Anger management: Coach-parent conflicts

  • Article by: JASON GONZALEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 24, 2012 - 8:33 AM

Coaches no longer make decisions in a vacuum. Some parents second-guess every move, and some coaches resent it. Can they meet in the middle?

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Former Roseville boys’ hockey coach Jeff Pauletti, who resigned last week after allegations that he bullied kids and committed fraud, spoke to a group of supporters outside Roseville High School on May 15. Many high school coaches say the parent-coach relationship has changed.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Standing in front of nearly 200 pairs of eyes last week outside Roseville High School, Jeff Pauletti began his mission of change.

"It's a shame that we lose so many coaches," said Pauletti, the school's former boys' hockey coach, ticking off statistics of coaches who have resigned or not had contracts renewed in Minnesota high school sports. "So going forward, I want to be an advocate for coaches' rights."

With that, Pauletti, for months the subject of claims by parents that he bullied players, had become the boldest to speak out among coaches who say they are struggling to survive a new form of bullying. They believe more demanding parents who scrutinize their every move are creating a cloud over high school athletics.

"This is a common concern of coaches," said North St. Paul boys' hockey coach Jerry Diebel, who showed up at the rally organized by Roseville parents in support of coaches and staff. "But out in the open, it is unique. Jeff is one of the first guys to tell his story."

Pauletti believes parent bullying ruined his nine-year reign at Roseville. While the school district never disclosed the nature of its investigation, it is believed to have stemmed from parents' allegations that Pauletti threw garbage cans, broke clipboards, bullied and intimidated players, and engaged in financial fraud.

Only hours before the district held a closed-door meeting on May 8 to discuss Pauletti's situation, he resigned. The Roseville school district released a statement saying the investigation is complete; it won't discuss findings because of data privacy laws. On Monday, however, the district said board chair Kitty Gogins would make a statement regarding the investigation at Tuesday's board meeting.

"I wanted to tell my story. I needed to get it off my chest," Pauletti said after last week's rally. "The climate [of the job] was not a real good one. It wasn't worth it anymore."

The coach's accusers have been after Pauletti for the past five years, he says. In November, the allegations prompted the district to investigate after the coach said he cut the primary accuser's son from the hockey team. According to several e-mails Pauletti read aloud during a recent school board meeting, the accusing party said their son was mistreated and put at risk by the boys' hockey coaching staff.

Parents critical of Pauletti retained a lawyer to press their case.

"[My clients] are relieved team members don't have to put up with a bullying coach," said Kirsten Libby, a lawyer representing parents aligned in a group called Parents 4 Responsible Coaching. "A lot of people were afraid to come forward. They had to be brave to do this. Enough was enough."

Surviving amid 'epidemic'

His plain gray sweater displayed no association, and a calm demeanor kept Diebel mostly unnoticed as he watched from the rear of the Roseville rally. His presence, however, was an example that coaches can survive in today's changing environment of high school athletics.

The environment includes battling what coaches describe as "overly involved" parents intent on imposing their agendas. This could mean complaining about their child's playing time, being unhappy about wins and losses and voicing concern about discipline.

While the majority of moms and dads restrict themselves to being fans of their kids' teams, some initiate challenges some coaches aren't prepared to handle.

It wasn't long ago that Diebel was reading endless letters and e-mails filled what he considered lies about his coaching style. People wanted him out.

"It's tough reading letters lying about what you are," he said.

He remained silent during a public process that rose to include the school principal and district superintendent, yet he managed to survive. Many coaches around the state haven't had the same luck.

"There is an epidemic across the country where quality coaches and good people are being pushed out of the profession," said Carl J. Pierson, the Waconia girls' basketball coach and author of a book called "The Politics of Coaching," which several local coaches say they have read. "They're overwhelmed by the politics of the position. A lot of them try to ignore it and do so at their own peril."

Jim Koltes of Maple Grove can relate. As Crimson girls' hockey coach in 2008-09, he was asked by school administrators to videotape practices and hold weekly meetings to appease unhappy parents.

