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Tuesday, November 15, 2005 | Hey, out-of-touch ESPN program directors, next time you’re looking for a reality show about high school sports, consider this idea: Substitute the E for entertainment in ESPN to an E for education.
You’d be making a contribution to education instead of detracting from it as you did this football season with your staged reality show that propped up NFL Hall-of-Fame linebacker Dick Butkus as the head coach of Montour High School near Pittsburgh.
The title of the show, which aired weekly on ESPN while cameras followed Butkus’ attempt to turn a losing program into a winner, was “Bound for Glory.” But anyone with a background in education and high school sports could have told you it was Bound for a Loud Thud.
Montour finished its season with a 1-8 record as Butkus – a man with no experience teaching or as a head coach – and ESPN failed the kids. Butkus didn’t even stick around for the end.
I stumbled across the first episode in August while I channel-surfed. I spotted Butkus growling at practice and later seated in a team meeting room before the TV cameras. He complained his players made the same mistakes over and over despite what he and another former NFL player, Ray Crockett, tried to teach them.
Butkus’ simplistic whining was all I needed to know that this made-for-TV show was a farce and to not tune in again. Any high school coach worth his or her salt will tell you he or she is an educator first. If kids keep making the same mistakes, then the athletes are the victims of poor teaching and coaching.
That was one of the first lessons of high school sports I learned from coaches as a young reporter, fresh out of college, while I patrolled football sidelines for the old Oceanside Blade-Tribune.
One Friday night long ago Herb Meyer, who retired as California’s all-time winningest prep football coach after the 2003 season following 45 seasons as a head coach at Oceanside and El Camino, explained coaching to me with a raised voice after a poor performance by one of his El Camino teams.
With an open notebook and pen in a nervous hand, I thought Meyer would shout at me that his team lacked talent and desire and had embarrassed him and the school. But instead he told me he and his assistant coaches needed to do a better job of teaching and coaching. The raised voice was aimed at himself and his assistants.
One reason I’ve never tired of writing about high school sports at the same time I’m fortunate to write about professional and college sports, is I’m able to witness the positive influence our best high school coaches have on our youth in San Diego.
So it’s troubling to me that our quick-fix society – one that has people tuning in to watch an NFL Hall-of-Famer posing as a make-believe high school coach while filling ESPN coffers – values glitter over the gritty work of genuine high school coaches and teachers.
There are still plenty of great coaches in San Diego, but coaches today don’t seem to stick around as long as retired San Diego icon prep coaches such as Meyer, John Shacklett (Morse), Jim Arnaiz (Helix) and Gil Warren (Castle Park/Southwest).
If ESPN wants to air a “reality” show with some reality to it, I have an idea for them. They ought to follow a coach such as Crawford’s Tracy McNair, a man who told me he “always wanted to be a football coach and athletic director like John Shacklett” after his experience playing for the old coach at Morse in the late 1980s.
Before McNair, 34, arrived five years ago as Crawford’s football and track and field coach – track allows him an influence over female athletes as well as males – the school was one of San Diego’s most troubled campuses. There are 24 languages spoken at Crawford and the campus had been plagued for years by racial conflicts as well as prejudices between immigrant African tribal groups.
McNair’s strategy was to bring the diverse groups together through sports. He united them as teammates and friends. Barriers began to break down throughout campus as athletes spread their new understanding of each other to classmates who weren’t athletes.
His strategy was equally successful two years ago when the football team was 11-1 as it has been this year when the Colts missed the playoffs with a 2-8 record.
“We’re still teaching them to come together as teammates and friends and to overcome adversity,” McNair told me of the 2005 season.
McNair, working with many at-risk kids, makes his cell phone number available to his players with instructions to call him at any hour if they need help. At Montour, Butkus didn’t even stick out the season, let alone be available to a kid reaching out for help.
Montour school officials defended selling their souls to TV by pointing out the financial windfall of a new weight room and scoreboard generated by the show and its sponsors.
But in a Crawford reality show, ESPN cameras could have shown McNair and fellow teachers diligently writing a grant application to Chargers Champions, the charitable education fund sponsored by our local NFL team, and later celebrating over the grant’s approval.
But my guess is such a show wouldn’t appeal to ESPN’s out-of-touch big shots more interested in slapping the backs of pro athletes. Such a show would involve too much education for their TV audience to comprehend and not enough entertainment value.
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 (