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COLUMN: The real battle in high school sports is parents vs. coaches

When this football season began in late August, Joe Pearson had no idea it would be his last as Solanco’s head coach.

An uncomplimentary letter to the editor of this newspaper in October and what Pearson said was a verbal attack on his wife by fans in the stands at a Golden Mules game changed all of that.

“It wasn’t the primary reason I resigned,” Pearson said of the verbal attacks from fans. “It was ‘the reason.'”

Pearson, a teacher in the Solanco School District, told the team of his decision last Thursday night and announced it Friday, one week to the day after Solanco finished 2-8.

“When my family comes under attack,” said Pearson, a father of two children ages 12 and 10, “when fans are screaming at my wife, I have to do what’s best for my wife and kids.”

He insisted the criticism didn’t affect him.

“I didn’t make a big deal of it,” said Pearson, who acknowledged struggling in recent years as the Mules endured four straight losing campaigns and six straight nonwinning seasons. “Everyone has critics. The grass is always greener from the stands.”

Pearson pointed out that he never felt as if the entire Solanco community was like wolves baying at his door. He said “a lot of people, a lot of parents” offered support, former players came forward to give encouragement.

“The actions of a few, directed at my family,” he said, “is the reason I resigned. When you have direct confrontation (between fans and a family member), that’s going too far.”

His coaching colleagues in Lancaster-Lebanon League Section Two can relate. Lampeter-Strasburg’s John Manion refers to the “vocal minority” that seems to exist in every sports community.

“I wish,” Manion said, “that the majority would stand up and put them in their place.”

Manheim Central’s Mike Williams, the dean of L-L football coaches with 33 years on the job, has taken the Barons to three state title games, won one, and earned numerous district and section titles. He’s gained coaching honors, been elected to various Halls of Fame and this season was nominated by USA Today for high school football’s Coach of the Year award.

You would think a résumé like that would quiet critics.

Think again.

“High school coaching is not an easy task,” said Williams. “You’re trying to be a role model for kids, trying to a good job and people criticize you. Everybody thinks they can do it but once they’re in it they realize it’s pretty darn tough.”

Tough enough to cause Elizabethtown’s Mike Cottle more than one sleepless night.

“Many nights I lay in bed and wonder how much more can I take, how much longer can I do it?” he said. “It’s hard to be a coach, it’s mentally tough.”

And it’s getting tougher.

“Tougher and tougher every year,” Cocalico’s Dave Gingrich said, and it should be pointed out that this is not a problem just for football coaches or coaches in the L-L. More and more, the coaching/parent dynamic is shaping up as the real battle in high school sports.

“Coaches are a lot easier to get to these days,” said Gingrich, citing social media and its anonymous pen names, along with parental pressure. “More attention is being put on coaches when all we’re trying to do is teach kids.”

All agreed that some outside the programs feel they have a right to try and influence the decisions coaches make: Who starts, who plays, how much they play, etc.

Said Manion, “I wish people on the outside would not interfere with what goes on inside the program.”

Williams called it “a sense of entitlement.” Parental involvement in some cases, he remarked, can be overbearing.

“They try to run the program,” he said, “tell the coach what to do, dictate who’s playing.”

Cottle said when he was an assistant he didn’t see all the issues a head coach deals with. “The problems you have to deal with test you,” he said, “and you wonder why you’re doing it. You’re doing it because you love the sport and love kids.”

Williams said he’s been able to “weather the storm” when it comes to criticism. Younger coaches, he noted, throw in the towel because they don’t want negative comments to affect their family.

“What happened to Joe Pearson,” he said, “I can see how that would affect you. It can be hurtful.”

Pearson said he doesn’t see himself coaching again in the next calendar year. He does, however, expect to return to the sidelines at some point.

That was good news to his colleagues, all of whom described Pearson as a good coach and good family man.

“Joe Pearson,” Gingrich said, “is the kind of coach I would want my kids to play for.”

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