Part of the Culture

Every community has developed its own culture, especially when it comes to athletics. Taking the time to understand that culture can make your job easier and your athletic department better.

By Dan Cardone

Dan Cardone is the Athletic Director at North Hills High School, in Pittsburgh, Pa. He is a frequent contributor to Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 14.6, October/November 2002,

In Massillon, Ohio, every boy born in the county hospital has a miniature football placed in his crib ... A water tower in Milan, Ind., still reads “State Champs 1954,” a reminder of the boys’ basketball team’s upset of a team from Muncie in the 1954 state championship ... The history section of the Roseau, Minn., city Web site features a black-and-white photo of the town’s first ice hockey team, from 1908.

The above stories reveal something about the culture of a particular area. They also reveal the importance of high school and community athletics in towns and cities in this country.

You may not have thought about it before, but as an athletic administrator you have a large role in shaping and guiding the sports culture in your community. You not only are an integral part of the culture, but you also have to be a visionary who advances it as times change.

When I taught social studies, I used a particular definition of culture. I would tell students, “Culture is the learned, shared behavior people acquire as members of society.”

It is also important to remember that a culture is constantly evolving, constantly changing. Consider this: what might have been important at your school a generation ago may now be contradictory to your present goals. That is what can make our jobs so challenging—yet so interesting.

Why should you care about the culture of athletics in your community? Because, if you do not, you may not make the right decisions. From who you hire to implementing Title IX, if your path is not parallel to that of the community, your job will be much more difficult than it needs to be.

Defining & Promoting
In starting to write this article, I reflected upon the culture of athletics in my own community and my role as athletic director. Thus, a starting point was to take pen to paper and define what our mission is at North Hills High School.

This statement of purpose attempts to speak for our different constituents and how they view our program, our ideals, and our vision. These constituents include parents, community members, school administrators, and current student-athletes. I also thought it important to view our role as part of, rather than separate from, the educational experience.

Next, I questioned whether the ideals we were promulgating aligned with the reality of interscholastic athletics. I thought about parental pressures put on student-athletes that change the focus from playing a sport for enjoyment to making it a means to an end (such as a scholarship). I thought about how the downward influence from the college and professional levels seems to trivialize our mission of trying to teach athletes the importance of respect for their peers.

While these problems have not had a pronounced effect on our school district, I know I need to work hard to keep them at bay. We need to do this by promoting our ideals to a wide range of people associated with our program.

One must also be vigilant to ensure that the forces working to change our culture are examined and understood. We can’t simply guard against everything new or different. If new ideas align with our mission statement, we need to embrace them and make them part of our culture.

Role of the Coach
The coach is the most important ingredient in promoting the culture of your district. Coaches are the foot soldiers of the athletic program. It is critical to hire effective coaches who have the proper perspective on the role of interscholastic athletics.

I recently read about a school district that was having problems with its first-year head football coach. The coach came to the school with many years of experience and a great win-loss record. This individual felt he had a right to run the program the way he always had, and that his approach had served him well over time. He had coached in primarily rural areas and ran the football program his way.

The school, on the other hand, is located in a suburban district where parents are known to be involved in the athletic programs. It did not have a winning tradition in football. As you could foresee, the fit has not been a good one. The philosophy of the coach did not mesh with the culture of the school. There was resentment from the start from teachers, coaches, and parents. The coach was not able to make his style work in that district.

Therefore, it is important to hire coaches that match who you are and what you stand for. In the job interview, I recommend sprinkling in questions that take aim at bringing out the philosophy of the candidate. One way to do this is to ask the individual to role play. “How do you handle a tennis player that throws a temper tantrum during a match?” Or, “What if one of the players comes to you and says she has to miss practice because she has three tests tomorrow?”

There are no predetermined right answers to these questions, but they will let you see how the coach approaches the problem. At North Hills, the latter question is an interesting one because a solid work ethic is a key ingredient in our culture. We are looking for an answer that lets the student know that academics is paramount, yet so is the commitment to the sport. We would also want the coach to try to impart the lessons of time management in his or her answer.

By the end of the interview process, the prospective coach should have a clear idea of the culture in your district. This will allow the candidate to better understand if it is the right job for them, and it allows you to hold them accountable. For example, we stress participation over winning at the lower levels. If a coach is hired and loses sight of that, a reminder of the interview discussion emphasizes that point.

The preseason meeting with the coaches is a good venue to reiterate the importance of their leadership role. Share information that supports your cultural ideal. Articles from magazines and newspapers are good ways to get a point across. Simple stories and quotes work well also.

For example, there is a story about the building of the Great Wall of China that I relate to our coaches. The Great Wall was built to provide security from invasion, as northern China lacked a natural barrier. During the first 100 years after completion, China was invaded three times. This happened because the gatekeepers were bribed. The Chinese, it is said, were so focused on building the wall that they forgot to teach their children the importance of integrity.

Again, the role of the athletic director in reiterating the proper direction and perspective of the district is critical. Imparting this direction to the coaches who then guide the athletes entrusted to their care keeps everyone rowing in the same direction. The interview process, preseason meetings, inseason discussions, and the postseason evaluation are all valuable tools to measure consistency across all programs.

