Prep roundtable: These ADs are retiring, but they’re not shy
Updated: March 19, 2012 7:45PM
Between them they have 65 years’ experience running the athletic departments of local high schools. They’ve coached across the spectrum of prep sports, from wrestling to badminton, gymnastics to football, track to volleyball to basketball.
One emerged from Homewood-Flossmoor in the days before her sport had a state championship, walked on at Illinois and became the captain of the women’s basketball team; another captained a national champion cheerleading squad, also at the University of Illinois; a third returned to the high school from which he graduated to become the boss of his old football coach; the last taught English and coached wrestling at his alma mater before moving two hours north to become an administrator.
Sue Bonner, of Oak Forest, Joe Skowronski, of Homewood-Flossmoor, Lincoln-Way East’s Dave Brost and Shepard’s Gawaine Perkins have in many ways traveled similar paths. Those paths are converging, as this first day of spring 2012, begins the last spring in charge for each at their respective schools.
Retirement beckons. First we beckoned, asking these fixtures on the local athletic scene to come by the office for a chat about the toughest job in high school sports, and how things have — and haven’t — changed over their years in the captain’s chair.
How many hours a week do you guys work on average?
PERKINS: Probably about 12 to 14 (per day), I would say. I’ve had different superintendents say, “Why don’t you come in at 10 o’clock?” It’s like, nah, you can’t do that. You really can’t. Maybe people could get away with that, but it’s really hard. ... I’ve always felt it’s better to get in early. You’re going to be there late, especially during the winter time. You’re going to be leaving the building at 9:30, 10 o’clock.
SKOWRONSKI: Probably 60 to 90 hours a week, depending on whether or not you have a lot of late-night games ...
BONNER: Or how successful you are. It all depends on the sports season. My baseball/softball seasons might go longer because my teams might be more successful than my winter teams, my basketball teams. But, I tend to love basketball, so I prefer winter over spring. I hate Chicago weather. The one year we had one cancellation all spring, it was like euphoric. But that’s the only one I remember in 26 years.
A colleague used to say AD was the worst job in the world. Why do it?
BROST: I’ve always said the athletic director’s job is the best job in the school, hands down. It’s also the worst job in the school. ... In order to be a good athletic director, or better, you’ve got to want to put in the time. For me, personally, it came at almost the ideal time of my life. My two daughters were in college, and my son was a junior in high school. We’ve seen some young athletic directors get into it, thinking they wanted to do it. They put the time in. Then they start their families and they realize, ‘Wow, I’m missing so much.’
But I’ll tell you what, the reason I’ve stayed in it for 19 years is all the pros outweighed all the cons. ... I’ve had more impact, I think, on kids in 19 years as an athletic director than I may have had on kids that I coached. I firmly believe that.
The reason I say that is the numbers. When I was a wrestling coach, I had 35 or 40 kids that I impacted. As an athletic director, I’ve got 28 sports. At Lincoln-Way, that equals 1,600 kids a year.
SKOWRONSKI: We were all athletes. We all loved to coach. I coached three sports at Bloom Trail when I started and I loved all three of them. I coached three seasons.
It’s no different now as an athletic director. I find myself in the gym, opening my mouth and saying, ‘Hey, get that elbow up,’ or whatever. That’s all part of what being a coach is. I find myself enjoying that just as much as when I used to coach. I tell my basketball coach, Jim (McLaughlin), ‘Jim, I can walk out of the gym six or seven times, and you can’t.’ If I don’t like something, or if I get a little red in the face or whatever, I can cool off out there. He can’t. … But we do that times 30 sports. You have to make decisions in life, and I think all of us, deep down in our hearts probably wanted to be athletic administrators somewhere, as part of our progression.
BONNER: I just looked at it as, when I was a head coach ... those kids were my family. And as I left the coaching realm and went into the administrative world of the one being in charge, I just felt my family changed. It was now the coaches — and the kids are an extension of that.
How have kids changed from the beginning of your coaching careers to now?
PERKINS: We’ve always had kids who’ve had problems. I don’t think the problems of kids are any different than they were 20 years ago — there’s just more of them who have problems. I don’t know if any of you guys agree with that ...
