The MCLA Coach: Vital and Endangered
|Marc Lea, Cal Poly's head coach, is no stranger to the frustrations of running a program light years beyond most of the other activities sponsored by his rec sports department.|
Marc Lea didn’t know whether he should laugh or cry.
Lea, the head coach at Cal Poly, was sitting in a meeting room in the Rec Sports Department that oversees all of the club programs at San Luis Obispo, quietly watching the other coaches in the room with amazement.
The topic under discussion, which burned about a third of the meeting time, was over the $25 and $50 bill that the university levies on the club programs for ‘field supervisors.’ Lea wasn’t looking down at the other coaches – on one level, he was kind of jealous – but it just seemed like the team he was coaching was operating on a different planet.
“For some of these other sport clubs at our university, these charges were a substantial part of their budget, while the entire amount that we have to pay to the field supervisors represents a fraction of 1 percent of our budget, and we would be willing to pay considerably more if it meant we were given higher field priority or access,” said Lea. “Our program is so far beyond these other programs in terms of budget, player commitment, alumni and parent support, but we receive the same paltry resources when it comes to field availability and staff support.”
The gap between the expectations and resources needed to field a tournament-caliber team in the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA) and the club infrastructure that the lacrosse programs typically fall under is widening at a dangerous pace.
MCLA teams with serious expectations of being selected to complete in the national tournament need a budget well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars just to stay on the radar, as well as player commitment on par with varsity programs and an organizational structure that relies on the unwavering dedication of young men between the ages of 18 and 22.
Considering the many variables involved, it’s impressive that as many quality programs across the country possessing aspirations for Denver even exist. When one understands that many MCLA teams are treated like ‘activities’ such as Frisbee, badminton, ballroom dancing or ping-pong by their institutions, it’s almost a miracle they’ve evolved to their current level.
Much of the credit for lacrosse’s evolution among the non-varsity ranks is due to the coaches who have accepted the thankless job of guiding the MCLA programs, many without a sniff of a paycheck and some with a tepid stipend. As it turns out, sadly, it’s the coaches who have become the biggest variable in the growth of the association.
Just in the last two years, the MCLA has lost some of its most experienced teachers. Some were axed as the result of conflict with the school administration; some were based on a poor relationship with the players, alumni or parents. Still others jumped to the varsity world. And then there were others who just couldn’t afford coaching at the club level.
Is there a way to make the MCLA a coach-friendly space or is it doomed to be, for the most part, a coaches killing field?
The most obvious factor – and isn’t it always? – is money.
Mickey-Miles Felton, the on-again coach of the Arizona program, views his team as a small business. With a budget he estimates to be in the vicinity of $170-large, Felton isn’t sold on the effectiveness of college-aged students running the show and ultimately has the potential to blow up in the coach's lap.
“The LaxCat program transformed in a short time to a small business that could no longer hold itself together with band-aids and mirrors,” said Felton, who returned to the Arizona sidelines in ’09 after a hiatus. “I don’t believe in most situations students-athletes have acquired the experience or the tools to run a small business effectively.”
Throw in the fact that there is very little funds left over from year to year – usually you have a little residual at the varsity level – and the demand on an MCLA coach expands.
“We have to start over every year, and it's not cheap to run a program at our level,” said John Paul, Michigan’s head coach. “We've built up our organization and staff and support to an elite Division I level, but we have to fund all of that every year. Most NCAA coaches have no idea what it takes to run a program like this.”
“With the economy the way it is, it is very hard to get sponsorships and just donations in general,” said Arizona State head coach Chris Malone, who met Michigan in the 2010 MCLA title game. “Our dues are going up because we want to have the best schedule we can have and we want to make sure we have a strong coaching staff. It stinks when a player can’t play because he can’t pay the dues or fundraise the money you need him to get. I have a feeling the money topic will always be an issue.”
The MCLA selection committee has exacerbated the money monster.
Supposedly, a team simply needs to have a couple of non-league games to qualify for the national tournament, but that quaint notion is met with knowing snickers now.
Virginia Tech tried the traditional route, scheduling several inter-conference match-ups at regionally – and fiscally convenient – locations, posting a 13-3 record. Meanwhile, Colorado, benefiting from trips to Missouri and California, along with being bulwarked by an attractive neighbor (Colorado State), coasted to a tourney bid on the strength of a 6-7 record.
Regardless of who gets the nod, there is still the need to fundraise for the nationals.
“Add that to the expense of the season and you have a budget that many NCAA D-III teams would be envious of,” said Dwayne Hicks, Michigan State’s head coach. “And managing that budget, those games, that motel, and those costs are the coach – the guy who probably isn't paid very much and doesn't get a lot of credit for making sure things go according to the plan and on budget.”
