When high school coaches don’t win, they get canned
Michelle Russell sat in her boss' office last March, stunned, having just been informed she had been fired as Dundee-Crown's girls basketball coach.
A four-win season had ended a five-year run that yielded 32 victories. That prompted school officials to move the Chargers program in a different direction. Like Marty Hammond, who was fired two weeks ago as Woodstock's girls head coach after seven years, Russell felt blindsided.
In an environment where coaches strive to do things the right way, being asked to win on a regular basis often gets added to an already bulging workload. When coaches fail to meet the standard, they are sometimes met with the reality that a change at the top is the only solution.
Job security becomes a matter of coming up on the right side of a numbers game.
"I imagine, for administrators, (a coach's win-loss record) is something they have to look at," said Russell, who worked as an assistant coach at Huntley this season after finishing 32-103 at D-C. "I don't think it's fair, but..."
Hammond's recent past at Woodstock appeared to play a role in his dismissal.
Despite winning a regional championship this year, Woodstock, which went 75-122 under Hammond, won only four FVC Fox Division games over the past three seasons. Hammond, who did not respond to multiple interview requests, told the Northwest Herald following his firing that his team was "virtually competitive in every game." Like Russell, he felt his program was moving in the right direction.
Woodstock athletic director Glen Wilson disagreed, saying it was time for the program to have a new voice.
Wilson used the same terminology this week in a text message, again stating that he appreciated what Hammond had done for Woodstock's program. But Wilson also maintained winning isn't the only requirement involved in the decision to retain a coach.
"There are many factors that define a head coach's expectations to create a comprehensive, positive and successful experience for the students," Wilson wrote. "It is indeed, many times, a lot of work for both the coach and the students, but they both do so because they love it."
Former Jacobs football coach Dean Schlueter insists, however, that how much coaches have on their plate is under-estimated by most. That workload, he said, can become all-consuming, keeping coaches from dwelling on whether they are winning enough.
Schlueter, who now coaches Cary-Grove's sophomore team, was fired at Jacobs in 2009 after 13 seasons. During his tenure, the Golden Eagles went 55-68 and reached the playoffs four times. In each of his final two seasons, though, Jacobs finished 2-7, leading to Schlueter's dismissal.
Whether job security enters a coach's thinking during difficult times, Schlueter said, can depend on an administrator's vision for a school's athletic program. It's almost impossible, Schlueter said, to always know what bosses are thinking, making communication a critical part of the formula.
"Every coach wants to win and do their very best and I think that's what most coaches are most concerned with," Schlueter said. "You try not to worry about the things that aren't in your control. You worry more about the process and hopefully, the results take care of themselves."
Crystal Lake South athletic director Jason Bott said, while he expects his coaches to work hard and live up to a mission statement that stresses motivating and teaching athletes to be respectful and resilient, he can't envision a scenario in which he would dismiss a coach for simply not reaching a certain win-loss standard.
"I don't really preach winning and losing with my coaches in any capacity," Bott said. "Some seasons are going to be successful and some seasons aren't, but (the important thing) is what lessons are we teaching through athletics.
"So I don't really gauge wins and losses at all. That's not really the end-product of anything we want to stress through our athletic program."
Public school coaches, unlike their private school counterparts, say that they have no control over the talent that enters their program. When there's a shortage, the expectation becomes for coaches to work with what they have. But success often comes at the expense of teams not being able to stack up talent-wise with the competition.
Whether that registers with administrators in a position to decide who they hire and fire can't be predicted.
Russell counted five times during her final meeting with administrators when she was told D-C was choosing to move in a different direction.
Each time, she asked why that was true. The final time she asked, she was told that her teams didn't win enough.
As much as she tried to defend her body of work, Russell realized the decision to let her go had already been made.
"You're kind of in a helpless situation," Russell said. "But it's their decision and you have to deal with it."
Getting over it isn't easy.
Schlueter said coaches become consumed with building a program, making it difficult when their efforts don't translate to winning. While many factors go into the decision whether to retain a coach, often, it comes down to a program's success.
"It's tough to hear (that you're fired)," Schlueter said. "It's tough when you do the very best you can and try and do it the right way. But at least I didn't have any regrets and I feel OK. I think most coaches feel OK with what they're trying to do."
Sometimes, though, that's not enough.
A year after the Chargers finished second in the FVC Valley Division, Russell said she didn't see her dismissal coming. In time, she came to accept the decision, but not before she recounted the work she put in to ensure that the Chargers won.
Russell never considered that if they didn't, she would be fired.
"I would imagine, if I had been there for six years and we never had a winning season, that would build on you," Russell said. "You've got pressure on you – the parents want to win, the administration at the school, the students (all want to win). Someone has to answer for that I guess you're the one in charge."
Scott Morris, who started coaching in 1984 and who has spent the past seven years running McHenry's girls program, senses a shift in expectations. Morris' team didn't post a winning record until his fifth season with the Warriors. Since then, McHenry has registered two winning seasons in its past three before finishing 13-17 this past season.
Morris said at least in his district, "winning" can be defined in terms of finishing above .500, capturing conference and/or regional championships and advancing to the state tournament. But he wrote in a text message that meeting that standard should not cause a coach to seek out weaker competition to attain a certain record each year.
"That's not what we want as a coach," Morris wrote.
Like many coaches, Morris struggles to get girls out for his team. Although he has found a way to start to turn things around at McHenry, the pressure to consistently put a winning program on the floor certainly exists.
Morris said the increased number of players competing for AAU programs to which parents pay big money for their kids to play for winning teams has changed the culture of high school programs.That has turned the spotlight on the coaches running those teams.
"I think the overall hope for a lot of these programs is that, as coaches, we are expected to win a little bit more than say, 10 or 15 years ago," said Morris, who added he has never had a discussion about job security with his boss. "But it always seems to come in cycles. You get two or three good years, you get a nice group of kids in and you hope to maintain that. But it's tough."
Despite an apparent shift toward winning, most coaches aren't willing to win at all costs. But what can be construed as a mixed message, administrators who expect coaches to stay within boundaries of fair play can also expect that the same coach consistently turns out a winning program.
When they don't, the message heard by Hammond, Russell and Schlueter that change is needed rises to the forefront, often catching coaches off-guard.
"Is it fair? Life's not fair," Schlueter said. "I think one of the experiences you can teach your players is that life isn't always fair and that it's about how you deal with it.
"Again, there are going to be things that are going to be out of your control that aren't necessarily fair. But you've got to be able to deal with them and deal with them with dignity."