SKOWRONSKI: I think our social structure has changed. That’s what I see opposed to 25, 30 years ago. Twenty-five, 30 years ago, there were two parents at home. The parents could discipline their kids like they wanted to. Now, pretty much, they can’t, because they’ll take them to the court system or whatever. I see society being so liberal. Back then there were a lot more rules and regulations. Now, it’s pretty wide open. Social media, I think, has changed who we are and how it’s going. Those things more than anything — just the whole social network has changed.
BONNER: I see it in the young coaches that we get. They are not willing to put in the same amount of time, but yet they want all the extras and awards that it took us years to achieve. I have a nephew, he just turned 26, and he’s been teaching and coaching, and he complains sometimes about far he has to drive. I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. You are just beginning your career, young man. This is nothing. What are you thinking?’
You’ve got to pay your dues. But nobody wants to pay their dues anymore. They think it’s the age of entitlement. … and I think you see that with the kids, too.
BROST: I’m with Gawaine. I don’t think the kids have changed. But everything around them has changed. From texting and Facebook, all those things that we didn’t have and the kids we coached 20 years ago didn’t have. This is a fast-paced world we live in.
SKOWRONSKI: Well, the last 10 years, clubs and AAU. That sums it up. Because they get to be on those teams they (feel) they have a right to be on your team. They don’t have to try out, they don’t have to do anything, whatever. The parents automatically come in and say, ‘He should be on the varsity. This is ridiculous. He plays on this team, that team ... ’ They fill these kids with great expectations and, you know, you still have to perform.
Kids, coaches, parents — which have changed the most?
BROST: Let’s talk about parents. I can only speak about my district, and I’m going to speak in general terms. A parent cannot come to out school and say, ‘Hi, I’m here today to sit in on the math class.’ It’s not going to happen. But yet, in athletics, we give them the front-row seats. In most cases they can attend practices. They can sit right behind the coach. ... Now they can hold the coach accountable, they can criticize and they feel entitled to bring it to the athletic director and say, ‘Your coach doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ ‘She doesn’t like my daughter.’ Really? Have you told that to the English teacher lately? Or the social studies teacher?
SKOWRONSKI: There’s too many distractions out there for kids today as opposed to the beginnings of our careers. ... I keep getting back to the social part of it, but why are kids not as much in step as they used to be, or lazier? Sure, the great athletes are always going to be great athletes, but it’s those in-between athletes that are either going to make you better or not so good. Those are the ones who are going to have to do the right things, and a lot of times they don’t, because there’s so much peer pressure out there, there’s so much social media out there to explore and get involved in. Before you know it, there’s not enough time to spend the extra hour working out or eating correctly or doing the things that you need to do.
That’s a constant battle for all of us as athletic administrators to try and instill that in our kids on a daily basis. That’s what I hear from my coaches most often: ‘These kids are just not getting it. They’re not getting it.’
BONNER: I think a lot of it is your head coaches. I mean, I can see those coaches who are dynamic personalities, well-structured, care about kids, put in their time — kids buy into them, and they’re successful. They’re constantly winning championships, and that’s not even the barometer of the program. It’s all the alumni who are back visiting with them, all the kids who come back to the home games. That, too me, is the most rewarding thing.
I know a lot of coaches who struggle, and a lot of it has to do with they’re not disciplined enough, or their personalities aren’t that outgoing, or they just sometimes don’t know any better. That’s our job, to mentor them to try and get them to know better. But ... sometimes you don’t have choices. You have to play that game of politics or you don’t have a lot of choices because not a lot of people applied who maybe could have stepped it up. We’re having a hard time filling a lot of our coaching positions because a lot of our school people aren’t applying. We have a young staff, with lots of young (children) and they’re home.
PERKINS: they’re making a good salary, too.
BONNER: Yes they are. They’re making a good teaching salary, so they don’t need to have the headache of the extracurricular.
BROST: Gawaine, how many years did you coach?
PERKINS: Probably 20.
BROST: And (me) 22. The point I’m trying to make is a lot of our young coaches, if they coach five or six years, they go, ‘I’m bushed. My wife just had a baby ... I’m done.’ Really? You know what I used to do? My kids lived on the wrestling mats. ... And there are reasons. I was the only income, so I had to coach. Today, maybe that guy’s wife works and they’ve got double income. Whatever. But that’s a difficult thing. Our young coaches think five years is 20. It’s a revolving door. Not necessarily with head coaches, but the assistants.
