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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The very good ADs I've worked with

I have always said that the most frustrating job that I've come across in my 30 years in this business is dealing with high school athletic directors.

To me or any of my sportswriting brethren, their job is to make sure they get schedules to us and if there are any questions about rescheduled events due to rainouts or other weather-related issues, they have the answers in front of them. And if there was a firing or a new hiring, he or she needs to give the details as to what happened and be ready with a comment or three or four.

That's pretty much it. Other`than that, it's business as usual. They tend to what they have to do and I get on with what I need to do. But over these last 30 years, I've dealt with some real winners as ADs, the ADs who feel like they need their egos stroked to make themselves feel better or those ADs who were so nasty that you felt scorned for calling them.

I've had my share of such athletic directors, it'd make your head spin:

n One AD once told me when I called him late at night over a controversy at the end of a Shore Conference Tournament girls soccer match that involved his school in the tournament he was in charge of that he "was asleep and wasn't going to answer any questions." (1990)

n Another AD who you could never get over the phone after his day at work ... and it was questionable if you ever got him at work, but when it came to a baseball game he lost as head coach and he didn't like your story you did on the game ... preferably the lead ... he was so upset, he ripped you apart in a letter to the editor on the editorial page a few weeks later. (2007)

n An athletic director who I literally asked a question to at a sporting event and he literally walked away (1986).

n An AD who I called up early in my career about a scheduling conflict, then started drilling me as to why I was asking him these questions, then berating me. He passed away less than a year later in 1985.

n Oh, and the creme de la creme of ADs. He's Tom Procopio of Pinelands Regional, who in the early years of his tenure as the school's AD could not have been a nicer human being about anything involving the athletics department and Pinelands. That was until that day in February 1993 when our wrestling writer, John Earle Livingston, asked Pinelands' then-wrestling coach, Bill Savage, about his kids wrestling in an upcoming postseason tournament and the coach mentioned that a couple of kids would not be involved and when pressed by Earle, Savage answered that they were suspended by the school. Why? Because they admitted to egging the basketball coach's car.

Next thing you know, the story gets into the newspaper, Savage practically spends an entire day at the principal's office away from doing his job and the once-affable Procopio becomes a mean, horrible, unlikeable person who would not talk to anyone in our sports department ... yes, including me. He was the reason I personally hand-delivered envelopes with sheets in them pertaining to the rules of the annual Ocean County Softball Tournament for the last six years I helped run the event. I simply had no trust in sending the envelope to the man himself and if I sent the envelope to his coaches, I'm sure that my name would be sullied. And I'm pretty sure he asked other ADs why I was even involved in running the tournament.

I've always said that a good amount of the ADs I've ever dealt with in my 30-year career believe that God walks behind them. They've either been egotistical about their work or they come off like crotchety, old men.

Does the term, "shut up and do your job" mean anything? Yeah, a good amount of the ADs I ever dealt with were bad to terrible decisions to ever lead an athletic department. I am not afraid to say that ... it's why they've gotten a horrific rap from me over the years. And I don't want to hear about their day. As I said before, you got a job to do with me ... service me when I ask you to and service me with a goddamn smile. I don't give you grief ... you don't give me grief at all!

But I can't say that for every AD ... just a select and sadly memorable bunch. They won't make this list. That list is of the 10 best athletic directors I have ever dealt with in my career in my stays in Toms River, Key West and now Palatka. Because the really good ones need being reminded of why they were good at doing their jobs.

So here is that list:

10. Len Rivers (Lakewood): The longtime football coach at a number of outlets, including Lakewood High School in the late 1980s/early 1990s, took over as the school's athletic director. And if there was anything I needed from the man, he would easily get it for me. You see, Len Rivers was old school. He did the job in textbook manner -- in other words, he would answer your questions, he would try to do whatever he could to promote Lakewood High athletically and he was not afraid to engage in a conversation about any of the athletic programs, even if he wasn't well-schooled in them or if they weren't great. And at this particular time he was AD, most of the programs at the school weren't all that good. But he was very supportive of them all and remained positive in the face of possible negativity. He was a good man that I truly miss seeing.

9. Rich Russell (Coral Shores): The only athletic director from the Florida Keys to make this list, Russell was an assistant football coach and the head baseball coach when I was there between 1999-2002. And Russell had a reason to be pro-Coral Shores. First, he was a proud 1975 graduate of the school. Second, where we were located in Key West, it takes nearly 90 miles to get to his school. And trust me, it's a haul considering the speed limit there. But again, a positive man who always kept it real. Any question of the schedule, he had an answer. And he did it with a very monotone voice that I got used to. It was deep, but it was trustworthy. And even after I was gone from my time in Key West, I was still able to help him with getting a couple of his athletes on an all-state team. He knew I could help him and he knew the words I could say to persuade who needed to be persuaded. And he always was appreciative of the efforts I went to single out a kid for something positive over the time I was in Key West. Those are things you never will forget.

