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Rare advice helps athletic directors handle coach termination

This is an excerpt from Athletic Director's Desk Reference With Web Resource by Donna Lopiano & Connee Zotos.

1.28 Management Tip

Firing a Coach

Most managers agree that one of the most difficult tasks they face is firing an employee. When that employee is a coach, especially a popular coach or one who is highly visible in the community, the process is even more stressful. Yet few textbooks help the athletic director deal with this common challenge. The problem to be solved is how to terminate a popular coach while handling all of the stakeholders interested or upset about this personnel decision. Although chapter 6 deals with personnel and building a staff, the following discussion approaches this issue from a leadership and complex problem-solving perspective.

Consultation With Human Resources

As soon as nonrenewal or termination of employment is being considered by any supervisor, coach, or any staff member, the institutional or school district human resources office should be contacted for advice. Having a written record of evaluations, corrective action, or other evidence supporting the decision is critical if a lawsuit eventually ensues. The earlier the athletic director is reminded of these responsibilities, the more likely it is that the employee's personnel file will fully support the termination or nonrenewal decision.

Consultation With Legal Counsel

In any termination decision for cause (such as violation of NCAA or high school association rules, commission of a felony, or refusal to follow instructions of a supervisor), if a multiyear employment agreement exists, or the termination is either for cause or not (dissatisfaction with performance of a team) of a high-profile coach, even if he or she is an at-will employee, the human resources office will most likely recommend that legal counsel become an additional advisor.

Consultation With Higher Administration

Any individual's employment might be terminated for many reasons, and whenever this happens, both the athletic director and the employee face challenging emotional stress. But the decision to fire a coach is even more difficult because of the number of stakeholders directly and indirectly affected—from the coach's current student-athletes, their parents, and the assistant coaching staff and their families to athletes being recruited, their families, former student-athletes, alumni, and fans. The stakeholders increase in number and importance for a high-profile athletic program, which may be just as true for a small tightly knit community with regard to its high school program as it is for a nationally recognized university. At some institutions, major donors, powerful business people, members of the institution's governing board or school board, and state legislators or city council members may try to get involved. Thus, consultation with higher administration is essential. The athletic director must remember that the president or principal is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the athletic program and the institution. Any contact with elected officials, influential alumni, important members of the business community, or major donors should be made by the president or principal or superintendent of schools, or such contact agreed upon through a conversation with the athletic director. At the college level, when consulting with higher administration, the athletic director and the athletic department faculty representative should be operating as a team.

When the Termination Should Occur

Although most personnel actions take place at the end of an academic year, decisions on termination of coaches at the college level usually occur at the end of a season to try to recoup some portion of the recruiting period. In some cases, coaches are fired midseason. If a midseason termination does occur, every effort must be made to make sure that the transition staff (current assistant coaches) are prepared and supported through this period. Even if the coach is terminated at the end of the sport season, plans must be put in place to deal with the period until the new coach is in place and through the orientation and introduction of the new coach to key stakeholders. As the athletic director thinks through this process, a first priority must be personally communicating with and meeting the needs of student-athletes, who are the least prepared to deal with a significant life change.

Dealing With Media Pressures Before the Announcement of a Decision

Often, especially in high-profile programs, the media may sense that the coach is in trouble and pressure the athletic director for his or her thoughts on retaining the coach. The best response is to refer to athletic department policy on employee evaluation: “We annually evaluate the performance of all our coaches. This evaluation does not happen until the end of the season. Any decision on employee retention will not be made until that time.”

