Gene Demaree was in his early 20s, recently graduated from the University of Tulsa, when he was hired as the boys basketball coach at Aurora in 1966. After two years there, he was fired. He coached two more years, at the newly consolidated Switzerland County, before beginning a career in the business world.
Demaree was a star player at New Marion and a key piece of Tulsa’s team as a senior in 1965-66. In 2013, he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. But when he took over his first coaching job, there was one aspect that he was not prepared for: parents.
“We had complaints,” Demaree said. “That’s just the way it is. Some parents think the coach isn’t going to play their kid because the coach doesn’t like him. During my coaching days, I didn’t care if I liked them or not – I wanted to win. Maybe it’s not that the coach doesn’t like your son. Maybe he’s just not good enough.”
Complaining about coaches is hardly a new phenomenon. But something has changed in recent years. The era of the “my way or the highway” coach may be over, especially at the high school level. Communication is key when it comes to developing and maintaining relationships between coach and player and coach and parent.
“The longer I coach, the more I believe that the relationship with the player is more important than any sort of relationship with parents,” Tri-West boys basketball coach Adam Bontreger said. “No matter what, some parent or community member is going to disagree with a coaching decision that is made. That’s the nature of coaching. We may be the most scrutinized profession, up there with pastors.”
It is a layered discussion. Molding young athletes into accountable adults should be at the top of a coach’s list of responsibilities. But the line between authoritative figure and verbal abuser is one that cannot be crossed. Some coaches feel that line has moved, shrouded in parent complaints that can originate from elsewhere — such as playing time.
Carmel and Center Grove
Locally, a pair of high-profile cases have brought the issue to the forefront. Carmel girls basketball coach Tod Windlan was dismissed after four successful seasons in which he compiled an 87-20 record and won three consecutive sectional titles. In a “parent letter” dated April 13, Carmel principal Tom Harmas wrote that Windlan would remain as coach, although “we regret that you and your daughter did not have the desired experience participating in our girls’ basketball program.”
A week later, without further explanation from Carmel, Windlan was dismissed. The school did not publicly state a reason for the coaching change or for the change of heart.
At Center Grove, the school hired an outside investigator to flesh out details of a list of complaints against football coach Eric Moore, including inappropriate language, physical contact, and intimidation and embarrassment of students. Moore was retained as coach, but the school said in a statement last week that the result of the investigation would prompt “changes that will impact the culture in all of our extra-curricular activities.”
There is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer. Each situation is different. Coaches who berate and belittle teenage athletes should not expect to last long. But where is that line between motivating athletes and cutting them down? And what role do parents play in the high school athletes’ experience?
The challenges are different than they were a generation ago, even a decade ago. Complaints are just a click away, on a Facebook or Twitter page. And there is a whole new world of youth sports where parents are involved every step of the way, investing time and money into their child’s activities from a young age.
“Travel teams in many sports,” said former Ben Davis and current Mt. Vernon football coach Mike Kirschner, “allow parents the feeling of entitlement when it comes to their child’s high school sports teams.”
Travis Daugherty is a parent and, until recently, a basketball coach. Daugherty, who coached 14 seasons at Tipton, Bishop Chatard and Mt. Vernon, wrote a book called, “The Lens: Raising a Champion Athlete & Man in Today’s Myopic World.”
As the father of two sons (and a daughter), Daugherty has taken a keen interest in the dynamics at work in youth sports. A major theme in his book is for parents to allow their children to fail and develop toughness through adversity.
“I think for a lot of parents today, supporting now means protecting kids from things that are challenging,” Daugherty said. “In reality, I think that struggle, challenge and adversity are a requirement for kids to become the best they can be. A parent might have the best interests of their kids in mind, but that need to overprotect is actually keeping kids from realizing their potential.”
In his time in coaching, Daugherty said he saw an increase in parent involvement at the high school level. Instead of fighting that, he said coaches might be wise to adjust.
“An important part of coaching today is accepting that parents are going to be part of the experience,” Daugherty said. “The days of keeping your distance and ‘what happens at practice stays at practice’ is not the reality of the profession anymore. In some ways, if you don’t get engaged in the process of parent involvement, it creates more opportunities for parents with an agenda to take the lead instead of the coach.”
One local school, Eastern Hancock, has developed a program called “Royal Pride for Parents.” While part of the mission is to develop a fan-friendly code of conduct at games, another aspect is to educate parents on their role. “Let players play, coaches coach and officials officiate,” reads part of the mission statement.
