Q&A with Jim Inskeep

Carmel High School

By Staff

Athletic Management, 17.5, August/September 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1705/qainskeep.htm

In 2001, nine years after graduating from Carmel (Ind.) High School, Jim Inskeep became the school’s sixth athletic director, taking charge of a department with 63 teams, 98 coaches, and over 800 student-athletes. Over the past five years, he has worked with the district and community to make improvements in facilities, expanded the school’s strength and conditioning program, and upgraded the department’s Web site.

Located just north of Indianapolis, the school is well-known for its athletic accomplishments, holding the record for Indiana state titles (92). Academics are also a part of the department’s success, as 20 of its 21 varsity teams received “Scholar-Athlete Team” status last year by maintaining 3.0 team GPAs.

This spring, the athletic program gained national exposure as Carmel was ranked 10th in Sports Illustrated’s feature on America’s best high school athletic programs. In addition, senior basketball player Josh McRoberts was named MVP at the McDonald’s All-American High School Boys’ Basketball Game.

In this interview, Inskeep talks about the pros and cons of national media attention, improving Carmel’s record of sportsmanship, and working with club sport directors.

AM: Are rankings like the one in Sports Illustrated good for high school sports?

Inskeep: You have to be pretty careful about rankings, because kids, parents, and coaches can get pretty wrapped up in them. It’s nice to see a barometer of where you stand, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of your season. There are so many things beyond wins and losses that go into a successful season, and some of our most rewarding seasons have been ones where we didn’t win any titles, but far surpassed what we anticipated at the beginning of the year.

That said, it’s extremely exciting to get this recognition, especially knowing the reputations of many of the other schools in the top 25. It confirms that we’ve got a great athletic department, and that we’re doing things the right way. But it’s not the last word, because there are a lot of things we can improve. We’ve been working on some long-range plans for our program, specifically on sportsmanship and developing opportunities in the community for our student-athletes.

How are you working to improve sportsmanship?

The Indiana High School Athletic Association tracks unsportsmanlike conduct in all of its sports, and unfortunately, five years ago we were second in the state in unsportsmanlike conduct. But we’ve made some tremendous strides in the last five years. Our coaches have done a great job conveying the importance of sportsmanship to our kids, and in the last three years, we’ve had a maximum of one incident per year.

We are also trying to improve spectator conduct at sporting events, with an emphasis on cheering positively for our team and not negatively toward the other team. Good fan behavior starts with good behavior on the court, which comes from coaches clearly communicating their expectations about sportsmanship to their student-athletes and even to the fans. When the coaches actually go over to the unruly fans and tell them to knock it off, it has a lot of impact.

On a national level, sportsmanship is not where it needs to be. But it’s got to start somewhere, and we want to be part of that process. I think, more than anything else, maintaining a positive attitude needs to become part of the culture of our school, and that’s our goal. This summer, we’ll be hosting our state student leadership conference, and we’ll have lots of our students involved in that. After the conference, our student-athletes will write a sportsmanship plan that we will enact this fall for all of our athletic teams, fans, and parents.

What’s your advice for working with parents?

There’s a tendency in education to view parents as a negative, and one of the keys to our success has been involving parents in a positive way. To do that, you have to present clear guidelines of what is and isn’t acceptable. We have separate booster programs for each of our fall, winter, and spring athletic teams, and as the athletic director, I go to each of their meetings.

You’ve got to tell parents that their role is to be supportive of their children and supportive of their children’s coaches, and you’ve got to convey that message up front. You can’t be having that conversation in your office two months into the season, and if you are, it’s because you haven’t communicated clearly to those parents. Your parents can be your biggest supporters, but you’ve got to take what they have to offer and mold it into a positive.

How do you create partnerships with club teams in your area?

We have a very open dialogue with all of these groups. I actually serve as a board member for the Carmel Swim Club, which raised half of the money for our natatorium. I attend their monthly meetings, stay involved with the leadership of the club and the coaching staff, and maintain communication with the aquatics director.

I’m also very involved with the Hamilton County Community Tennis Association, which uses our 14-court complex, and the Carmel Dads Club, which serves over 10,000 kids in our community every year. They utilize a lot of school facilities throughout the district, and they’ve been able to share our philosophy on developing younger athletes in our community. They do an excellent job, and we have a great relationship.

