Better Banquets

Athletic Management, 16.2, February/March 2004,

From backyard barbecues to black tie affairs, many athletic departments are reinventing their seasonal sports banquets.

By Kenny Berkowitz
Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

At Kenston High School in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, when parents take their seats for the annual athletic awards banquet, they are in for a surprise. At one point in the ceremony, all of the seniors are called individually to the front of the auditorium, where they're given a photograph of themselves in their team uniform along with a rose. However, the rose is not for themselves.

"They are expected to take that rose to their parents, thank them, and return to their seats," says Athletic Coordinator Lynn Gotthardt. "When we first started doing it, some of the students would just look around, like 'Really? Should we do this?' But now it's become a custom, and they know exactly what they're supposed to do. Parents have told me that it is a very touching moment for them and they love it."

At many high schools, there is one basic template for every athletic awards ceremony. Held in the school auditorium, gymnasium, or cafeteria, the event includes lots of speeches, lots of awards, and lots of drooping eyelids. Parents politely watch a parade of countless students rise out of their chairs, accept their trophies, thank the same handful of people, and walk slowly back to their seats.

At high schools like Kenston, however, athletic directors are revisiting the traditional ceremonies and revising them. Some have traded their traditional shirt-and-tie affair for a backyard barbecue, others have divided their one large banquet into a series of smaller ones. Some have tried to create ceremonies that emphasize community, others to emphasize the connection between athletics and academics. But they've all started with the same basic questions: What are the best and worst parts of the tradition? And how can I update the awards process to make it more meaningful for my student-athletes?


The advantages of hosting a traditional end-of-the-year ceremony are easy to see. In one night, you can gather all your administrators, coaches, student-athletes, parents, and boosters. You can hand out hundreds of awards, and if you hold the ceremony in your school auditorium, do it for minimal expense. You only have to plan and organize one ceremony, and when it's done, you won't have to do it again for another year.

But a traditional ceremony can become a struggle to sit through, and too many people tend to leave before it's all over. When that happens, you've lost the chance to create a community within your department, and to show all your athletes how much their contribution means to the whole school.

That's why some high schools are creating multiple banquets, with one for each team and one for the entire athletic department. At Calallen High School in Corpus Christi, Texas, Athletic Director and Head Football Coach Phil Danaher uses his football banquet to emphasize each of his football athletes' accomplishments, and uses his year-end all-sports banquet to build school spirit among all Calallen athletes.

"If you have all the sports together in one awards ceremony, it makes for a very long evening, and you don't really get to spend time on each kid's accomplishments," says Danaher. "With the team banquet, we can recognize each athlete individually and talk about individual statistics. We can specialize a lot more, plus there's time for the coach to really talk about the season."

"When you hold a banquet just for one sport, everyone gets a little more personal attention," agrees Sister Lynn Winsor, Athletic Director of Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix, Ariz. After years of hosting one large banquet for all its athletes in the school cafeteria, Xavier has also switched to having one for each sport, with a separate school-wide honors ceremony for the entire senior class. The individual ceremonies give coaches more time with their student-athletes and allow the night to revolve around a focus of Winsor's program: creating a family within each team.

Most of Xavier's smaller ceremonies are pot-lucks hosted in the home of one of the team's seniors. Winsor attends almost all of them--and if she can't, makes sure to send an assistant athletic director, along with a personal letter of appreciation.

"We look at our athletic department as a family organization," says Winsor. "We want to have more personal contact with our parents and our student-athletes, and be able to give them an award within the context of the family of the team.

"Having the banquets at an athlete's home also takes the financial burden off the school, because the parents do the organizing, and it also gives the families another chance to see each other," continues Winsor. "It's really interesting to see what happens--often the group will be sitting together in the living room, with the parents in chairs and the girls sitting at their feet. I don't think we have a single team that would want to go back to having a huge awards ceremony."