Student-Athletes In Sync
Last spring, some members of our football team chose to organize a youth football camp as a senior project. Their sessions were well organized. They planned to bring in a speaker to talk to the campers about the importance of setting goals, paying attention to academics, and developing good work habits. We knew they were getting good advice from their head coach, and we praised him for his positive influence.

The student-athlete today often gets mixed messages from a variety of sources. They see how our culture holds winners on a pedestal. Antics by the professional athlete contradict the concept of sportsmanship. Perhaps they had a coach who was let go because he or she did not have a winning record.

It is tough to fool kids, and I personally have a lot of faith in their perceptiveness. They value discipline. They know what the expectation is once outlined to them. When their teammates, parents, coaches, and athletic director are all in sync, they are more apt to be a contributor rather than a contaminator.

Mottos or slogans often hit the nail on the head. Former University of Michigan Head Football Coach Bo Schembechler had a sign in the locker room that read: “Those that stay will be champions.” He was imparting lessons that would last beyond the days of playing football for Michigan. Perseverance means that how you handle adversity is more important than facing adversity.

One motto I encourage our coaches to relate to their staff and players goes something like this: “There is a right way and a wrong way to do things. At North Hills, we always strive to do things the right way.” We may fall short at times, but the effort to reach higher is always present.

Parents On Board
In our community, our parents impart upon their children that there is no substitute for hard work. We consider this part of our culture and build on it with our student-athletes. We may not have the most talent in our league, but we will not let anyone outwork us.

Some athletes and their parents face an adjustment period when they make the transition from youth programs to the junior high level. This happens again when the player goes from junior high to the senior high. They are not always accepting of the change. The parent may come with unrealistic expectations for their child. Just as we prompted the coach in early meetings about participation vs. playing time, we now need to reinforce that with the parent.

It is important to present the philosophy about athletics to the parents as early as possible. This should be done slowly and methodically, and answers to questions should be clear-cut. You may hear this a lot: “You said participation was important. Does that mean everyone will get to play in every game?” The response needs to clarify that while participation is important, competition is part of sport.

I also take a lot of time to talk with parents about my goals and philosophies. I tell them, “Hey, we all live in the same yellow submarine.” I also take the public relations part of my job seriously. Preaching the same message at banquets or at halftime of the basketball games serve the same purpose—this is who we are, and we are proud of it. I may tell a parent that I heard their daughter had an outstanding report card. Another may hear from me that the coach told me their son is working hard in practice.

Certainly in my conversations with the parents, I emphasize how lucky we are to have the type of support they give us at North Hills. I may even throw in a horror story about a parent in another school district. And it works.

I think that when all is said and done, our parents are appreciative of what their children come away with both academically and athletically. For example, I had someone call me saying their child did not make the baseball team. Was it too late to sign up for track? Absolutely not. This is a parent who personifies the athletic culture. Being involved has greater merit than playing a high-profile sport.

School Relations
Communicating with the administration and school board is part of imparting the athletic culture of the district. Athletics is one part of education, yet in our opinion, a very important part.

I try to put our athletic program and its vision in front of the school board and administration whenever the opportunity arises. Our superintendent and board see the value of recognizing publicly outstanding performances by our teams. This is done at the school board public meeting at the end of the season. I also send articles and information to reinforce that we are supporting the mission of the district, as well as any new studies that support the benefits of participation in interscholastic athletics.

The disgruntled parent who goes to the school board can cause problems when they are on a different mission than you are. Perhaps they feel their child would be better served being coached by someone else. If you as the athletic director have been proactive about communicating the culture of your program, you can counteract an emotionally charged situation. The idea is to show the administration and school board that the coach and program in question are being unfairly attacked.

Changing Times
As noted in the introduction of this article, a community’s culture changes over time, and our role is to be aware of the changes and hopefully help shape them. For example, as we have better understood the nuances of Title IX over the past decade, we have been working to implement its ideals.

Traditionally, our school has had a successful football program and the community places an emphasis on it. In making things more equitable between males and females, we have not tried to downplay the football team. This would be contrary to what our culture is all about. What we have done is also promote our girls’ sports. We try to impart the idea that all sports are equally important.

For example, when we built a new stadium to replace our football field, we named it the North Hills Athletic Complex. This may be a subtle change, but it begins to make people understand and appreciate that we are for all student-athletes, regardless of what uniform they wear. In fact, the band parents paid for the logo on the middle of the field—it is the band members’ field as much as it is for the football or soccer players.

Every fall, we also hold a community pep rally in our stadium. This is an event for all fall sport teams. Boosters set up tables, community businesses are present, there are contests and refreshments. Athletes from all fall sports and activities attend. The band and cheerleaders perform. It is a great way to kick off the school year as a community.

The Point?
There is a battle going on in our society over the role of athletics in our culture. We see the money tied to professional athletics continue to increase. We see little leaguers cheat and parents rage out of control in the stands.

I believe the high school setting is still the purest place to teach the larger lessons that are gained from participation in sport. Simply stated, it is the best deal in town. In most districts, the athletic program accounts for one to three percent of the entire budget.

If we are to keep the positives in high school athletics alive, we have to continually work at it. We have to be leaders in not only maintaining but also shaping the athletic culture. As we build new facilities (unlike China and the building of the Great Wall), we are reminded to work to maintain the integrity of our community.