Eagle's Eye

Student Coach Takeover

With budget cuts, students fill coaching spots

Photo Credit Kyly Clark

Photo Credit Kyly Clark

Rachel Lightner, Editor

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For years the athletics program at Sierra Nevada College has been on a roller coaster of change, challenged by dramatic budget cuts that came on the heels of the addition of NAIA sports soccer, cross-country, and golf. With the loss of several key coaching positions, teams are faced with the prospect of rebuilding under the direction of student coaches and continuing tight budgets.

Ski & Snowboard Teams

SNC’s ski and snowboard teams took a huge hit the past two years, with the loss of athletic director and alpine ski coach Branko Zagar, snowboard coach Max Leabman, and freestyle ski coach Jon Cherry. After their departures, student athletes Freddy McCarthy and Connor Clayton, juniors at the time, took over coaching duties.

“Being on the team as scholarship student, I wanted to keep the team going for my benefit, as well as other students and the school,” said McCarthy.

“When Jon left, it was all up in the air,” said Clayton. “I was more than happy to take over the role of coaching, and it’s been working out.”

Student coaches filled other roles in the program. Senior Eric Tanguay became the golf coach and senior Elias Stuerz, the alpine ski coach.

“Freddy, Connor, Eric, and Elias filled a void we had, and they’ve all been responsible and mature, and I’m here to support them,” said athletic director Chris DeLeon. “It takes a special person to coach a sports team; they have to earn the respect of their athletes which I feel they have done.”

Balancing Budget

When faced with a tight budget last season, Zagar needed to find ways to save money. Student worker pay is capped, and he found an opportunity to save. According to Shannon Beets, SNC’s executive vice president and provost, the college has experienced a decline in undergraduate full time enrollments over the last four years – a loss of almost 100 students – which in turn negatively impacts the budget.

“Financial issues were the reason behind hiring student coaches…I would’ve never considered hiring student coaches to some extent,” said Zagar. After a lengthy career leading SNC’s programs, Zagar took a position last year as Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club’s alpine program and race director. “I got my budget and the only way to go through the season with those numbers was to be creative, and one of the ways was to try these athletes as coaches.”

Although the pay for the student coaches was less than the previous full-time positions, the work load remained the same. “I don’t think any full-time position has ever been paid what I get paid for the amount of time I spend on it,” said McCarthy.

After graduation, McCarthy would like to return as a coach, but hopes his salary would reflect the commitment of time. “I don’t think I would continue doing this if the pay stayed the same,” said McCarthy.

According to Leabman, when former coach Jon Cherry accepted a new administrative position in SNC’s admissions department, Leabman was expected to take on the ski team in addition to snowboarding, leaving him with a ratio of 40 athletes to one coach, with no change in pay.

“The pay was a big reason for why I left,” said Leabman. “I had been there for years and they brought in new coaches and I wanted to be paid similar to what the new coaches were receiving; I felt there wasn’t that respect for the snowboard team.”

Along with the cuts in coach pay, the teams’ budgets have been shrinking as well.

For the 2015/2016 season, the snowboard and ski teams budget was $80,000 plus an additional $18,000 to be used as scholarship money for freshman recruitment. Although McCarthy and Clayton have yet to see their teams’ budgets for this season, they anticipate they will be substantially less. With such a small budget, the teams are unable to travel to other mountains to train, are limited on the number season passes they can give to athletes, and are stressed to plan for competitions, both regionals at Mammoth Mountain and nationals at Whiteface Mountain, New York.

“You can’t operate a team with scholarships and trips with that cost alone,” said Leabman. “It’s not an opportunity to succeed and they’re not being set up for success at all with such a small budget.”

Shannon Beets said there was no way you can experience a significant drop in tuition revenue at a tuition-driven institution without reducing costs.

“I think there’s a budget reality we have to deal with but there are plenty of advantages both in terms of learning and in terms of future professional development that we try to maintain,” she said. “I know Chris has been working to get them professional certifications that they can take elsewhere that will help them get that next job. It really falls into our professional preparedness core theme and what we want to do for our students.

“We hope lots of things change about our budget, as we grow enrollments back and continue to successfully recruit. I don’t think it’s happening next year given what we’re looking at in terms of current enrollment and next year’s enrollment.”

But Beets remains optimistic about the future of the programs.

“I think that the future of athletics is solid here,” she said. “We have over 30 percent of our total student body now engaged in organized athletics of some kind.”

Juggling Duties

Apart from managing budgets, coaches are expected to recruit new athletes to their teams, plan events, coordinate competitions and more. For McCarthy and Clayton, they manage these responsibilities while attending class as full-time students, and competing on the teams themselves. Leabman says the work load can be demanding, and as a student, nearly impossible.

“It’s a full-time job, not having the pressure of being an athlete and a student on top of it,” said Leabman. “I was on snow six days a week to try and give everyone an opportunity to be there, and there’s no way that time schedule works when you have your own class schedule to deal with and everything else on top of it.”

“I’m coaching, I have another job, two internships on top of that, and I’m a full-time student,” said Clayton. “I have a lot on my plate right now.”

“Balancing my time between coaching and being a student has proven to be difficult,” said McCarthy. “Teachers haven’t given much leeway; I don’t think they understand that in the athletic department eyes it’s a full-time position.”

Kendra Wong, chair of SNC’s business department, says student athletes are high performers in the classroom as well as in competition, McCarthy in particular.

“When you’re in your competition season you do end up missing a lot of class and your travelling, so I think it speaks to the caliber of student athletes that we have on this campus that they are amazing athletes and very committed students,” she said. “In all of the student coaches I’ve seen growth while they’ve been coaches, but Freddy in particular.”

The Next Step

One reason for Zagar’s resignation was what he believes is a disconnect between the administration and the teams.

“The school has to show that they are behind the teams and the athletic department, that’s what it is, the support,” said Zagar. “The teams and coaches are doing by far their best. The school has to step up.”

Zagar, who initially hired McCarthy and Clayton as the trial student coaches, also believes that in order for the sports teams to succeed, full-time coaches will need to be hired again.

“This was supposed to be a temporary solution until the school got out of financial issues,” said Zagar. “If the school is going to support the sports the way it was, they definitely need full-time coaches.”
Leabman agrees, and says the college needs to better support the snow sports teams.

“If anything, that’s one of the main (recruitment) draws for the school,” said Leabman. “Having a team like that where the students at the school tend to ski and snowboard, that’s a huge advantage of SNC’s location and it’s a shame to not look at it as an opportunity as it could be a niche to own, but instead their trying to expand in other realms.”

Beets believes having student coaches is a benefit.

“My personal opinion, not an institutional one, is I would love to see student coaches stay on even if we had professional coaches,” said Beets. “I really believe there is a significant learning experience in there and opportunity for our students. Even if the budget was doubled would we immediately hire professional full time coaches? Probably, but my hope would be we retain the benefits of this arrangement because I really believe in it.”

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Student Coach Takeover