When you are the sports editor of a small-town newspaper covering just one high school, it can be difficult at times. You get to know the coaches and administrators well, and while you’re not a booster, those relationships give you a certain level of access. You have to remain objective, but you know you are writing for an audience primarily interested in that one school.
So when I was covering Huntington North High School, game stories and previews focused on the Vikings and we showcased the athletes from HNHS. Problems arose when we had to report on negative events at the school, including suspensions, lineup changes, bad losses and the like.
Now, these are high school kids, so I’m not going to criticize an athlete’s on-field performance unless it’s some kind of unsportsmanlike conduct. Coaches and administration are a bit more on-limits, but it can sometimes get uncomfortable.
You get used to parents calling and being critical of what you write. They would say I didn’t give their kid enough coverage, or didn’t put in the article that their son scored a basket off the bench. Any journalist learns to live with those kinds of calls.
Coaches might be critical, and you listen to them and try to work with them, because they are your conduit for access to the team. But you also have to stand your ground when you need to, and you hope they respect your position.
The first time I experienced that level of conflict came with the Huntington North boys basketball team. They had a coach who was fiery — Bob Knight-level fiery. He yelled and stomped on the sidelines and in the locker room. His teams also didn’t win very often.
Following a loss late in the season, my game story alluded to the extra-long time this coach had kept his team in the locker room after the game, an indication of the type of game it had been for the VIkings. It wasn’t critical of the loss, but merely a tangible example of the mood after the outcome.
I didn’t think much of it. The coach and I had a stnading weekly meeting because I would write previews for upcoming games.
When I arrived at the gym, the first thing the coach told me was. “You know that article you wrote got me fired.”
I was a young writer who had not yet developed a thick skin, so I took a couple of steps backward and stumbled for anything to say.
Of course, my article had not gotten the coach fired, and even though he told me he was, he had not officially been fired, so I didn’t get a scoop. The coach’s behavior after the game had precipitated a meeting with administrators, and he eventually would be fired a few weeks after the season ended.
The coach had vented his frustration onto me, but did give me the interview, and it wasn’t mentioned again the rest of the year.
A few years later in 2001, the Huntington North football team went into the opening round of the postseason tournament and got crushed. It had become a familiar finish for the Vikings; no matter how the regular season went, the opening game of the sectional ended in a rout.
More than anything, it had become a mental hurdle the program could not get over. They felt they couldn’t compete with the Fort Wayne schools, and history had borne it out. The players, parents and community had come to accept it. The coach and I had even talked on occasion that it was going to take a shift in attitude on everyone’s part to begin to change things.
I decided to write a column on the subject, backed up by all the numbers. I didn’t necessarily point a finger at the coach, but to the entire community, stating that everyone needed to get over the mental block before outcomes would be different.
Honestly, I wasn’t blaming the coach. He was a good guy with a decent record, and still has the only sectional title in school history on his resume back in 1993. But when he was fired a day after my column ran, it wasn’t much of a leap to connect my column to his firing.
In reality, it didn’t work that way. The school had already fired the coach in the time between the end of the final game and the time my article was published. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. And it didn’t change the point of the column.
Again, the coach took his pound of flesh out of me for what I had written. He stayed on at the school and remained as track coach, which made for some touchy moments for a while. But as I said, he was (and still is) a good man, and we both moved on and had a good working relationship.
The postscript to this story is that a lot of what I wrote in that column stills remains today. Despite having five coaches in the 18 years following that 2001 column, the Huntington North football team only has a 7-11 record in sectional openers, and has never won more than one game in the tournament over that time. There has been even more blowouts. It pretty much backs up my original premise that it goes beyond the head coach.
I don’t know what the block is with Huntington North and football. They have had success in just about every other sport, and regularly produce top athletes.
The mystery continues.