Q&A with Jerry Dawson

Chaparral High School

By Staff

Athletic Management, 16.5, August/September 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1605/qadawson.htm

In 1974, Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., opened its doors, and Jerry Dawson was part of the first staff to walk in. Heís been an important presence ever since, holding the job of Head Baseball Coach since day one, then adding the role of Athletic Director in 1984. Though he retired as athletic director and physical education teacher a year ago, Dawson continues to coach the schoolís baseball team.

During his time at Chaparral, the athletic program elevated itself into the upper echelon of Arizona high school athletics, claiming nine state championshipsófour of which were won by Dawsonís nationally-ranked baseball teams, the latest coming this past spring. Last season, Dawson was named the Arizona Interscholastic Association Pursuing Victory with Honor Coach of the Year, awarded to the stateís top coach from all sports. And heís mentored more than 130 players who have gone on to play either professional or collegiate baseball, including current Chicago White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko.

In this interview, we talk with Dawson about his 20-plus years at the helm of the Chaparral athletic program, the changes heís seen in high school athletics over the years, coaching the children of affluent and high-profile parents, dealing with high expectations, and some of the philosophies that helped him stand the test of time as both a winning coach and a successful athletic director.

AM: What were your biggest challenges as an athletic director?

Dawson: Time management was one. Because I was doing what were realistically three full-time jobs, I spent weekends and 12-hour days just trying to get everything done.

Getting coaches to pay attention to paperwork and the loose ends was another challenge. Coaches are often very good about their Xís and Oís, but sometimes they arenít as good about paperwork and that almost always gets them in trouble. A coach sometimes doesnít realize that all the policies and procedures are put in place to protect the individual coaches.

Any secrets to tackling time management?

Details. Youíve got to pay attention to the details. If youíre not organized, the job will eat you up because as an athletic director you are always dealing with everybody elseís problems. Not in the respect that they arenít your problems, but in the respect that they are caused by somebody else, in most cases.

Did you have to deal with jealousy from other sport coaches as to how you spent your time or department money?

Yes. To combat this I spent less on the baseball program than I did per person for all the other sport programs at Chaparral. Some coaches would believe it, and some of them would not, but the paperwork was there. You almost wind up going to an extreme and hurting your own program so that you are not accused of favoring it.

What are the pros and cons of being in a relatively affluent school district?

From a money and fund-raising standpoint, it helped us a great deal. But there is also more pressure to be a top-level programóto win and be successful. Itís a double-edged sword.

How do you deal with those expectations when you arenít successful?

Itís very difficult, but youíve got to be up front and honest. I would always listen. I believe you have to give people a chance to vent. If they donít vent to you, then they will vent to the superintendent or the principal or the school board. What they really want most of the time is just to be heard and be able to plead their case. Many times simply listening to them will alleviate some, if not all, of their stress.

People have to believe that an athletic director is there to listen to them. If not, thatís when they get frustrated, and having frustrated parents or frustrated athletes is not good.

How did year one at Chaparral compare to year 31?

We were probably pretty close to the same size in year one as we are now, but the expectations have definitely changed and parents have changed. People ask me all the time, ĎWhatís the biggest change you saw in the kids?í Well, the biggest change I saw in kids was their parents. Parents donít hold their children accountable any more. They donít say no to their children like they used to, and itís always somebody elseís fault rather than their childís fault. And thatís not the way it was 30 or even 20 years ago.

However, I believe I did a better job in year 20 than I did in year two. You grow with age, and you grow with experience, and there arenít any shortcuts. You learn by bumping your head and making mistakes. Then you find a way to get by them and move on.

What memories stand out?

The kids. There have just been so many good kids. There are special memories about every individual. Then there are the kids who come back and say hello. They donít have to say thank you, just the simple fact that they come back and say hello is a way of saying thank you.

What stands out as the biggest achievement for the entire athletic program during your time as athletic director?