Thoughts on Reasons for Termination

Termination for cause is an easier decision in many ways than firing a coach for other reasons because the decision is clear. The coach has crossed a well-defined line—he or she has broken rules, committed a felony, violated a contract, or committed some other such action. Termination for other reasons such as lack of control of player behavior; poor graduation rates or substandard academic performance of players; lack of competitive success; or poor effort, performance, or attitude on the part of players is a more difficult decision because this lack of essential coaching skills is realized gradually over time. Usually no clear line has been crossed or no specific thing has happened. Most likely, the athletic director has made a number of efforts to inform the coach of these deficiencies, the coach has probably been given time to remedy the issues, and clear communication may have been made that failure to show improvement would result in termination of employment. But these situations are often less clear with regard to determining that the coach cannot make the necessary changes. For instance, improvement may occur, but it is insufficient or uneven. Or, a revered and well-liked coach who was initially successful shows deteriorating performance as the nature of student-athletes change, recruiting becomes more competitive, or his or her coaching skills are not continually updated. Ultimately, the athletic director is the one who understands the deficiencies and is the closest observer of daily performance and relationships with players and staff. The decision rests with the athletic director.

Even if internal or external stakeholders ratchet up the pressure, the proverbial buck stops on the athletic director's desk. The athletic director must be comfortable with his or her assessment, which really comes down to the student-athlete experience not being what it should be and lack of confidence that the coach has the ability to remedy the situation over the near term. Notice this focus on the student-athlete experience. Even the most successful coach, as measured by wins and losses or conference and national championships won, cannot be salvaged if student-athlete health and well-being is sacrificed in the process.

What happens if the athletic director is told to fire the coach? If the athletic director agrees with the action, the decision becomes his or hers. If the athletic director disagrees, only two choices remain: (1) refuse to terminate the employee and offer his or her resignation or (2) agree to do the termination or an alternative to a termination as described later. In the case of the latter, the termination must become the athletic director's decision. Blame cannot be placed elsewhere, publicly or privately.

Alternatives to Termination

Especially in the case of long-time coaches who have earned the respect of generations of student-athletes, faculty, and alumni but have lost their effectiveness on the playing fields or in the recruiting wars, consideration should be given to moving that coach to another position in the department, the university, or the school system. Could the relationships developed over decades serve the athletic department well in the athletic or institutional development office at the college level? Is a place available in the physical education department where years of coaching experience can be used to train future coaches? Is early retirement an option? Is resignation a possibility, and if so can this decision by the coach be enhanced by the offer of an attractive severance package? Sometimes the athletic director has the luxury of negotiating a departure at a specified time. The athletic director may inform the coach that employment will be terminated at the end of the next season, giving the coach time to seek another job and having the option of tendering a resignation instead of being fired. In certain situations, all these possibilities should be explored with the intent of producing a win-win as opposed to facing the challenge of a termination of employment.

Laying Out the Termination Sequence

But let's assume that the situation is such that the coach is unwilling to resign and is going to be fired or the coach is going to resign under the threat of termination. The athletic director should be aware that after the departure decision is communicated to the coach, chances are that the decision will quickly leak to assistant coaches, student-athletes, the media, and others. Thus, to control the accuracy of communication, a plan must be developed to have the following actions happen sequentially, one immediately after the other, and some actions possibly occurring simultaneously:

  1. Inform the head coach.
  2. Meet with the assistant coaches.
  3. Meet with the student-athletes.
  4. The president places personal phone calls to the chair of the board of trustees (or the superintendent calls the school board) and selected other influential stakeholders
  5. Conduct press conference or inform the press.
  6. Inform other stakeholders (athletic department staff, institution administrative officers, faculty, other donors, parents of current student-athletes, former student-athletes of the coach).
  7. At the college level, communicate with student-athletes who are being recruited.

The athletic director must do all items except that the president or principal or superintendent deals with item 4, communicating with the trustees, elected officials, administrative officers, faculty, and top donors by personal phone calls or messages. At the college level, the vice president for development can help with other major donors. Communications with the parents of student-athletes and former student-athletes can be by e-mail followed by formal letter. In this day of instant communication, snail mail is a formality and e-mail is the optimum choice.

Learn more about Athletic Director's Desk Reference.

More Excerpts From Athletic Director's Desk Reference With Web Resource