Tuesday, September 13, 2005 | Welcome to San Diego, Carl Cohn. Now that school is back in session, and you’re taking over as superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, I thought I’d tell you about the high school sports programs at city schools.

Put simply, student-athletes and coaches in the state’s second largest school district have suffered from a lack of support from the school district for many years.

A football program sets the tone on a high school campus for a school year. But at the 15 high schools in San Diego Unified, five of the football coaches are in their first year and three more are in their second. Only three have been on the job eight or more years.

The tone being set at more than half the schools in your new district is musical chairs. In a district with a large population of at-risk kids, a stable coaching staff in football and other sports goes a long way toward providing kids a second home and motivation to stay in school.

It should come as no surprise that the most successful football program in the city now is Mira Mesa, where Gary Blevins is in his 11th season as the head coach.

Now, I know many people will say that you have more pressing education concerns than football to address. But because you grew up in Long Beach, where you were once a counselor at Long Beach Poly High School and the superintendent of the Long Beach school district, I’m hoping you know better.

I’m hoping you recognize that while many educators in the San Diego school district stress student achievement, they’re overlooking the fact that athletics and extra-curricular activities also account for student achievement.

A total school approach includes athletics. There are too many walk-on coaches at city high schools, which leads to high turnover. Another result is the coaches don’t get to know the kids who need direction in life.

Sports Illustrated, in a lengthy story examining the value of high school sports, recently ranked Long Beach Poly as the No. 1 high school sports program in the United States. The ranking was based on the school’s athletic tradition, its overall athletic program and its emphasis on academics.

As you know, Poly is an urban school, just like many of the campuses you’ll be overseeing in San Diego. Poly is a large campus represented by all races and with rich kids and poor kids succeeding together. It’s a campus where the tradition is so strong, many prominent alumni return to campus to help kids.

San Diego High should still be a campus like Long Beach Poly. Our oldest high school has an athletic tradition that can match any in the country – up until things fell apart in the 1960s and 1970s. San Diego High is one of those campuses with a new football coach this year. Again.

Instead of alumni returning to campus to help out, they leave shaking their heads at the futility. Other than the success of the girls’ basketball program in recent years and the long-time presence of Ed Ramos as a cross country and track coach, there isn’t much on campus to build school pride.

At some other city campuses, you’re fortunate to have people like Dennis Pugh. He’s the athletic director and baseball coach at Mission Bay, where he has built one of the state’s top baseball programs, even though he has been forced to take over the football program more than once when his football coach leaves for a better job.

One of Mission Bay’s former football coaches is Desi Herrera, who is now coaching in the North County at San Marcos. The North County school districts are where you find support for athletic programs and long-time coaches who are in the business to help kids.

John Labeta, a successful boys’ basketball and softball coach at Serra, left the city school for a job at North County’s La Costa Canyon, where he is the athletic director and girls basketball coach. Bruce Ward, your director of Interscholastic Athletics, knows what is lacking at city schools – he used to coach at Escondido, another North County school.

You have dedicated coaches on your city campuses, but not enough who are willing to put up with the frustrations that come with a lack of district support for more than a year or two.

You have a tough job ahead of you, Mr. Cohn. I’m hoping you’ll recognize San Diego city schools need a total school approach that includes an emphasis on athletics. You can start with more teaching positions for coaches. It would be good for the kids.

Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (

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