Don’t Ruin Your Athletes Chances for a Baseball Scholarship

By Loren Ledin the Ventura County Star

Parental pressure and the high school coach

This is a true story and should be a required reading for all parents. Every parent wants their son to play college baseball and get an athletic scholarship, but some simply go too far.

The peripheral opponent

As parents take a more active role in their child’s sport, coaches, naturally, are feeling the pressure.

When Mike Lee accepted his “dream job come true” as head coach of the Newbury Park High School baseball team, he figured his primary obstacle would be succeeding in the competitive Marmonte League.

It turns out he was wrong.

The wins and losses, he said, were the easy part. Three years later, fired from his coaching position last summer, reeling from what he believed were attacks on his character and integrity, Lee remains shocked by what befell him in his baseball job.

Parental pressure and dissent—by what he says was “a small minority” of team parents—was sufficient to force him out and turn his dream job into an angst-filled nightmare.

“I’m very disappointed,” says Lee. “This was the job I always wanted. It turns out there was a strong network of good old boys on the sidelines at the school, and I never fitted into that mode. It led to my demise.”

Lee, 30, still continues in his capacity as a health and PE teacher at Newbury Park High, still rubbed raw emotionally by his experiences on and off the baseball diamond. He is looking for another coaching job but wonders if irreparable damage has been done to his reputation.

“All the lies they told—I don’t know how much I’m stained by all that,” he said.

These are turbulent times for high school sports coaches, administrators, and parents. What happened to Lee epitomizes the tenuous and, often times, stormy relationship that exists between high school coaches and team parents. It has redefined the role of the coach.

As Parents Take a More Active Role in Their Child’s Sport, Coaches Are Feeling the Pressure

Scott Carpenter, for one, said he took Rudy from Newbury Park High School because he was worried that his son, also an aspiring baseball pitcher, had irreconcilable differences with Lee and the school administrators. He has found a school where the son will shine. “Believe me, I’d much rather just sit in the stands and root for the team,” said Scott. “But when I see a situation where my son is being hurt, I have to act.” For better or for worse, the times have changed.

“Every day, we get complaints from parents. And that’s even before school opened,” said Robert Ferguson, assistant athletic director at Royal High School and the former boys’ and girls’ volleyball coach. “It’s really become a very volatile situation. We need the support of parents. Without that support, we’d have a difficult time funding our programs. But many parents are crossing the line.”

Said St. Bonaventure athletic director Marc Groff, “There’s no doubt parental complaints have increased significantly over the past seven to ten years. I think the proliferation of travel teams and club teams have changed things for parents. They make such a financial investment in sports they want the results. There seems to be more pressure on everyone, including the coaches and administrators.”

While Lee’s case may be an example of parental pressure to the nth degree, there are plenty of everyday examples of parents gone a little wild.

Examples of Parent’s Crossing the Line With Their Children’s Coaches

  • Buena High girls’ volleyball coach Jack Richards, a police officer with the Ventura Police Department, said his team had just finished a Channel League game a couple years back when he was approached by a father angry over his daughter’s lack of playing time.

The parent grabbed the clipboard that Richards carries and whacked the coach across the chest. Today, Richards is still astonished.

“He did that to me, and I’m a police officer,” Richards said. “What he did was a felony.”

  • Westlake High football coach Jim Benkert, who operates one of the region’s most successful teams, found himself screaming at the parent of one of his very best players during a team practice game early in his tenure. It seems the father was attending a practice and made a disparaging remark at the starting quarterback.

“I had to confront him for that, and I had to do it in front of everybody,” said Benkert. “After that, I got more slack from parents. But I also didn’t want to do that again.”

Since that time, Benkert has barred parents from the practice field. They’re confined to the stands.

  • Royal High School baseball coach Dan Maye said he spent nearly all of his free time last season locked in on-campus meetings with disgruntled parents. He said his program was consistently hounded by what he calls a “parents posse.”