“What we’re trying to say is, ‘We want to develop great kids, not necessarily great athletes,’” said Angeline Blocher, a parent who leads the Royal Pride for Parents and was a college gymnast at Ball State. “If they are great athletes, that’s great, too. But all of us, as parents, should know our roles.”
Doug Laker developed a strong girls basketball program at Greenfield-Central over a nine-year period. But it ended abruptly after the 2016-17 season in which the Cougars went 17-11 and had a top-three IndyStar Miss Basketball candidate in Madison Wise.
Laker was tough, Wise said. But he never crossed the line, she said, either with her or teammates.
“If you want to play (junior varsity) all your life, you can have a soft coach,” said Wise, who was a freshman starter at Iowa State last season. “I knew (Laker) cared about me as a person. But he was hard on me, too, and I think that’s why we succeeded. Where is the line? There’s a difference between right and wrong. You can’t be offensive. But as a player, you have to be able to take getting yelled at a little bit. There were some soft kids who weren’t getting playing time. Soft kids and soft parents.”
Carmel’s Amy Dilk, this year’s IndyStar Miss Basketball, had similar comments when asked about her experience with Windlan as coach.
“I think the biggest role of the parent is to support their kid, support the team and support the program,” Dilk said. “Never should there be a problem coming from a parent. Some parents are more focused on their individual son or daughter than the team.”
Martinsville’s Kayana Traylor, an Indiana All-Star and Purdue recruit, said problems often arise from parents because of jealousy. One former coach remembers seeing one parent console another because her underclassman daughter did not see much action in a state championship game win just minutes after the game.
“The coaches are at practice every day,” Traylor said. “They see who plays the hardest. A lot of it from parents is ‘me, me, me, my kid, my kid, my kid’ and not getting their share of the spotlight. It’s always someone else’s fault. I think a lot of the complaints are because of that jealousy.”
Nia Clark, another Indiana All-Star from Ben Davis, said parents need to be “realistic” about their own kid’s talent.
“I’m sure we all know somebody who doesn’t play a lot but the parent is always in the coach’s ear,” Clark said. “If I’m in a parent’s shoes, I’m going to make sure my kid is doing everything they are supposed to do before I say anything to a coach.”
“You have to adjust”
Andy Fagan led Cathedral to an appearance in the Class 4A state finals in 2013. But less than five years later, after a two-season stint as an advisor for IUPUI’s basketball program, Fagan is getting out of coaching and into the business world.
Fagan mostly enjoyed his time in coaching, though he softened his approach halfway through his six-year tenure at Cathedral.
“I didn’t coach the same way my last three years at Cathedral that I did my first three,” Fagan said. “When the guys from the first three years would come back to practice, they were disappointed by that. But you have to adjust out of self-preservation. I tried to adjust and improve and stay ahead of the trends.”
Fagan admitted to fatigue. “You sacrifice so much time away from your own kids and family,” he said. During his time at IUPUI he would discuss the biggest challenges they had in coaching.
“One million percent it was parents,” Fagan said. “College coaches are watching the parents in the stands as much as they are the players — because they know the high-maintenance parents will be the same way in college. It takes some of the enjoyment out of it.”
The travel sports effect
Franklin boys basketball coach Brad Dickey believes most parent involvement originates from a good place.
“From a very honest concern and love of our children, families have turned their attentions fully toward the daily, even hourly, activities of their children,” Dickey said. “We have unintentionally created a generation that stands in waiting to be positioned and activated by an adult.”
The boom of youth sports certainly has changed the perspective of parents. The opportunity is there from a young age for kids to participate in travel sports and in private instruction and training. Parents have poured money and time into their child’s sports.
“It probably leads to a sense of entitlement,” said Kent Wise, the father of Madison Wise. “The time and money put into it shouldn’t guarantee you anything. But there are parents today who won’t let the head baseball or softball coach mess with their kids’ batting stance because they are paying a professional big bucks. Times are different.”
Many veteran coaches contacted by the Star mentioned the travel sports culture as the biggest change during their time in coaching. The parents — in most cases, the fathers — are often coaching throughout their child’s formative years. While that is not necessarily a negative, it can sometimes lead to issues once the player gets to high school by creating unrealistic expectations.
“It’s not just financially but all the time spent in the gym, traveling all over, doing training,” Fagan said. “There is an expectation of a reward at the end because of all that.”
Said Jason Simmons, the new football coach at Ben Davis: “Travel sports has established a culture in America where a parent can find a few other dads and create their own team if they don’t like the amount of playing time their son is getting.”
