Coaches now can lead their varsity players on offseason club teams, but the potential for a slew of problems isn't lost on many athletic officials.
By DAVID MURPHY
Published October 3, 2006
When Al Morales took over the basketball program at Somers High School outside New York City two years ago, he inherited a culture in which losing was expected. The Tuskers had won just six combined games in the four years before his arrival and were fresh off an 0-20 campaign.
But Morales quickly changed that, instituting a year-round program that required complete dedication from his athletes. During the spring and fall, his team practiced twice a week and played in tournaments on weekends. In the summer, they played twice a week in a competitive league.
The results - 17 combined wins and a playoff berth in Morales' first two seasons - were immediate.
"A lot of it," he says, "is because of me being with them all year round."
But is that a good thing?
Administrators and coaches in Florida are pondering that question now that a long-standing rule intended to prevent year-round play has been repealed by the Florida High School Athletic Association.
Previously, Florida coaches couldn't run an offseason program like Morales' because of the "50-percent rule," which said a high school coach could not coach an offseason team if more than half of the club team consisted of varsity players. But the FHSAA rescinded the by-law in July, allowing coaches to coach their teams in the offseason provided they do so under the jurisdiction of an organized league.
The rationale is straightforward: High school coaches are familiar with their kids, have had background checks and are, in most cases, professional educators. So why force them to turn their kids over to youth coaches who may not be as qualified?
But the change is a drastic one. Florida is now one of only six states that does not restrict the number of players a high school coach may coach in the offseason joining New York, California, Arizona, Colorado and Pennsylvania. And that makes people like Bob West shake his head.
"The worst thing that could have happened, happened," said West, athletic director at Jacksonville Bishop Kenny and one of only six people to vote against the change.
Other administrators and coaches from Florida and around the country agree. The potential problems, they say, are numerous. Recruiting allegations could rise. Pressure on athletes to specialize could heighten. Time demands on already overworked coaches could increase.
Proponents say the growing importance of club sports and the difficulty in enforcing the existing rule necessitated a change.
But opponents say the risks far outweigh the rewards.
Consider: A basketball coach at John Doe High forms a club team consisting entirely of his varsity players. The team runs the high school's offense, features the high school's starting five and is led by the high school's coaching staff.
What happens when a player from a rival high school joins the club team?
"It will be like he is getting a tryout by getting to play first-hand for the coach," Wharton boys basketball coach Tommy Tonelli said.
Many people believe hypothetical situations such as this will become a reality under the new offseason guidelines. Eric Hayes, boys basketball coach at Central and a former club coach, said the setup "will lead to a lot of finger pointing," a sentiment that is confirmed by Glenn Treadway, associate director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.
Ten years ago, his organization eliminated its rule limiting offseason interaction between players and coaches. Since then, recruiting allegations have risen.
"I think we as an association would prefer to have some restrictions," he said. "There is always finger pointing in terms of recruiting."
But Fort Pierce Central athletic director Jay Stewart, who voted for the change, said he thinks recruiting through club sports would be easy to catch.
"If a kid transferred high schools (because of his club coach), it would be considered recruiting," Stewart said.
Far tougher to catch will be the pressure, implicit or explicit, athletes could feel because of the change.
For example, what happens to a two-sport athlete when his basketball coach enters his team into a competitive league during football season? Won't the fear of falling behind force him to dedicate himself to one sport over the other?
Some say yes.
"We like to promote the multiple-sport athletes, and if you allowed coaches to work with your athletes all year round, the fear is there will be a tendency to specialize," said Sandy Searcy, assistant commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association.
The states that do not have offseason restrictions all forbid coaches from mandating an athlete's participation on a club team, and Florida has a similar stipulation.
But Nina Van Erk, executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, acknowledges it is a "perception issue" and athletes may feel compelled to compete even if a coach does not expressly require they do so.
Some say that isn't a problem.
"(The 50-percent rule) was a rule that was intended to, I believe, keep kids from specializing too early," Stewart said. "But I think we lost that battle a long time ago. Parents and kids want to specialize."
"Kids don't want to do that much, but we as adults have convinced ourselves that they do," said Gene Menees, a former minor league baseball player who is now the assistant executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association. "Most kids don't want to play 12 months a year."
Athletes aren't the only party who could feel an increase in the pressure to compete year-round.
Kevin Charles, executive director of the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, said coaches are glad the organization prohibits them from coaching any of their players outside of the school season.
"They're really happy because they can't be pressured into doing it," he said.
In Florida, that is no longer the case.
Members of Tonelli's Wharton team normally play together on a club team directed by one of his friends, allowing Tonelli to spend time with his family in the offseason. But because other bay area coaches will be utilizing their new freedom, Tonelli said he feels compelled to take a more active role.
"I almost don't have a choice," he said.
Fielding a club basketball team is expensive. A coach hoping to enter his team in a tournament run by an organization like the U.S. Specialty Sports Association can expect to pay an entry fee of at least $240, according to state director Conrad Foss. Play in 10 tournaments and he or she is suddenly looking at close to $3,000, plus uniforms and travel.
Hillsborough County athletic director Vernon Korhn said such excursions won't be paid for with public school money. Furthermore, coaches would have to rent gym time from the district if they wanted to practice in their own school.
This could be an advantage for private schools, who are free to spend their money as they see fit.
"Sometimes they have more financial resources," Tonelli said. "And they have a lot more access to their facilities than the public schools do."
Korhn acknowledges the potential problem, but, he says, "the fact remains, we deal with taxpayers' money."
And if the financial burden falls on the athletes?
"The kids, the have-nots, who don't have the funds, are left out," said Reg Romine, assistant executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association, which doesn't allow coaching of athletes outside the season or summer.
Regardless, many coaches will take advantage of the new rules. Foss, who runs a club team based out of Wesley Chapel and is plugged in to the bay area hoops scene, said most of the coaches he has talked to are planning on keeping their teams together during club seasons.
Whether that turns out to be a positive or a negative remains to be seen.
But Treadway offered a word of warning, saying the AIA attempted to impose more restrictions on offseason coaching a couple of years ago.
When asked whether the restrictions passed, he chuckled and said no.
"Letting the cat out of the bag," he said, "is a lot easier than getting it back in."