Q&A with Dave Morgan

Oakton (Va.) High School

By Staff

Athletic Management, 15.2, February/March 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1502/qamorgan.htm

In his 29 years as a coach and administrator, Oakton (Va.) High School Athletic Director Dave Morgan has piled a lot of experiences into his scrapbook. He has coached sports from football to softball, leading teams that won state championships and squads that never won a game. He’s been President of the Virginia High School League (VHSL) and currently serves on the leadership training faculty of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA).

Nothing, however, quite prepared him for the experience he lived through last fall, when the sniper attacks put the D.C. metro area into a state of alert. The crisis scrambled daily game and practice schedules and threatened to cut short entire seasons for many high schools.

Despite the tumultuous season, the Oakton Cougars won the Northern Region football championship, advancing to the AAA state title game, and the field hockey team advanced to the regional semi-finals.

Morgan has garnered many honors. He was named the VHSL’s Athletic Director of the Year in 1992, has been nominated for the VHSL Hall of Fame, and received a Distinguished Service Award from the NIAAA in 2001, after serving as its President. We spoke to him about his role in handling this fall’s crisis, as well as his strategies for bolstering booster club success, hiring great coaches, and dealing with difficult parents.

AM: What were your responsibilities in dealing with last fall’s sniper crisis?

Morgan: I’m one of the regional directors for football and field hockey, so along with re-scheduling our own teams’ games and practices, I was involved with re-scheduling games for all 28 schools in the Northern Region. As the sniper situation changed, what we were allowed to do changed, and scheduling became very complicated.

We weren’t sure from day to day what practices we’d be running. Could we go outside, or would we have to stay inside? If it was inside, there were conflicts involved with managing all of the teams and all our community groups. If a team’s game got canceled at the last minute, that team would want to practice, and we’d have to try to work them into the schedule.

Complicating things even more, some of our coaches don’t work in the building. When their practice schedules changed, we had to reach them so they could communicate with their bosses and try to rearrange their work schedules.

We’d have two or three different plans, each of which was very complicated to pull off. Suddenly the situation would change and we wouldn’t be able to use any of them, so we’d start over. There was a lot of stress, and almost everything else that we usually do got put to the side for a while.

As the scheduling changes were made, how did you communicate them to coaches, athletes, and parents?

We had a hotline the public could call. We had schedules posted in different places around school telling athletes what their practice or game situation was going to be, and we made announcements on the public address system reminding people to check the postings. We e-mailed coaches instructing them to check in with us before they ran a practice.

One weekend, the Northern Region’s field hockey teams all competed at Marine Corps Base Quantico. How did you arrange that?

At that point, we were told we couldn’t use off-site schools, so we shifted our attention to military bases in the area. We felt it was a very secure option.

We had to turn a parade ground into four field hockey fields, and they were not exactly ideal. We also had to schedule buses for teams, parents, and officials. We started Saturday morning and ran games until dark, and then came back on Sunday and did it all again. We played 43 games in two days.

Through the week, we were also able to get two games a day in at Fort Myer Military Base. Over that period, we scheduled 38 games to finish the regular season.

How did the athletes respond to the playing conditions at the military bases?

The parents and the kids were just happy to be able to play again. The fields weren’t great and the ball took a lot of bad bounces, but everybody understood. The fields were side by side, so parents had a more difficult time watching than usual, and they had to travel about an hour to get to Quantico, but everyone pitched in. It was heart-warming. Parents were picking up trash to make sure we didn’t leave a mess. Sometimes a crisis brings out the best in people.

Some people were calling for an end to the season. Why were you so determined to finish the season?

It became a crusade for me, because I didn’t want the fall kids to lose out. I can use my high school as a perfect example. My field hockey team ended up being one of the top teams in the region and advanced to the region semi-finals. My football team won the regional championship and advanced to the state finals. And the joy that those kids experienced once they got to play again was amazing. Our kids and our community would never have experienced that if we’d gotten discouraged and said, “We’re not going to do it.”

If I had to give advice to an athletic director faced with a crisis situation, it would be to not give up. You can always find a way to get games in. Will the conditions be ideal? Probably not. But playing under difficult circumstances is better than giving up, because kids want to play games. Cutting games should be an absolute last resort.

Also last fall, you faced the death of two athletes on your swim team in an automobile accident. As an athletic director, how did you handle that tragedy?

We waited for the parents to decide what they wanted to do, and worked to support them. We had memorial services for the athletes, and I was involved with making sure the building was available.

The school made counselors available to kids, and our two swim coaches planned some activities with team members. The students wanted to decorate the kids’ lockers and their parking spaces, and we honored that, because it was important to them. You have to allow students a period of grief. Then we tried to steer them toward positive ways of remembering the two young men, and they worked out a scholarship program in their honor.

Oakton has chosen to have all sports represented under one booster club, rather than having different clubs for different sports. How does this system work?

There is a booster club representative for each sport. Each team is allowed to keep a separate account, along with one general booster account. When a team does a fund-raiser, that money goes into their account and can only be spent on that particular team. But the boosters also give me installments from the general account after each sports season, and I use that money to benefit the entire athletic department.

