The Superintendent as Head Coach

by J. Duke Albanese

Each year, in far too many school districts, the superintendent and the school board find themselves embroiled in a major sports-related controversy. These unanticipated matters require tremendous time to resolve and take a high toll on relationships and the public trust.

Stories and unfortunate events abound: spectators harassing officials, coaches and even our young student-athletes; a coach’s thoughtless handling of young charges; bands of parents pressing for removal of coaches who are short on the winning side; athletes abusing drugs and alcohol; and the too-frequent spectacle of out-of-control parents screaming at each other in the stands or on the sidelines, embarrassing their children and setting poor examples.

My career in public education included a long tenure as a school superintendent and as a state commissioner of education. The challenges were many, the rewards great, and yes, sports programs did test my professional skills and personal fortitude.

A Firm Resolution
I remember when the high school principal and the police chief beckoned me to the high school to speak to all of the students. In an act of solidarity, the student body had walked out of the school in a massive demonstration protesting my decision to not rehire the popular head varsity football coach. Dealing with this dramatic student demonstration and the widespread news media attention was daunting, but it paled in comparison to the reaction of many members of the public, several school board members and some of my dearest friends — all of whom were distressed with my decision and demanded I reinstate the coach.

However, my resolve was firm. The teaching performance of this coach was less than stellar, and there was evidence of inappropriate behavior regarding students.

And then there was that Sunday visit when the coach of the varsity girls’ basketball team informed me that he was resigning mid-season — right then and there — not because of the students (he said he loved them) and not because of the won-loss record (the team was 11-0 at the time). He was quitting because of the parents and their unending pressures and demands regarding playing time of individuals, coaching strategies and their obsession with their own children as opposed to the success of the team.

The Lead Steward
I survived these incidents, but sports oversight proved a continuing challenge to my leadership responsibilities and to the welfare of the student-athletes I was charged to support.

One thing became clear to me then and it is even clearer today. If, in my home state of Maine and in communities nationwide, interscholastic sports programs are to prosper and to serve our youth well, then we must act to bring about change. And that difficult work of change rests in large part with the superintendent who is committed to making the athletic experience positive, solidly connected to the school mission and the learning process, sensitive to the developmental levels of children and adolescents, and grounded in a set of beliefs and practices similarly embraced by faculty, parents, community and student-athletes.

Indeed, the superintendent of schools is the head coach and as such must be the lead steward for doing sports right. This stewardship requires the moral courage to advocate for change and the return to a sense of balance in how we conduct our interscholastic athletic programs.

Maine’s Example
Our work in Maine offers superintendents some food for thought, as they lead and oversee the middle school and high school athletic programs in their districts. These ideas are embedded in the core principles, core practices and out-of-bounds elements that form the heart and soul of the seminal document entitled “Sports Done Right: A Call to Action on Behalf of Maine’s Student- Athletes.”

Key action steps for the school superintendent committed to ensuring a school sports program consistent with “Sports Done Right” include:


  • Serving as a steward for student-athletes, advocating for a communitywide conversation about interscholastic sports;



  • Embracing a set of core principles and core practices — standards for sports — that describe a healthy sports experience for the young student-athletes of your district;



  • Developing and advocating adoption by the school board of a district philosophy statement to guide athletics in your district’s middle and high schools;



  • Organizing and charging a school and community leadership team with the responsibilities of generating a community conversation and advising the administration and school board about needed changes in the sports program;



  • Ensuring all policies and practices governing sports are analyzed against the adopted district philosophy and the core principles and core practices — bringing necessary policy revisions and new policies to the school board for adoption;



  • Ensuring the hiring, supervision, retention and non-renewal of coaches follows a comprehensive process directed by capable administrators;



  • Ensuring the voice of student-athletes helps to inform all aspects of how athletics are conducted in the school district; and



  • Restoring sports as an activity of important learning for young people, not as a bastion of high-pressure competition and entertainment for adults.


    If, as a nation, we are to ensure healthy sports experiences for our youth, we will need strong leaders — in our school districts and among our communities — and enlightened views of youth development. We’ll need school superintendents to be those head coaches, willing and able to envision, design and advance sports programs that serve our student-athletes well.

    Duke Albanese, former Maine commissioner of education, is co-director of Sports Done Right at University of Maine in Orono and senior policy advisor at the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute in Portland. He can be contacted at University of Maine, Shibles Hall, Orono, ME 04469. E-mail:

    A Maine Idea Captures Sports Leaders’ Attention

    The core principles and practices of “Sports Done Right” have captured the attention of educators, school board members, policymakers, parents and citizens throughout Maine and across the nation.

    More than 250 Maine communities have participated in training and/or initiated community conversations around the 45-page publication developed in 2005 by the University of Maine Sport and Coaching Initiative. In addition, educators in 40 states, as well as Canada and the United Kingdom, have requested the report and aspects of the toolkit that we developed to start community conversations.

    Additionally, we are working with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges about including “Sports Done Right” as part of the accreditation for secondary schools. Further, we have developed at the University of Maine a candidacy process for school districts seeking distinction and accreditation as a “Sports Done Right” school district. Recently, the Maine legislature passed a resolution embracing the guidelines for use in the state’s middle and high schools and community sports programs.

    The nationally recognized high school reform work conducted here at the Mitchell Institute has embedded “Sports Done Right” into our whole school change efforts, recognizing the significant role that athletics plays in the culture of high schools and the lives of students.

    Copies of the report, as well as the accompanying toolkit, are available at