The Right Path

The character of your coaches may be your program’s longest-lasting legacy. Experienced athletic directors provide advice on how to make ethics a part of the hiring, evaluation, and mentoring process.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 16.3, April/May 2004,

One bright, sunny morning you open the local paper to find your school in the headlines. Unfortunately, the headlines are on the front page, not in the sports section.

The baseball coach had his picture taken with two under-age young women outside a night spot known for its adult-oriented entertainment. Authorities want to question the basketball coach about connections to sports gambling. Police raid the track and field coach’s house, seizing a collection of ephedra-like copycat substances. And the volleyball coach was found to have paid moving expenses for the parents of a player she’s trying to recruit.

Then the alarm clock sounds, and you wake up. Nightmare’s over!

Yet you can’t help but wonder: Could any of these things actually happen among your coaches? As anyone who has read the real headlines over the past couple of years can attest, yes, they certainly can.

While the transgressions and details will differ, these scandals have one thing in common: ethical problems. Most athletic directors believe that their coaches are ethical, yet all it takes is one of the proverbial bad apples—or even a good apple making a bad choice—to turn things upside down. This is how athletic directors lose sleep.

What can administrators do to head off ethical lapses among their coaches? What does it mean to be ethical in coaching? How can a coaching candidate’s ethical makeup be tested before he or she is hired? What is the role of the athletic director in guiding an ethical program? How can you make sure the nightmare never comes true?

Ensuring coaches act ethically begins before you even add them to your staff. "I don’t think you teach values. I think you hire values," says Eric Hyman, Athletic Director at Texas Christian University. "I try to exercise a huge amount of due diligence in researching people’s backgrounds."

Hyman is hardly alone in that approach. While researching a coaching candidate’s history is no guarantee of uncovering a poor ethical makeup, it’s a necessary start to weeding out potential problems. The first stop is checking with governing bodies for any major infractions the candidate may have been involved in. The second step is checking references—those who are listed and those who are not.

"You start by talking to people they’ve worked with before, but I also go farther than that," says Orby Moss, Athletic Director at Norfolk State University. "I’m going to bounce candidates’ names off of people who have been in the business for some time, because things come out that you don’t see on paper."

Dave Bens, Athletic Director at Clovis (Calif.) High School, also seeks the opinions of opposing coaches, athletic directors, and game officials. He asks how the candidate has behaved, how many times he or she has been ejected from games, and how much control he or she shows on the sidelines. "Sometimes people let you read between the lines," Bens says, "or they’ll say only, ‘I’d rather not talk about that,’ but you know what that means."

Like Bens, Hyman also looks for behind-the-scenes information. For example, before hiring Dennis Franchione as Head Football Coach at TCU, Hyman sought an objective opinion through a former colleague who talked with a person at the University of New Mexico, where Franchione was then working. "There was no hesitation by the New Mexico person in answering this. He just answered the questions," Hyman says. "That helped me do my due diligence. It told me a lot about Fran without me being directly connected.

"I also talked to the parents of two players to get a sense of how he treated young people," Hyman continues. "That’s the kind of depth you have to do to really research someone’s background."

Tom Berman, Athletic Director at Portland State University, makes it clear to leading job candidates how he’s going to be inquiring about their backgrounds. "We always ask for three to five references," Berman says, "and when we get down to the very end, I will say to them, ‘I’m going to really do some homework, and here are some of the people I want to contact. Are you comfortable with it?’ I give them time to respond, and if they respond negatively, they’re probably going to swim uphill and have a tough challenge with me."

Judging a coach’s ethical makeup is more subjective than other elements of job performance. There’s no ethical won-loss record, and no stats on doing the right thing, especially behind the scenes. But Bill Bradshaw, Athletic Director at Temple University, has found some reliable indicators about ethical tendencies that aren’t hard to find.

"You can often tell from the kind of head coaches they’ve worked under," says Bradshaw. "I also look at how often people have changed jobs. If they’ve been in and out of programs, made a series of short moves, that’s a tell-tale sign. Graduation rates are also a good indicator of somebody’s priorities. You can look at the number of student-athletes who’ve transferred in and out of a program.

"I just think in general you can do your homework to find out," Bradshaw continues. "You’re not miles and miles away from someone’s reputation. Those kinds of things have a way of coming to the forefront. If you do a lot of work upfront, it can save you a lot of trouble down the road."

In most employment settings, off-the-job behavior is none of the employer’s business. But coaches aren’t just any other employee. Because coaches are constant role models to student-athletes—and sometimes to the whole community—their behavior away from the job can become an issue. The question for athletic directors, then, is determining the boundary between purely personal ethics and job-related ethics.