"I said 'No.' That's crazy," Koltes said. The coach's patience had been tested for months after the 2009 season. He said his family had been harassed at local restaurants and rumors were beginning to spread.

"I just had enough of it, so I resigned," he said.

How good is your kid?

Parents can't help their longing to be involved, but what proud softball parent Mike Smith says they can do is control it.

Smith is one example of today's "extremely involved" high school sports parent. At a recent game, he sported a cap, sunglasses, T-shirt, shorts and shoes -- all with an athletic style to them -- complete with a bag of sunflower seeds.

"Like you mean it, Syd!" Smith yelled to his daughter, Sydney, a Maple Grove freshman, as she stepped to the plate against Coon Rapids. His body language became more anxious with each pitch, to the point of leaving his feet when the umpire called strike two.

Mike Smith has coached his daughter since she was introduced to the sport, guiding her through years of youth sports. But when she enrolled at Maple Grove, he had to relinquish some of his influence. It wasn't easy, he says, but it worked because he is at peace with her athletic abilities.

"I don't set unfair expectations for my daughter," he said. "Parents need to seek [qualified] feedback on how good their kids are. When you don't, you have parents that have a misalignment on their kids' level of abilities, and that creates misunderstandings."

Gruff ways no longer cut it

As a guest at the Oldtimers Hockey Association annual roast and toast last month, Pauletti -- a former Gophers defenseman -- heard stories of his playing days and revisited the rugged coaching style that molded him as a player. Those days were intense at times and included a fair share of expletives.

Effective then, but things have changed.

"Probably 95 percent of these guys wouldn't last a day in this [coaching] situation," he said, "because of things they say, and how gruff they are, and the actions they do, and how they discipline."

Longtime Elk River boys' hockey coach Tony Sarsland's coaching style was at issue when he resigned in April. The subject of previous criticism, he resigned amid a new investigation that he was too physical with a player.

"[Sarsland] loves kids as much as anybody, but you've got to coach different now," said Mark Loahr, the boys' hockey coach at Totino-Grace. "You have to talk to the kids more. Coaches have to talk to the parents more. The parent-coach relationship has changed."

During his time as an athletic director at Northfield, Kevin Merkle said he learned that most parent complaints were unsubstantiated.

"It's always hard to judge what is going on. Having been in those situations, you never know both sides of the story," said Merkle, now a Minnesota State High School League associate director. "But you have to stand up to parents sometimes. You can't let the parents run the program."

Koltes, who stayed on as Maple Grove's softball coach, said: "If you have a strong athletic director, they can squash the mad stuff. Sometimes these ADs get bullied around a little bit, but a good AD can quash a lot of problems."

'Your time is ticking'

To introduce a new season, Waconia's Pierson said he distributes a survey to players, adding: "The last question is, 'Why do you play basketball?' A couple kids over the years have put, 'To earn a college scholarship.' I know that didn't come from the kid."

Parents expect a lot from their investment in their children's athletic careers, fueled by rising college costs that make scholarships more appealing and dreams of being the parent of a professional athlete.

"I think parents are probably more the problem," Roseville parent Robb Stecklein said about parent-coach conflicts. "Sometimes parents put that expectation on their children, 'Oh, you're going to be a pro hockey player.' So there's probably too much of that."

Brad Anderson sees the parent-coach dilemma from both sides. As Wayzata football coach, he has navigated numerous parental situations to build one of the state's most successful programs. As a parent, he writes the same checks, invests the same time and wants the best for his kids.

"As a parent, by definition you are biased. I have two daughters and when they're playing, I know who I was watching," Anderson said.

"[Coaching] is becoming more difficult. Parents are spending more money and this state and society thinks sports are so important. With that being the case, it's not a job that is going to get easier as time goes on."

For Koltes, it means paying close attention to parent and player concerns, organizing ways to keep them informed, and keeping an eye on a never-empty complaint box.

"But if [parents] want you [out], they're going to get you," he said. "The day you take the job, your time is ticking."

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