What do you do to keep good athletes coming to your school?

We hire coaches who are kid-centered, make athletics fun, and know how to achieve success. Our coaches also take a vested interest in the younger grade levels, watching summer league contests and keeping in contact with the kids in our district, which I feel is important to promote growth in our program.

Our student-athletes also play a role by going into the elementary and middle schools as part of the NCAA’s Stay in Bounds program. They teach a 25-minute curriculum based on respect, integrity, caring, harmony, excellence, and responsibility. They’re really making a difference by talking to the younger kids in our district, who see them as local heroes.

How does having a high-profile athlete like Josh McRoberts affect your program?

It’s been a learning experience for me. We’ve had high-profile student-athletes in other sports, but none that have reached the national level of attention like Josh did this year. We changed our boys’ basketball schedule, in part to help generate more revenue but also to publicize the achievements of a very special athlete. He gave us the opportunity to play in some high-profile games, which was very exciting for the athletic department and for our community as a whole.

High-profile athletes can do a great job of bringing media attention to your school, but it can be either positive or negative. As the athletic director, people are going to expect you to make it a positive, so when a situation comes up that you’ve never experienced, you need to think through the pros and cons. I also talked with athletic directors who’d been there. In this part of the country, we’re very fortunate to have several athletic directors who’ve dealt with these issues, and I’ve learned that you can never call on those people too much.

The key to all of it is communication. You have to communicate with all the individuals involved, and you have to hold high-profile athletes to the same standards as everyone else.

As Athletic Director, you had to deal with the fallout when McRoberts turned down a spot on the Indiana state summer all-star team.

Josh is an extremely talented and sincere young man, and he declined to serve on the roster after he was not selected as Mr. Basketball, which meant that he had no obligation to play. He will be attending Duke this year, and the Duke basketball staff wanted him working out with his teammates, attending summer school, and starting the next phase of his life. Who could argue with that?

It was an individual decision, not a school or a program decision, and from an athletic director’s point of view, it was important that I respected Josh and his family’s decision to not play in the game. Of course we were disappointed, but we understand we need to support our athletes in what they choose to do.

How do you work with the media?

The best thing you can do is foster a good relationship with your local media. Sometimes you might run across people in the media who are not necessarily pleasant to deal with, but you have to make the best of those situations. Whether you like it or not, the local media can really make or break your athletic department. You have to inundate them with positive information and tip them off about the great human interest stories you’ve got in your program. If you don’t do those things, you’re probably not going to have the relationship with the local media that you really desire.

You maintain a business called Athletic Websites, Inc. How should athletic directors be using their Web sites?

If your athletic department doesn’t have a good, strong Web site, you’re behind the curve. You have to develop a site that your students, their families, supporters, and coaches can rely on for up-to-the-minute information. People should be able to download your physical form, view your athletic handbook on-line, find team schedules and driving directions to away games, and contact your coaches by e-mail. Those are the basic things that people look for, and they’ve got to be able to find them fast. People who visit our Web site can also listen to a simulcast of any game that’s covered by our high school radio station, simply by clicking on a button.

And lots of people need to know about schedule changes, especially when it’s getting ready to storm. When that information is on the Web, your secretary doesn’t quit her job because she’s tired of answering the phone two dozen times in a row. The Web site doesn’t stop all of the phone calls, but we’ve estimated that it has cut our phone calls at least in half.

I spend between 10 and 20 minutes a day maintaining our Web site. It’s the first thing I do in the morning: put in our results from the night before, or write a short paragraph on an upcoming event. And with my laptop, I can update our site any time and anywhere.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in the last five years?

Always be prepared, be true to your word, and don’t make assumptions. With those three lessons, you can handle just about any issue that comes up. More than anything, I’ve learned not to get too high or too low, based on the way a season is going. Keep your head up and take a break when you need one. If you’ve had a difficult phone conversation, go spend some time with the kids, and remind yourself why you got into this business in the first place. This is my first job as an athletic director, and sometimes I just shake my head in amazement that this is where I’ve started. What a great place to work.