The 2012-13 school year already has been one of coaching changes for the York High School girls swimming and basketball teams. Last year, and in previous years at York, coaches have come and gone across many sports, and there has been much speculation among parents about why this is so.
Some parents believe it is due to an ongoing dissatisfaction with the environment in which coaches work—that they just can't take it anymore—but coaches have not come out publicly and said that. It could also mean that in the world of high school sports, coaching changes are common because often coaches have opportunities for advancement in other school districts. But one thing is certain: When it happens, it creates quite a stir.
A last week about the girls swim coach suddenly leaving York fueled a barrage of speculation as to the reason. Supporters of the coach, Jim Clarke, came out in force defending his character and criticizing the district and parents for creating an impossible environment for him to work—and Elmhurst Patch for writing an article about it. Parents were upset because they felt their children were left without the leadership needed to win meets.
District officials are not speaking publicly about the specifics of Clarke's unexpected departure; that is their policy when it comes to personnel matters. Superintendent David Pruneau did issue a statement asking parents to support the interim coach in her new position.
But in general, when coaches leave, it's for personal reasons, York Principal Diana Smith said last week. Coaches move out of state to be closer to family members. They are offered opportunities for advancement, sometimes in other fields.
On the heels of coach Clarke's resignation, girls basketball coach Jason Reinecke announced he would be leaving, as well.
"People look at it and say, 'The swim coach quit, and now the head of girls basketball? What is going on over there?' " Smith said. "They don't have anything to do with each other. (Reinecke) had an opportunity for an assistant principalship in Michigan. I talked to the principal there on Friday (Aug. 17) and told him he was gaining a great assistant principal. I'm thrilled for him to be able to go."
When York varsity football coach Bill Lech left last year after seven seasons, parents wondered if something was going on behind the scenes. But his reasons, Smith said, were related to family circumstances.
"He wanted more time with his family," she said. "Bill was a York grad. I was proud of the job he did for the seasons he was here and really supported him in making that change."
When boys varsity basketball coach Tom Shields ended his brief stint with the district in 2005, parents were upset.
"I can remember when we hired Al Biancalana (to take Shield's place)," Smith said. "There was a lot of criticism over that decision, but I knew that Al was a guy who exemplified exactly what we were looking for all the way around."
Biancalana left in 2011 after five seasons to take a job as associate head coach at UIC.
There are many more examples. Is York unique in that regard? Or, is it typical for coaches to move around?
"Absolutely," it's typical, Smith said.
"I do find that people get very emotionally attached in sports," she said. "In a lot of cases, the parents have been with their kids in feeder programs leading up to (high school athletics). The reality is that not every coaching decision is going to please everybody."
That was certainly the case when Coach Clarke's predecessor, Dave Davis, was removed from his position as girls swim coach last school year. Parents and students formed in an unsuccessful attempt to get him reinstated. Davis remains as the boys coach and aquatics director at York. Parents still want him back with the girls team.
But What About Academics?
When Reinecke and Clarke left their coaching positions, they also left vacancies in the classroom, which is something Smith finds more upsetting.
"You get a lot more outcry about coaching changes than you do with teacher changes, which is a shame," she said. "I don't mean to diminish it, but you hear way more about it with coaches."
Reinecke and Clarke left big shoes to fill in the classroom, she said.
"Losing Jim certainly was difficult for the swim team," she said. "But a greater concern for me was losing him in the classroom. He was an incredibly strong English teacher. He was one of our freshman cohort instructors and was just superior in the classroom. Trying to replace him in that situation was very difficult.
"And Jason, people talk about him being the girls basketball coach, but he was a great dean, great science teacher. It's a loss all the way around."
The key to easing some of the tension, perceived and otherwise, is communication, Smith said. A meeting with swim parents last week went well, she said.
"I thought the new coaches spoke very clearly about their vision for the program, and I felt like the meeting was important in moving everybody forward," she said. "The girls were very enthusiastic, the coaches were enthusiastic and the parents were extremely supportive. Those are the elements that are going to allow us to move from a difficult situation to a good season."
Open communication applies to the entire athletics program at York going forward, she said.
"This year, I'll be working with (Athletic Director John Rutter) to get better feedback, to get really good feedback, from parents, students and coaches to make sure we're running a program that's in everyone's best interest," Smith said.
The District 205 School Board also is working on drafting an athletics philosophy that will balance the goals of character development, sportsmanship and, yes, winning games, with the district's primary mission of educating students. Communication with stakeholders is critical to that process, as well.
"I don't think it's mutually exclusive," Smith said. "We believe you can do both. It's important to be able to articulate the (value) of athletics and extracurricular activities as part of the overall high school experience."