Johnson City Press Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sports High schools

Athletic cuts bewilder coaches

June 25th, 2014 9:02 pm by Douglas Fritz

Athletic cuts bewilder coaches

When politics mix so deeply into a community the kids get caught in the crossfire, it’s easy to wonder what kind of leadership will be produced in the next generation.

After Johnson City’s Board of Education voted 4-3 against eliminating all athletic coaching positions Tuesday, Hilltoppers’ head football coach Stacy Carter wasn’t breathing a sigh of relief. Instead he expressed bewilderment about middle school and high school athletes being dangled over a cliff.

The school board voted to cut seventh- and ninth-grade athletics, and sent its sickle sweeping through a range of other activities, textbooks and teaching positions. It was mostly a preliminary decision as the board will meet again Monday for a final action on the budget.

At the base of the issue is the school system putting together a package of cuts it believes (hope, expect) will kick the City Commission into a money-finding gear and solve the budget crisis. In the process, every athlete at Science Hill is faced with the question of what their program will look like this school year — or if there will even be a team.

“If they are using our kids as a pawn, we’ve got a problem,” said Carter. “Why would you use kids as a bargaining chip? Elizabethton isn’t using its kids as bargaining chips. Dobyns-Bennett isn’t using its kids as bargaining chips.”

Science Hill boys basketball coach Ken Cutlip pulled no punches with what he thought of the athletic cuts involving seventh- and ninth-graders.

“Honestly, this is just me, I prefer they would have just eliminated athletics altogether — if you’re not going to put the program in position to be successful,” he said. “They didn’t give us the death penalty, but they did cut the program off at the knees — which means it will eventually bleed to death. So ultimately it’s the same, the death penalty.”

Along with his disdain for dragging kids into the political arena, Carter said he doesn’t understand how this issue even came to be.

“Why are we even talking about it?” said Carter. “You look at D-B, and they aren’t talking about this. What are they doing? They are building a football stadium addition. They’re doing more. I don’t understand.”

In effect, eliminating the coaching supplements would cease athletics altogether at Science Hill, said Carter. The football program could not survive with only volunteer coaches, and without football the other sports won’t have enough money to travel.

“They might find somebody to coach out of the goodness of their heart, but I’m not coaching,” said Carter. “I can’t coach like that. This is a school that demands a high caliber of athletics. If they want to do it halfway, I don’t want to do it. If that’s the way the program is going, I don’t want to be a part of it.”

Carter said he knows people will look at him as a football-first guy, but he pointed out he’s not a football-only person.

“I love football, and it might look like I’m biased toward football,” said Carter. “And football is my thing. But to a lot of these kids, music is their thing, and band is their thing. I am more passionate about football, but I want our whole school system to be successful.

“We’re not talking just about sports, we’re talking about all activities. We can have a farmer’s market, and a walking trail, and an animal shelter, but we have to cut seventh- and ninth-grade athletics?”

Before anyone jumps to the this-is-just-a-one-year-thing defense, Carter said it’s a dangerous road to travel.

“One year out of a kid’s life can change things,” said Carter. “A lot of kids can go the wrong way in one year, especially the at-risk kids.

“This spring we had 50 kids out for eighth-grade football, and 35 out for seventh grade. That’s 85 kids currently playing football, and now they all have to try out for the eighth-grade team. There might be kids on the bubble, who maybe haven’t matured yet and they get cut. They may not come back to football. And they’re going to fill that void with something. And a lot of times it’s not a good thing.”

Cutlip said he believes the coaches should have been involved in the process somehow.

“You would think the major sports programs would at least have some input over how they want to try to do things athletically,” said Cutlip. “I would have preferred they would have eliminated the middle school programs and kept our freshmen. That makes the most sense.

“For one, the middle school kids play travel ball and do other stuff. There’s the Junior Toppers program, and kids can be a part of that. Getting kids in your high school program for four years is critical to the success of the program. A lot of people don’t realize this, but the best players when they are seniors may have been fifth-, sixth- or seventh-best as freshmen.”

Being part of an athletic program is not just about trying to win. It’s a growth process that can fuel a person all the way through whatever career path he or she takes.

“The whole thing is being part of a team,” said Carter. “You’re dealing with adversity, self-discipline, social skills, and learning how to fight through things.”

All of this hasn’t even touched on the surface of the potential impact on a football program that is finally getting its sea legs after years of being marooned (and greyed) on a deserted island. Losing the freshman football team could take the wind out of the Hilltoppers’ sails.

“(Almost 20 years) of not beating Dobyns-Bennett, and we finally do that,” said Carter. “And I feel like we’re coming back with a better program this year than last year. We should be more successful.

“Then we talk about competing on the state level, but without a freshman program you can kiss that goodbye. Maryville’s not doing it. D-B’s not doing it. They have freshman programs. You have to play.”

If nothing else, it’s a simple numbers game. Carter’s varsity team has close to 100 players, and there are 40 more on the freshman team. If all 140 are on the varsity — without the extra coaches — it’s a problem.

Then there’s the facilities issue. Science Hill has poured millions of dollars into a new football stadium and new basketball gym. Both are state-of-the-art facilities, and a source of community pride.

“We just built the best facilities in the state, and four years later we have a 4-3 vote on cutting athletics?” said Carter. “Somebody messed up. Either they messed up four years ago, or they’re messing up now.”

Bottom line, Carter said, losing football would impact well beyond the athletic borders.

“They’ve made more money over the last four years in football than they’ve ever made at Science Hill,” said Carter. “And the band has made all kinds of money off football concessions. Money made from football helps the whole school.

“I can’t even believe we’re talking about this. I had no idea about any of it before (Tuesday). Zero.”

Whatever happens in the long run, the school system has already earned a “shiner,” said Cutlip.

“Regardless, this will leave a black eye on our school system,” said Cutlip. “And like any black eye, it won’t go away overnight.”

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