"All coaches are role models whether they like it or not," says Bens. "Anything they do inside their homes is their personal business, unless some kind of outside authority becomes involved. But anything they do outside the home can affect their coaching ability.

"Let’s say that a person is arrested," Bens says. "If the guy’s a bricklayer, it’s not going to be a big issue when he comes to work on Monday. But if the person is a coach, when they come to work on Monday, it’s going to be a big issue. It’s not necessarily fair. It’s just a fact of life that we are in the public eye and the public expects us to be good role models for their kids."

So how do you query a coaching candidate about his or her ethics without going over the personal-life boundary?

Moss asks a lot of open-ended questions. Some examples include: What do you do off the field that contributes to your coaching? What do you do off the field that reflects your coaching philosophy?

"I remember asking one coach what was the most important thing," says Bradshaw, "and he said winning, ‘because no one ever gets fired when their kids aren’t going to class.’ I couldn’t hire that person.

Bradshaw also says he’s searching for signs of certain positive ethical traits. "I’m looking for someone who is fair with the student-athletes, who’s honest with the media, his supervisors, and the university, and has the best interests of the university in mind. Someone whose judgements in the past have been fair. I don’t mean somebody who has not made a mistake. I mean somebody whose priorities are in line with my priorities."

Bens asks potential coaches if they’ve ever heard of "Pursuing Victory With Honor," a sportsmanship and character development program developed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a Los Angeles-based organization that worked with the National Association of Basketball Coaches on its college coaches’ summit in 2003. If they don’t know what he’s talking about, it’s a red flag, since the state’s high school athletic association has adopted and endorsed the program for its members.

Similarly, Eastern Oregon University Director of Athletics Rob Cashell is integrating the NAIA Champions of Character program into the school’s next job search. Future job ads will say successful candidates must show and know how to teach the program’s five core values—respect, integrity, responsibility, leadership, and sportsmanship. In interviews, Cashell plans to ask candidates for specifics of how they’ve done so.

"I think any good coach should be able to come up with some good examples," Cashell says. "They don’t have to be monumental things. If you’re getting ready for the playoffs and your star player gets into trouble, did you look the other way until the playoffs were over, or did you deal with it right away? I’ve asked that question before in interviews, and nine times out of 10, people say, ‘I dealt with it right away.’ But can they demonstrate it? Most of us, as coaches, have been faced with situations like that. I want to see that it’s been demonstrated."

Randy Konstans, Athletic Director at West Aurora (Ill.) High School, looks for insight into someone’s values behind every answer of a coaching candidate. "It seems to me that those kinds of issues are going to be in just about every question," he says. "I want to discern how important winning is, how important is teaching fundamentals, and teaching character in athletes.

"Although I may ask about a practice plan and a long-range plan for a program," he continues, "I’m listening for whether this person has the same core values. If I ask, ‘Are you going to play a kid who’s academically ineligible?’ they’re going to tell me what I want to hear. So I ask, ‘When your team or members of your team are struggling, what are you going to do, coach?’ By the time they finish, I’m going to have a good idea whether they think integrity is important or somewhat important, or whether they respond in a way that says they think the goal is just to win.

Simply laying all your cards on the table can also be an effective strategy. Hyman asks prospective coaches about how they expect to fit with the institution. "You lay out the parameters of the athletic department, and you say, ‘This is how we operate,’" he explains. "You tell them, ‘If there’s something you can’t live with, then this is not the right place for you.’ That’s not being disrespectful. It’s laying out the philosophical guidelines of this institution."

Cashell concurs. "Letting candidates know the values that we believe in and we support," he says, "will draw people either to us or away from us. And I’m okay if they’re being drawn away and they don’t have those values. That’s fine with me."

Lastly, but maybe most important, is to show that your own ethical house is in order during the hiring process. "When I’m interviewing coaches," says Moss, "I make certain that I’m completely honest with them. I discuss everything out there that might affect them—from how long the president is going to stay to what I know about the institution as the athletic director. I might also talk about my plans to stay as the athletic director. I think that’s part of the ethics of being an athletic director."

As important as screening coaching candidates for ethics is, interviews are tryouts, and tryouts don’t make a team ready to play. After a coach is hired, ethical maintenance and coaching begin.

At TCU, Hyman makes ethics part of his criteria when considering merit raises for coaches by asking TCU’s compliance director for an assessment. "We’ve had a couple of coaches who fell short in that area," says Hyman, "so we’ve worked with them to tell them what they need to do. I’ve found that once they’re reinforced with what to do, people maintain a high level of consistency as to their interpretation of what a program of integrity is."

