40 Under 40 Perspective: Winning Coaches Over with Work Ethic
“You’re the sixth athletic director we’ve had in eight years.”
“People just use this job as a launching pad to more desirable jobs.”“You’re the hardest working person in the district; you won’t last.”
I will always argue that Irvington Public Schools, in New Jersey, has the greatest collection of coaching talent a school could hope to assemble. If I were a student-athlete, I would want to participate in athletics at Irvington. Yes, the coaches know their X’s and O’s. Yes, they know how to prepare game plans and create situations at practice to mirror game conditions.
But more importantly, the coaches at Irvington Public Schools demonstrate care, compassion, and generosity when it comes to their student-athletes.
If a student doesn’t have the money for the proper footwear, the coaches take care of it. If a student is hungry after practice, and their parents are working, the coaches always put a few dollars in their hand. If a student needs help with ensuring their clothes are cleaned, the coaches often do the student’s laundry.
The coaches at Irvington Public Schools are wonderful, caring individuals who are committed to the welfare of each student-athlete, and rarely save a dime they receive as part of their coaching stipend. They often spend every penny on helping meet the needs of those on their team.
The student-athletes may think their coaches are wealthy, but this is not the case. Irvington coaches go into their own pockets to help their students without seeking recognition or additional financial compensation. For these reasons, I consider myself lucky to work with these individuals each day.
But I also know my coaches haven’t always considered themselves lucky when it came to their athletic directors.
The turnover rate for the athletic director position in Irvington was high when I took over in July of 2017. From 2009 to 2017, six individuals filled this role. My predecessors left for differing reasons. Whether it was to take a vice-principal position in the district, become an athletic director at their hometown school, accept an opportunity to work in professional sports, or just retire — regardless of the reason, there was no stability in the position.
So when I took over in 2017, the feedback I often received was cordial and congratulatory, but I was also met with the, “how long are you going to stay here” question from the coaching staff.
Of course, I was thinking, “Wow, day one and I’m already being asked how long do I plan to stay,” but I also felt this was a fair thought for the coaches to have.
After all, it takes time for coaches to build relationships with their athletic director. It also takes time for a new athletic director to fully understand the needs of each program. When new athletic directors came in, this process started all over again. I can only imagine how frustrating that became to the coaches.
So I understood right away I needed to prove myself to the coaching staff, and I was committed to helping them run their programs and aid the students.
I decided to be present at every game. Yes, I attended everything. Tennis and volleyball matches, Friday night football, freshman boys basketball. I went to everything.
I also worked the games. I set-up pylons in the end zones. I put sandbags on the soccer goals. I got up on a ladder to change ripped basketball nets mid-game. I dragged the softball fields prior to a game starting. I did everything.
I believe this sent a message to the coaches to say, “I’m not going to just sit in my office; I’m here to help you be successful.”
I also coached games. When my freshman boys basketball coach had a personal issue and we didn’t have a coach available, we didn’t cancel. I took over. When my bowling coach had to close on his house and couldn’t make a match, we didn’t cancel, I traveled with the team to help out. When my middle school soccer coach had to take his son to a doctor’s appointment that he couldn’t afford to miss, I stepped in. (Side note: I currently have an 0-4 career record as an Irvington coach, but that’s not the point I’m making here.)
Pretty soon, I believe I had buy-in from coaches, and they knew I would go above and beyond to help them and their athletes.
I shifted my attention to the athletes next.
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I wanted to find out how I could make their experiences as a student-athlete better. After all, you only get four years in your entire life to compete in high school. The overwhelming response was to increase the number of sports being offered. Prior to my appointment, girls volleyball only had varsity and JV teams, meaning we had to cut a lot of players who tried out. With support from our school board, we started a freshman team, added another coach, and now we can keep everyone. Boys soccer only had varsity and JV teams, yet we had 71 players who tried out. Once again with the support from the school board, we added two more coaches and a freshman team.
We always had a co-ed bowling team, but under state rules, all co-ed teams must compete as male teams. With school board support, we now offer separate boys and girls bowling teams, and in 2020, our girls’ team earned second place at the county tournament during its first year of existence.
Based on student interest, we have also started programs in competitive cheerleading, varsity and JV boys volleyball, girls wrestling, boys and girls golf, and in spring 2021, Irvington will start girls lacrosse.
I believe by acting on student interests, I have earned buy-in from the Irvington student body, and they know I will work on their behalf to meet their various wants and needs.
I am now beginning my fourth year as the Irvington Athletic Director, and I don’t think anyone is asking how long how I will stick around. Instead, I believe they are asking, “What is he going to do next?”
*Dr. John Taylor is the Athletic Director at Irvington (NJ) Public Schools and was the June honoree for Coach & Athletic Director’s 40 Under 40 award as a rising sports industry leader.