Holly McHale distinctly remembers basketball practices when she played for Wells High in the late 1980s.
“Sure,” said McHale, now in her second season as head girls’ basketball coach at Massabesic High in Waterboro. “If we were running a transition drill and you didn’t look back for the ball, the coach would tell our point guard to hit us in the head.”
Quickly, she added, “You can’t do that any more.”
Coaches today face more scrutiny than ever before. What drills they run in practice, how they react during a game or how they treat or speak to their players can quickly turn into a community controversy or be the subject of an Internet chat.
Last fall, Wes Littlefield resigned in the middle of the season as football coach at Messalonskee High in Oakland, between Augusta and Waterville. He was later charged with assault after a practice incident in which he allegedly struck a player on the helmet. The charges were later dropped by Alan Kelley, acting district attorney in Kennebec and Somerset counties, who added he did not condone “the alleged conduct” by Littlefield.
That incident sent waves through the Maine high school coaching community, as many longtime coaches wondered what, exactly, they can or cannot do. And incidents across the nation helped stoke their concerns:
• In Woodstock, Ill., a Marian Central assistant coach was fired after he wrote a post on the Facebook page of one of his players saying he “wanted to take a bat to the knees” of the players on an opposing team and “carpetbomb the town.”
• The head coach at Lincoln High in Des Moines was fired after the school board concluded his treatment of a player who criticized the team on Twitter was excessive.
• A head coach in Gilbert, Ariz., was fired, he said, because “an anonymous parent” complained that he mistreated his players verbally and physically in practice.
BIGGER ROLE BY PARENTS
John Morin, who just finished his 16th season as head football coach at Massabesic, said he often participates in practice drills.
“There are times,” he said, “when the only way you can really show a kid the way you want something done is by getting in a stance and doing it.”
But, he admits, he wonders now whether he should. “Can you coach hands-on anymore?” he asked. “I don’t know.”
High school coaches throughout the state agree that their profession has changed greatly in the past 10 to 15 years.
Parents are more involved, both in the coaching of their children at the youth levels and in letting their feelings be known to school administrators.
Travel teams in nearly every sport — such as basketball, softball, ice hockey, soccer — have stretched seasons so that they all blend into one. Social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook, along with other public forums, have changed the way news and opinions are spread and dissected.
“I started coaching in the 1970s.” said Norm Gagne, the Scarborough High boys’ ice hockey coach now in his 38th season. “It blows my mind to see how much it’s changed.”
He said technological advances allow the players to be connected in ways he could never imagine. He once collected cellphones from his players before they got on buses to away games, but no longer does because they “know what I expect.”
Other coaches tell their players to stay off websites that offer forums that can often be critical of the team.
“It can be challenging to keep everyone focused and backing each other up,” said Kelly LaFountain, the girls’ basketball coach at Mt. Ararat in Topsham.
But the biggest change, said Gagne, is the role of parents, many of whom pay thousands of dollars through the years to have their children play on travel teams.
“Today’s parents have their eye on their kid, and rightfully so,” said Gagne. “But many are not realistic.”
Before coming to Scarborough, Gagne coached at Lewiston. He said he left there because of parental interference.
“It was unfortunate, but I have my principles and I wasn’t going to back down from what I believed in,” he said.
One thing that can’t change, said Gagne, is the coach’s philosophy and principles.
“I think when I first started, like a lot of coaches, I was a little rough around the edges,” said the 68-year-old Gagne, who has over 600 career victories. “But I never got away from the discipline. I always made sure my kids understood what I expected of them and how to do it the right way.”
His philosophy is simple: “You earn your position and playing time, and you do it in practice every day with your work ethic and knowledge of the game.”
Talk to any parent, any athlete, and you’re likely to get a different answer as to what they expect from their coaches.
“I would say everybody wants to win,” said Don Briggs, whose daughter Ashley plays basketball at Scarborough High.
But Briggs, who helps run the highly successful Firecrackers AAU basketball program, added “there are different levels of winning , . . Do you have to win it all to have pride in what you do?”
Last year, for example, Ashley Briggs was a freshman on the Red Storm team that advanced to the regional finals before losing to eventual state champ McAuley. It was a totally unexpected run for Scarborough, which returned only one starter from the previous year.
“If you look at that season, I don’t think you’ll find a person in Scarborough who didn’t think it was successful,” said Briggs.
Polly Hardy, whose son Chris played soccer at Gorham High for Tim King, agrees that winning is overrated when evaluating a coach.
“I would hope it’s not all about wins and losses, but about helping him build character and to be a better person,” she said. “I want my child’s coach to teach skills that can translate on the field and off. How you represent your community. It’s really about character and I feel that’s what Tim (King) brings to this program.”
Briggs, who played for Ron Cote (who now coaches his daughter at Scarborough) in the 1980s at Biddeford, said it’s more important that “those kids have a positive experience from a competitive standpoint and from an educational standpoint.”
He said he wants his daughter to play for someone “that they can maintain a relationship with after. That proves that (the coach) cared about (the player) beyond the things that they could do on the basketball court.”
Don Briggs has such a relationship with Cote. They have remained close throughout the years — Briggs even coaching with Cote when he took a job at the University of New England. “Our relationship,” he said, “has come full circle.”
TEACHING THE GAME – AND LIFE
Players look for that relationship too.
At York, Randy Small coaches both football and boys’ basketball. He can be intense, loud and demonstrative on the sidelines. He has been known to curse at times, though never directly at a player.
His players don’t mind.