Clovis High promotes ethics at home tournaments and meets by giving an award to the behaviorally outstanding team. "It’s more than sportsmanship. It’s how they conduct themselves through the whole tournament," Bens says. "At our wrestling tournament, the selected team receives free entry into the following year’s tournament. It’s a $325 entry fee, so that’s a good deal for them."

But perhaps the most effective way to promote ethics is simply talking about it. Hyman credits Dick Sheridan, under whom Hyman was an assistant football coach early in his career, for instilling a sense of ethics in him. "I asked him, ‘How do you deal with certain situations that are in a gray area and it may impact your popularity and your contract?’ He said, ‘Eric, the bottom line is there’s a right way and a wrong way.’ I’ve tried to operate that way.

"I tell our people, ‘We have a responsibility to this institution’," continues Hyman. "It is going to be here long after we’re gone, and we have to do what’s right for TCU. Then we look at what’s right for the athletic department, then at what’s right for the individual athletic programs.

"I’ve explained this to a very powerful coach who was going to do what he wanted for his program at the expense of the school. I said ‘I just want you to understand I will not operate that way. I want you to be successful, but I don’t want success to come at the expense of the university.’"

Some athletic directors use structured programs to discuss ethics. One is Steve Hargrave, Athletic Director and Head Baseball Coach at Rancho Buena Vista (Calif.) High School, who recently conducted a "Pursuing Victory With Honor" workshop for coaches and other teachers. They discussed hypothetical—and sometimes not-so-hypothetical—ethical dilemmas commonly faced in sports. For example, if a volleyball official rules a spike goes out of bounds but a defensive player tells the official it bushed her fingertips on the way out, does the coach praise or criticize her?

The primary target of "Pursuing Victory With Honor" is the student-athletes themselves, but it works in part through coaches, who are forced to examine their own ethics. And sometimes, Hargrave says, the benefit is simply making it clear to coaches that there is an ethical component to their work—a message some may be hearing for the first time. (See "Stealing Signs," below.)

"Before this program there wasn’t really a discussion among coaches about these situations," Hargrave says. "Just bringing this to the forefront makes you think a little bit more about your decisions. The important thing is thinking about the ethical questions."

Like many NCAA institutions, Portland State made promoting ethics and sportsmanship part of its athletics certification efforts, says Berman. It has put up posters and fliers, and Berman regularly brings in speakers from across Oregon to talk about such issues. Each event helps toward the underlying goal of integrating values into the whole enterprise.

"By doing that and making the coaches and student-athletes aware that it’s important to you, it becomes important to them," Berman says. "It’s all about creating a culture. If you create a culture, and say, ‘This is who we are, this is how we’re going to respond to certain situations,’ then people will learn to value it."

After tryouts are complete and standards set, it’s time to play the game. In mentoring ethical coaching, the playing of the game includes monitoring behavior and confronting lapses. As in competition, this is the true test.

One of the top challenges is knowing what each of your coaches is doing. Bradshaw recommends building trust by rewarding candor. "Our coaches aren’t afraid—knock on wood, have not been afraid—to say we have [an NCAA] secondary infraction, and we report it immediately," he says. "Once an athletic director allows any type of non-communication to creep in, he really is at a big disadvantage. Concealing it would be a major problem for me.

"I think an athletic director should reward coaches who do that," Bradshaw continues. "Praise coaches who come forward and say, ‘You know what, I made a second call last week to a recruit, and I know we’re only allowed to make one.’ I think the NCAA would tell you that they worry about the schools that don’t call up with secondary infractions more than those who regularly report them. I would encourage any athletic director to have that kind of relationship with his or her coaches."

Another potential source of information is student-athletes. For instance, Hargrave conducts a regular meeting, called the Captain’s Club, in which leaders from each team have lunch with Hargrave and other school officials. "We talk about the things going on in their sport, including things that the kids might not think are right," Hargrave says. "That gives me a chance to get some discussion going with the students, and then I can bring that up to the coach."

When confronting an ethical lapse, Hyman tries to keep an open mind and be helpful if possible. "I approach it as, ‘I’m trying to help you,’" he says. "I dealt with a coach one time who had not displayed very good judgment. I told him, ‘You are innocent until proven guilty—these are accusations and we will do research. You have nothing to worry about if you didn’t do anything wrong.’

"Well, he walked out of my office, went into the parking lot and—I found this out later—he threw up. So there was obviously something wrong, and the individual saw the handwriting on the wall, and he knew that his behavior was improper. He left the school without me having to do anything."

