Q&A with Byron Olson

Lakeville (Minn.) High School

By Staff

Athletic Management, 17.3, April/May 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1703/qaolson.htm

As Activities Director at Lakeville High School, Byron Olson guides one of the biggest and most successful programs in Minnesota. And thanks to the new Challenge Cup program implemented by the Minnesota State High School League, he now has the hardware to prove it.

In 2003-04, Lakeville won the inaugural Class AA MSHSL Challenge Cup, which is modeled after the NACDA Directors’ Cup, awarding points for team and individual finishes in sectional and state competition. While Lakeville’s state titles in football and girls’ cross country garnered the most headlines, the Panthers won the cup based more on their all-around strength, collecting points in 24 different activities.

But Lakeville’s stay on top may not last long. The district is set to open a second high school in the fall, moving many of Lakeville’s 2,400 students to a new program, which Olson is helping to set up.

Olson took the reins at Lakeville in 2002, previously serving as Activities Director at Monticello High School, and Farmington High School before that (both in Minnesota). He is also an active high school football official, manager of the MSHSL Wrestling Championships, and a wrestling rules clinician. In this interview, he talks about dealing with an overwhelming workload, making difficult budget cuts, and how to retain good coaches.

AM: What did winning the Challenge Cup mean to your school?

Olson: It really became a source of pride for the school. Once we got through the winter sports season, our student body realized we would be in the running for this award. Every so often, a student would ask, "Where are we at now? What are the points? Are we still ahead?" During the spring season, we had a lot of students who would support our teams and encourage them to finish the year strong for us. And when we received the Cup at our Homecoming Pep Fest, in front of the entire student body, the pride was very evident.

When you began at Lakeville, how did you go about adapting to a new school and community?

It’s a matter of sitting with the coaches and getting to know what they’re all about, finding out ways I can help their programs and support what they’re doing. Then it’s a matter of developing trust. It takes some time for people to realize you can make good decisions. Fortunately, when I was at Farmington, we had competed against Lakeville, so I knew several of the coaches and administrators already and that helped.

How has the building of a second high school affected your job?

It’s made it a lot more confusing. We have our own program with 20 varsity sports, 50 clubs, and another 20 fine arts or academic teams and activities. On top of that, we are staffing the new building with coaches, ordering equipment, creating a budget, and building competition schedules. It’s created situations where there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done.

How have you handled the extra workload?

Through very careful time management, a lot of late nights, and taking work home over the weekend, but also by surrounding myself with good people. I told our coaches and advisors that this would be a year where I would need them to step up and help me by administrating more of their own programs. I’m also fortunate that we have a great office staff here I’ve been able to turn to, and they’ve helped with some administrative tasks.

Have you had to change your organizational strategies this year in order to handle two schools?

Absolutely. I’ve learned to delegate a lot more. I’ve also learned there are times you just have to say, "No, I don’t have time to get that done." I now carefully prioritize what’s important in my day and my week—and if it’s not on my priority list, I let somebody else deal with it.

Not that it’s been easy! As an activities director, I want to be there for the kids and the coaches and advisors. I want to do anything I can to help them be successful and promote their programs. But once it got to be midnight on a Sunday night and I was still trying to catch up with paperwork, I said, "This isn’t going to work all year long."

How do you decide which tasks to delegate and which to do yourself?

Through the years, I’ve learned that there are some things I just feel more comfortable doing myself. I like to do my own scheduling, especially when it involves a facility that has to be shared by different teams or different schools. That way I can make sure we’re not doubling up. I also like the budgets to go through my desk. I give coaches input as far as what they may need for the following year, and we’ll build a budget together, but I take care of maintaining the cash flow. A lot of the other administrative duties, such as creating master eligibility lists, I turn over to the coaches.

When a new high school opens in a district, the quality of play at the older school sometimes suffers. Is that a concern at Lakeville?

We know we’re probably going to take a step backward when it comes to win-loss records, but the flip side is that more kids are going to get opportunities to play. Our community studied this issue for several years before it made the recommendation to the board that rather than being a mega-school, it was more important that we create a second high school so there would be more opportunities for kids. When I was looking at this position, it really impressed me that they put that kind of importance on creating opportunities for kids.

When you were at Monticello High School, you faced about $300,000 in budget cuts in three years. How did you decide where to make those cuts?

We didn’t want to drop a full sport or activity, so we had to cut everybody back a little bit. When we knew the cuts were coming, we immediately pulled together our coaching staff and gave them ownership of the process. I did not want to dictate what did and what didn’t get cut, so I said, "Here’s the dollar figure we have to come to. What can each of you do to generate some revenues and make some cuts so that we can reach this figure?" The only rule I gave them was that they could not look outside their own sport or activity. Each coach came back to me and said, "Here’s what I think we can do and still keep a viable program."

Unfortunately, it came to a point where we had to cut our middle school programs by about 20 percent. We did that by practicing three or four days a week instead of five, and we cut some travel and even some levels of play. But with the ownership the coaches took in making that happen, I think everybody could hold their head high and say we did the best we possibly could.

How did it personally affect you to go through that process?

It’s probably one of the main reasons I’m not at Monticello anymore. It’s extremely difficult to look at a parent and say, "We’re cutting a junior high team. I’m sorry, but your son or daughter will not have an opportunity to play." Or to look at a coach and say, "We’re cutting your ninth-grade schedule and your middle-school practices will be reduced to three days a week." You know you’re hurting kids. I also wasn’t going to have any help within the office to run our program and that was the last cut I could go through without looking for something else.

You’re setting up an athletic hall of fame at Lakeville. What led you to do that?

When I was at Farmington, we wanted to tie the past to the present, so we created a hall of fame. We had the induction on the same night as the senior athletic banquet, and our athletes were able to meet the people who had paved the way for them. It also became a great public relations tool in the community.

Looking at the success Lakeville has had over the years, combined with winning the inaugural Challenge Cup, I felt strongly that we should recognize the people who set this foundation for us. I asked for volunteers from the community, and we immediately had 16 people respond, including past and present coaches, community members, and administrators. We’ll be inducting our first hall of fame class on July 10, and we’re very excited about it.

A lot of administrators complain about the difficulty of finding good coaches. What strategies do you use in hiring?

You need to use a network of your own coaching staff. The coaching world is a tight-knit network, as is the AD world. I trust our coaches to tap into their networks, and they usually know good people we can call.

How do you keep good coaches on your staff?

You have to keep them motivated. I try to do this by staying visible. I leave the office every day in the late afternoon and walk through everybody’s practices here in the building. I let our coaches know that I’m here, and that I care about what’s happening in their program. They need to know you’re a resource for them—that if they have some needs, you’re there to help them be successful.

Does being an active football official carry over to your duties as activities director at Lakeville?

I think so. The message I carry to my coaches is that they must conduct themselves on the sidelines at all times, and they know I’m critiquing them on this. I also tell them what it feels like to be constantly badgered and criticized by coaches while officiating. I explain the difficulty we are having trying to retain young officials because they get turned off by not having a positive experience with coaches. My coaches know that if this trend continues there won’t be enough officials around to run programs.

As busy as you are, why do you manage the state wrestling championships?

It keeps me connected with the sport I coached for a number of years. As the state tournament director, I get to see the people in wrestling once a year and maintain my ties with them. It also gives me a chance to get out of our building and show some leadership to a whole different group of people. And there’s a feeling of satisfaction when you can put on a good show—when you can promote a very successful tournament, get it done, and earn the trust of others involved in it.