Consistencyóweíve been so good for so long. Our girlsí programs have always been strong, and we had a core of sports in the boysí program that was good and has evolved to become great. It began that we were strong in baseball and basketball, but weíve evolved to where football and our big-number sports have become strong. The consistency really stands out, because it is so hard to sustain success over a 20-year period.

How do you maintain that consistency program-wide?

You hire good coaches and let them coach. I didnít think of myself as an athletic director, I was more of an athletic manager. I believe that you manage coaches, you donít direct them. Good coaches have to motivate themselves, and they have to be innovative. But by the same token, they canít be loose cannons.

What was your philosophy behind building such a successful baseball program?

My only secret is hard work. If I have a strength, itís my work ethic. I work with the program from top to bottom. I work with the freshmen during the summers, so right from the beginning they know what kind of work ethic I expect from them. We need to model it ourselves as coaches if we expect the kids to have it.

As a coach, how has dealing with parents changed over the years?

Youíve got to listen to them. Twenty or 30 years ago society was different, and parents didnít really talk to the coach. Now, itís an open door, and you had better be willing to listen to what they say. You donít have to do what they say, and you donít ever let them run the show, but you had better be open to them so that they come and talk to you first. Because if you arenít, they will go talk to somebody above you.

Having coached sons of minor leaguers, major leaguers, and even hall-of-famers, what is your approach to dealing with that type of parent?

I actually have found them, for the most part, to be the best parents to deal with because they do have knowledge. I understand that most parents view their sons through rose-colored glasses, but Iíve been very fortunate that the parents who are ex-professional athletes have understood where we are trying to go as a program. If you work hard and are honest with the kids and treat them right, former athletes are the first parents to understand what you are trying to do.

Do you have to treat those high-profile parents or their kids differently?

They are treated just like everybody else. If you separate them, you are just asking for trouble. Thatís the keyóif you treat them better than somebody else then you are opening yourself up to accusations that you may not be able to defend yourself against.

How is it different being an off-campus coach versus an on-campus coach?

As a physical education teacher, I felt like I had contact in my classes with 60 percent of the kids as freshmen, which allowed me to get to know them. Now I donít have that contact with the freshmen, so Iíve got to find other ways to establish the connection. Itís one of my biggest concerns.

The main advantage is obvious: time. I have time to do things now that I didnít have time to do before. That is something that will continue to weigh on my decision for how long I want to keep coaching. When I canít do the job the way I expect to, for whatever reason, then we need to have somebody else there.

How do you hire and keep good assistant coaches?

Iím not afraid to give them responsibility. And youíve got to be loyal to them if you want them to be loyal to you. As athletic director, I told other head coaches to hire good people and let them coach. But I also made sure those head coaches knew full well that they were responsible if the assistant screwed up.

What is the hardest part of coaching?

Evaluating kids is so hard. Iím a coach, not an evaluator. I can do it, but I donít enjoy it. Making cuts is by far the worst part of coaching.

How do you approach counseling a student-athlete who is weighing playing college baseball versus turning pro?

I find they listen better to other players than they do to me. Because we try to make it a family atmosphere, I encourage our athletes to talk to our former players who are playing pro ball and kids who are competing at the collegiate level. Talking to former players helps players facing that decision understand whatís best for them.

What are negative trends that you think will affect the future of high school athletics?

Although they have been around for 30 years, club programs are now the biggest threat to high school sports I think. There are so many people making money off of the dreams of kids and their parents. You donít have to be a good person to run a club, you just have to have enough money and be a good enough salesperson to convince people that you can make their dreams come true.

And, of course, money will be a problem area as well. Everybody is in a money crunch and one of the first things that gets cut is athletics. I think we are going to have to become more and more dependent on fund-raising.

Any tips for successful fund-raising?

Reach out to the community, and be careful not to be dependent on parents. You do not want to owe parents, because sooner or later theyíll want something in return.

Will you be back next season as the baseball coach?

Yes, Iíll go year-to-year from now on and evaluate whether Iíll remain as the coach. Iíve got to have a baseball fix, and I donít know what it will be after Iím done coaching.