At Kenston High School, Gotthardt was looking for a way to balance the advantages of large and small banquets and create more of a community. Her solution: hold both types of ceremonies on the same night. Starting in the school gymnasium, where she's able to address all the student-athletes at once, Gotthardt talks about each team's accomplishments, using write-ups from her coaches, and gives out the school's most important awards. Then, after a brief recess for coffee and cake in the school cafeteria, she sends each team into its own "breakout room," where coaches take time to praise individual athletes and hand out letters.

"When we did the individual banquets, each team really stayed within its own little realm," says Gotthardt. "The soccer team only knew about the soccer team, and the football team only knew about the football team. But now we all share. We get to start the evening with everyone together, and when we go to the breakout rooms, the emphasis switches back to each sport and its coach."

The new format has worked especially well in giving recognition to student-athletes in less visible sports. "With the old format, too many students didn't know about the kids who were in individual sports," says Gotthardt. "We had a really great golfer several years ago, and people didn't realize how successful he was. Now that everyone starts the evening together, people are saying, 'I had no idea that cross country runner was so great.' And after the first part of the ceremony, when we go to the cafeteria for cake and coffee, you can see kids who've never met before congratulating each other."

Another advantage of sending individual teams into breakout rooms is that it gives athletic directors a chance to meet more parents one-on-one than they could in a large room with hundreds of people. "The breakout rooms open the lines of communication," says Gotthardt, who tries to spend 10 to 15 minutes with each team. "I have a lot of people coming up to me that I haven't even met yet--they've just never taken the opportunity to talk to me. So I use the banquet to show parents that they can communicate with me, and going around to each of the team rooms certainly helps."


At Fox Technical High School in San Antonio, Texas, Athletic Director Denny Peel wanted to move as far away from a sit-down ceremony as possible. He wanted to find a less formal place to show his appreciation, a location where his athletes could feel completely relaxed. So after the school holds its honors ceremony in the auditorium, he hosts a picnic at one of San Antonio's largest public parks. It's as laid-back as a school event can get--attendance isn't even mandatory, though Peel is proud that the number of attendees keeps growing each year--and it's the perfect setting for athletes to do what they love best: play.

"The problem I have with the sit-down banquet is that after each sport has finished its presentation, all those kids and their parents get up and leave," says Peel. "It's unfair for the athletes in the last sport to be called, and that wasn't an atmosphere I wanted to continue with. At the picnics, the kids are much more relaxed. They're out having fun with their friends, and I think they appreciate that a lot more than a sit-down dinner."

As coaches and administrators cook barbecue, hot dogs, and hamburgers, Fox's student-athletes and their coaches compete against each other in pick-up games of volleyball, horseshoes, and washers, in which players toss large metal rings into a hole that's been cut into the ground. "It's a great game and a favorite part of the afternoon," says Peel. "Once you set people up 21 feet apart and teach them how to pitch the washers, they'll want to play forever."

To keep the picnics focused on appreciating his student-athletes, Peel makes sure they're the only people invited. "With all the parents and grandparents and boyfriends and girlfriends at the old banquets, it was hard to tell who the event was for," says Peel. "The picnic is completely for the appreciation of our student-athletes, and everyone understands that."

Hosting the picnic for only student-athletes keeps his group at a manageable 400 people, holds down the cost, and minimizes preparation time, which is particularly helpful at Fox, where there are no booster clubs to organize events. The picnics have plenty of friendly competition, especially between coaches and their student-athletes, who get to cheer (or jeer) each other. The only awards given out are the plaques and letters the coaches give to all their athletes.

"It's a different atmosphere than they're used to seeing every day," says Peel. "It's an old-fashioned picnic, and the kids really look forward to it. As athletes, they're naturally competitive, so it's not hard to get them to enjoy themselves. And our staff has as much fun as our kids."


On the opposite end of the spectrum, Oakton High School in Vienna, Va., has added an end-of-the-year banquet for its varsity lettered athletes that is among the largest, most ambitious high school athletics awards ceremonies in the country. "It's a major production," says Assistant Activities Director Phil Levine, who's coordinated the banquet for the past three years. "It takes a lot of time and money. But to see it is really unbelievable."