8. Bill Larkin (Point Pleasant Boro): Bill Larkin could be gruff at times. That I could understand. But considering the two previous athletic directors at the Boro weren't very good at "public relations" in their job, getting any information from Mr. Larkin was an absolute bonus. And the man was personable to have a conversation with. I definitely could not do that with the other two guys in that job previously. If I had a feature story I was doing on one of the athletes that I  needed to get a quote from Larkin, he'd give it to me without question. He knew his athletes there, from the scrubbiest of scrubs to the biggest of them all -- and that was Christie Pearce Rampone, the best female athlete Ocean County ever saw and I ever covered. And when myself and Boro softball coach Ric Malta were taking over the county softball tournament in 1992, Larkin allowed us the access to his field ... even if it was not always in the best of condition. And the sign of a good AD? He would usually have Ric's back when it came to some coach or AD complaining about the tournament. Just as long as you were honest back to him. Both he and longtime athletic trainer Tim Spenard would be in Tim's training cart taking in games, no matter what outdoor sport. It was a pleasure to work with him.

7. Bob Grace (Point Pleasant Beach): Situated across the canal is the smallest high school in Ocean County. And when he took over as Point Beach's athletic director in the early 1990s, Bob Grace had worked at huge schools. So he knew he needed to be prepared for life in a small town high school. And if something didn't read right about little Point Pleasant Beach High School, he'd be the first one defending it, though he would never call you to tell you about it. He had that kind of a memory to ask you or remind you of what was written. Rarely was there ever any harm being done to his school in print, but at least I knew he was passionate about his job, his school, the kids under his jurisdiction in athletics and the community. That aside, he is one of the friendliest athletic directors I've ever been involved around. And when I did a column celebrating my 10th year in the business in 1994, he wrote me a letter congratulating me -- and calling me "Mark Blementhal" as the byline appeared in my first-ever bylined story in 1984. I have to admit it added a special touch.

6. Bernie Reider (Jackson Memorial): He is a legendary wrestling coach from the 1970s at Jackson Memorial and he had to take over the role as the school's AD after the death of the man in charge in 1985. But unlike the other guy who previously held the post, Bernie Reider could not have been a better gentleman to take over the role. Anything I needed ... anything ... he got it for me. He had a whole bunch of sports going on and he had a lot of different types of characters coaching in those sports, but yet, Bernie Reider handled it with a gentle touch, never had a negative thing to say unless you said something that sounded negative and then he'd quietly explain the situation. I had that happen to me after a Jackson wrestling match in the Shore Conference Tournament in 1989 when a kid just inexplicably didn't show up to wrestle and one of his teammates was beyond mad at his teammate and I wrote about it. It wasn't coach Al Aires who called me ... it was Bernie Reider, telling me it was not such a positive thing to write and that I didn't know the whole situation. Well I told him I was doing my job and how important his absence was to his team's not winning and we had a good conversation from there. Bernie Reider was like the understanding uncle you could turn to when things got crazy in the world. Too bad there weren't as many Bernie Reiders out there that I could deal with in my time in this business.

5. Ralph Carretta (Jackson Memorial): When Bernie Reider stepped down as AD, it was going to take someone very, very special to fill the position. Enter Ralph Carretta. I knew nothing about the man when he came into the job in 1993. But to my surprise, he was well-versed with all the sports at JMHS. And when I needed something from him, this man who looked a lot like character actor Dan Hadaya was there to get the information. He is one of the easiest conversations I've ever had and at a time when most of the ADs were acting like, well, crotchety old men for no reason at all, here was Ralph Carretta able to schmooze and make sense of a lot of things. He took on a lot of the same character-type coaches that Reider dealt with and he did it just as well. Were there complaints about how things got handled by him from the other coaches privately to me? Sure. They liked Bernie a whole lot. Bernie Reider was going to be a tough act to follow. But all of them knew in the end, Carretta had their backs. And he had my back in one very memorable episode that I will never stop thanking him and another AD on this list for. That's later on.

4. Ron Whitehurst (Interlachen): Ron, like Rich Russell at Coral Shores, is a proud alum of the school he works for now, Interlachen High. And before he got into teaching and then coaching, he was a businessman. I think that certainly helped him become a little more acclimated into the job of athletic director when Doug Feltner stepped down in late 2009. He rarely complains about things involving his school. He's one of the most positive sports coaches you will ever come across, whether he was coaching volleyball, weightlifting, football and, still, softball. Whitehurst is a big ol' teddy bear type that can be brutally honest with you about subjects. That's just him. But I've never met as big a math and numbers geek like myself than him. And he knows his kids by uniform numbers better than anyone I've ever met. He can ramble off stats off the top of his head like no one I've ever known before or most likely after him. The man always seems to have an answer at the top of his head for anything I have. And oh, can the guy tell a story. Personable to say the least and he never holds a grudge. All those are the mark of a great AD -- even if he's a recent guy who took on the job and may not have had the training to be an AD before he got the job. He's just been a natural at it.

