Q&A with Dan VanWinkle

Athletic Director, Cumberland County High School

By Staff

Athletic Management, 13.4, June/July 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1304/qavanwinkle.htm

Named one of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association’s Athletic Directors of the Year for 2000, Dan VanWinkle has accomplished a tremendous amount in just six years as Athletic Director at Cumberland County High School in Crossville, Tenn. He has upgraded facilities, enhanced competitive opportunities for his student-athletes, and guided the school to a prestigious A.F. Bridges Award, an honor given to Tennessee schools that display outstanding sportsmanship.

VanWinkle’s association with Cumberland goes back to the mid-1960s when he was a student at the school. Post college, he served as assistant football coach at McMinn Central High School, and in 1972, returned to Cumberland as a teacher and assistant football coach. Four years later, he ascended to the head coaching position, eventually leading his team to the state quarterfinals in 1982.

An athletic director at one of the largest schools in the state with nearly 1,800 students enrolled, VanWinkle discusses, in this interview, his department’s efforts to generate more student participation, improve sportsmanship, and work with a losing football program.

AM: Why did you decide to move into administration after having been a coach for so long?

VanWinkle: Coaching is competitive and it does wear you out. After observing and communicating with people in administration, I felt like there were a lot of things I could do in that position to carry on some of the same principles I was promoting as a coach. And that was the direction I wanted to go.

What philosophies guide how you run your athletics program?

I think that through participation in athletics, students learn self-discipline, character, and integrity, and they develop the self-confidence and skills necessary to handle competitive situations. These are qualities that the public expects schools to produce in students as they become responsible adults and productive citizens. So that’s what we’re striving for.

How do you further those characteristics in your student-athletes?

We try to hire people who possess those characteristics themselves—those who show a genuine concern for the athletes by being open and honest, and who seek ways for athletes to reach their full potential. Our coaches provide encouragement and teach athletes how to depend on each other, and self-confidence is fostered through that.

Do you feel that student-athletes have changed since you began coaching?

Yes. I think students today are more interested in other pursuits besides athletics. They have more part-time job opportunities, and because there are so many recreational opportunities, they prefer to have fun and enjoy leisure time rather than be in athletics.

At Cumberland, we don’t have as many students participating as we’d like, so we’re trying to show our students why they should participate. It’s a selling job to get them to understand that the results of being involved in athletics are worth the commitment. And that is really a challenge.

What has been your approach to get more students involved?

We’re trying to spice up the program to make participation more attractive to them. For example, we’re making a big effort to participate in tournaments and go to camps that give students a chance to spend the night with teammates away from home. And when they make these trips, we schedule opportunities for them to sightsee.

Every one of our programs this year has been able to take trips where they spend the night. Being away from home with friends is exciting to high school kids, and it also helps develop camaraderie.

We’re also adding boys’ and girls’ bowling as a sport next year. The people who own the bowling lanes in town will let us use their facility to practice and compete. We’re scheduling our events around their leagues, and it’s working out real well.

What has been your department’s strategy for improving sportsmanship?

Our philosophy has been to promote the positive, and we’ve used the materials provided by the state association to sell that philosophy to our student body, coaches, and athletes. To do that, we’ve worked with several different campus groups to improve behavior.

The cheerleaders in our program have really helped the situation, which is a result of the cheer coaches teaching them to promote positive leadership and positive participation. A lot of cheerleaders do negative cheers to create animosity and friction, but our squads now develop only positive cheers. We also have our cheerleaders meet with opposing cheerleaders to set times for each squad to do cheers so they’re not both cheering at the same time.

We also worked with our booster clubs and student government to develop a sportsmanlike atmosphere at games. Basketball was our biggest problem with sportsmanship. Administration encouraged positive leadership, and boosters and individuals in the student council were willing to help us create a positive atmosphere in the stands among the student-body.

In addition, we’ve done a lot administratively to act sportsmanlike toward those we compete against. We try to send out information, maps, letters, and contracts to opposing teams. We put information about their team in the programs. We provide hospitality rooms for fans who buy reserved seat tickets and for the opposing coaching staff. And we have people greet officials and visiting teams when they come to our campus.

There are three or four schools that we are highly competitive with, and we’ve tried to beef up our security at those events. And we always have security to help us with crowd control.

Your football team has struggled over the past two years. Has that been a major problem in a state with such a big football tradition?

Our football program has been up and down. We’ve had teams in the playoffs, and back when bowl games were popular, we won several of them. But we’ve also had inconsistent seasons and losing streaks. We’ve found that when we have a senior-dominated team, our sophomores and juniors pursue other interests. Then we graduate a heavy senior class and go through two years of rebuilding. And then it starts all over.

What does an AD have to do to maintain program morale through a losing streak?

As the athletic director, you have to show genuine concern for the situation and continue to look for fresh ideas and solutions. There are enough people pointing fingers, so you need to look for encouraging things, seek ways to improve, and find ways for athletes to help each other. Even just talking to coaches and encouraging them can help the situation. But you have to believe in what you’re doing, circle the wagons, and get everyone pulling together.

Have you considered replacing the head coach?

We’ve had losing streaks before, and we’ve had losing seasons before. That’s not new. People often make hasty decisions on coaches when something like that occurs, and I don’t want to make hasty decisions.

We’re keeping our head coach because we think he’s doing a good job. We think his qualities meet what we expect in a program, and we feel like he’s doing a lot of the right things.

Cumberland currently broadcasts some of its sports competitions on a local radio station. How did that arrangement develop?

We have two radio stations locally, so we asked our Board to approve bidding it out to the stations, and the bidding was real competitive. The winning station was excited to take part because it meant big ad business for them. For us, it was an opportunity to promote our teams in our community.

The radio station pays us to do it, and we are able to put this money into the athletic program. Right now, just football and basketball are broadcast, but we’re trying to expand coverage to baseball and softball and some of the other sports.

The radio station has some quality broadcast people who do a good job with the interviews and coaches shows. So it really benefits parents and other community members who want to follow our teams.

What are some of the challenges your department currently faces?

Like a lot of places, facilities have been our biggest challenge, and we’ve been working on improvements for six years. I submitted a proposal for facility development when I took the job, and all those things have been or are in the process right now.

We also want to win a state championship in something. That’s a big goal—to get one so our students realize that it can be done. And that has a snowball effect. We don’t have a time demand on it, but we want to develop a tradition of success.