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These Coaches Lack Full-Time Status but They Spare Nothing in Effort

May 07, 1996|WENDY WITHERSPOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They're scorned, but they're happy. They're in demand but underpaid.

Such is the paradox of walk-on coaches in high school sports.

Athletic directors would prefer to have full-time faculty members coaching all their teams. Walk-on coaches, they say, are unreliable, difficult to contact and often don't know or care about school policies.

"They are a pain in the you-know-what," said Leon Smith, boys' athletic director at Santa Ana Valley High. "We have had so many problems over the years. At the end of the season, they are gone. At the beginning of the season, they don't show up sometimes. Eighty percent of the problems in high school sports could be traced back to walk-on coaches."

On the flip side, walk-ons endure low status and even lower pay--stipends top out at about $2,700 for a football or boys' basketball coach for a season. Stipends for most other sports--not including playoff bonuses--are around $1,400, which coaches say is less than $3 per hour.

So why do they do it?

"[I] love the game, love to teach. I love to get the letters after these kids are in college, saying, 'You were a big part of my life for three years,' " said Curt Bauer, walk-on boys' soccer coach at Santa Margarita and part-owner of a window-cleaning business.

Joe Gonzales, in his seventh year as a walk-on softball coach at Foothill, has given up countless hours at the businesses he owns to lead the Knights to three Southern Section finals.

"I like to compete and coaching is a way to do that," he said.

Walk-ons agree that their tenuous links to the schools and commitments to other jobs often lead to logistic problems.

"Obviously, the best situation would be if we were on campus and we had an opportunity to see our players on a regular basis. The communication between the administration and us would be much better," Gonzales said.

The situation might not be ideal, but one thing is clear: Walk-ons are here to stay.

The majority of junior varsity and assistant coaching positions in the Southern Section are filled by walk-on coaches. And more and more, walk-ons are being hired as varsity head coaches.

A Times survey of Orange County high schools found that of the 1,347 varsity head coaching positions, 527 (39%) were filled by walk-ons. That is up from 1987, when a Times survey revealed 33% of the county's 1,093 varsity head coaches were walk-ons.

Least affected is the triumvirate of football, boys' basketball and baseball. Only 14% of the head coaches in those sports are walk-ons.

Football is especially immune to walk-on head coaches--there are only three in the county's 70 varsity programs, at Calvary Chapel, Capistrano Valley Christian and Orange. Laguna Beach football coach, Dave Holland, will be a walk-on next season.

"I can't imagine having a football and basketball and probably even a baseball coach that wasn't on campus, that would just be a logistical mess," said John Barnes, football coach and athletic director at Los Alamitos. "They have big numbers [of players]. . . . They are a more highly visible program and because of that, the coach has to be just as visible. There are so many things we do from 8 a.m. to noon with kids, making sure they go to class and make good grades. If you aren't here, I don't see how you can do that."

In girls' sports, 46% of the varsity head coaches are walk-ons. That's an increase of 3% since the Times survey in 1987. Of the county's 67 girls' soccer coaches, 75% are walk-ons.

The reason for the rise in walk-on coaches is almost exclusively financial.

About the same time Proposition 13 slashed school revenue in 1978, the state Department of Education cut the high school physical education requirement from four years to two, eliminating the need for many P.E. teachers, who often also coach.

When teaching positions become available, schools' academic needs are paramount.

"[It is difficult to] find the [coaches] who can teach in the right subject and then find the academic people willing to take the gamble on [coaches] they don't know," said Larry Doyle, athletic director at Marina, where 16 of the 22 head coaches are walk-ons.

One success story is Aliso Niguel, where all 20 head coaches are teachers at the school. Aliso Niguel opened in 1993 and Principal Denise Danne pushed to hire teachers who could also coach.

"I really believe in the power of student sports to motivate them to be academically very well-founded," Danne said. "If students see their teachers not only as academicians but also as coaches in the area of sports, they get a very well-rounded picture of their teachers as a professional. Also, the teachers have so much more leverage with students in terms of making them accountable."

The results are clear: 57% of the students at Aliso Niguel are involved in athletics and the school had the highest SAT scores of the four high schools in the Capistrano Unified School District last year and sixth-highest in the county. What's more, all 20 of the teacher-head coaches that Danne hired in 1993 are still in place.

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