“I thought fund-raising would be my most difficult job when I started,” said Maye, the dean of Marmonte League baseball coaches. “But there are some parents that are very difficult to deal with, and every problem becomes a town meeting. There has been a parents’ posse, where the parents act like they’re a parent/agent.”

  • Just last summer, Thousand Oaks High School football coach Mike Sanders turned on his answering machine to hear a tirade from a father intent on taking his son out of the football program.

“That’s part of the job,” he said. “There’s always going to be some parents who are not happy because their sons aren’t playing.”

The upshot? Coaches say placating parental concerns has become as big a part of their jobs as the Xs and Os. To what extent may vary from program to program. To what degree may make for a lengthy coaching stint or cause a coach to rethink his career path.

Maye said he hardly relays important information to his players any more without having a parent present. Richards believes coaches of girls’ sports may be under more scrutiny because parents worry about their daughter’s psyche.

But Camarillo High boys’ volleyball coach Rob Vandermay, whose team won the CIF-SS Division III championship last spring, said his parents mostly stick to cheering from the stands.

“Maybe I’m luckier than most,” he said. “I think I coach a low profile sport where, maybe, the parents don’t know the game as well as the baseball or softball parents might. I’ve gotten positive support.”

Agoura High School football coach Charlie Wegher points out that programs thrive on “good” parents. These are the parents helping with fund-raising, manning the snack bars, and picking up the tabs.

“It’s awfully difficult to be successful without the support of parents,” he said.

Veteran Coaches Find Themselves Under Parental Pressure Like Never Before

“It seems to have more than doubled from when I first started coaching,” said former Thousand Oaks High School girls’ soccer coach Gail Kanney, who resigned last year after 21 years in her post.

“Maybe it’s because parents know the game better than when I started. Maybe it’s all the private coaches and trainers telling everybody how good they are. It’s become big business. It no longer seems like people play for fun.”

Ferguson, whose Royal boys’ and girls’ volleyball teams combined to win six CIF-SS championships, said he often felt the pressure from parents.

“It’s a lot harder than when I first started coaching,” he said. “My teams are something like 125-2 in league at one point, and I was still hearing it from parents. They have the best interests of their child in mind, and that’s fine. But I always had to have the best interest of the whole team in mind.”

Debi Alia, whose son, Jon, was a member of the Newbury Park High baseball team, said derogatory verbal outbursts by parents make for an uncomfortable high school experience.
“It’s embarrassing when people get out of line,” she said. “We’re supposed to worry about our kids and hope they have success, but it’s really up to them once they go out for the team. We just have to let the kids play the game.”

Mike Webb, also a baseball parent at Newbury Park High School, agreed.

“I found myself walking away from all the crybaby parents in the stands, just to get away from all the negative talk,” he said. “It became about ex-jocks having a visceral experience through their kids. High school sports isn’t supposed to be like that.”

Bob Meadows, an associate professor at Cal Lutheran in sociology and criminal justice, has researched the subject, and he’s had a firsthand look as a youth baseball coach.

“Parents today spend thousands of dollars on travel teams, private coaches. They’re making quite a financial commitment,” said Meadows. “They want immediate results, and if they don’t get it, they’re going to assign blame. They don’t see that maybe their child isn’t good enough. They’re going to deny reality.”

Meadows is concerned parental interference can escalate, often to violence. He’s seen youth sports at its darkest, when parents push and shove coaches and other parents before, during, and after games.

“I’ve seen parents use curse words in front of their children,” he said. “I’ve seen physical altercations as the tension escalates.”

If parents are increasingly involved in youth sport, what’s changed? Plenty, say coaches and administrators.

Meadows said many parents are not merely content to support their kids. They need to live the whole experience. Or, maybe, relive it all.

“You have a situation where the parents are reliving their own experiences vicariously through their child,” he said. “Maybe there’s a loss of self-esteem, some insecurities at work. All those things factor into the sports being more than a game.”

