There was a time when the high school athletic director was a coach (probably football or basketball), definitely a teacher. His or her duties, in addition to the classroom, might include setting up schedules, purchasing uniforms and equipment, and maybe lining the fields.
These days, only at smaller schools do you find athletic directors who also coach or teach. Technological improvements have made some things easier – scheduling, for example – but with more students playing more sports than ever, the days are longer and the demands endless.
And the job pressure, compounded by involved parents who are more vocal, is building.
“It’s as stressful an administrative position as I’ve been in,” said Andrew Dolloff, the superintendent of schools in Yarmouth and a former athletic director at Scarborough High. “And I think it’s stressful because of the emotions that surround all the (sporting) events.”
“The athletic director is the administrative face for many school districts,” said Mel Craig, the athletic director at Deering High in Portland. “For good or bad, a lot of schools hang their hats on their athletic programs. And you have the chance to be that face, that ambassador, for that program.”
“I look at us as a service job,” said Mark White, in his fourth year as the athletic director at Presque Isle High. “More than any other department, we are here for the public. On any given home game we will have 600 to 700 people in our facilities. And we provide everything to help everyone.”
It’s becoming harder to find someone willing to do that over a long period of time. According to Marty Ryan, a former athletic administrator (as they now like to be called) at Wells and Kennebunk, and now the executive director of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, there were 30 changes among the association’s 148 high school and middle school members for the 2013-14 school year. Normally, Ryan said, there are about 20 changes per year.
“It’s becoming a burnout position right now,” said Thor Nilsen, who retired in 2013 after a 43-year career in education that included 26 as an athletic administrator. “Aside from the superintendent of schools in a community, the athletic administrator is the lightning rod for anything controversial.
“People want the athletic administrator to solve all the problems – get rid of this coach, suspend that athlete. You solve the problems and 50 percent of the people are happy.”
The MIAAA has been aware of the burnout issue for several years. In 2006, the association commissioned three members to put together a report on burnout in Maine. The conclusion was these administrators needed help, stating “it is essential that school systems re-examine the role of the athletic administrator in their communities.”
It suggested that school systems needed to provide the athletic directors with better support personnel as well as build contracts that more accurately reflect the actual time and responsibilities they have. The report also suggested the formation of a mentoring program to provide advice for younger athletic directors going through difficult times, and an examination of wellness programs for athletic directors; many of them spend most of the day at the school and may not exercise or eat properly.
Officials at the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association are concerned not only with the burnout, but also finding the right people for the position.
“It’s a national thing. Right now we’re seeing a lot of younger people getting in and not staying longer than two, three, four years,” said Bruce Whitehead, the president of the NIAAA. “I don’t call that burnout. I just think that administrators today who don’t understand how critically important the position is to the school, the district and the community … are throwing the keys at people who are not totally prepared. And after a couple of years they say, ‘This wasn’t what I bargained for.’
“It’s still a good job. If you can get support and unanimity in the school district, you can still get quality people in the job. You just need school districts to understand that they need to hire qualified people.”
OVERSEEING THIS, OVERSEEING THAT
Blair Marelli is entering his third year as the athletic director at Noble High in North Berwick. His duties are so wide ranging that he laughed when asked for a job description.
“There is no one job description for this position,” he said. “It is so many different things. It goes from grades to attendance, dealing with discipline issues, to coaching issues, to parental issues. Ask me any day and it’s something different … A lot of it is putting out fires.”
Athletic directors often arrive before classes begin and are the last ones to leave, after the final game of the night. More than one interviewed for this story said they lock the doors and the gates when everyone else is gone.
In between, they meet with coaches and students, answer emails and phone calls, arrange travel, secure officials for home games, work with booster groups that supplement shrinking athletic budgets, set up for home games, oversee home games at any variety of venues, hire coaches, deal with parents concerned about any number of things and, of course, work on budgets – constantly.
“My job, like most athletic directors,” said Gary Stevens, the athletic director at Thornton Academy in Saco, “is like an umbrella. I’m responsible for everything that will fit under it.”
Some umbrellas are bigger than others. Several athletic directors also serve as assistant principals, such as Dennis Walton of Biddeford. Others are responsible for transportation in the school district. Some oversee other school activities such as dances, intramurals or graduation. Many also oversee middle school athletics. Some schedule all events at all school facilities, such as Gordon Salls of Sanford.
The NIAAA is trying to make it easier on athletic directors. It offers a certification program as well as a 38-class leadership program for professional development.
“We hope to give them a better foundation on which to build their program,” said Whitehead. “We’re developing courses that deal with things they will understand.”
The classes, each four hours long, cover specific topics such as how to deal with booster clubs, the best artificial surface for fields, how to maintain facilities (indoors and outdoors), and how to deal with parents and time management. It also offers three courses on law, which are especially important these days.
