Q&A with Jack Morrison

Former Activities Director, Northwest High School

By Staff

Athletic Management, 13.6, October/November 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1306/qamorrison.htm

For 27 of his 31 years in education, Jack Morrison was a fixture at Northwest High School in House Springs, Mo. For 17 years he served as a coach, and for the past 12, he used his decades of experience to benefit the school as Activities Director. In June 2001, he retired.

During his tenure in administration, Morrison was party to a period of dramatic change. Not only did he help oversee the development of a new Northwest High School and its athletic facilities in the mid-1990s, but he also faced down a period of zero funding for athletics and activities.

A school of 2,250 students, Northwest also enjoyed its share of success during his time at the helm, with district championships in football, boys' basketball, and girls' basketball, a visit to the girls' basketball state quarterfinals once, and a trip to the state semifinals in baseball twice. For two years he served as President of the St. Louis Suburban Public High School Athletic Conference, and was a long-time member of the Missouri Interscholastic Athletics and Activities Association, where he has been a repeat presenter at the organization's annual conferences. He capped off his career in 2000 by being honored as Missouri Athletic Administrator of the Year.

In this interview, Morrison reflects on how he kept his program running from 1992 to 1994 with no funding, his philosophy on successful fund-raising, and how directors can get more students involved in school programs.

AM: After so many years in coaching, what led you to enter athletic administration?

Morrison: I guess it was the challenge. We were at a growing stage and I felt like there was a need for me to move on and do something a little bit better for the school--to improve it. The athletic director before me was one of my old high school coaches [Morrison graduated from Northwest in 1964]. I really admired him, and I wanted to follow him and try to continue the good work that he did.

Midway through your time as AD, your district encountered a huge funding crisis and athletic programs were cut. What was your solution?

Our school district hadn't passed a tax levy increase since the 1960s, so it had been a long time since the school district had procured any additional funds. We had the same amount of money coming in to accommodate a larger population and more development within the district. Plus, we knew we had to add a new high school. All of those things put stress on the budget. Then, in the early 1990s, a vote to increase the tax levy failed and they were going to cut athletics.

This came up in the middle of April, so we were hustling around trying to keep from dropping programming. We formed a committee--people in the community, coaches, and other activities people--to begin talking about the situation. We definitely wanted to keep the program alive for the next year just so we could get a handle on things and get a direction on where to go next.

That's when we came up with the idea of "Pay To Participate." We called it that rather than "Pay to Play" because we felt if we called it "Pay to Play," it would force our coaches to play everybody. And we wanted to keep everything as normal as possible as far as competition was concerned. The fee was $100 per sport or activity. We did that for a year. We also got donations from churches and civic organizations to help out with the cost of our programs. And by the following year we reduced the fee to $50 per activity. The third year the tax levy passed and we eliminated the fee. We were just fortunate that everything fell into place and worked out for us.

Was the solution at all controversial at first?

I told our administrators when they cut our financial aid for athletics: "The people who support your school are normally involved because their kids are involved via athletics, band, or whatever. You're actually punishing people who are already supporting your school and who probably voted in support of the tax levy."

So I think the parents were pretty open to the idea of trying to keep athletics and activities going and hoped that the tax levy would pass in the next year or two. There was very little opposition because I think everybody was just glad to keep their kids involved. Also, people were hoping this would be a band-aid affect, which it was.

Was there ever a time when you considered just letting the programs dissolve?

Going without never entered my mind. After talking with my principal and some people in the community, the committee never considered the idea of dropping sports. We were going to do everything possible to keep them alive.

We've done studies at Northwest and found that kids involved in activities make better grades and miss fewer days of school. And there are other studies out there that support that. We felt it was extremely important to keep everything alive and going until we could get the tax levy passed.

What happened next?

The members of the committee and many of our parents became very active in trying to get the tax levy passed. And our school district formed another committee to help get information out to the members of the community on the importance of the tax levy.

Also, during this process, our kids became very aware of the politics involved in all this. They were pretty knowledgeable about how important that tax levy was, and they played a part, too, in getting their parents out to support it.

In 1998, the new Northwest High School was finished, and you played a large part in raising contributions for the construction of new scoreboards and a new football concession facility. What has been your secret to fund-raising?

On the scoreboards, we were fortunate to get all the money donated. It's been estimated that the concession stand would have cost $325,000 to build, but we've been able to build it for much less--about $110,000. And that is due to a lot of effort on a lot of people's part in terms of donations of time, labor, and materials.

What about your approach has been so successful?

I think you first have to look at what you're trying to raise money for. There's a big difference between scoreboards and a concession stand. Corporate people and businesses are going to put money into a scoreboard. But with something as large as a concession stand, you need to get lots of people involved.

Next, you have to look at not only what is needed at the moment, but what is going to be needed 20 years down the road. You don't want to raise money and build something that, in five years, no longer serves its purpose--causing you to then go back and ask people to donate more.

Then you need to look at your community and who the key contributing players are going be. In any community, no matter how large or small, there are people who are willing to help a school district. And it's not only about asking for money. For instance, the largest cost of any construction is labor. And we had people who worked their jobs all week long and then they'd come down to the school and work Saturdays and Sundays to help get this project done.

We also had a dozen or more bricklayers come and donate their time. And once a couple started, there were more who were former athletes who came in to assist. And that labor contribution saves a lot of money. Others donated materials.

But you have to find those people. And to do that you need to generate some community involvement, like from your local service organizations. Our Rotary club played a large part in trying to get this concession stand completed. They had a dance to kick off the project, and all the money from the dance went to the development of the stand. We were also helped by our high school alumni association and a contractor in the area whose children were involved in athletics.

But there are stumbling blocks, too. People have to realize that when community members are donating time and labor, you can't rush them. You can't put a specific timeline on when things are going to be done. You have to let them work at their own speed.

Is it important to recognize people for their contributions?

The concession stand is due to open this season and we're holding a special dedication on Sept. 21. For our dedication, we've invited all those people, even those who put in only a few hours. Because whether they donated 20 hours of work or thousands of dollars of materials, everybody is important. It took everybody's efforts to accomplish what has been done.

What do you believe should be an AD's main purpose?

I think the prime importance of our job is to keep kids involved. We have to battle a lot of negative influences in society, so we should develop programs and keep programs going that draw students to the positives to give them an opportunity to succeed in life.

What was your approach to get and keep kids involved?

You have to realize that there are a lot of kids who aren't athletes, and you have to offer things for them. For instance, there was in interest in our school in photography, so we started a photography club. Most of those kids don't do anything else extra-curricularly, but it gave them an opportunity to develop a talent and pursue an interest.

You have to look at what's going on with young people and what opportunities they might enjoy. The school is a positive sanctuary. Everything that goes on in a school, one hopes, is conducive to the development of children. So anything you can do to start programs after school hours that keep those kids there and interested is going to be a plus, not only for the community, but for that young man or woman.

On the flipside, did you have any problems with unrealistic expectations in your program?

Yes. The way things are presented in the media makes every parent think their child is going to get a scholarship. So there is pressure on coaches and administrators, because parents are always saying, "If the team doesn't win, my kid won't get a scholarship."

But as an administrator, you have to be above that. You have to say, "No, that's not why these coaches are participating. They're doing this to make better individuals, not to get your kid a scholarship."