Dickey said so much organization in youth sports has other unintended consequences.
“Leadership and self-reliance opportunities in childhood have accidentally been stripped away from our most recent generations,” said Dickey, a former standout player at Tipton. “We try to trust our players’ independent decision-making and teamwork. I am constantly struggling to recode the DNA of this generation.”
The travel sports culture seems unlikely to change. It is big business. Coaches may have to adjust or get left behind.
Bob Knight’s style? No way today
On a bullet-point list that includes passages such as “to motivate and challenge in a positive and respectful manner” and “to accept constructive advice and new ideas,” the 23rd of 23 points is this: “To communicate with students and parents, whether electronically or verbally, on a professional level.”
Communication is key. Kokomo baseball coach Sean Swan started out more than 20 years ago with an intense, hard-charging style. He has spent more effort in recent years developing relationships with players.
“Growing up in Indiana, you watch Bob Knight,” Swan said. “He would go berserk, but you always heard how loyal his players were and you think that’s how coaches should be. Now, you look back and say there’s no way. Not that he didn’t have great attributes but I’d rather be a Brad Stevens or Joe Madden. They are mellow and low-key but they are great communicators. They can get their points across without belittling their players. You can’t just yell and scream and let them figure out why. Make it a teaching moment. ‘This is why I’m upset.’”
The athletes interviewed by the Star said they do not mind when a coach yells at them, as long as they understand where the coach is coming from.
“Personally, I like being challenged,” said Kokomo pitcher Kyle Wade, also the quarterback of the football team. “If he’s not challenging you, he’s not going to trust you in a big spot.”
Michaela White, an Indiana All-Star at Pike and Indiana State recruit, said she needs that boost from a coach who is not afraid to yell at her. But she said the coach should also adjust based on what works with different players.
“I have seen players shut down,” White said. “I’ve seen them crying, all of that. Personally, I need that to be better. My parents like it when my coach yells at me.”
Clark, the Ben Davis standout, said the relationship with the coach matters. If a player knows where a coach is coming from, it is much easier to take criticism.
“I had a coach (in travel basketball) who was a screamer and would get into you, but he’s the first one to give you a hug when you came off the court,” Clark said. “I know he’s not really mad, but he’s frustrated and has a short-term memory. In that moment, it would push me and give me some fire to play harder.”
Pike basketball standout Angel Baker said: “If there is a player who can’t handle it, a coach should know to back up a little bit.”
Listen to parents
Roncalli baseball coach Aaron Kroll wants to limit surprises. “Some might say I ‘over’ communicate,” he said. Kroll began a new tactic this year when he sat down with players in the program over the winter, some individually and some as a group, to discuss where he saw their roles.
“It helped tremendously,” Kroll said. “We were very honest and I think kids appreciated it. For some, we brought the parents in so they can’t say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me then?’ Parents can still be unhappy but we are being honest. That is something we’ll continue to do.”
Kirschner will meet with parents under the condition that playing time – their child’s or others’ – will not be part of the discussion. “I have adapted my coaching style to better relate to the players I am coaching,” he said. “I have developed a relationship mentality. I have not adjusted my philosophy with parents.”
The biggest change in recent years, Kirschner said, is that parents can voice their opinions on social media. “Parents are more vocal now than they used to be,” agreed former Ben Davis basketball coach Mark James, now at Perry Meridian. “So their ideas get out to a lot of people quickly. As a result, relationships have changed and the role of parents in our programs have changed. We must be open and include our parents in all we do. They are a big part of any program’s success.”
Plainfield football coach Brian Woodard, in his 12th season with the Quakers, agrees with James.
“I learned early on from Hall of Fame coach Chuck Schwanekamp not to be afraid to listen to parents,” Woodard said. “They might be right. I’m not an ego guy, so that helps I guess, and just because I hear a suggestion or idea from someone outside our coaches office doesn’t mean it’s not something worth considering.”
Daugherty sees a void in understanding how all of this – from the coach, athlete and parent perspective – is supposed to work in the age of big business travel sports and social media. Though he is now out of coaching, he has taken an interest in this topic.
“This is some of the work I’m trying to do now,” Daugherty said. “I don’t know that there is enough education out there on how this is supposed to go. We’re kind of venturing into uncharted territory. You see coaches getting fired after having super successful careers and I don’t know the details, if it’s the parents or coaches who don’t get it. But I think we all have to get better.”