It's a formal-dress affair, held at the McLean Hilton Hotel, for approximately 1,000 athletes and their parents. (Each team also holds individual banquets for all its athletes.) The night starts off with a non-alcoholic cocktail hour with trophies, awards, and framed poster-sized photographs of Oakton student-athletes displayed in the lobby. From there, the crowd moves into the banquet hall, where they receive their 30-page programs, seats have been formally assigned, and the centerpieces are made of bronzed footgear and stiffened uniform jerseys. The event begins with a live performance of the national anthem by the school chorus, followed by a sit-down dinner served as a 45-minute video presentation replays the highlights of each team.

The food is followed by an awards ceremony co-hosted by the school's principal and athletic director, combining live digital video and a PowerPoint presentation. The emcees recap the seasons with a paragraph written by each coach and hand out awards to student-athletes while snippets from popular songs, like Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" for track athletes and "Glory Days" for baseball players, play in the background. It ends with videotaped interviews of the Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year--done a few weeks earlier, on the pretext that Levine is compiling a video for freshmen about the experience of Oakton athletics. The whole occasion takes about three and a half hours.

It's an enormous amount of work, much of it done by the school's boosters, who spend eight months planning and organizing the banquet. Boosters sell ads for the program, gather donations for the event, coordinate the seating chart, print invitations, and decorate the hall. It's not cheap: Levine estimates that the banquets cost about $30,000 each, with about $5,000 from the athletic department budget, and the rest raised from ticket sales, booster club memberships, private donations, and corporate contributions.

For anyone who's daunted by the cost, Levine emphasizes one of Oakton's greatest strengths: its students. By enlisting the help of the rest of the student body, Levine harnesses the energy of Oakton's non-athletes and turns the athletic banquet into a celebration of the whole school. In addition to the involvement of the chorus, the banquet invitations and programs are designed by art students, and the two-minute highlight reels for each team are shot and edited by video production students, all with the support of faculty.

"Our students do a phenomenal job," says Levine. "The banquet allows them to develop projects that they know are going to be used, instead of just doing something that will end up in their portfolio. It allows our community to see just how talented our students are, both inside and outside athletics.

"By bringing in other departments, other faculty members have come to really appreciate the banquets," continues Levine, who makes sure to invite faculty outside athletics to the banquet. "It shows that everybody is trying to do something great for the kids, and that the entire school is involved in athletics, not just our department."


For anyone hoping to throw a banquet as large as his, Levine's advice is simple: Start small and work your way up, adding something new every year. Even without spending a lot of money, there are plenty of ways to make your own banquet extra special.

At Calallen, Danaher's videotape of the year's athletic highlights is one of the ceremony high points. "The videotape is a compilation of all the accomplishments we've made that year," says Danaher, who delivers his end-of-the-year speech on the video. In addition, every student leaves with a copy of the tape.

"For the kids who've played, it's a great keepsake," says Danaher. "And for the kids who are just coming up, it's a great motivational tool, so they can visualize themselves being on the tape someday."

At Irondequoit High School in Rochester, N.Y., Athletic Director Danny Fries uses the school's cameras and laptop computers to create an awards presentation that combines video and PowerPoint. Using a live feed, he can video his students as they walk up to the podium. He then uses PowerPoint to superimpose their name and award on top of their image as well as liven up still photos of his student-athletes with dissolves, flips, slides, and spin-outs.

At Glenbrook North (Ill.) High School, Athletic Director Bob Pieper keeps the awards banquet interesting by asking the banquet committee to search out a great guest speaker. They try to find public figures who their students will be excited to hear. In the three years of doing this, they've chosen a pair of alumni who competed in the Olympics and a popular sportscaster on a local television station.

"We're looking for somebody the kids would recognize, and someone who can tie into our students' own experience," says Pieper. "We put a little bio inside the program so the students know who's going to speak, and they get very excited about it. They really listen."


