On Thursday the Minnesota State High School League gets its first new executive director since March of 1988.
Erich Martens, a former basketball coach and longtime principal at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School, officially takes the reins from Dave Stead, who stepped down after 31 years in the position.
Don’t expect things to change much, at least initially.
Martens, 52, is a 1984 graduate of New Ulm High School, where Stead was school principal during Martens’ time as a student. He became a math teacher and coach at three schools before becoming a school principal in 1999. His high school league experience include roles as a representative and board member, spending a year as board president in 2015-16.
Martens, believed by some members of the league’s board of directors to be Stead’s preferred successor, said his first few months will be spent “carrying forward with the goals and the procedures and the things that have been put in place over the course of this year.”
He takes over an organization still in the process of instituting a series of recommendations to improve transparency in league processes, notably those determining student athlete eligibility, after a legislative audit was conducted last year.
The league faces increasing challenges from the growing sway of athletic organizations outside of its purview, as more athletes train and compete outside of their high school teams. The nonprofit league also faces budgetary challenges as it oversees state tournaments for nearly three dozen sports and activities.
Staff writers David La Vaque and Jim Paulsen sat down with Martens recently to discuss his new role and how he views the biggest issues moving forward. Answers were edited for brevity.
Q How would you like the transition to go? Will you make some changes or will you sit back and let things evolve? What’s your plan?
A I’ve been intentional about working with Dave [Stead] once the decision was made for me to be hired and talking with him about what fits well there and what fits for me. … We’ll have a month of working side-by-side, and I think that’s really important.’’
Q How do you see the high school league and its future?
A The door is really open compared to 15 and 20 years ago about where you can go for your particular pursuits. There’s lots of folks who recognize that, in all activities but especially sports, youth sports is a huge business. I think, when people say, “My high school was state champions,” more often than not, they’re talking about the state high school league. Not something that happened on a Saturday afternoon somewhere in a group of teams that came together and called it a state tournament. That’s the part that we want to continue to have. That would be the gold standard for those education-based activities. It also brings the challenge that we face: How do we work alongside all of those other outside activities? They’re going to be there, so what does that mean? What does it mean for eligibility for students? How do we keep it as fair as we can?
Q What’s your opinion on club sports?
A Call it sports, call it anything that would be out there. There’s some great things that kids can do and really good people with all the right things in mind. And then there are some folks that, I think, don’t do it well. Those are frustrating to me personally and, in some ways, they can have adverse effects in terms of athletics or activities at a school level. Those are things we have to continue to work through and balance that out.
Maybe that travel team that’s 30 miles away is a great opportunity for that kid to continue to participate and do what they want to do. In some ways, as long as there’s an understanding … so the coach is aware that the student is playing at another time, those work really well and can be good for kids. In other ways, it can be a competing thing, and that becomes difficult. There’s a part of me as a person that asks: What happened to getting together with six or eight of your friends and go create your own fun? Go in the backyard or go out and do whatever.
Q If the parents have the money, you can find a team to play on and get good playing time almost all year long — until you get to the high school level, where you have one varsity team. Is that something that can be alleviated?
A That is something that we have to be really clear and up front with folks and say: If you’re choosing to participate in our activities, know that things like cutting [players] and playing time and all of that are going to be coaches’ decisions and that isn’t going to be a parent decision. … We’re going to have lots and lots of parents who do it really, really well and buy in and support the entire team and the whole process. And we’re going to have a few outliers that are going to struggle with that.
Q It’s a crowded market for sports and entertainment dollars, and I’m wondering what thought you’ve given to the bigger picture.
A We have major sports in almost every area here in the state of Minnesota, and that’s great for our kids; it creates excitement and involvement. And yet it’s a competing dollar market that we have to think about it. How do we make sure that our programs and our experiences are ones that folks are willing to invest in? I’ll continue to work with the board and the staff to say, “How do we do that best?”
Q Does this mean you might have to find alternative revenue streams?
A From a high school principal standpoint, I was vehemently against selling marketing within our gym or around the fences of our baseball fields. And we’ve started doing it, and we’ve been able to improve the facilities that we’ve had and those folks are more willing to come to the table with donations to our programs. That is a little bit of the direction that things are going. I haven’t been one that’s been excited about that. But I have seen the value and benefit in doing that. Done well, it can add to the experience for students.
Q Any room for softening the [eligibility] rule process? Making them a little more subjective?
A The league has done that. I’ve sat on the eligibility committee four or five years ago and I can tell you that, over the course of a year, I think we maybe met with two families. I recognize now that the eligibility committee is meeting twice a month. They are seeing a number of appeals. … The other aspect of that, and that’s on the league and it’s on school personnel, is how do we help our administrators at the school level have the best access to information? Because that is the front line of what’s going to happen with [families] in terms of eligibility.
Q Where do you see the high school league in 20 years?
A I like the change in vision in terms of what the State High School League can do from an activities standpoint. My own school, clay target shooting, 60 kids and maybe five of them are in another High School League activity. The rest — it’s the only High School League activity they are in. I think the high school experience is a special experience, and I think it’s made more special by being part of activities.