By David Paling
David Paling is the Director of Athletics, Health, and Physical Education for the Middleboro public schools in Middleboro, Mass. He is a frequent contributor to Athletic Management.
Athletic Management, 16.5, August/September 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1605/interview.htm
If you’re like most high school athletic directors, you are continually hiring new coaches. The high demands and odd hours at which coaches must operate today is making it difficult to retain these employees. It is also making it difficult to find qualified new coaches for your staff. But the process of hiring good people to lead our programs can’t be skimped on.
The key to the selection of a coach is the interview process. To be effective, interviews must be carefully designed to enable the athletic department to find the best possible candidate for the position. However, as times have changed, so has the interview process. An athletic director conducting a one-on-one interview with candidates is no longer the norm. And questions are no longer only about teaching sport specific skills and implementing strategies.
Many schools are involving faculty, parents, and even student-athletes in interviews, and they are devising systems for rating candidates. For this article, I spoke with several athletic directors in Massachusetts to find out how they’ve updated their interviewing of coaching candidates.
John Lucier, Athletic Director at East Bridgewater High School, recently refined the hiring procedure at his school. He feels it is critical to follow a deliberate process and involve many constituents.
“Here at East Bridgewater we form a committee to hire all our head coaches,” Lucier explains. “We feel a committee will reflect the fact that we represent the community. The makeup of our committee is usually myself, an assistant principal, two parents, one former and one current student-athlete, and two current East Bridgewater coaches. At least one of these coaches will be relevant to the sport we are hiring for.
“Committee members screen the resumes, then formulate questions based on their various perspectives,” Lucier continues. “A coach, for example, might ask an interview question based on technical knowledge of the sport. A parent might want to know about community relations. We talk about these questions in a pre-interview setting, at which we choose what we will ask and what format we will follow during the interview.”
The East Bridgewater committee also strives to reach agreement in a post-interview setting. “We discuss the interviews that were conducted,” Lucier says, “and we ask everyone to vote on their candidate of choice. At this point, I exclude myself from voting. If the committee has reached a consensus, they make a recommendation to me and the principal. Typically, this would result in a hire. If consensus has not been reached, then we go back to the drawing board and re-interview.”
Mashpee High School Athletic Director Mike Horne also puts together a committee. “For varsity head coaching jobs, a committee is formed of one or two veteran coaches, one or two players (usually captains), one or two supportive parents, one influential community member, one sports-conscious faculty member, and the athletic director,” he says. “Once we are organized, the committee meets prior to the interview to go over how it will proceed, who will ask which questions, what topics the questions should address, and how to manage follow-up questions.
“To get an interview, the applicants are first paper screened by me,” Horne continues. “For the most part, I will accept almost any interested candidate to be interviewed. But if the applicant’s background is incompatible with the written qualifications we put out for the job, then he or she will be excluded from the interview process.”
However, immediately before each candidate meets with the committee, Horne conducts a one-on-one informal interview. He feels that this helps relax the candidate so he or she doesn’t stumble during the opening questions of the formal interview. “I show them our facilities and talk one-on-one,” Horne explains. “I tell them about the position and offer a chance to ask questions. All of our candidates are afforded this opportunity.”
During the formal interview, committee members are given a tally sheet to rate each candidate based on the general topics of the questions (See “Keeping Score" below). This helps avoid pitfalls due to any committee members’ lack of experience in hiring. “We use the scorecards for comparison purposes,” Horne says, “then collect and dispose of them once the interviews are over.
“Our process culminates with our recommending finalists to the principal,” Horne continues. “We’ll send no more than three finalists to him and designate our first, second, and third choices. The principal meets with the finalists as often as he needs to, and then makes his selection.”
At Apponequet Regional High School, Athletic Director Bob Liljedahl arranges committees as well, although they tend to be smaller than those at East Bridgewater and Mashpee. “A committee here might be myself, an assistant principal, and a parent,” he says. “To measure the interviewees’ responses to our questions, we have a round table discussion afterward. “If we are in agreement, we make a recommendation to the principal for hire. If we don’t agree, we would pursue a second interview from among our finalists.”
In Massachusetts, by virtue of the state’s Education Reform Act, high school principals are the bottom line when it comes to hiring. This is epitomized at Nauset Regional High School, where Athletic Director Al Sullivan sits in on coaching interviews in an advisory capacity only.
“My principal conducts our interviews and does the hiring here,” Sullivan explains. “He wants it known that he assumes full responsibility for staff and he will take the credit and the blame. Basically he doesn’t want there to be any confusion on this matter up through the ranks. So we don’t form interview committees at Nauset.”
Nauset’s principal poses a standard set of questions to each coaching candidate. “The central theme of our questions has to do with philosophy and what goals a coach might express relative to the program,” says Sullivan. “If a coach states that he or she intends to win the league championship, then we want to know how they will get there. What kind of a plan do they have in mind to reach this goal?”
Hull High School follows a similar path in its interview process. “The principal and I do the interviews here,” says Athletic Director Joe Sullivan. “Only on occasion will we ask an assistant coach to sit in on an interview. We’ll ask all the candidates the same set of questions, then compare their responses.