One thing to point out when a lapse occurs is the big picture for the school. Konstans once had to confront a coach who, when organizing a tournament, seeded his team in an obviously favorable position.

"I told him, ‘Everybody that was involved in the tournament knows it happened, and everybody knows that we did it’—and I did say we—‘I don’t think they know that you did it yourself, coach, but our reputation is damaged because they know West Aurora did it,’" Konstans says. "I had to explain that that’s not a good way to win. We lost a couple teams out of the tournament because they didn’t want to be associated with it if that was the way we were going to do things, and I didn’t blame them."

An ethical lapse doesn’t necessarily mean doom. If it’s something that doesn’t stray too far from the institution’s standards, what’s most important is what happens afterward. "My principal says it best," says Bens. "He talks about ‘falling forward.’ If you make a mistake, you learn from the mistake and try to do better the next time. Always fall forward, and don’t fall back."

When Moss was athletic director at Georgia State University, he hired Lefty Driesell, who had ended a long and successful tenure at the University of Maryland in the aftermath of the cocaine-induced death of basketball player Len Bias. When Driesell lost his subsequent coaching post and became available, Moss considered him for an opening.

"After talking with him at length, we could tell he learned from the situation at Maryland that you have to have closer control and contact with players," Moss says. "Our chancellor, and other leaders, were involved in the process, so they knew what we were getting. We felt that there was not a problem with Lefty’s ethics, but that he had learned from that tragedy and was ready to improve the next time around. We felt we could make it work, and I think that came out very positively."

There is no ethical Final Four, no character national champion. There’s not even a season for it. That’s what makes it hard—it’s on-going.

Yet there’s still plenty of motivation for making it a pillar of an athletic program. Hargrave looks no further than the student-athletes themselves. "We’re teaching more than winning and losing," he says. "We’re teaching respect for your opponent and being honest. That’s part of the whole program—those things are more important than the outcome, really.

"There are moments where there’s an ethical question and you’re making a decision on winning or losing, moments when the coach has to make that decision, or the player has to make that decision and is looking for some direction from the coach," he continues. "Those are the things that kids are going to remember for the rest of their lives."

For information on Pursuing Victory With Honor, see

Sidebar: Stealing Signs
When coaches consider the ethics of their work, they usually think about running a respectable program and being a positive role model for their student-athletes. But is there an ethical component to actually coaching the game? When is taking an advantage acceptable sporting competition, and when is it unethical?

During a workshop for coaches using the "Pursuing Victory With Honor" program, Rancho Buena Vista (Calif.) High School Athletic Director Steve Hargrave and an assistant principal walked coaches through a variety of hypothetical situations. Many dealt with heat-of-battle moments that pit the desire to win against the desire to set a good example: the officials miss your quarterback punching an opponent at the bottom of a pile but you see it, and you have to decide whether to take him out of the game. Or an outfielder admits she trapped a ball that was ruled a catch.

But other ethical questions go beyond such what-if-this-happens moments to actions that are taught and practiced regularly. What about teaching catchers to snap their mitts back into the strike zone in hopes of getting an outside pitch called a strike? Should you teach an outfielder to pretend to be catching a fly ball he can’t possibly get to, just to make a base runner tag up instead of sprinting for the next base? What about telling a football defensive back who’s been beaten by a receiver to take the pass interference penalty instead of giving up a sure touchdown?

To some, these strategies are smart competition. To others, though, they’re dishonest and bad sportsmanship. To Hargrave, these are issues that coaches, administrators, and league officials ought to at least discuss.

Hargrave acknowledges the gray area. He’s also the Head Baseball Coach at Rancho Buena Vista, and he’s dead-set against the hidden-ball trick or fake tags at second to make runners slide when they don’t have to. But he is okay with teaching his players to try to discern an opponent’s signs to help keep bench players in the game. "We don’t say, ‘stealing.’ We’re ‘borrowing’ the signs. We don’t keep them for ourselves," he explains.

Regardless of exactly where you draw the line, Hargrave says, the point is to consider the effect your judgements have on young people’s perceptions and on the opponents, and to examine even widely accepted practices for their ethical components. One example he uses places something usually thought of as a competitive strategy in a different light.

"In basketball, fouling at the end of the game to get the ball back is an accepted part of the game," he says. "Well, in water polo, if you’re down late in the game, is it acceptable to have a player illegally jump into the pool to get a four-meter penalty shot and hope to get the ball back? We’re talking about the same thing.

"I believe we’ve got to change the whole thinking," Hargrave continues. "I mean, what are we really teaching the kids?"