Facebook Twitter



Ask Rick Gunn for a memorable Little League football "coaching moment" and he's a quick to answer.

Gunn was guiding a team of 10-year-old gridders from Taylorsville a few years ago against a group of Brighton kids. Late in the game, the referee made a questionable call and a group of parents standing along one sideline "went nuts" and started yelling at officials.Provoked, parents on the opposite sideline started yelling at their counterparts.

The officials told everyone to cool it, but the yapping only got worse. The game was called.

A small army of fathers from both sides marched down to one end zone and started fighting, recalled Gunn.

"Me and some of the other coaches ran to the end zone to break up the fight," he said. "When things wereunder control we all turned around and couldn't believe what we were seeing - the kids were still playing football."

No referees, no scoreboard, no coaches. Some of the players had even swapped sides.

"Parents were fighting in the end zone over a bad call, but the kids didn't care," Gunn said. "They just wanted to play football."

Autumn means Little League football for more than 6,000 Salt Lake-area youngsters. Thousands more play in leagues throughout the state.

It's a chance for boys to learn the game, spend Saturdays playing in front of mom and dad and compete with others.

Maybe even win some games and a trophy.

"Playing Little League was great for me," said David Bisson, a West Jordan High School football player who participated in Little League for eight years. "I had good coaches and I played a lot."

His comments would certainly be echoed by scores of current Little-Leaguers. Most have a good time, sharpen their skills and get excited about each game.

Still, some officials say problems are becoming more prevalent.

- Teams in one Salt Lake-area Little League football district were placed on probation several weeks ago after a few angry parents reportedly threw two coaches and a league official to the ground.

- League officials report an increase of referee abuse.

- A father in another league has been ordered to watch the games from the end zone after several run-ins with officials.

These are isolated incidents, insists Gary Matsura, commissioner of the Ute Football Conference.

"There are some problems, but it's limited to small pockets," said Matsura, who has been involved in Little League football for 17 years.

Cultivate good coaches and educate parents about league rules and philosophies and the program works, he added. "We're teaching kids about football, about how to win and lose and about character."

The conference's stance on dealing with violence and other incidents? Start with prevention.

Two off-duty policemen are now assigned to each playing venue to prevent problems. "The police officers are in uniform so they're visible; they stop things before they can happen," Matsura said.

When prevention fails, Matsura said league officials are quick to discipline the parents, coaches or players who cause trouble.

The source of most problems? Almost every coach, referee and league official contacted by the Deseret News blamed a parental obsession with winning and unreasonable expectations for the kids.

"I think the number one problem is some people's inappropriate need to win," said Bill Mead, who directs the Ute Football Conference officials. "People need to accept the fact that everyone's going to make mistakes."

Matsura agrees, saying he sometimes wishes he could scrap team standings and scoreboards to ease "win-at-all-costs" attitudes.

"Long after the kids leave Little League football and forget who won or lost they'll remember the good times," he said.

The tone of each season is usually set by the coaches. Gunn remembers his tenure with the whistle as "one of the best experiences of my life."

The kids are enthusiastic, and coaching allows football-loving adults like Gunn to teach the game to their sons or neighborhood kids.

Most do a good job, said Mead.

Mead recalled officiating a game in Tooele a few weeks ago involving one of the league's strongest teams. After scoring a touchdown, the talented group racked up several yellow penalty flags while trying to kick the point-after.

The infractions left the kicking team a long distance from the goal posts and the extra point failed.

While the teams prepared for the kick-off, Mead ran to the sideline where the penalized coach was standing and apologized for having to repeatedly blow his whistle.

"The coach just told me, `We can't learn if we're not penalized for our mistakes,' " Mead recalled. "He was a real gentlemen about it, a good example for everyone."

Coaching is a popular job. Although coaches are volunteers, few slots are available in several districts.

"It's pretty tough to get a coaching position in some of our divisions," said Jim Russell, president of West Jordan's Little League district.

Many coaches don't have sons playing on their teams. They simply relish a chance to direct a football squad. All are expected to be good examples to the boys, Russell said.

