January 14, 2013

It's a new game for high school coaches

Parents, athletes and social constraints force changes.

By Mike Lowe mlowe@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Holly McHale distinctly remembers basketball practices when she played for Wells High in the late 1980s.

click image to enlarge

Scarborough High School boys’ hockey coach Norm Gagne, 66, and now in his 38th year as a coach, draws up plays during a practice at MHG Ice in Saco. On coaching, he said: “It blows my mind to see how much it’s changed.”

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Paul True, Lake Region’s girls’ basketball coach, is also the athletic director. When hiring a coach, he says, he looks for “a good person, honest and genuine.”

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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"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.

Or worse.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Paul True, Lake Region High School girls’ basketball coach: “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.”

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

  


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