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Parent Trap: Parental control can challenge prep coaches

Bingham head coach Dave Peck gets a bath from some of his players as Bingham defeats Alta in a championship game.
Bingham head coach Dave Peck gets a bath from some of his players as Bingham defeats Alta in a championship game.
Scott G. Winterton, Dnews

Jonny Matich was horrified.

As he walked toward the team bus after coaching the Granger Lancers in a Region 6 football loss to Highland last fall, Matich — now the head coach at Taylorsville — was alerted to a frightening scene he was about to find.

His defensive coordinator, Dee McCormick, had just been attacked by the parent of one of his players and lay motionless on the sideline. McCormick's face and head had been bloodied, his jaw and left cheekbone broken by a parent who used a helmet to assault him.

"I had never seen anything like it," Matich said. "I hope I never do again."

The assault left Matich questioning if he was in the right profession. Is this what coaching high school sports had come to? Are parents this passionate about their kids playing sports that they'll resort to violence if they disagree with coaches?

It was obviously an extreme case of poor relations — likely the worst in state history — between high school coaches and the parents of the kids they mentor. It was also one that all hope isn't repeated.

Parents can have a huge impact on high school sports programs. They can be supportive by helping with fundraising, and they can privately reinforce what coaches are trying to teach their kids.

They can also cause dissension within programs by questioning strategy and personnel moves, and undermine coaching staffs by shouting "advice" from the bleachers. If they get really upset, they can band together and put pressure on administrators to make coaching changes. And they can be successful in doing so.

Coach-parent relationships aren't what they once were.

"The climate is different now than what it was even five years ago," said Judge Memorial's Jeff Myaer, who took a one-year sabbatical from coaching after leading the Bulldogs' baseball team to a second-place finish in the 3A state tournament in May. "I don't think my parents even talked to my coaches. They just sent me off to my practices and my games."

There still are parents of high school athletes who do that, but seemingly many more who are active in sports programs both positively and negatively. There are multiple dynamics that go into coach-parent relationships, making what can sometimes be a complicated connection.

Dynamic relationship

It can sometimes blow the minds of high school coaches when they have unruly parents. The reason for that, they say, is both groups usually have the same interests in mind.

"I think the most important thing is that we're both working for what's best for the young men — their son, our player," said Box Elder football coach Robbie Gunter. "I think it works best when both sides see it that way."

The problem is things aren't always seen that way.

While coaches look at how individual players will best comprise their teams and fill certain roles, parents generally are mostly concerned with just their own kids' interests. Not everyone can be the quarterback, shortstop or leading scorer for the basketball team, and some athletes just have to be role players or reserves. That type of role can touch a nerve with kids and parents.

"Every parent thinks their boy is a lot better than they really are — even the really good ones," said Bingham football coach Dave Peck. "Those parents might ask why they don't get the ball more or ask why they aren't utilized in a certain way."

Playing time and playing roles are usually what cause problems between coaches and parents. Peck, since he won't talk to parents about playing time, more than welcomes players to come to him about playing time issues.

"Every single time there's been a problem (with a parent) it's been a playing time issue," Gunter said of his experiences in dealing with upset parents.

Myaer believes relations between coaches and parents would greatly improve if parents could see that coaches are doing what they believe is best for their teams.

"We define success by playing hard and being good teammates, but success in his mom's or dad's eyes is if he drops 16-18 points per game," Myaer said. "A player could have no points and 10 rebounds, and have had a great game for what we want him to do."

Communication is key

Each spring, Peck has a meeting with the parents of his players. In it he discusses issues such as staying eligible, recruiting and expectations he has for the parents. One of those expectations is that he will not discuss playing time or coaching philosophies.

"Those are subjects we will not talk about with them," Peck said. "I'll say I'd rather your boy quit right now than deal with that. We tell them we run a good program. We're out here with their kids and it's better than them sitting at home, playing Nintendo and eating Twinkies."

Ed Yack, whose son Colton played both baseball and football at Bingham, said the meeting was beneficial.

"Absolutely (it helped)," Yack said. "We knew where we stood. The players knew where they stood."

Matich has a similar meeting in the spring, but has more of an open-door policy with his parents. They know his cell phone number and they can call him at anytime, which he says leaves him open to some late-night phone calls.

