Thoughts on Effective Supervision of Strong Coaches

One of the most important responsibilities of an athletics director is to decide on the reporting lines for the head coaches that do not report directly to him or her.  Some organizational charts will show an equal distribution of sport programs among the associate and assistant athletics directors.  In other words, each associate or assistant athletics director will be responsible for five teams.  Others will show only one direct report responsible for all remaining sport programs, often called the associate director for sports, while others will almost have a scatter gun depiction with one team under this supervisor and four teams reporting to another supervisor and so on.  The organizational chart does not tell the story of how or why these decisions were made. 

While each athletics department is different and there is no right answer in determining who will supervise head coaches, several factors should be considered.  First, the most important factor is that the administrator be self-confident enough to supervise coaches.  As mentioned earlier, coaches are the experts in their sport and some have little tolerance for supervision.  The administrator must recognize the importance of the coach’s role but not be intimidated by it.  Second, the fewer administrators overseeing head coaches the better.  One thing that an athletics department needs is a consistent level of behavioral expectations and work performance from coaches.   The ethos and the culture of the department rely heavily on the attitudes and actions of coaches.  Therefore, consistent oversight is essential and may be compromised by supervision that is highly distributed among the senior staff.  At the very least, if the department is tiered and there has to be multiple supervisors, it may make sense to have all coaches of teams in the same tier supervised by the same person to add some consistency to the mix.

Even if there are no direct reporting lines between coaches and some senior staff members, the athletics director must establish lines of control that clearly reinforce the role of management without compromising the positive impact of coaches.  Coaches can be “control freaks”.  They may want a say in all event decisions, how many press releases sports information directors send out about their programs each week, when facilities are open to their teams, and a multitude of other decisions.  Where are lines drawn between the wants and the needs of a coach and the expertise and right to decide by a manager?  It is impossible to determine a right or wrong answer for every situation but there are a few rules of thumb that may help.  First, it is essential that managers are diligent about knowing and implementing policies that reinforce legal obligations, ethical decisions, and governing body rules.  In addition, managers are expected to reinforce department policies that are related to standardization of treatment of teams, consistency of quality of events, control of costs, duty of care for student-athletes, and other variables that should not be compromised.  Athletics directors have to reinforce the importance of these variables, support senior staff efforts to control coach conduct, and consistently communicate why managers have both the right and the responsibility to make these decisions. 

The importance of the coaching staff cannot be understated.  At the end of the day, they are primarily responsible for making the most significant contributions to the success of the athletics program.  They have the closest connections to student-athletes, their parents, donors, alumni and other important constituents.  There is a very strong correlation between their winning percentages and the power they wield.  This combination of power and ultimate responsibility creates a situation where coaches want to run their own programs unilaterally, with little interference or oversight from anyone.  They can become very myopic, separating themselves from the rest of the department.   In addition, like most human beings, as people become more and more enamored with them, their confidence can turn into arrogance.  Often, the organizational structure of the athletics program supports this behavior by allowing winning coaches to work in a vacuum, turning a blind eye to the additional expectations of being a community member who is expected to reinforce department ethos and culture. 

It is important to remember that coaches expect senior managers to play two vital roles: 1) boundary managers to protect them from outside interference, and 2) budget managers and fundraisers to secure the money they need for their program.  These roles are realistic and important but senior managers must recognize that their responsibilities, as they relate to coaches, go beyond those of mere support.  They must set expectations for coaches other than winning and have the courage to hold them accountable for meeting those compliance expectations.  There is no doubt that some coaches have enough power to threaten an athletics director’s or senior manager’s job.  However, this does not release senior managers from doing their job as supervisors.  Job descriptions and evaluation instruments and processes for coaches are important tools that help managers formalize the performance expectations of coaches while holding them accountable for meeting other expectations.

An important responsibility that must be communicated to head coaches is their important role in the supervision of assistant coaches and other staff.  This starts with an expectation that each head coach will produce very specific job descriptions and fully participate in department annual evaluation procedures.  It is also the head coach’s responsibility to convey the department’s mission, as well as goals and expectations of the program to their assistants and other staff members.  It is critical for every assistant coach to understand how s/he fits into the immediate and future needs of the program and must conform to the same ethical and professional responsibilities as the head coach.  All job responsibilities, evaluation procedures, and ethical expectations must be clearly articulated and shared in writing.  Head coaches must remain vigilant in monitoring the activities of assistants for rules compliance and integrity standards.  It is also another responsibility of head coaches to help assistants advance in their careers.  Head coaches must always remember that they serve as mentors and must never lose sight of the significance of that responsibility.