A set of conduct bylaws is given to each coach before the season begins. Included are rules that prohibit coaches from smoking, swearing or showing disrespect for officials in front of the boys.

"There's also a rule that (coaches) can't criticize players in front of the others during the game," Russell said. "Practices should be used to correct problems."

New coaches are required to attend a pre-season clinic to review the bylaws. Veteran coaches have to sign-up for a review course every three years.

Still, problems occasionally arise. League officials generally remedy troubles on a case-by-case basis, Russell said. A discussion about the problem will often suffice. Other times coaches are put on probation or suspended.

Teams' knowledge of fundamentals usually reveals the best coaches, said Mark Durfey, a former football coach now officiating Little League games.

"You can usually tell within the first five minutes of a game which team is going to win because you can see which team has been coached fundamentals," Durfey said. "The coaches who don't teach fundamentals are usually the first ones to cause problems because their teams are not prepared."

The usual target for angry coaches or parents? No surprise, the officials. Football's a sport, after all.

Why someone would want to referee a Little League football game - any kind of football game - is anyone's guess, said one veteran official, laughing.

It's not the money. Most Little League officials could make more working a part-time job than spending their Saturdays keeping dozens of 8-year-olds in formation.

Still, love for the game and a chance to glean experience draws officials to Little League.

Most divide their time between high school and Little League games.

"The higher the level, the easier it is to officiate," Durfey said. "The third-graders are always the hardest."

Two weeks ago, Durfey officiated a high school game between Bountiful and Higland. The pivotal contest ended without incident. Hardly a word was uttered from either high school coach, he recalled.

Days later, Durfey worked a Little League game for 9-year-olds. By the fourth quarter he was wishing he'd stayed home because of difficult coaches and parents.

The Ute Football Conference loses about a fourth of its officials every year, Mead said.

"Some (officials) just say they've had enough; they don't want to deal with it any longer," Mead said. "But the majority enjoy what they do, they like being out on a Saturday with the kids."

Mead said it takes new referees about three seasons to become "accomplished officials." Patience from parents and coaches is needed to help them mature.

It's a well organized league, Mead said. Each game is officiated by at least three paid officials and league officials review complaints when they arise.

Complaints are the exception, not the rule, Mead said. The league plays about 150 games per week and generally fields complaints from seven or eight games.

Mead reviews the complaints, then works with officials to help avoid further problems.

Most complaints against officials result from rules misunderstandings, said Mead. Area Little Leagues follow Utah high school football rules, rules that are vastly different from what some coaches and parents learn watching Monday Night Football.

Parents sometimes complain when officials call encroachment or other penalties on plays that would be legal in the National Football League.

"We sometimes have to remind people that we're not officiating a Sunday (professional) game," Murphy joked.

While some folks can be quick to complain about officials, those same critics are slow to don the zebra stripes, Mead added.

"People will tell me in the heat of battle that they could do a better job (than the officials), but I seldom see someone put the shirt on," he said.

Games are generally played simultaneously in an area park or school ground, providing little space between sidelines and spectators. An official's discussion with a coach is often within earshot of parents.

Most conferences have tried to create a buffer zone by roping off a spectator area several feet behind the sidelines. In the incident where the coaches were thrown to the ground, their attackers had reportedly crossed the ropes to get closer to the action.

Still, game officials are quick to add that parents and coaches in most districts treat them with respect and expect the same from the kids.

One district frequently provides referees with food and drinks and is a favorite spot for officials despite cramped conditions.

Some people blame certain districts for most of the problems, but Durfey is complimentary of programs on both sides of the Salt Lake Valley.

Matsura admits trouble occasionally surfaces in Utah's youth football programs. In a league of thousands, it's expected.

Refs are cursed and coaches second-guessed - but Little League participants generally leave happy Saturday afternoons, Matsura added.

"Most of us involved in Little League football are doing it for the kids," he said. "Football's a game, it's for the kids. Hopefully they're learning the spirit of the game."