“Sure some (cuss) words pop up time to time,” said Thomas Kinton, who plays both football and basketball. “But who cares? It gives us motivation, gets us ready to play.”
“He’s definitely a player’s coach,” said Ross Hogan, the Wildcats’ quarterback and a guard on the basketball team. “He’s in it for the kids. He would never badmouth us. He’s always there for us. He teaches football but he teaches life lessons along with that. He’s always got our backs, on and off the field.”
Taylor Newton, a lineman for York, said Small’s home is open to them at any time.
“I think everyone has his phone number to call at any time,” said Newton. “When we talk, it’s not just about football, but it’s also about life.”
Small, the head coach of York’s football team for 15 years, knows times have changed.
“You never cuss at a child,” he said. “You never get in a kid’s face. You never degrade a kid. We don’t do that. We get after them, but in a positive way.
“The generation of the old-school coach who grabs the facemask and yanks the kid’s head around and says, ‘Hey, listen to me,’ that’s gone.”
And rightfully so, according to some observers.
“I played sports a long time ago, so I know what it’s like to be yelled at,” said Bill Gayton, a University of Southern Maine professor who specializes in sports psychology. “Back then, if a coach wanted to punish us, he made us run. There’s no data to show that it was necessary or beneficial, but they did it.
“The fact of the matter is that society has changed. And when society changes, you better change your behavior or you’ll be in trouble.”
NEW REGIMENS FOR COACHES
Finding new coaches is no easy task.
“I think a lot of people are understanding today that coaching is hard,” said Paul Vachon, the athletic director at Cony High in Augusta and the former girls’ basketball coach at the school. “It’s a hard thing. I think they see it because there are so many travel teams now, and so many people coaching them. I know coaches in Little League who have said they will never do that again. I see it in travel basketball where they say they’re not going to do it again because everyone is on their back.”
When someone is hired to coach interscholastic sports in Maine, they must complete — within a year — three online courses offered by the National Federation of State High School Associations through the Maine Principals’ Association, including one on coaching principles.
The course is important, said Mike Burnham, an assistant executive director at the MPA, because it gives the coaching candidate an idea of what to expect. It provides guidelines for dealing with students, parents, budgets, anything that might come up. The course stresses the importance of education in the coaching process.
“It allows them to start thinking about the development of a coaching philosophy,” he said. “About working with young people, about developing skills and techniques for communicating with young people.”
When he has an opening, Vachon is looking for someone with “passion, excitement, enthusiasm.” He hopes to find someone who can teach in the school system as well, because the student-teacher relationship is very important. He wants someone willing to make a commitment to the program.
When looking for a new coach at Lake Region High in Naples, Paul True — the athletic director and girls’ basketball coach — wants someone who is “a good person, honest and genuine.”
He wants someone “who understands that we’re not really in the business to make money … Instead it’s to educate our student-athletes with the opportunity to impact their lives in a very positive way.”
At Lake Region, the highest paid varsity coach makes $4,022. An assistant or middle school coach earns $1,200.
Vachon and True also want someone who can foster relationships with both students and parents.
In his ninth year at Lake Region, and 16th overall as a coach, True said the parent-coach relationship is vastly different than when he started.
“Parents are much more involved, and it can be a very positive situation if the coach fosters that relationship and puts an emphasis on communication,” he said. “Certainly with everyone’s busy schedule, getting help from parents can be very positive for the program. It’s a very different relationship than years ago when it was ‘this is what the coach said or did’ and the parents were really hands-off.”
True admits that he has also changed over the years, has become “more sympathetic” to his players’ needs. There was a time, he said, that he was very intense and didn’t handle losses well.
“I was very critical, very reactive,” he said. “Everyone knows I’m still emotional now, but I feel I can channel my energies in a much more positive manner than I did years ago.”
Vachon resigned as the Cony girls’ basketball coach in 2008 after 23 years, 433 victories, 11 Eastern Class A titles and seven state championships.
Asked if he could coach today, he said, “It’s difficult to answer. I know I really feel for my coaches.”
Vachon talks to his coaches all the time about finding positive ways to instruct their players. He was known as a very demonstrative, fiery coach who pushed his players to be their best every day. His image was not consistent with his message, according to a former player who replaced him as coach.
“He was a very compassionate man who cared about all his players,” said Karen Magnusson. “That’s one thing I try to emulate. Basketball is basketball and important to everyone who plays, but not as important as the relationship between the coach and players.
“He pushed me. He got on me and made me the best player I could be.”
Magnusson loved playing for him.
“People saw the yelling, the craziness,” she said. “But when you weren’t on the court, you couldn’t hear what he was saying. We did. And a lot of it was positive stuff.”
PLAYERS HAVE ALSO CHANGED
One of the biggest changes coaches have noticed is that players are more often questioning what they’re told to do, especially in practice. Players now want to know why they’re running a particular drill, or why they have to learn a particular skill.
“Part of it could be that they want to learn, part of it could be that they’re unsure why we’re doing it,” said Magnusson.
“Either way it’s not bad to say why. Now they’re learning basketball as well as the point of the drill. And when it works in a game, they understand the why.”
But it is a change to those who were taught to never question the coach.
“Before it’d be like a Hoosiers movie at practice, you didn’t question the coach’s decision,” said Massabesic’s McHale.
“If you didn’t get playing time or something happened in practice, you’d go home and your parents would say, ‘What did you do wrong?’ or ‘What can you do to get better?’
“Now it’s almost like walking on eggshells in your approach with players. It’s much more constructive criticism and positive reinforcement. Which, really, it should be.”
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: