High School Athletic Directors Always Have Their Heads in the Games

For high school athletic directors, the workload and the stress are greater than ever.

Steve Jenkins, athletic director at Bloomfield High School, laments that athletic programs often are judged solely on the basis of wins and championships.
Steve Jenkins, athletic director at Bloomfield High School, laments that athletic programs often are judged solely on the basis of wins and championships.
Photo by Andrew Foster

Steve Jenkins is the proud face of Bloomfield High School athletics. Whether he’s overseeing the school’s hall of fame or scraping gum off the gym floor, nobody embodies Bengal pride more than Jenkins, who has been a BHS teacher, coach and, since 2005, enthusiastic athletic director.

The affable Jenkins, a Bloomfield native and the father of two young daughters, enjoys his “destination job.” Yet he’s deeply concerned about what he sees around him. The job of athletic director—or AD—was, until recently, noted for stability. Now, at 56 and just 12 years into the job, Jenkins is second in seniority among the Super Essex Conference’s 38 ADs.

Turnover and fatigue are the new realities for Jenkins’s peers. Last year, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) posted 41 vacancies. This year, the volume of openings was similar; all the positions were filled.

“Clearly, the demands on an AD are changing and all-consuming,” says Jenkins. “The job description is ‘all day and after dark.’”

Neil Rosa, AD at Moorestown High School and a trustee of the Directors of Athletics Association of New Jersey (DAANJ), has witnessed an increase in turnover since 2007, when the economy nose-dived and Trenton drastically cut the state’s education budget. Suddenly ADs, already accustomed to working more than 60 hours a week, were saddled with new duties.

Some ADs now pull double duty as assistant principals, often overseeing student activities, discipline and an academic department—in addition to all the sports programs. Many districts have altogether eliminated the traditional athletic-director title.

“Things got turned upside down in the state with those cuts,” says Rosa, who is starting his 17th year in Moorestown. “With a lot of newer ADs today, the magnitude of time away from the family, the heightened awareness of events, the extra responsibilities and external pressures—many think it’s not worth it.”

For years, New Jersey high school ADs were part of an old-boys’ club; to a degree, that’s still true. There are approximately 20 women ADs among the state’s 433 member schools in the NJSIAA.

The job requires many hats and long days. Forget the common perception that ADs show up at 3 pm to watch their teams play. In fact, most days start before 8 am and often extend into the evening and to many Saturdays.

Coping with difficult parents is an obligatory part of the job. Functional responsibilities include coordinating program schedules; preparing and implementing budgets; making sure every team that needs a field or gym for practice has one; facilitating transportation; supervising game management and crowd control; keeping tabs on student eligibility—academic and otherwise; hiring and evaluating coaches; and overseeing intramurals. ADs are also charged with promoting a positive atmosphere within their school, with other schools and within their town.

No doubt the job holds considerable sway. A school’s athletic program is a window into its reputation, as well as its community. Yet Jenkins, known for presenting a positive image in Bloomfield, laments that too often, “people just look at wins, trophies, championships.” He believes athletics should be an extension of the classroom. He harps on themes like punctuality and respect.
“It’s an awesome profession, one of the greatest ways to build influence in your community by the tone you set, the coaches you hire,” says consultant Kevin Bryant, a district athletic director in Oregon and author of a 2014 book, The Athletic Director Survival Guide (published by his own Thrive Athletic Consulting). “But it’s a very lonely job. No one in the building understands what you do. It’s like wallpaper, nobody notices you until something goes wrong.”

And much can go awry. “When something happens in the classroom, you deal with it,” says Kim DeGraw-Cole, an NJSIAA assistant director and former AD at Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin. “Something happens on the athletic field, it becomes a headline.”

Not the least problem is fan behavior, which invariably puts ADs in the crosshairs. In 2016, a Howell-Manasquan hockey game was marred by a parent’s physical altercation with a pair of referees. Earlier this year, at a Jefferson Township-Dover High basketball game, some Jefferson students chanted “build the wall” at Dover’s Latino players and “ashy knees” at the team’s African-American members. The incident played out for days in the media. The NJSIAA directed the schools to work the problem out themselves.

