Rick McConnell didn’t intend to spend the last 28 years coaching boys basketball at Dobson.
The new environment and unfamiliar faces at the school were an adjustment at first, but weeks turned into months and months turned into years, and pretty soon, he was entrenched.
“When I first got there we were just trying to establish ourselves,” McConnell said. “But when your family starts growing up and they start coming around, then it’s a for sure thing. They give you that evil eye, like, ‘You’re not coaching anywhere else.’”
Coaching legends like McConnell and Mountain View’s Gary Ernst have been at their posts for decades, but that stability is becoming increasingly hard to find in boys basketball.
This offseason, there have been nine East Valley coaching openings, with the possibility of more depending on what happens with the Westwood and Desert Mountain vacancies. Last year, there were 11 new coaches hired.
Since the start of the 2010-11 season, 25 of 46 East Valley schools have replaced their boys basketball coach at least once, and six have done so twice.
“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure nowadays,” said Mountain Pointe principal Bruce Kipper, who chose his third coach in three years — Hosea Graham — on Friday. “It’s like what the college coaches felt 20 years ago has trickled down to the high school... If you want to be successful, it has to be year-round, and the time commitment can really be a bear. What I see from younger coaches especially, is, ‘Are the costs worth the benefits?’ For what you get paid, you’ve got to do it for some other reason.”
There are myriad factors contributing to the high turnover.
• Red Mountain coach Todd Fazio left Desert Mountain because of economic concerns, something coaches within the Scottsdale and Gilbert districts, especially, have dealt with in the past few years.
• New schools are popping up all the time, giving coaches more options and opportunities.
• Building a program from the bottom up isn’t as necessary as in a sport like football, so coaches can take a year off, return with a different program, and not feel like they are starting from scratch.
• There is a disconnect between high school and club basketball philosophies, which causes friction between the players/parents and the coaches.
• Athletic directors feel the pressure, too, as several of the opening in the past few years have been the result of firings or forced resignations. Even if the school administration doesn’t fire a coach, many splits happen because of different visions.
For many coaches, the daily struggles in their current situations make a fresh start seem more enticing, whether it be a year off or a jump to another job.
“I’ve heard coaches say, ‘I’ve got other things I can be doing.’” Gilbert coach Jay Caserio said. “If I didn’t have (administrative support) at Gilbert maybe I would be feeling the same way. When I first started I was the freshman coach, and I was thinking about applying for schools just to get interview experience. I remember there were two jobs open at the time. It was Skyline and Westwood. Now there’s like 30 in a year.”
The rash of coaching changes combined with the high number of transfers has made continuity fleeting at most schools.
McConnell said the turnover won’t necessarily hurt the star player, but moreso the dirt worker who is an acquired taste.
“It’s amazing how much better these kids get by doing the same stuff and repeating in practice,” he said. “When you’re around them you really get an idea of what their strengths are. If I was a kid, I would hope that the new guy would come in and not miss some of the intangible things I’m good at. The kid that’s a really good role player, you might get caught up in that transition year.”
There is often a correlation between continuity and success.
Caserio has been coaching Gilbert for six years, but the program’s culture extends back to when Tom Bennett was in charge, as Caserio and former coach David Loutzenheiser were both in-house hires. Except for a few lean years, the Tigers have been one of the more consistent programs in the East Valley.
“Oh my gosh, (the continuity) is amazing,” Caserio said. “I don’t even have to tell them about things I expect any more. With the same coaching staff and the same philosophy they just know what they have to do. It’s an expectation.”
Mountain Pointe had that stability under Sam Ballard and then Brian Fleming, but Aaron Windler left after just a year on the job for family reasons.
The Pride’s football and baseball programs have found success under Norris Vaughan and Brandon Buck, and Kipper hopes to get the same traction with Graham now in charge.
“I look around at college and professional sports, and the teams that really do well don’t change coaches every year,” Kipper said. “The Steelers and Patriots in the NFL. Kentucky and Duke in college basketball. The coaches start off and they may not win every game, but you have to give them time to build the program.”