3. Terry Goodwin (Peniel Baptist): In looking at it, Terry Goodwin is the same guy as Ron Whitehurst, but has the advantage over him because he's simply done it five years longer. He played athletics at Palatka South and Palatka High and at nearby St. Johns River Community (State) College. He's also a youth pastor. Goodwin has a good understanding of how a small school like little Peniel works. He rarely has a bad thing to say unless it has to do with the status of a program, simply for numbers reasons. That's how small Peniel is. But you won't find a better role model at a small school better than Terry Goodwin. He always remains positive with the program even if it has gone through some dark times. He has always said that whatever bad takes place that things will get better. And in the 2013-14 school year, those positive thoughts were rewarded in a great way. The volleyball team he coached reached the state tournament for the first time in nine years and won a state tournament match against Tallahassee FAMU, the first state tournament win in any sport in Peniel's history. And in the spring, the softball team stunned state Top 10-ranked Lecanto Seven Rivers Christian for its first-ever district tournament championship. The man wears a lot of hats at the school, as an assistant in baseball and the head coach of the boys basketball and volleyball programs. But in spite of his being active, he never ceases to amaze in the job he does in juggling everything he does at Peniel. He's the real pillar of strength at that school.

2. Bill Lundy (Toms River East/Toms River North): Now trust me when I say this -- Bill Lundy is not the most affable person you will come across when it comes to his job. Over the years when he was the AD at two of the three Toms River schools, he and I would get into "discussions" over things that showed in the newspaper or the "attitudes" of his coaches. But when it came to explaining things that had to do with his job, no one in my career was better at it than he was. It was as if he was born to do this job. He knew the ins and outs of the AD job and that's why he was really, really good at it. He also knew how to smooth over rough edges with others within his job. I can remember the day after the controversy involving the girls soccer match I mentioned above. He helped to chair a committee on what to do with the situation and that  afternoon, he explained the whole process, from start to finish. That's how good he was at the job -- he could explain anything and do it in layman's terms. He was very good at rules interpretation. So I was never afraid to come to him to ask anything that came to any sport and how the Shore Conference handled matters. He was a terrific communicator and that was needed when I dealt with numerous ADs who simply weren't.

1. Kim DeGraw-Cole (Southern Regional): I will make this statement and I hope no athletic director takes it negatively -- I wish every AD was like Kim DeGraw-Cole. When I first met her in 1984, she was a co-athletic director with a guy named Ben DeFonzo, but pretty soon, the job became hers and though you might wonder why it was a co-AD situation in the first place, I soon found out she could handle the job on her own. She always remained positive and became the face of Southern athletics for over two decades, most of which happening while I was at the Observer. There was one moment where she said if I had reported on something (which turned out to be false in the end anyway) she would never talk to me again, but I told her I just don't do that without proof of something. We had a great reporter-AD relationship that lasted all 15 years I was at the paper. And if she wasn't around to have an answer to a scheduling issue, she always made sure April, her assistant, would have the answer. Always proper in handling things the same way Bill Lundy was. And she did it while wearing a number of hats. She was also the Shore Conference Tournament director for both field hockey and basketball. In 1995 while co-running the softball OCT with Toms River East coach Debbie Schwartz, we were still without the new lights on East's field. We had to break up the quarterfinal round of the tournament into two doubleheaders. The second of those was on a Tuesday. So to help with the situation, I called up both she and Jackson Memorial AD Ralph Carretta and asked both of the ADs if they can have their teams ready to start at 3 p.m. instead of the normal 3:30 p.m. and we'd start the second game (Central and Toms River East) at 5:30 so it would give us a fighting chance to get both games in before losing daylight. Again, DeGraw-Cole didn't bat an eye and neither did Carretta. And both games got in that day. To this day, that pair will never know how much it meant to me to get those games in under difficult circumstances.

But Kim DeGraw-Cole was also into inclusion as well -- if she knew you, chances are she wanted you to help her in something. That even included me ... she knew my prowess of doing the public address for the Ocean County Tournament, and so I got to do the PA for the SCT field hockey championship games between 1990-93 and the 1993 SCT softball final between Central Regional and Toms River North and again in 1994 when Allentown played Central  in Norm Selby's last game as Central coach, one his Golden Eagles won, 7-0. And no AD I've ever known was more behind her head coaches than Kim DeGraw-Cole was. Legendary and late girls basketball coach Kathy Snyder always spoke highly of her boss. Most every coach was proud to work for her.

I was most proud to work with her. She absolutely made my job easy and a joy. As I said, if every AD was like Kim DeGraw-Cole, this job would be easy every single day.

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