Pieper also feels it's important to design an awards ceremony that recognizes every student-athlete. At Glenbrook North, each student-athlete is given a plaque in the shape of a Spartan head with the school motto "Be proud, be positive, be a Spartan."

"It's important for everyone to walk out of that banquet with something," says Pieper, whose all-sports banquet begins with a general session in the school auditorium before his students break off for their team meetings. "After all the time and effort they put into their seasons, we want to show every kid that he or she is important. We don't skip anybody."

"The secret in hosting a great banquet is to reward your students," agrees Winsor. "You want to make them feel good about themselves and each other. That's what awards banquets are all about."

And even if the changes haven't always come easily, Gotthardt is convinced that it's important for athletic directors to experiment with some of these new ideas. "When we first made the switch, we had a lot of opposition. A lot," says Gotthardt. "But since then, many of the people who fought against it have told me, 'You were right.' So we don't have any plans to change it back. Because this way really does get more recognition for the kids."


Along with MVP awards, all-league plaques, and team trophies, Kenston (Ohio) High School also now hands out awards for academic prowess. One goes to the varsity team with the highest grade point average and another to the varsity student-athlete with the highest grade point average.

Athletic Coordinator Lynn Gotthardt says the idea works well for two reasons. One, it lets her give out an award whose winner can't be easily predicted. Two, it creates a different kind of competition, and her students respond by working harder on their schoolwork.

"The kids are really excited to find out who's won," says Gotthardt, who compiles the team GPAs in the days before the ceremony and doesn't reveal the winner to anyone. "When the girls' cross country team won it for several years, they put it on their T-shirts. And when the volleyball girls won, they just jumped out of their seats."

Gotthardt also makes sure the night's speaker emphasizes the importance of academics. The booster club invites successful athletic alumni to talk about their experiences after high school, using their talks to underline the themes of her program.

"It's good for kids to see what these people have accomplished in their lives," says Gotthardt. "Our speakers talk about what sports has meant to them, what it's like to be part of a program, and how those lessons of teamwork and communication have stayed with them throughout their lives. They talk about the value of college, and the kids really listen."

At Albemarle (Va.) High School, the best students are also given special recognition. "We take time to recognize the student-athletes who are graduating in the top 10 percent of their class," says Athletic Director Deb Tyson. "We ask those folks to stand up at the ceremony, and we also recognize them at the event with a 'bio board.' The board has an 8x10 photo of each student-athlete, along with a write-up of their career here at Albemarle and how they chose the college they'll be attending in the fall."


At Albemarle (Va.) High School, Athletic Director Deb Tyson hands out one honor that includes no plaque or trophy. She asks a pair of her student-athletes to speak to the entire assembly. "We pick one female and one male student-athlete, and they speak about what they've gained from their athletic experiences here at Albemarle," she says.

"It's become a tradition that people really look forward to, because it gives these athletes a chance to talk about the importance of character," continues Tyson. "It's the same basic message that their coaches have been saying all along, but it feels different because the students are hearing it from their peers. It's amazing, because when those kids get up to speak, you can hear a pin drop."

Tyson knows her student-athlete speakers may be nervous about addressing a group of 200 people, so she helps them prepare. "We try to equip them with everything they'll need to deliver a message that is lasting," says Tyson. "I'll ask them to think about their audience, and we'll talk about the power and influence that leaders have, particularly in athletics. We'll talk about the importance of stepping in to help out a teammate who may be struggling, either athletically, academically, or socially. We'll talk about the importance of being a role model, and I'll ask them, 'What message do you want to leave for these younger athletes?' And sometimes, the speeches can get pretty emotional."

In one memorable speech, a star runner who'd foot-fouled at the state championships talked about the importance of pursuing victory with honor. And instead of accepting his peers' assessment that he'd gotten a bad deal, he used the experience to talk about playing within the rules.

"A lot of kids want to make excuses," says Tyson. "They don't want to be held accountable, they want to point fingers, and he could have easily done that. Instead, he used this as a chance to teach people about personal responsibility."