“Within our questions we present something that will call for a coach to role play,” he continues. “For example, we’ve asked candidates for a head football job to stand up and demonstrate how they would teach someone to perform an offensive block. I recall one of our candidates—who did not get up from his chair—tell us that he didn’t need to be able to do that because he was a head coach. That was not what we were looking for and the candidate was no longer in the running.”
At other schools, the norm is still for the athletic director to perform all aspects of the hiring process. And this approach certainly has its benefits.
“I have to work with the person who is hired but a committee does not,” says Rockland High School Athletic Director Bob Fisher. “So we don’t form groups to assist in hiring. I’ll do the interviews—with the head coaches involved if we’re looking for an assistant—and make my recommendations to the principal.
“During interviews, I look for five things: sportsmanship, discipline, perception, demeanor, and communication,” Fisher continues. “Most of our coaches here are educators, and I think we are fortunate in this regard. We are very selective in hiring because one bad coach can ruin the perception of your entire program. We take the process very seriously.”
Whitman-Hanson Regional High School also relies on the expertise of its athletic director, working alone, to interview and hire coaches. “I ask questions that connect to three things,” Athletic Director Bob Bancroft explains. “First, if a program is successful, I want to know how the potential coach will be able to continue this success. Second, if the program is failing, I am interested in hearing what plans the coach has to turn the corner. And third, if a program is struggling with both a low number of participants and is not winning its fair share of games, how will the coach be able to maintain or increase interest in this particular sport?”
Whether a committee or just one person is conducting the interviews, formulating questions for the candidates is a critical part of the process. The goal is to design questions that will reveal a set of characteristics and qualities in a person that are relevant to the job.
Generally speaking, schools want what most organizations and corporations want. Does the candidate have a good work ethic? Does the candidate demonstrate leadership qualities? Are communication skills evident? Interpersonal skills are vital, as is the ability to work as part of a team. Does the candidate show proficiency in his or her field? Does the candidate’s background show a record of reliability and punctuality?
At Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School, Athletic Director Len Sylvia sometimes forms a committee for hiring and sometimes does not, depending on the number of candidates being interviewed. But when he does go the committee route, this group develops questions that assess candidates’ short- and long-term strategies.
“One question, for example, would focus on off-season conditioning,” Sylvia says, “because that would be in line with one of my expectations here. Another question would relate to the goals a prospective coach might have for their program, and how they plan to meet these goals. We also want to know about their level of interest in sharing the responsibility for the concessions at home games, as this is how we generate money for our athletic awards.
“We would do second interviews if necessary,” he continues. “Then it all boils down to who would be the best fit for our program. We make our recommendation to the principal.”
Wareham High School Athletic Director Buddy Carlson asks both open-ended questions and very specific ones. “I want to know what is the top priority they see with respect to their sport,” he says. “What program goals do they have and how do they plan to attain them? What is their philosophy about high school athletics, and how does this philosophy mesh with ours? I also ask how a coach will handle a difficult parent. And how does the coach handle a situation when there has been a violation in our code of conduct? I ask them to describe how a practice is organized.
“The combination of all of this will allow me to formulate my conclusions, which I forward to the principal as my recommendation for the job,” Carlson continues. “We don’t often form committees to interview.”
Rocky Gomes, Athletic Director at Carver High School, describes the interview process as going beyond a prescribed set of questions. He tries to understand what drives the candidates by paying attention to the nuances of their communication.
“I want someone who is dynamic and will be able to motivate kids,” he notes. “I notice things like appearance and grooming, handshakes, and eye contact made throughout the interview. When I listen to responses, I want to hear specific comments, not generalities. I get a sense for the candidate’s personality during the interview, and I look for someone who can connect with people. I often ask myself afterward: Is this someone I would want working with my own kids?”
Rockland Athletic Director Bob Fisher echoes these sentiments. “You want to sense in someone that they sincerely desire to help your athletes and your school,” he says. “You don’t want to be left feeling that the candidate’s demeanor is ‘What’s in it for me?’ When we hire a coach, I don’t want to get any negative telephone calls as a result of our selection.”
Sidebar: Using Committees Carefully
An interview is designed to find a coach who will be a good reflection of the school he or she will represent. But as part of the hiring process, administrators often find themselves reaching outside the school staffs to assemble a well-balanced committee.
Therefore, it’s important to form your committee carefully. Especially when asking parents to serve on the committee, make sure you know the person and what he or she represents. A booster club officer is often a good choice. Be sure not to choose a parent who has his or her own agenda and may come to the table with an axe to grind.
During the interview process, the best way to ward off problems is to ask new committee members to let school administrators lead the way. Committee members should be instructed to pay attention to procedures and follow the direction of the athletic director or senior committee member. They should also be instructed on what constitutes an illegal question (e.g., marital status, race, physical disability, medical history, religious affiliation, pregnancy, nationality). In the end, however, the committee chair or athletic director must be diligent in maintaining order and control.
A final strategy is to make sure there is a good working relationship among committee members. School personnel might react to a candidate differently than the non-school people, so take some time up front to discuss exactly what you’re looking for and how committee members should express their opinions. Talk about how it’s okay to disagree on some points, and how to stay focused on the big picture.
Sidebar: Keeping Score
The following is a list of qualities that committee members at Mashpee High School evaluate when interviewing coaching candidates. Committee members score each candidate from 0-10 in each area.
Year-round skill improvement
Knowledge of budget/funding
Game preparation experience