Scott notes parents frequently coach their own kids at the youth level and consider themselves the authority.

“It happens all the time in baseball, because a parent will form a team and make his kid into an all-star,” he said. “They’ll come at you with ‘My son was an all-star on his sixth grade team, and he can’t start for you?’ The problem is that some kids don’t get any bigger, or don’t get any better, or they don’t work hard on their game. There’s a reason he isn’t starting.”

The Push for Athletic Scholarships is a Powerful Lure Too

Parents, appreciating the cost of the college education, see athletics as the answer to defray expenses. Procuring an athletic scholarship is akin to being elected to public office. The odds are long.

“It’s so tough to get an athletic scholarship,” said Sanders. “What parents don’t realize is that most of it is out of the hands of coaches anyway. Colleges are looking for a certain physical standard, and either the player has it or he doesn’t. If you have to blame somebody for your son not getting a scholarship, blame yourself. It’s all about genetics. Most colleges won’t look at you, unless you’re this big and that fast. It’s frustrating for us too. I’d love to have everybody get a scholarship. But it just doesn’t happen.”

Ann Larson, the girls’ basketball coach at Ventura High, said winning a scholarship shouldn’t be the focus of prep sports.

“Just a handful of players are going to get a scholarship,” she said. “And many are disappointed if they don’t get a scholarship to a Division I school. Everyone wants to play for UConn. Take the opportunities that are there at a smaller school too. But I’d say the big thing is to enjoy the high school experience and have fun playing sports. Don’t let the experience slip by.”

The quest for a scholarship burns hottest at the high school level.

Bruce Bryde, the athletic director at CLU, wonders if the hunt for a scholarship isn’t the principal concern for parents.

“All I know is that we don’t have that many problems with parents at this level,” he said. “Maybe parents aren’t as apt to question a college coach. Or maybe they no longer have to worry about their son or daughter getting a scholarship.”

Of all the disagreements between parents and coaches, most are solved behind closed doors. More often, the athletic director or principal serves as the mediator.

For Lee, run-ins with parents became a runaway train. First, there was the publicized falling out with Carpenter, already a football star at the school. The son’s dad, Scott, said the rift caused him to worry his son would be denied a chance to play on the varsity team.

Lee denies the claim and said Carpenter would have been granted every opportunity to be a varsity player. He also denied asking players to do any more than abide by the team rules.
Other players (Lee said it was no more than two or three players, all from underclass teams) complained of their treatment by Lee. Administrators conducted one-on-one interviews at season’s end, and Lee was eventually rehired for the 2004 season. He said he was cleared of any inappropriate actions.

Then, in June, he was fired from his coaching job by Principal Max Beaman.

Today, Lee said his firing was a virtual smear campaign. So much so he’s considering a lawsuit that alleges defamation of character.

“Complete lies and false allegations,” said Lee, who was the Marmonte League’s Coach of the Year in 2002. “I wanted to instill some discipline and accountability into the program. Some kids have a problem with that, so some parents told stories. It’s still happening to me as a teacher. Some parents are saying that I’m staring at their kids in the classroom. It’s all ridiculous.”

Beaman did not return the phone calls seeking comment on Lee’s dismissal.

Lee does reap widespread support from former players and parents.

Cody Collet, the star catcher who has signed with the Detroit Tigers, credits Lee for much of his success.

“He is a player’s coach,” said Collet, a sixth-round draft choice in last June’s major league draft. “He got along with everybody. If you were willing to work hard and work for the team, you had no problems.”

Another supporter is Luis Sanoja, an infielder and a standout wide receiver for the football team.

“He’s a great coach,” said Sanoja. “I was one of those guys who gave him problems when I was on the JV team. I didn’t work as hard as I should. But he gave me a second chance and made it happen for me.”

Lee says he’s chafed by the experience but says he intends to coach.

“I still love coaching,” he said. “I think it was the school rather than the profession itself. At least, I hope that’s true.”

