STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
At least 18 head coaches have parted ways with Durango High School athletics during the last 3½ years, a turnover rate the principal and school district characterized as par for the course.
But coaches aren’t so sure.
There are lots of reasons for burnout. Coaches work long hours, travel hundreds of miles to weekend games and, by their estimate, are paid less than $1 per hour for their time. They periodically deal with upset parents and must answer to school administrators when things go wrong. There’s pressure to win and players to look after.
Is it any wonder that coaches don’t always last long?
Some former coaches interviewed for this story said a recent change in administration – a new principal and superintendent – led to their decision to resign. They cited a lack of support when things get tough.
“That was really the biggest reason for me – change in administration, without a doubt,” said Doug Cuddie, who quit last month after serving five years as head wrestling coach. “They see things differently than I see things. It wouldn’t have worked. I really thought it was time for me to move on.”
Durango School District 9-R spokeswoman Julie Popp said some resignations can be attributed to coaches not supporting a new vision for the district. Others parted ways after parents or students expressed concerns about coaching practices.
But for the most part, coaches had a good run and left for individual reasons, including the high time commitment, low pay and frequent travel, she said.
“Most coaches understand that it isn’t a high-paying job,” she wrote in an email to the Herald. “They are coaches because they love the sport and because they love working with kids and developing their sportsmanship skills.”
For many, coaching is a side job – a passion that involves many hours and little pay. Their real job is teaching. Some worry that complaints made on the field will carry over into the classroom.
“Coaches are the only ones who have no recourse if they are falsely accused by a parent or if something happens where they need some support,” said one former coach who remains employed with the district and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There are no union rules. There is no protection of any sort.
“A parent has the power to say something that cannot be proven – can be proven in the opposite – and still get their way.”
Cuddie described a change in culture. In the past, if parents had complaints about their kids’ playing time or a coach’s philosophy, they followed a chain of command: First they talked to the coach, then the athletic director, then the principal and finally the superintendent. Usually, problems could be resolved by talking to the coach, he said.
Nowadays, parents go straight to the principal or superintendent, he said. Then coaches are called into an office to defend themselves.
“If you have a complaint, you can get in to see the superintendent because he’s willing to see anybody.” Cuddie said. “There’s no chain of accountability.”
Administrators give a lot of clout to grumpy parents, he said. While 95 percent of parents may be happy with the program, the 5 percent who complain get their way, Cuddie said.
“This year in particular, they were just given a louder voice than anybody else,” he said. “You’ve got to listen to the parents who are happy with what’s going on and not just the parents who have complaints, and I’m not sure that’s what’s going on.”
In an email, Superintendent Daniel Snowberger said complaints often are the result of simple misunderstandings. Most are referred back to the coach to be resolved, he said.
Sometimes complaints are deemed unfair and unreasonable, in which case they are dismissed, he said.
“When mistakes on the part of any staff member are found, it is our job to support both coach and athlete to rectify the situation,” Snowberger wrote. “After all, coaches are human, too, and our kids deserve the best.”
He added: “We will never hesitate to take appropriate action when the behavior of any individual in the district is found to be detrimental to students.”
Several head coaches who recently resigned did not return phone calls for this story.
Those who did said that despite the low pay, high time commitment and upset parents, it is a rewarding job with far more positive experiences than negative ones.
Work continues in offseason
Coaches and former coaches said they work an average of 25 hours a week during the season and about half that during the offseason, depending on the sport.
Former head boys soccer coach Scott Emrich said he finished teaching at 3 p.m., went to the field for two-hour practices, and stuck around afterward to meet with parents and assistant coaches. He did that four times a week.
And on many weekends, like all DHS coaches, he would travel. Because of Durango’s remote location, teams often drive long distances to find good competition or for league contests. So on some Friday nights, Emrich loaded up a van and drove students across the state to compete in another city. They would play Saturday and be back late Saturday night. On Sunday, they reviewed game footage and prepared for the next week.
