Ariz. football year-round practices go full throttle; sport-specialization concerns arise

Ariz. football year-round practices go full throttle; sport-specialization concerns arise

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Ariz. football year-round practices go full throttle; sport-specialization concerns arise

Football teams still can’t wear helmets and shoulder pads during off-season workouts. But other than that, the high school sports landscape appears to be shifting towards an all-time high in the relentless pursuit of rings.

After the Arizona Interscholastic Association overwhelmingly passed a March emergency legislation measure that allows coaches to hold practices year-round, the possibilities appear boundless.

Many coaches say it won’t change anything.

“Most of us were getting around the rule by running camps and doing what we will be doing now without the disguise of a camp,” Mesa Red Mountain football coach Mike Peterson said in an email.

It already has been a year-round process of building teams. Chandler district schools for years have sports-specific courses with the head coach basically leading them through hour-long practices involving drill work.

New Tempe McClintock football coach Corbin Smith said he plans to take full advantage of the rule with summer workouts after a week off during the Fourth of July.

“The question becomes, ‘How long do you go?’ Our staff will determine what we want to do for those two weeks and we will go on the field in the morning after lifting,” Smith said. “Kids still need a bit of a break before the grind of fall camp begins. I learned a long time ago that there is a difference between grinding and over-working.”

Rule brings concerns about specialization

Some coaches, especially at smaller schools, see this rule, or lack of rule, as a way to steer kids into one sport.

The year-round, unlimited, unregulated sports practices, Morenci Athletic Director Frank Ogas believes, will only lead to specialization, recruitment, reduction of athletes playing three sports or a minimum of two sports, coaching conflicts to convince the specialization of athletes.

RELATED: A few surprises in the data behind single-sport and multisport athletes | Sport specialization can do more harm than good

“Not even do collegiate Division I sports have this rule in their programs,” said Ogas, the school’s former football coach. “Coaches’ contact with student-athletes is regulated and limited based on letting college athletes concentrate on their academics and, simply put, letting them be young men and women, who need a break from the rigors of their respective sports.”

Queen Creek American Leadership Academy Athletic Director and football coach Rich Edwards, who helped ALA become the first charter school to capture a 3A state football championship last season, said he is not a fan of the rule.

A lot of ALA students play multiple sports, Edwards said, and he fears they could be at a disadvantage compared with the students who specialize in one sports and get to spend their off-seasons focused in a single area.

“As you know some coaches are out of balance and we want to guard against that and make sure coaches can be with their families. We do not make our weights program mandatory in June or July. We only make official start of practice mandatory. But with our level of athletes improving and our numbers increasing, the kids know it is more competitive now and if they want to compete they need to be here.”

AAU basketball, 7-on-7 football, club travel baseball, softball, volleyball, soccer and personalized coaching have been around. They’re not going away, as long as there are parents and student-athletes chasing scholarships.

Schools may not feel the impact until December through April, when it was about bonding in the weight room.

Coaches will be able to form spring passing leagues during this time.

“For as long as I can remember, the summer months have been the Wild West,” Phoenix St. Mary’s football coach Tommy Brittain said. “Last summer, for example, football teams could practice as long as they wanted to as long they did not use pads. This is true for soccer, baseball, volleyball, basketball, etc.

“What I will feel compelled to do December-through-April is where it gets interesting and problematic,” Brittain said. “What baseball and basketball coaches want to do August through October is what might ultimately hurt football, as well.”

‘AIA couldn’t compete with clubs so they opened it up’

Tucson Catalina Foothills football coach Jeff Scurran calls it “a frustration rule” that, he believes, shows that people in the AIA either don’t have the answers or don’t care.

“I’m sympathetic because the money for education in Arizona with private and parochial schools, and going away from public schools, is in flux, and, like club teams, you follow the money,” Scurran said. “Club teams aren’t regulated. They can recruit, buy kids, and even encourage domicile rules to be broken.

“The AIA had no answers so they’ve opened it up so schools could compete. But first these clubs must have the money or they can’t buy the best kids.”

Dave Hines, who has been promoted to AIA executive director, said this will all be a work in progress and expects another conversation by this time next year.

“I’m a little more old-school,” said Hines, a former track coach and Mesa Mountain View athletic director. “I think both the kids and the coaches need time off. But I think over time, we force coaches to be club coaches and outside LLCs.

“If kids aren’t participating in a sport, and (the coach) wants to work with a kid a little bit, I think it’s OK. What will be tough to handle is the overzealous coach who demands the kids be there and won’t relent. They start having issues. We’ll see.”

The move to year-round practice could also impact those coaches who pick up extra work to help pay the bills, said former Phoenix Horizon football coach Kris Heavner. Heavner stepped away from his role as Scottsdale Chaparral’s offensive coordinator after the first major 7-on-7 passing tournament, even though the Chaparral job gave him a chance to mentor Jack Miller, one of the top-recruited quarterbacks.

Heavner has a day job outside of coaching football and a young family.

“This state scares the heck out of me in how most schools only have a handful of coaches on campus, but then expect a coach who has a day job to fulfill all those coaching duties. (They’d have to do that) while working a 40-45-hour job and then putting 20 to 25 more hours a week towards football,” Heavner said.

“I have a skill I was blessed with — to coach football and score a lot of points. But unfortunately that does not pay the bills because you can’t live off a stipend that only pays $2,000 to $4,00,” he said. “I have a heavy heart towards coaches who carry on a day job not on campus and then coach on the side, because their families never see them.”

It’s been a never-ending, revolving door of new coaches every year, especially in football, where there are so many more players involved, more pitfalls to try to protect.

The “no days off” mantra has never rang more true.

Longtime Peoria Centennial coach Richard Taylor has built his program into a perennial state powerhouse, but he has never felt more coerced to grind it year-round than now.

“It’s really too bad,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have to. But I feel like we have to. If we don’t, parents will say, ‘Those other schools are doing that. Maybe we’ll go to another school, because they do.’ “

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