To raise the massive amounts of money, there has to be a concerted effort to incorporate parents, alums and sponsorships. In order to do this effectively, it has become imperative that programs smash the previous “club” perception and re-brand themselves as competitive, well-behaved representative of the school.
It starts with the label itself.
“One has to administer and deal with a constant liquidity crisis to ensure transportation coordination and game execution,” said Charlie Mark, Dayton’s head coach. “This means parents and student athletes must work collaboratively together. To make this venue work, the message must be clear – “club” is a four letter word that cannot be used. The environment must circle around a fully functioning non-sponsored sport that results in nationwide exposure for the University.”
In addition to changing external perceptions, coaches must often change the perception internally.
“In regards to building a top program, you deal with changing the mindset of some players that want the old traditional ‘beer league’ club [to that] of players who want a varsity level experience at a non-varsity school,” said Matt Synowiez, head coach at Tennessee. “It takes a few recruiting classes to instill the work ethic necessary to become a consistent Top 25 program in the MCLA, but it can be done.”
The coaches have been tasked to carry this message of ‘legitimacy’ because, ultimately, it is they who will have the most to benefit from it. That’s why there has been a rise in popularity of euphemisms such as “virtual varsity,” “non-varsity” or “non-sponsored.”
Unfortunately, the individuals who have the best ability to change the perception of the MCLA – through both words and actions – are the people who are least likely to be able to stick around. This is the other side of the money issue. Perhaps the most important, and potentially stabilizing, person needed for a successful program is the guy who likely can’t give it his total attention because he simply can’t afford to.
“For a coach to be stable in the MCLA, coaching [his MCLA team] has to be his second job. It can’t be his first job,” said Malone. “If it is, he won’t be around too long. You can only live off the salary in the MCLA for so many years. I’m very fortunate that I have a youth program that I can run in the off season. To be honest, without it, I don’t know if I would be here.”
“The MCLA coaching ranks will continue to be plagued with high levels of coaching turnover due to the simple fact that the coaches aren’t paid a living wage,” said Lea. “If coaches must maintain other full or part time jobs, it's difficult to expect them to stay at a particular university over the long haul. As other job opportunities come up, whether they are lacrosse or non-lacrosse related, they are going to have to take those opportunities. You will have certain instances where a coach has settled roots in a given location and takes over the head coaching position for a decade or more, but those will be the exception not the norm.”
“Ninety-nine percent of the coaches in the MCLA are not paid to coach,” added Hicks. “Some are paid gas money. Others get their expenses covered plus whatever teams have left after they pay for all their apparel items. That's why most programs have to work around a coach's schedule and are hoping their coach has an understanding boss. If they're fortunate enough to find a coach who can get time off, that coach will eventually have to decide where to spend more time in order to make more money. In 99 percent of the cases, lacrosse does not win out and teams are looking for a new coach.”
There is a small contingent of MCLA coaches who volunteer their time to their respective programs as a way to pay back the sport.
“It is not all about the money; it is about giving back to our sport,” said Mark. “Many of the MCLA coaches have lacrosse to thank for their education. I know in my case, had I not picked up a lacrosse magic wand on Long Island, I never would have been accepted into the Naval Academy. I can’t take a salary; I want to positively influence the growth of the MCLA community.”
The ability to work on a volunteer basis, and thus stay with a program, may be limited to a certain coaching demographic, however.
“The guys who have stayed at their post for long stints have frequently been guys who are long in the tooth and, therefore, past some of the life events which often pull younger guys away,” said Mason Goodhand, Westminster’s head coach.
Still, despite the success of Mark and others, there are some coaches who view the gap between the paid coach and the volunteer as a wedge between the competitive balance in the association.
“The most challenging part is the unleveled playing field from a coaching standpoint,” said Doug Carl, head coach at Sonoma State. “Some teams have full-time, fully-paid staffs, while others have one volunteer coach.”
“The already difficult situation is compounded by the fact that MCLA teams have drastically improved and the programs have become much more advanced, but the amount of work required by the head coach to maintain that level of play and professionalism has also grown substantially,” added Lea. “It's difficult to expect coaches to pour such a large amount of time into programs without being adequately compensated, but very few MCLA programs pay the coach anywhere near what could be considered a living wage.”
While money is the most obvious issue, it is actually the second most important factor for a coach’s survival. It all boils down to the interaction between the administrative body that runs club sports and the lacrosse program – a relationship that is fraught with disconnects, with Lea’s opening example at Cal Poly being one of the more benign examples.
