a job and not get it. What does he do then? Call mom and dad?

"It's funny," DeGregorio said. "Most of the parents who complain weren't handed everything. But they want everything handed to their kids. Life doesn't work that way."

DeGregorio thinks there's another solution.

"The vocal minority can't be allowed to take control. The silent majority have to stand up and make themselves heard."

That's what happened at North Hills, where about 400 people showed up at a school board meeting to support McCurry. The same thing happened at Upper St. Clair, where about 200 residents turned out two weeks ago to speak up for Render and Holzer.

"It was one of the most rewarding moments of my career," McCurry said. "Kids I coached 20 years came back to say thanks ...

"That's why coaches still want to coach. They love their sport and love working with kids. There's no other place that you can have the impact on young people that you do on a field or a court. More lives are changed there than anyplace else."

That's why DeGregorio, despite his problems at Upper St. Clair, is so happy his son followed him into coaching. Kyle DeGregorio is the basketball coach at Ephrata High School near Lancaster. Another son, Dave, is the basketball coach at Pine-Richland High School.

The elder DeGregorio is thrilled even though Kyle had a tough season.

"One of the guidance counselors at his school accused him of making her son lose his initiative to play. He didn't even go out for the team. It caused a lot of turmoil all year because she counseled a lot of the other players."

Here's hoping Kyle DeGregorio has the strength to last for the long haul.

Here's hoping he never forgets that wise advice he received years ago.

"We always need good people in coaching. Our young people deserve that."

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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