Emrich declined to say why he quit coaching boys varsity soccer after 11 years.
“It’s all water under the bridge,” he said.
Fewer practices are held during the offseason, but coaches still need to attend potlucks, manage paperwork and organize fundraisers to pay for travel expenses.
For high school English teacher Aaron Eldridge, who quit as girls soccer coach in April 2012, the time commitment became too much. It was difficult to give 100 percent to both jobs, he said.
“They tend to take away from each other,” he said. “I wasn’t doing it as well as I wanted to be able to do it.
“You can imagine going several weekends up to Denver or Colorado Springs – six- or seven- or eight-hour bus rides each way – play a couple of games and come right back. It’s hard on everybody – the kids and the coaches.”
Show me the money
Several coaches said they earned about 50 cents to $1 per hour for their coaching. But all said the same thing: It’s not about the money.
“It literally turns into cents per hour – as in less than a dollar – so it’s a labor of love,” said John Bernazzani, who resigned as head softball coach in November. “It can be considered part-time pay for almost full-time work when you’re in season.”
Coaches are paid different amounts based on the sport they coach and their teaching salary. If they are not employed by the district, they receive a stipend similar to what other coaches earn.
Several head coaches said they were paid about $3,000 per year. An open records request by the Herald found the average pay to be about $2,500 per year for former head coaches at the high school. Some salaries appear considerably lower because certain coaches didn’t work the entire season or weren’t employed full-time with the district, Popp said.
Durango coaches aren’t paid very well, but it doesn’t get much better anywhere else in the state, said Steve Thyfault, a high school track coach who earns $3,322 per year.
“We’re at the bottom of the pay scale, but let me tell you, the pay scale doesn’t jump very high,” he said. “The highest-paid coaches in the state are making only $1,000 or $2,000 a year more than us.”
The school district plans to re-evaluate salaries for coaches next year, Popp said.
Emrich said it is nice to earn a few thousand dollars, but the biggest reward is spending time with players and their families.
“I’ve been to weddings with my players, and, unfortunately, funerals, too,” he said.
Parents, for the most part, are a pleasure to be around, coaches said, but some don’t understand high school sports and lack basic communication skills to resolve their concerns.
They have been known to complain about myriad issues: Their kid didn’t make the team or didn’t play during a game, the coach was too tough, the coach is acting too much like a parent. Parents are part of the reason for turnover among coaches, Thyfault said. One or two express frustrations, and they “gang up” on the coach.
“You get two or three that complain – they start getting vociferous – and the next thing you know, a coach is gone,” he said. “A new coach comes in, and everybody is pretty happy for a little while, but it doesn’t last long.”
Eldridge said he considered himself one of the lucky ones when it came to dealing with parents. But some coaches had to deal with “nasty” parents, “and sometimes I feel like the district wasn’t very good at standing up and supporting the coaches in those situations.”
“I did see a lot of really ugly, nasty things happen in other programs with parents,” he said.
A special person
DHS Principal Leanne Garcia said it takes a special person to be a coach. They have to be tough with players, and show compassion.
“You can’t read any book; you have to develop that over time,” she said.
Winning is important, she said, because if a team is not winning, it is hard to have a balanced relationship with kids.
“It really makes it more challenging to maintain that positive spirit and positive atmosphere,” Garcia said.
Sports play an important role in the high school experience, she said. Without them, some kids would lose interest and drop out.
Student athletes must keep their grades up in order to play. It has been shown time and again that student athletes have higher grades than the average student body. Sports also teach teamwork, a crucial skill in society, Garcia said.
“(Coaches) thrive on positive energy from their kids and from the community,” she said. “That’s really what they’re after, and that’s why they do what they do.”
Cuddie, the former wrestling coach, said he was feeling a little down last week when he bumped into a former student at Basin Co-Op. The student thanked Cuddie for changing his life.
“How many people get to hear something like that?” Cuddie said. “I get goose bumps thinking about it.”