“You better be on top of school law and sports law,” said Sanford’s Salls, entering his 21st year as an athletic director. “From equipment and how you offer it, from Title IX to transgender issues, how the money is spent … you need to be on top of that. The liability is huge. I think that plays a huge role in how athletic directors think, and what they offer and how they offer it. One of the biggest jobs is trying to keep your school out of court. You better be one step ahead of everyone else. That’s really at the forefront now.”
The NIAAA’s Whitehead said there always have been legal challenges, “but the number has increased. For athletic directors, that means you make sure you have the I’s dotted, the T’s crossed, so you minimize the risk.”
Athletic directors rely on each other. When something goes bad or when one needs direction, they often consult with others in their leagues.
“The men and women I worked with as colleagues at other schools when I was an athletic director were some of the best people I’ve worked with in and out of education,” said Yarmouth’s Dolloff. “They care about kids, want to provide quality programming, want to help kids reach their goals and success, and they want to hire and supervise quality coaches and programs.
“It takes a great effort to do that.”
FACING THE CHALLENGES
Lake Region’s Paul True is among a diminishing number of athletic directors who also coach, especially at a larger school. You may find some who continue to teach at the smaller schools, such as Van Buren’s Sue Parent, who carries a full teaching load. But few administrators in Class A or B are in the classroom or playing fields.
In addition to overseeing the Lakers’ athletic program, True coaches the girls’ basketball team. Somehow he is going to find time this year to teach a class – Fundamentals of Coaching and Leadership. “I volunteered to do it,” he said. “It’s another way for me to attack something new that I’m excited about and it’s another way to work closely with our students.”
True, the son of a former athletic director, the late Harry “Pinky” True, said he feels fortunate that he has the support of his school board, colleagues and, especially, his family to continue both jobs.
“I think I have demonstrated that it is possible to do both if someone has the passion and energy to do both,” he said.
He obviously does. The Lakers won the state Class B girls’ basketball championship last winter and have one of the top programs in the state. Somehow, True said it really isn’t that difficult during the school year – “I’m going to be at the school anyway,” he said – but is toughest during the summer, when he has to run a basketball program at the expense of time with his family.
“That’s when I feel it,” he said. “During the school year every day is exciting for me. I love what I do.”
And, he added, “I will continue to do it until that’s gone.”
Many athletic director are former athletes and said the interaction with the student-athletes, as well as the excitement surrounding game nights, keeps them going.
And no matter the school size or location, they share challenges: finding funds to maintain quality programs, and dealing with increased concerns regarding parental involvement and social media.
Parents are more involved than ever with their children’s athletic careers, spending hundreds – maybe thousands – of dollars on elite travel programs. And unlike the past, when the coach’s word was final, if parents have concerns about the way their children are being treated on the school team, they’re quick to send an email or call the athletic director. Not all of them are pleasant.
“The emails never stop,” said Noble’s Marelli. “The phone never stops ringing.”
Deering’s Craig, one of about 20 female athletic directors in the state, said she often asks parents to meet face-to-face. “Nine times out of 10 that diffuses the situation,” she said.
Todd Livingston, the athletic director at South Portland, understands parents just want the best for their children. But parents have to realize elite travel teams aren’t associated with high school teams.
“If you want to pay, there’s a team for you out there,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you have to be one of the five starters on the basketball team.”
Sanford’s Salls added, “A lot of situations, it’s comparing apples to oranges. Schools provide the best opportunities they can given the resources they have.”
Social media has added another layer of concern. More students and parents are taking to social media to let their thoughts be known and often those conflict with the goals of the coach or school.
Jack Trull at Old Orchard Beach tells coaches to stay off Facebook but he understands it’s not easy keeping athletes off Facebook or Twitter. “It’s just something that’s hard to police,” he said.
Jeff Ramich, the athletic director at Brunswick, said social media has added another layer to his job: “I think we’re now becoming more like sports information directors, like in college. A lot of kids want to go on to the next level and I feel it’s my job to promote my kids, whether on Twitter or Facebook or in a note in an email, a note to our local media.”
Athletic directors are well paid. Many, especially those in the larger schools, make upwards of $80,000 a year. But all work six days a week during the school years with countless hours. They usually work during school vacation weeks and don’t get summers off like teachers. Sanford’s Salls said he typically cannot take all the vacation time he has accrued because of his duties in the summer.
“If we were to get paid by the hour, it would not be a very smart job to take,” said OOB’s Trull, who makes about $81,000. “But it is very rewarding to work with kids, work with coaches, and be involved in their development as a person.”
And that, said the NIAAA’s Whitehead, is what will keep attracting people to the job.
“The bottom line is this,” he said. “This is a lot of pressure, long hours and not great pay for those hours. But it’s still the greatest job in education, helping kids become mature adults.”