Such high-profile incidents are hardly the norm, but seething parents are increasingly problematic. “I’ve talked to quite a few people, and they agree it’s gotten worse since the economic downturn [in 2007],” says former Verona High AD Gary Farishian. “People are angrier, more frustrated,” he continues. “Nine out of 10 instances when a parent complains to an AD, it’s about their kid’s playing time.”

Beyond the parental complaints, there are longstanding and polarizing issues to deal with. New Jersey high schools have been grappling with a transfer epidemic in which student athletes hopscotch from school to school in search of athletic advantage. Earlier this year, the commissioner of education rejected an NJSIAA rule intended to discourage student transfers, saying it unfairly punished students who transfer for legitimate reasons.

The private-vs.-public-school issue is an ongoing national debate. Yet tensions in New Jersey have been particularly raw over the inherent advantages of certain private schools that ramp up recruiting to ensure their success.

The issue recently got the better of Mike Wolfthal, longtime AD at Bishop Ahr High School in Edison. Frustrated over a December 2015 NJSIAA vote separating public and private schools in football and wrestling in his conference, Wolfthal blasted a profane e-mail to his peers. He later apologized, but the fury behind this controversy still inflames many.

Stress is no stranger in a high school sports culture where winning often takes priority over fun and life lessons. Indeed, there’s much on the line, with so many student athletes hoping to earn college scholarships.

Bryant, the consultant, says it takes up to five years for a new AD to fully “get their head around the position.” Meanwhile, they have to deal with the fear factor. Former Hunterdon Central athletic director Bob Rossi says he has seen younger ADs live in constant worry about buses showing up late, or heading in the wrong direction after leaving for their destinations.

Fortunately, at Hunterdon Central—a 3,000-student regional school serving five municipalities—that was not the case with Rossi’s successor, Michael Raymond, who completed his first year as AD last spring after 16 years as the school’s baseball coach. Rossi worked closely with his protégé in his final months at Hunterdon Central, going over every detail of the job. “There’s so much to learn,” says Raymond, citing the school’s 33 different programs, each its own world. “Track,” he says, “is so different than softball in terms of its culture, everything.”

Overly involved parents and old-school coaches are often recipes for conflict. Typically, the athletic director gets the brunt. “The attribute of any good AD is: Be a good listener,” says Rossi, who retired in 2016 after 24 years at Hunterdon Central. “As a parent myself, you relate to the pain and anguish of parents, if it’s their kid’s playing time or whatever, and you need to communicate that to the coaches.”

These days, shrinking budgets and declining participation are forcing ADs to make tough decisions about eliminating some varsity sports or freshman and middle-school programs. To survive, a growing number of high school hockey programs have entered co-ops with neighboring schools. Yet decisions concerning smaller, albeit less expensive, programs often put ADs on the public hot seat. This past June, when A.L. Johnson High students in Clark pleaded at an emotional Board of Education meeting for continuation of their sports—cross country, tennis and swimming—they were told the decision rested with Gus Kalikas, the school’s AD. Kalikas says all of the programs were restored, and that tennis was never in jeopardy.

If high school athletics come down to the bottom line, state legislation related to high school sports has gone over the top, according to Rosa. In 2016-17, more than 50 bills required NJSIAA action on new rules and procedures, many medical related. The association passes the changes to the state’s ADs to implement.

“I’m blown away by the amount of state legislation we deal with now,” says Rosa. “Assemblymen worrying about how much money is charged for state tournaments? Aren’t there more important things to worry about?”

All of these factors take a toll on educators like Sebastian Powell, a track coach and teacher, who served as Belvidere High’s AD for only one year before leaving for an assistant principal job in Bloomfield. “My wife forbids me from even thinking of applying for another [AD] job,” says Powell.

Dave Kaplan is the former director of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center. He lives in Montclair.

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