The MCLA received a stern example of this fact when Jason Lamb, the three-time national champion coach at Brigham Young, was ousted. There were no money issues, there were no team issues, there were no scheduling issues. But because Lamb had built his program to a point where both the team and the coach had extended past what the club director was comfortable with, Lamb got the boot.
Lamb’s dismissal was so jarring because the virtual varsity rubric, which BYU certainly fell under, is something that has always been held up as the gold standard for MCLA programs. Instead of being applauded by the university, the fundamental tenet of a virtual varsity program – that it was a self-subsistent entity operating at a similar, if not higher, level than its sponsored brethren – was rejected.
It caused a chilling effect for numerous fans and alums, but wasn’t terribly surprising to those on the front lines.
“Coaches, by the nature of their DNA, generally want to win and are willing to do what it takes to make that happen,” said Arizona’s Felton. “However, if a school is satisfied with just providing the opportunity for students, and the students just want to play, the conflict can have very negative consequences. An understanding between what a school administration, its student-athletes, and a coach want must be clear and similar for all three to survive happily ever after.”
“Teams are regulated by the MCLA, the schools are not,” said Colorado State head coach Alex Smith. “Each school has its own opinion on what sport clubs in general should mean, and what lacrosse should mean in particular. They all have their own policies about how sport club coaches are hired and fired.”
“There is very little school support,” added Bill Harkins, Florida State’s head coach.
“The MCLA model runs counter to the mission of the typical college club sports department, and that's usually going to create situations where coaches have limited control,” said Michigan’s Paul. “I don't really see a way the MCLA can make a compelling case, on a macro level, to change the way club sports are typically run.
“On a micro level, teams can make changes if they can build the right combination of internal and external support for their agendas over time. That's the key: it takes time. The Catch-22 is trying to retain a coach long enough to take the time to make significant changes happen, with no guarantee that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Even [at Michigan], where we've been able to build a pretty comprehensive program by any standards, we will struggle to maintain that level over time.”
Like any job, building an internal network likely holds the key for both the evolutionary success of a program as well as the longevity of the coach. The biggest elephant in the room for MCLA coaches is the bizarre paradigm where the players – or in some cases, player – determine whether a coach is kept on or, in the sophomoric vernacular of the University of Colorado club sports department, “terminated.”
Thus, the importance of institutional networking.
“From an administration standpoint, it took a few years to be accepted by the sports club administration and to begin to build relationships with all the layers of administration at a large University like Tennessee,” said Synowiez. “Going into my sixth season, I would guess I have connected with 30 to 40 percent of the people at Tennessee that could have a positive or negative impact on the program. It's a long-term proposition that if you try and rush, can blow up in your face.”
There is also something to be said for a coach making the best of the cards he is dealt, understanding at the end of the day if there is a conflict, it’ll be the guy with the whistle around his neck who loses.
“I wish I had more field space and time and I wish I could have a dedicated athletic staff to help these kids in the weight rooms and registering for classes,” said Smith. “That's just part of what we have to deal with and the less upset I get about the things I don't have, the more I'm able to move on and make positive things happen in other ways. So in short, the most challenging thing is recognizing what is available to us from the university and being happy with what we get while at the same time being innovative enough to get what we want in other ways.”
The lack of a uniform operating structure for MCLA programs precludes any kind of comprehensive plan to safeguard – or at least leverage – coaching jobs.
A massive university like Arizona State is not going to have the same club structure or expectations as, say, Marquette, even though they technically operate on the same plane. And the numerous NAIA schools – Lindenwood, Westminster, Tennessee Wesleyan and Davenport, to name a few – that have made lacrosse an institutional priority even though they still operate at the non-varsity level creates another schism.
Even schools of similar size, mission and affiliation (public/private) can vary vastly based solely on the goals of the recreation departments. While ‘diversity’ is the quest of every academic institution, it is an unwanted club sports trait for MCLA lacrosse programs.
“Is it likely to change? No,” said Carl of Sonoma State. “The very nature of ‘club’ sports guarantees this. Some teams agree to operate on the virtual varsity level. I think their success speaks for itself. Others want to operate on the true club level, and I also think their ‘success’ speaks for itself.”
“I can only hope that as lacrosse grows and prospers, schools come to recognize the value of lacrosse at their institutions and start to invest and support the program and its coaches,” said Michigan State’s Hicks.
Maybe the growth of the sport will be the magic bullet. Until then, like Marc Lea in his interminable club meetings, MCLA coaches won’t know whether to laugh or cry.