BONNER: Even our head coaches the last few years, it’s been evolving. Since I’ve been athletic director I’ve probably hired 30 new head coaches in nine years. And it’s basically people leaving to have families.
What’s the one thing you see every year that makes you smile?
BONNER: Graduation. I love graduation. You always have a few who you’re just so excited that they’ve made it. You know what they’ve had to get through to get there. No matter what, it brings a smile to my face and a tear to my eye. This time, it’ll probably be even bigger.
Is there a problem you wish you could solve for high school athletes you know you can’t?
SKOWRONSKI: Time management. It’s going to help them the rest of their lives, but a lot of them lose sight of that. Instead of doing their homework or whatever, they’re playing with their teammates and not getting into their responsibilities. Those are the times I hate, when I have to reprimand a kid or tell him he’s ineligible for a week, or do a drug-testing positive ... those are just the hardest things, because you put your faith and trust into a lot of these kids, and they let you down.
PERKINS: I think the part you wish you could fix for kids and you can’t is when they make a bad decision. A lot of times a kid will be out for a sport freshman and sophomore year, then his junior year he doesn’t go out for that sport — and you know that sport is the thing keeping him going. ... And you just watch them go, you watch them fall apart.
BROST: My immediate reaction is the code of conduct. ... If you’re not having a little pep talk with your kids every week — not every other week — especially on Friday: ‘Be a good citizen. Give your mom a hug. Take out the garbage. And oh, by the way, make good choices.’ ... Then when it happens, you get the phone call from the dean’s office saying, ‘Mr. Brost, come down here. We’ve got five of your athletes.’ That’s like, ‘You’re kidding me.’
Is there one thing you’re particularly proud of?
SKOWRONSKI: For me, I started it at Eisenhower, putting pictures up of kids who were going to go on and try to play sports in college or be part of a college program. ... I get more comments on that case outside of my office than any other thing in the whole school. It doesn’t have to be Notre Dame and Illinois. We also had Prairie State College and Triton College and Harper College. … We have kids who want to be successful in life somewhere. For us, showing that to the kids, that there is a possibility out there for them to go somewhere and be passionate about what they want to do, for me, that’s been most rewarding.
BONNER: I think my biggest claim to fame is I brought back the Vegas Gold and black. I’ve been at Oak Forest 26 years. When I got to Oak Forest, I became the head girls basketball coach. At that time, girls basketball uniforms, girls sports hadn’t been around a long time, you could only get the bright gold. I think that’s why the athletic director before me used the bright gold and black. Originally, when Oak Forest opened, it was the Vegas Gold and black. Once girls sports had been around a while, and the vendors caught up with it and started making uniforms in Vegas Gold, when I took over as AD, I reverted everything back to Vegas Gold. I redid the gym, once the uniforms went through the four-year cycle they all had to go back to Vegas Gold. The people love the gym. They love the Vegas Gold.
BROST: One of the things I’m so glad I did, we host a lot of things. It’s great for our kids, it’s great for our parents, it’s great for our community. We did the conference stuff, we did the regionals and the sectionals, then I opened my big mouth and we got the state gymnastics. ... I’m so glad I did that. As we all know, it’s a lot of work, there’s a lot of things going on behind the scenes that nobody ever sees. … So I think hosting, for our kids and our community, has been one of the things I’ll always be thankful that I did.
If you were running the IHSA, what would you change?
BROST: For me, this is an easy one. ... The state is so big, and there’s only like seven (assistant) executive directors and Marty Hickman. There’s all kinds of stuff going on throughout the state that we know is not above board. What greater group of people to say, ‘Hey, Gawaine, I know you’re retiring. How about I assign you 20 schools in your area, we don’t have a whole lot of money, but we’re going to send you a nice IHSA sweatshirt and maybe a check for gas. Here’s what we want you to do: We want you to make some pop-in visits to Lincoln-Way East and Mount Carmel and Oak Forest. We want you to make sure nobody’s doing anything illegal. In the spring, we want to ensure there’s nobody with football helmets on. You might want to stop in and say, ‘Do you have all your principal’s concurrence forms? Do you have them on file?’ That’d be pretty easy. I think a guy like Gawaine would say, ‘You know what? I think I could give you 10 days a year. I’d go visit two schools a day.’
