Keeping the Faith
by Dan Bauer
They say winning cures everything. It doesn’t.
Over the past two seasons I have been behind the bench with the Central Wisconsin Storm and during that time we won forty-five games while losing just eight and won a state championship. Not a single time during that stretch were we summoned or contacted by the administration overseeing us with an issue regarding our conduct or day-to-day operation of the team.
I am not implying that we got every decision right, because that never happens, but we hadn’t done anything to even prompt a phone call or email. Following the season just completed, our head coach stepped away for personal reasons. As co-head coach I assumed, wrongly, that nothing would change and began planning for next season. I then learned that the head coach’s job would have to be posted, something I still don’t understand, but I complied with my application.
Three days after I was interviewedI learned that I was no longer a member of the coaching staff and that the job had been offered and accepted by another candidate. I was both stunned and shattered. As Paul Harvey would say, “Here is the rest of the story”. Those involved inathletics that are acutely aware of the alarming trend in high school sports know exactly where this is going.
Before I take the dark turn down that toll road let me first thank the players, parents and past administrators that wrote letters and made phone calls in support of me. Just like a decade ago at Wausau East, I was humbled by thedisplay of support for the type of program I believe in. Thankfully there are still parents out there who trust in the value of the athletic adventure. They allow their kids to fall and instead of picking them up and carrying them to the finish line, they encourage them and allow them to find their own way. It is those parents and their athletes that are preserving the true benefit of sports participation. My fear is they are slowly being outnumbered.
There will always be an unhappy family or two. Not surprised, are you? The persistent red flags of parent and player insubordination become obvious and ultimately lead to numerous parent meetings where in the end you are told what a terrible coach and human being you are.When selfishly skewed parental hopes and reality collide, it is almost always a train wreck. Unfortunately, the collateral damage most often lands on the shoulders of the athlete. It is an untenable squat rack loaded with the weight of unfair comparisons, unrealistic expectations and ill-advised direction. Playing time will be the thermometer used by these parents to measure their athlete’s success. It is the fool’s gold that is mistakenly viewed as the most valuable entity in high school sports. Like prospectors, instead of parents, they sit with their stopwatches and count the minutes like they were actual nuggets of gold.
In reality, for parents, playing time is pure poison and wise parents avoid it at all costs.
I have always set the bar of expectations high for my athletes. I believe issues between players and coaches can all be settled through honest two-way communication and strongly encourage parents to allow their athletes to advocate for themselves. When parents insert themselves into this process it undermines both their athlete and the coaches and signals a clear lack of trust in both. Playing time, the poison I mentioned, is almost always the lightning rod.
The fantasy is that a new coach will know how to squeeze sixty minutes of playing time out of a fifty-one-minute game, play everyone on the first line and somehow satisfy the insatiable parental appetite for ice time. They will fail because it cannot be done and if the right player with the wrong parents isn’t happy, this modern-day witch hunt will start all over again. As referees step away in record numbers, so will good coaches who realize that these are battles they can no longer win when administrations validate playing time disputes.
The reality is playing time is equally poisonous for administrators and once that door is opened it never closes. As an entire coaching staff is dismissed it will be painted as taking the program in a different direction. Mind you this is a program that won a state championship just one year ago, not sure what better direction is available. This biased decision was driven by the Westside royalty that runs hockey in Wausau and as an attempt to find a neutral escape route from the firestorm a few disgruntled parents ignited.Those who orchestrated this back-alley chicanery can be proud that they have taught their daughters how to circumvent the truth and step on whoever you need to because the end justifies the means. The squeaky wheels won and the incumbent coaching staff got what they didn’t deserve.
I step aside from this mystery still wondering exactly what I did to deserve this punishment. It feels like a kidnapping of a team I cared deeply about and the hollowness inside me is cavernous. There is injustice in a system that allows unbalanced parents to steal away from you something you have worked your whole life to become. Something you truly love. All in the name of a few more minutes of ice time or a spot on the penalty kill. For them to be able to lob unsubstantiated blatant lies without fear of repercussions is wrong. This is part of an educational institution, not Twitter.It is a level of hatred I cannot comprehend and this nightmare is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.I still believe goodwill triumphs over evil and that sports will ultimately survive these pirates who seek to plunder the values and character of athletics while destroying coaches’ careers. If the time comes when high school sports have lost their character-building capability, then there is little educational value for it to exist.
Life doesn’t always turn out how we think it should and sometimes we don’t get what we deserve. And for the second time in my coaching career, I must face the reality that my best was not good enough. I leave knowing I put everything I had into this program and gave it my absolute best. I love these girls like they were my own daughters and that is what makes this so unfair and so incredibly difficult. It truly breaks my heart that I won’t go to practice with them ever again.
A decade ago, I found myself in this exact same spot. As painful as that door closing was, a new door opened in Waupaca and it ultimately led me back here. Along the way I learned about coaching a team with ten players and how to build a goalie from scratch. I re-created the “Sisterhood” and watched two teams that hated each other become one. And I found a head coach, in Jacques du Vair, that truly valued me as an assistant, and together we climbed to the top of the mountain. There were so many great coaches, parents and players on that journey. Thank you to all who were a part of it.
As this Storm door closes, I will keep the faith that another door will open.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org