"I think communication is the big thing," Matich said. "Parents are the same as kids. They need to have guidelines and rules to follow. I'm willing to listen to them. I may not agree with them, but I will listen to them."

He won't, however, talk to parents on game day, or the day after the game. That is one guideline he has set up with parents.

Coaches refusing to communicate with their players' parents can be frustrating for the parents. One parent of a high school athlete in Utah who wished to remain anonymous said coaches at his kid's school don't communicate with parents at all.

"I tried to set up a meeting with them and they acted like I was asking for a secret document," the parent said.

The vocal minority

It happens in most boys and girls high school sports. A parent sits in the bleachers, yells at the coaches while the game is going on, telling them how stupid they are, and makes most people sitting around him or her feel uncomfortable.

"We call them the vocal minority," Gunter said. "But when people are vocal, it can cause a problem. There's a perception that there is a problem. You hear it, and you try to confront it. You just try to resolve the things you can control."

Usually, the angry parent can't be confronted. The person who will shout play-calling advice from the bleachers is rarely the parent who will attempt to talk privately with a coach about the criticisms he or she is shouting at the top of their lungs on a Friday night.

"You're always going to have that jerk parent that thinks they know more than me," Matich said. "The screaming parent is usually the one who won't come and talk to you."

"You get a parent who starts doing that and it's a handful," Myaer said. "It makes coaching difficult."

One parent who was not among the vocal minority is Glen Kelsch, whose son Adam was an all-state infielder at Lone Peak before graduating in the spring. Kelsch said he never talked to Adam's coaches at Lone Peak about any issues.

"Once you start getting parents involved, it gets ugly real fast no matter what level you're on," Kelsch said. "I don't get involved in it. We support the boy (Adam). We didn't want him to have a bad experience with it."

A lot of the venom directed at football coaches is wasted energy, anyway. They can't really hear what fans are saying from the bleachers.

"That's the good thing about the track," Gunter joked.

An extreme case

Former Kearns High baseball coach Kenyon Clark recalls the time a parent came out of the bleachers and tried to start a fight with his third-base coach, Albert Romero, at a tournament in St. George. Similar incidents have occurred between parents and coaches, but none were likely as bad as what happened with McCormick last fall.

McCormick was helping get the Granger players to their bus after their loss to Highland. Interestingly, Matich had never met the guy, Tumua Siaumau, who assaulted McCormick, before the incident. Siaumau had moved to West Valley City from Alaska prior to last season, and obviously had no history with the Granger coaching staff.

McCormick isn't going to coach this fall, and Matich said he learned some lessons from the assault. He won't allow his players to linger on the field and talk with their friends or parents after games when their emotions are flying, he said. He also won't meet with parents by himself because of Siaumau's assault on McCormick.

Last month, Siaumau pleaded guilty to third-degree aggravated assault for his attack on McCormick. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, 150 community service hours, three years probation and will pay restitution for McCormick's medical bills.

Matich feels the punishment wasn't severe enough.

"I'm extremely disappointed with how that was handled," he said.

Matich was also disappointed that Granger parents got a bad rap after McCormick was assaulted. He said he got nothing but support from the rest of the Lancers' parents.

"The Granger parents were awesome," Matich said. "One parent can ruin it for a whole group of parents. I'm upset that they were put in that category (with Siaumua). One parent behaving badly can change the perception of an entire community. I still to this day will defend the Granger parents."

Can relations improve?

There is no simple formula to get coaches and parents on the same page. What works at Bingham may not work at Taylorsville. What works at Taylorsville may not work at Judge. While some coaches may not want to discuss playing time, others are willing to do so. Most parents will sit back and supports their kids' sports programs, others will be divisive and distracting.

Coaches are confident they can handle parents by setting policies and letting parents know what their limits are. The majority of high school sports parents are well-behaved, and some of the ones who make the most noise will never directly confront a coach, making the chances of coming to a resolution almost nil.

One thing is certain. Dealing with upset parents can be more of an annoyance than a five-game losing streak for high school coaches.

"Their job is to be the parent," Gunter said. "Our job is to coach."

e-mail: aaragon@desnews.com