It seems like a simple question: What is the most important job for a high school football coach? Ask around, though, and it becomes apparent there are no simple answers.
Win games. Develop players. Help those players get college scholarships. Be a strong, positive influence for boys as they mature into men. Those are just some of the primary responsibilities for a job that pays a stipend of a few thousand dollars and officially starts in mid-August and ends before winter arrives, yet in reality can extend through all four quarters of the calendar.
But there are many other job titles that coaches say are equally important on the road to victory. Business manager. Fundraiser. Strength and conditioning coach. Equipment manager. Video coordinator. Grounds worker, with specialties in cutting grass and painting yard lines.
Whatever happened to the X’s and O’s?
“I would say [the job’s top priority] is to coordinate 20 different things at once,” said Tom Verbanic, who had been a successful head coach in Fairfax County for 20 years, first at Fairfax then at Westfield, before retiring after last season.
Verbanic was not the only Washington-area veteran coach to hang up his whistle this past offseason. Across the region, several long-time coaches with championship rings and players at the next level moved off the sideline. Bill McGregor left DeMatha after 29 seasons as a head coach. Craig Jefferies left Dunbar after 15 seasons. Fairfax powers Robinson and Oakton and Montgomery County’s Sherwood also have new head men on the sidelines.
The changes were for different reasons. McGregor had an opportunity to go into business with Gilman Coach Biff Poggi, subsequently signing on as an assistant coach at the Baltimore school. Jefferies relocated to become a college assistant coach at New Mexico. Oakton’s Joe Thompson, like South County’s Pete Bendorf, went into administration. Verbanic and Robinson’s Mark Bendorf were eligible for retirement; Verbanic now works at the private Flint Hill School and is the football team’s defensive coordinator. Marc Thomas left Sherwood after one season as the head coach, needing a break from football.
“The job description and role has expanded tremendously,” said Mark Bendorf, whose 14-year stint as Robinson’s head coach included 11 playoff appearances and two Virginia AAA titles. “It’s a year-round job. Right off the bat you have to split it up. There is the coaching part — playbooks, strategies and implementing that. Then there is the part overseeing your players, managing the team. Then there is meshing with booster clubs and other sports in the school and college recruiters. The offseason is a whole different animal.
“I hope this trend reverses itself. I can’t think of a more rewarding challenge or career path. But they need to look at how they treat things. The days of the 1970s when coaches rolled in a couple days before the start of practice and got equipment out and started practice are long gone.”
Public school head football coaching stipends range from $2,183 in the District to $6,816 in Fairfax County. Most coaches who are teachers get a lighter workload, whether it is teaching one fewer class than normal or teaching physical education instead of a classroom subject. The trend among private schools has been to make coaching football a primary job, often assigning other duties to the coach, such as assistant athletic director.
Robinson hired Trey Taylor, who had been the coach at W.T. Woodson, while Sherwood brought in Mike Bonavia, who had been at Einstein. The other powerhouses, though, all promoted assistant coaches to fill their vacancies. As much as the new coaches anticipated their challenges, the demands on their time have been more than expected.
“When you’re the head man, the amount of kids you’re meeting with, the parents you’re talking to and administrators contacting you all increase,” said Westfield’s new coach, Kyle Simmons, who had been an assistant to Verbanic since the school opened in 2000. “I told all the kids [on the school’s varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams] I wanted to meet with them in the offseason. You don’t realize, if you sit down with each kid and meet for just 20 minutes, how overwhelming that is if you have 200 kids in the program.”
Simmons soon realized such face-to-face meetings were not feasible. As high school coaches continue to try to emulate college programs, both in the scope of what they do and the detail with which they do it, the reality is that there are more than a few major differences. Principally, college programs often have highly paid assistant coaches and paid support staffs. At the high school level, those jobs often fall to the head coach, unless he is able to delegate it to an assistant.
“Our ultimate goal is to win games, but so many times it does feel that there are so many other things to do,” said Jason Rowley, 35, who had been an assistant coach at Oakton the past 15 seasons before succeeding Thompson.
Not only must coaches tape and then study their own games, they also must have enough video to scout upcoming opponents. The video also is sent to college recruiters and used to compile highlight tapes for individual players trying to obtain college scholarships.
“Recruiting will wear you out, then parents will wear you out,” said Broad Run second-year Coach Matt Griffis. “ ‘Have you talked to so and so yet? What are they saying?’ ”
Griffis is thankful he does not mow any fields for his team, but he does oversee a letter-writing campaign and the sale of discount cards to local businesses as the Spartans try to raise money for their expenses. Making sure players stay on course academically also requires time; Griffis said he often picks up players on the way to school in the morning so they have time to do classwork that otherwise might not get done.
“Being a coach is being a mentor, helping kids grow,” Griffis said. “Not just as football players, but as men, making good choices and growing up as men. Thinking beyond today.”
The offseason used to be a time for things to slow down. Now weight lifting and conditioning programs run year-round. Camps and combines are plentiful, as are passing leagues and lineman competitions. In recent years, Maryland and Virginia state public high school associations have eased restrictions on coaches working with their players in the offseason, leading to pressure on coaches to spend more time with their players year-round.
“If you don’t go [to camps] parents get on you, ‘Well, that team is going. Why aren’t we?’ ” said Bullis second-year Coach Pat Cilento, who was Sherwood’s head coach in 2009. The job “is 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. The phone can be ringing at 2 a.m. in the morning.”
Balancing a full-time job with their part-time job and still making time for family is a challenge.
“Wear and tear on your health is a big concern, too,” said Simmons, who made a point to ride his bike two miles to school each day during preseason practices. “It’s easy to go home to comfort food and not get a lot of sleep. It can be a lot of stress. I tell everybody it’s self-inflicted. It’s not like I’m paying any bills with this job. I must love it. Otherwise why else would I be doing this?”