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How are High School Coaches Hired?

In a recent piece for The New Yorker, author Malcolm Gladwell, raises an intriguing question; How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?  In this article, Gladwell focuses on two professions – teachers and NFL quarterbacks – in which predicting success has proven to be very difficult.  He attributes this to the fact that in both professions, the only way to actually discover whether or not the individual hired will be successful is to let them perform and then evaluate their ability.

Essentially, there is no minor league for teachers, and despite the presence of college football, there is no minor league for a NFL quarterback.  Even highly successful, “can’t miss” college quarterback prospects such as Joey Harrington and Ryan Leaf have failed to achieve mediocrity in the NFL.  While there are “draft busts” at every position in the NFL, quarterback seems to have cornered the market on college performers who fail to live up to expectations.  Gladwell explains that this is because the difference between the quarterback position in college and the NFL is far greater than any other position.  This lack of a minor league system for these two professions has caused many poor “hiring” decisions.

You might be asking, “What on earth does this have to do with college recruiting or athletic scholarships?”  Well, one sentiment that has grown over the years is a feeling of resentment over the performance of high school coaches.  Due to increased pressure to win and expectations to assist with the recruiting process, many high school coaches have failed in the eyes of their athletes and families.

Note to reader:  This will not be a debate on whether or not high school coaches deserve this blame as that could consume pages. 

However, Gladwell’s article brought me to this realization:  There is no minor league system for high school coaches.

Think about it.  Where do most high school coaches come from?  They certainly do not come from the junior high feeder system.  I would guess that the majority of high school coaches are full time teachers first who then assume the role of coach as a secondary means of income and leisure.  These people are rarely trained professionally to coach high school sports.  Some high school coaches did not even play the sport they are coaching.  Taking this idea a step further, I would guess that the majority of high school coaches did not play their sport in college.

Many high schools even require the coach be a full time teacher which means that should be their first priority.  I have no idea why this is the case.  Most athletes and parents would probably be more content and confident in their coach if coaching was their primary concern.  This means they would be hired based on their coaching ability and experience rather than their teaching credentials which most likely has no bearing on their ability to coach sports.

Note to reader:  I realize there are exceptions to the assumptions made above.  In some cases, high schools will hire a coach specifically because they are an excellent coach.  In many cases, the high school coach did play that sport in college.  In my estimation these are the minority rather than the majority which I will focus on. 

While there are some wonderful high school coaches across the country, maybe this lack of training is a reason why so many families feel as though they are being letdown by their high school coach.  With that in mind, let me pose another question:  Which is more important, the high school coach or the college coach?

Even though both have significant influences, I would argue that the high school coach has a more profound impact on a student athlete’s life.  If a high school athlete does not receive the proper coaching, training, or guidance and never reaches their full potential at the high school level, they may never receive the opportunity to play in college.

At least college coaches typically come through the system of graduate assistants, positions coach, recruiting coordinators, etc before earning the title of head coach.  Unfortunately, there is no equivalent for the most part at the high school level.

There is no easy solution for changing the current high school coaching hiring system mainly because there is no uniformity in hiring practices to even alter.  It seems as though most schools and states have different rules.  There would need to be some sort of governing body implemented to create a system that addresses the hiring of high school coaches which will not happen because too many other aspects of our academic system need those resources far more than the athletic programs.  I just wonder how much better off high school student athletes would be if they had higher quality coaches?  We’ll probably never know.

About the author
Adam Diorio


  • Very insightful article, thanks. Most people and parents don’t understand that it’s really not the job of the high school coach to get their kid recruited, and even if they wanted to, many of them have no idea what they’re doing.

  • As in any profession, there are successful and unsuccessful practitioners. Also, we all can debate what the definition of “success” is. There are common success traits among successful participants in any profession, including HS coaching. Among these traits are a willingness to improve their game through training, networking, and seminars. A great organization for training is the American Coaches Education Program (ACEP). They provide a clearinghouse of best practices information for training coaches and certify levels of achievement in coaching accumen. Their mission is to provide quality coaching for the youth of America and they have great tools for doing that. Any high school coach, administrator, or board member who reads this should ensure that every coach is certified by ACEP. It’s a great way to make sure a coach is familiar with best practices and that s/he is creating a positive experience for her/his charges. When it comes to college recruiting, though, get help from an expert there too.

  • Keith,
    Thank you for the information about ACEP. I just browsed the web site. It looks like it’s a great resource for youth coaches like myself.