I meet each year with every head coach and do a formal evaluation of their resources: their facilities, their program, their coaching staff, and how much help they get from us. They have to come through me for all purchases, whether they’re using booster money or school money. That’s my way of making sure we pay attention to everybody’s needs and that we spend whatever we need to make it equitable.

What do you do when a parent wants to give a very large donation to help one sport in particular?

I’d never want to turn that kind of help away, because if I get parents who offer help in one area, it frees up resources to make sure that we meet the needs in other areas. For example, my predecessor did a great job of getting booster club money to redo our softball fields and our field hockey fields. We could have said, “Our baseball field needs to be fixed up too, so we can’t take that help.” But we looked at it as, “Great. We have a premier girls’ facility, and now we can spend our resources to improve our baseball and football facilities.”

How else do you use your boosters as a resource?

They help get parents involved, and they’re critical to me as a sounding board. I meet with them monthly, and I often hear from them much more often than that. They’re my ears in the community. If a group of parents are disgruntled about something, I don’t want to be blindsided by it. The booster club helps me stay in touch so that I can address problems quickly.

What strategies do you use to work with difficult parents?

The strategies we use depend on the type of difficult parent we’re dealing with, from a person who is just a busybody to a person who is spreading vicious rumors, to a person who is unbalanced and violent. But fundamental to all of our strategies is having clear policies and communicating them effectively through a variety of means.

The key is identifying the problem, correcting the miscommunication, and if need be, changing the way you’re doing things. You need to tell parents why you’re doing what you’re doing and ask for their support. They don’t always have to agree with you.

Most difficult parents just really want to be heard. It’s key for parents to know we’re listening and we’re willing to communicate with them. Once they’ve been heard and they feel you’re going to take steps to address their issue, you can work toward a resolution. We’ve been able to handle even difficult issues this way.

How do you work with parents who want their child to get a college athletic scholarship, when the child doesn’t actually have that level of athletic ability?

In our fall meeting, I tell parents that our job is not to get their son or daughter a college scholarship. We’re not here to discourage their dream of playing in college, but my focus is to make their child’s experience in high school the best it can be. If they can get a college scholarship out of that, great, but I try to give parents a dose of reality by showing them numbers about how many kids actually get college scholarships.

I also tell parents, “Please make sure this is something your kid wants, not something you want.” A lot of kids who think they love a sport and have a great high school experience quickly realize playing isn’t as much fun in college as it was in high school.

We tell students, “It’s a commitment, and somebody’s job depends on your performance. It’s not just going to the game and to McDonalds afterward. It’s driving in a van to play three games over a weekend while your buddies are back at school partying and going to the movies and sleeping late.”

This year was the first time your football team ever won a regional title. Were there special things the school and community did to support the team?

I think our football parents deserve a lot of credit. They did spaghetti dinners every Thursday, as a team-bonding thing. They came in dressed up on Halloween and gave out stuff, and they made a really unique and touching memory book for the seniors. On Senior Night, they had big signs with a picture of each athlete, and they put them in the end zone.

Our school doesn’t have a defined community. The way the boundaries are set up, a lot of our kids have to pass two high schools to get to Oakton. What the football team did was to bring us a feeling of community, even though we’re so spread out.

When your football coach was getting ready for the state title game, were there things that you did to help him prepare?

We had a good rapport and we talked about the strengths and weaknesses of the team and staff. As he made decisions, I tried to bolster them, but my role was to let him know that I fully trusted his judgement and whatever he did, I would support him.

Our football coach has built the program from going 0-10 to being strong contenders every year, with a solid base of freshmen and JV teams. Unfortunately for us, he just left to become an athletic director himself.

So now you’re looking for a football coach. What strategies have you developed for hiring great coaches?

We’re looking for coaches who understand total school involvement, so we look for people who’ve been involved with a lot of things. If all they’ve ever been is a football coach, maybe they haven’t developed a well-rounded viewpoint.

To further test that, we’ll give them situations like, “Your quarterback has a Spanish make-up test to take and you’re getting ready for the championship game. He can’t get to practice until 4 p.m. How are you going to handle that?” Or, “Johnny is telling you he has to go out of town this weekend on a college visit, so he can’t be at practice on Saturday.” What are you going to do?

We use scenarios to gauge how they’ll line up with our discipline philosophy, too. We’ll ask, “If a kid goes to a party and gets drunk, are you the kind of coach who will kick him off the team? Are you the kind of coach who has gradients of punishment, and are there ways you try to help that kid understand that they have an issue or a problem? Is there an educational component?”

What are your favorite time-management strategies?

My favorite is that I’ve decided to retire!

But if you can’t do that, it’s critical to have a vision of where you want your school’s athletic program to go, and to develop a plan to get there. As you do that, it’s really important to learn to delegate. Once I identify key people, my job is to explain the vision to them, give them their responsibilities, and allow them to run with it, using their own creativity and energy.

The hardest adjustment for me was learning to set realistic goals. When I started out my career, I was very task-oriented. I’d make my list, decide I was going to get 20 things done, and not go on vacation if I couldn’t finish. By now, I’ve learned to just keep moving forward, and not worry if I don’t get everything done today.