Lee’s case also offers the dilemma faced by high school administrators today. A high school principal needs to protect the best interest of both the student and the coach.

“Administrators are really caught between the rock and hard place,” said Ferguson. “You have to protect your students, but you’ve got to support your coaches. It’s not always easy to do.”

Simi Valley High principal Jan Britz said the answer is to do what’s right.

“I support my coaches,” she said. “I know how hard they work, and I think they do a great job. But I want the best for my students also. If ever there is a problem, I look into it and make sure I talk to both sides. You make the decision that works for everybody.”

Coaches Think Unhappy Parents Miss the Point

Their task is to determine what’s best for the team, not the individual.

“There was a coach who once said you’re going to make at least four enemies a year,” said Scott. “I’ve been coaching for 33 years, so I know I’ve got at least 100 enemies out there. The thing parents have to realize is that we’re always going to play the best players. They need to be logical. There’s no way I’m spending four hours a day out here, every day, with the idea of losing a game. It’s got nothing to do with who contributes money to the program or who’s running the snack bar or any of that baloney. We play the best players.”

Said Maye, “You want your best kids to play as many innings as possible. It can’t be any fairer than that. The best thing for the team is that the best players have to play.”

Parents Believe Coaches Can be Off Base Too

“Sports has become very much a business,” says Scott Carpenter. “If my son has the ability to earn an athletic scholarship, then he should have every opportunity to do so. Education isn’t cheap.
Believe me, I know, because I want all my kids to go to college. As a parent, I need to put my son in the very best situation I can. Do you think it was easy for Rudy to transfer to Westlake? Was it easy for me to send my son away from the place where I graduated? Of course not. But I’m not doing my job as a parent if I’m not doing what’s best for my kids.”

Some coaches have unique insight, since they are both coach and parent. Simi Valley girls’ basketball coach Dave Murphy had daughters Joelle and Leah on his roster last season.

Let the Sons and Daughters Savor the Experience

“There’s been a dramatic change in the way parents look at sports, and I think it’s an overall societal issue,” he said. “There is so much change. Life is so fluid. We really need to get back to a situation where we just let the kids have fun. That’s what high school sports is about. It’s supposed to be about the team and winning and enjoying your teammates.”

Murphy points out many student athletes might be better served in aiming for an academic scholarship. Try to excel in athletics and academics, he said.

“There are lots of opportunities to take home an academic scholarship,” he said. “Kids shouldn’t miss the boat on what might be available to them.”

Murphy’s thinking is echoed by administrators and coaches.

“I believe we’ve lost a lot of what high school sports used to be like,” said Groff. “Before, it was playing for the team and the school. You played to have fun, above everything else. Now, it’s more of a me-first thing. It’s what I can get out of this. I hope it’s a cyclical thing, and we get back to more of the way things used to be.”

Joe Vaughan, the successful girls’ basketball coach and athletic director at Buena High, has a similar sentiment.

“We tell our players not to think of what’s best for themselves but for the team,” he said. “Too many people look for the wrong things in playing sports. I believe they should look at the high school experience as an investment. You put a lot of time into this, so the important thing is to enjoy the overall experience. There are so many memories you can create for a lifetime.”

Got a beef? Administrators offer their advice. So do players.

“If you’ve got a problem, never, ever, discuss it with the coach on the court or the field,” said Royal High principal Bob LaBelle. “Go home, make an appointment for the next day. You’re never going to do any good by confronting a coach after the game.”

Players Said They Wish Parents Would Stay in the Stands

“It’s always tough when the parents get involved in a team situation,” said former Newbury Park third baseman Matt Eisenstein. “It becomes a big distraction for the whole team. The best thing for parents to do is let the players play.”

Westlake High football standout Jimmy Miller agrees.

“When parents stay in the stands and cheer, that’s the best thing for the team,” he said. “It’s always best when the players and the coaches handle any problems. Let that all stay inside the team.”

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