  • Having three kids play high school sports, I see that the sport determines what type of coach is hired. Most of the boys sports get excellent head coaches and usually a strong bench coach system for both Freshman, JV,varsity sports. For the Girls program, you might have an excellent head coach in each sport, but the support coaching staff at the freshman and or JV levels is somone on the teaching staff that might have played a sport in high school or college and is ” drafted ” . Where this fails the school is your Freshman/JV players are your potential varsity players and should be receiving adequate training, scrimmages comporable to the varsity. This is your farm system. To often the non-varsity teams are waiting for a coach to come out of an off-season sport training session that runs the same time another sport is in season and practicing. I know JV dads that have offered to help run practices, but District policy or a state sport governing body will not allow it. Some of these dads coach select teams and have a good numbers of years softball experience. Let’s also be realistic, high schools cannot pay salaries to have non-teaching staff on the payroll. Is there an easy solution? No and I don’t think things will change moving forward.

  • There is no doubt a good high school coach can make a world of difference. In my case I had 2 boys who played HS sports (mainly football). They both ended up with scholarships however my first son got very little help from his coaching staff when it came to off season coaching or recruiting. I sent him to a well known Christian private school & paid $11k per year tuition. I expected they would open many doors for him if he was an outstanding student athlete. He broke State records, made first team player selections at his position & was excellent student in all ways but they were hardly interested or involved in his development. I had my 2nd son attend a public school that had a different style to coaching & they also had a history of not only winning but helping athletes obtain scholarships. The reason they were so successful was because the whole community was involved from a very early stage. The kids football programs have volunteer coaches who teach the kids the same plays & skills as the HS team. The HS coaches help these community coaches by having them involved in the HS programs such as Freshman & JV teams also. By the time the boys start playing Varsity level they have gotten lots of attention & they really know the kid. In my case the OL coach made my son a project of his. He was a full time teacher but an amazing coach who gave his personal time to make my son a better person & an excellent football player. He had over 10 full ride scholarship offers & my involvement was 10% of what it had to be for my older son (who was actually a much better athlete & had more accomplishments to measure). My summary of coaches is they can be good or bad just about anywhere but you need to do your homework first so you select the right place to live & go to school. Start by looking for winning traditions, community programs that support HS programs, ask senior parents what they have learned, track scholarships announced for each HS. My bet is you will find good coaches at these schools & recruiters who watch athletes at those schools because of winning traditions & good coaching.

  • As a mother of a talented football athlete, I am sick that we did not realize how very weak the particular public school program our son plays for really is until it was too late to make a change. The really unfortunate thing is that when he made the Varsity starting line-up as a sophomore, that is when we began to see first hand how very poor the varsity program is behind the scenes. It was too late to make a school change without losing a year of playing time. So, he was a starter again as a junior, but stuck in a program where the head coach refuses to do spring practice, two-a-days in the summer, or even film the practices (despite a new assit. coach who actually played some college football volunteering to do the filming). The program limps along at about 500, sinking slowly below 500 now. This year’s junior class had only lost 2 games in 2 years — won the middle-school championship in a very competitve area, and then lost only 1 game as Freshmen. Now, in two years with the “Varsity coaches”, they have lost 12 games and only won 11, essentially playing the same competition. So, it is a very hard and sad lesson to have learned about how coaching practices, or lack thereof, have such a dramatic impact on the high school playing experience.

  • Correction: My son’s varsity team has won only 10 games in two years. And of course, he and his teammates have fallen virtually completely off the radar as far as area media is concerned, given the losing 10 – 12 record of the last two years (including being ousted in the first round of the state playoffs each year).

  • My son has been playing football since he was 5 years old. He was always sought out to be a QB and did very well. His grades suffered in his Freshman year so I pulled him out temporarily and put him in a Charter School where he excelled. Over the summer his father passed away so he wasnt able to attend the summer practice session for football back at his old school. Our agreement was get the grades up and you can go back because the Charter School didnt have sports. Once he went back he was basically punished for not going to the Summer Session. They would let him practice as QB 3rd string even though he QB the previous year for the end of the season and did awesome. However this year the Head coach’s son is at the school and he has him starting QB and also backup on Varsity. The sad thing he isnt any good and we keep losing but they wont take him out of the game. My son is just staying positive. Well last week my son got very ill and had to stay home. He has asthma so he can get pretty sick. I had to take him to urgent care for help. The following monday back at school I noticed he was hardly practicing. He told me that the coaches told him he cant play the next game at all because he missed the previous friday. Thats why they hardly let him practice cause they didnt want to waste thier time.They said they didnt care that he was sick he shouldve came anyway, I am furious about this. Ive seen too much and heard too much. Kids throwing up from being dehydrated and from practicing in 100 degree weather and told to hurry up and get back on the field. Ive heard coaches yell at the top of thier lungs cussing the kids out and now we dont care if your sick you have to come to practice or you wont play even if you have a doctors note. Im soo frustrated for my son, he’s a good kid with some real football talent no exagerating. He played flag for years to learn and coaches wanted him from other team s to QB. He’s a natural. Im soo sorry I let him go back to this school, they also have the worst football history. The paper always predict them to lose. I know it’s from poor coaching cause it’s now a yearly thing. Next year he definitely isnt going to this school and he is looking forward to it. The coach is soo focused on his kid that no one really has a chance here to grow.