August 7, 2017 • Athletic Administration

Building the principal/athletic director relationship

A positive relationship between athletic director and principal is a key component to building a successful high school athletic program. Having held both jobs, I have seen the challenges and vantage points of each. They are easily and equally the most challenging positions in any school.

A few years ago, I was mentoring a coach to earn his educator’s license as a principal. While reviewing his portfolio with his college professor, the professor asked why so much of it focused on athletics. My response was that I’ve fielded hundreds of questions relating to athletics and far fewer dealing with curriculum. The professor, a former high school principal, chuckled at my answer. He knew exactly what I was talking about.

Recently, I was speaking with a friend who is a superintendent at a suburban school district. He said, “I spend far too much time dealing with athletics.” So, how can an athletic director take these concerns off of the administrator’s shoulders?


The athletic director/principal relationship has to be built on trust, respect and a clear vision of the athletic department. Maybe your sports program is a perennial powerhouse, or maybe you have a hard time fielding a team. Whatever the situation, it is vital that both the athletic director and principal create a shared vision and outline concrete steps how to follow it. The principal has input from the superintendent, school board, teaching staff and community. The athletic director has input from the coaches, student-athletes, groundskeepers, transportation staff and league affiliations.

This effort has to be grounded in communication, so quick weekly meetings are key to assessing the program. If an emergency occurs — and it will — the athletic director must immediately inform the principal. The principal does not want to be caught flat-footed, especially in the day of instant communication via social media. Even if the athletic director does not have all the answers, the principal must be able to say, “I am aware of the situation and we’re looking into it.”

Once all the information is gathered and there is time to meet, it’s important that the athletic director not only sums up the situation but also provides solutions. The athletic director and principal may disagree, but once the decision is made, both have to maintain a united front and support each other.

Managing staff, schedules

Another important area is the hiring and dismissal of coaches. As principal, I felt it best that I alone would dismiss a coach if necessary. For hiring, I preferred to have the athletic director do the preliminary interviews and provide me with the pros and cons of each candidate. Together, the decision should be made.

The athletic director has his or her finger on the pulse and knows more of what type of candidate is required for the position. Unfortunately, there are some practical politics that sometimes appear, especially in a high-profile sport. Referring back to the vision and doing what’s best for the students should guide the decision. Keep in mind there could be fallout from your decision, so it’s important to game plan with the principal. Create talking points to reinforce your message and stick to them.

Principals do not like to play referee. As athletic director, make certain you know what else is happening in the building. Compare schedules with other extracurricular and co-curricular activities to avoid double booking. Hosting a musical and a playoff game on the same night is a formula for disaster. It also makes the entire school look inefficient. Work these issues out with your colleagues and avoid having to make the principal get involved. However, keep him or her posted of the solutions.

Although the season schedule is available early, cancellations and postponements require weekly updates. An athletic director I once worked with provided all administrators and secretaries with a new weekly schedule every Monday morning. The athletic director would also provide directions to the gyms and stadiums for parents who call the school secretary. You may have this all on the website and social networks, but calls will happen. The easier it is for secretaries to quickly answer the question, the better. Principals are very protective of their secretaries. If you make their job easier, it helps them make the principal’s job easier.


Promote as many success stories as possible. Use social media to drive the message home to the community that the athletic program is good for their children. It could be about a special win, team grades or community service done by the players. The bigger the news, the more you want to share it with the principal first.

Review what you can send out on your own and what the principal would like to see first. Everyone is responsible for the image of the school, and a lot of eyes are on the athletic program.

Try to have one award night for all of the teams. A principal is usually out at least three nights a week in meetings, and it would be impossible to attend each and every sport specific award ceremony. Plus, parents may have children on multiple teams. Make it easy on everyone and, if possible, have one season-ending award night. It may be useful to provide the principal with some interesting information that he or she can use in crafting a speech. The principal would definitely appreciate your help.

Student-athlete management

Dealing with player concerns is another area where communication between athletic director and principal is essential. Many parents have unreal expectations of their children, or they are trying to live vicariously through them. From the parent’s perspective, those are real concerns and ones that can bring about an inappropriate amount of negativity.

Work with coaches on how the selection process works and communicate that to the students and parents. I know of some schools that have had to provide rubrics of each student trying out. Personally, I disagree with this method and think that it does not take into account the intangibles — the chemistry of team, measuring the heart of an athlete and sometimes a coach’s “gut feeling.” Have a clear and basic outline of how teams are formed. If a student does not make a team, have that coach propose another sport where he or she might fit.

Don’t post lists of who made the team. Coaches should have an honest discussion on what players need to do to improve and keep these students in mind to contribute to the team in other ways — scorebook, chain gang, clock, etc. If done correctly, the principal may not receive any calls from parents claiming their child was singled out just because of the coach.

Playing time is another sensitive issue, especially if athletic fees are involved. In sub-varsity sports, playing time should be as equal as possible. In competitive varsity sports, this is not realistic. Have clear guidelines for coaches to follow. It’s always good for team chemistry to put a second- or third-string athlete in with a starting lineup. Avoid massive substitutions where all of the first string comes out. Mix up the talent, and a player may just surprise you. If there is an issue about playing time, work with the coach, player and the parent and settle it before it reaches the principal. The fewer complaints that reach the principal’s desk, the more empowered you will be.

A strong principal/athletic director relationship is vital for the success of a school’s athletic program and the image of the school as a whole. A relationship built on a defined delineation of duties with solid communication ensures that the student-athlete experience is successful.

Robert O’Brien is the former athletic director at Shepherd Hill Regional High School (Dudley, Massachusetts) and educational leader. As principal, he led two separate high schools to Level 1 Status as designated by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

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