BONNER: I just personally would like to see two state tournaments, public and private. And that would alleviate a lot of this eligibility crap, because I’m not going to be hopping from your school to your school if I’m not competing for the same goals. Leveling the playing field for public schools, even though we do it with the multiplier, it’s still hard for us to fight that sometimes. They get 30 miles. We get what we get. It is hard. When we see kids, one year they’re here, the next year they’re here, the next year they’re there, how can they be eligible when nobody’s moving? Their family has not moved, how can this happen?
SKOWRONSKI: That’s been the biggest headache, especially when I was at Eisenhower. We’re sitting right in the middle of Brother Rice, Mount Carmel, Marist ... We were struggling the way it was, and here we are fighting every Catholic school in the area for the best athletes. Eisenhower struggled. It had a very multicultural racial situation and some people just can’t deal with that for whatever reason. We made the best with what we had. But boy, we could have been a whole lot better with the athletes that came out of our attendance area.
Has there been a particularly over-played storyline over the course of your careers? A story that’s gotten more attention than it has deserved?
BROST: I can think of two things that may have been overplayed, I think:
Synthetic turf. When it first came out, it was like, ‘Who needs synthetic turf? The school district’s gonna spend all this money on this, the injuries are going to go up.’ It turns out that’s far from what happened. Most schools now have it, and the ones that don’t wish they did. It just fell at a bad time, economy-wise. If you did it three years ago, you got in right before the funds dried up.
The other thing, and I even hate to bring this up. We were all part of it …
If people really knew what we did as athletic directors in 2003 and 2004 — I was the president in 2003 — and the legwork we did, and all the factors we considered, and for this to the come to the table and say, ‘You did it based on race.’
To me, the (complaining) conference got themselves into something that they ultimately realized was going to cost, as soon as the lawyers got a hold of this, bingo. Well, here we are, seven years later and …
BONNER (talking to Brost and Skowronski): And how’s that going for you all?
BROST: It is what it is.
SKOWRONSKI: Do we still play you and you and everybody else? Sure we do. We can still do that, because we’re all good friends, all of us.
BONNER: In baseball and softball we play everybody, because we have so many games. But in all of our other sports, we don’t have many non-conference games.
Enlighten me. You said, ‘How’s that going for you?’
BONNER: Because we got T.F. North and T.F. South (in the South Suburban Conference) and they got Thornton, Thornwood and Thornridge (in the SouthWest Suburban). They came in with all these rules they were supposed to follow, and they didn’t. And we had to take it anyway, so it’s like, ‘Why bother?’
They were supposed to come in with all levels, and all sports, and they didn’t. And we still had to take them. So a bunch of people got a lot of money off it that didn’t need to be involved.
A bunch of lawyers?
BROST: Overblown? There you go.
SKOWRONSKI: “Letter of Understanding.”
BONNER: That’s what was so funny about it. T.F. North and T.F. South, we heard good things and bad things like everybody else.
PERKINS: Things are OK.
BONNER: It’s just that our (conference is) exactly like the old SICA Central, except for one.
BROST: And ours is basically like the SICA West.
PERKINS: But people didn’t know the whole inside story.
SKOWRONSKI: That was really the question: 32 schools, was it too big?
BROST: We had enrollment, we had geography, we had scope of program, we had tradition …
BONNER: And we had I-80.
SKOWRONSKI: I-57, you mean.
BROST: The Mason-Dixon Line. … perception is reality.
Any advice for your successors?
Any advice for your successors?
PERKINS: Enjoy every day. ... Don’t sweat the small stuff. And remember, it’s all small stuff.
BROST: You definitely want to be proactive. But you’ve got to remember, this job is probably 80 percent reactive.
BONNER: The main thing you’ve got to do is take a step back. You think you’ve got to jump in with both feet, but you can step in one step at a time.
What are your going to do in your retirement?
What are your going to do in your retirement?
BONNER: For the first time, I’m going to take a vacation in the fall. ... I’m going to go East and watch the foliage change.
BROST: I can tell you what I’m not going to do. I’m not going to go to a 5:30 meeting every Monday morning at Lincoln-Way East. I’m not going to go to a football game every Friday night ...
SKOWRONSKI: I can’t wait to sit in the stands at H-F and enjoy a game. ... When you’re the AD, you’re never off.