High school athletic directors have rare, interesting roles
At Fairfield Prep, Steve Donahue worries about the cost of buses for distant road games in Middletown and Madison and rush-hour traffic in New Haven.
And at Notre Dame, Rob Bleggi has to be a full-time guidance counselor before putting on his part-time hat overseeing all of the Lancers' sports teams.
All four are high school athletic directors in Fairfield, but each has his own particular perspective.
Each must tend to the general tedium -- ordering equipment, scheduling busses, arranging for game officials and paying them, ensuring all athletes have medical clearance to play, meeting with parents, scheduling games for dozens of teams and scrambling for makeup dates when the weather conspires against them.
Plus, they oversee entire athletic budgets, choose and supervise coaches and promote top student athletes with colleges. They might be part-time ticket-taker and PA announcer as well.
"An athletic director must be able to multi-task," Donahue said. "And be able to foresee any problems and extinguish them quickly."
However, meddling parents and other outside factors can make it a stressful and time-consuming position, one that an AD admitted "exposes the ugly side of sports."
Three of the four ADs graduated from high schools in Fairfield.
Donahue is a 1992 Prep graduate; Bleggi, an ND alum, Class of 1993; Schulz a 1973-graduate of Andrew Warde. Schulz has been Ludlowe's AD since the school open in 2004 but is best known as the former, long-time boys basketball coach at Fairfield High.
Manfredonia is the lone outsider of the bunch. He is a graduate of Newtown High School and served as the head of physical education and defacto assistant athletic director at Staples High School before moving to Warde in 2006. He's found athletics in Fairfield county serves more kids than it did when he graduated from school, 23 years ago.
"From football to fencing, there is something for everyone now," he said. "We encourage all kids to get involved in something athletically."
Bleggi and Donahue are both relative newbies to the AD game. Donahue took over at Prep in the summer of 2009 with Bleggi taking the reins at ND a year later.
And both had tumultuous first years.
Donahue in his first year replaced Prep's varsity football, wrestling, basketball and soccer coaches.
"It was a rough first year," Donahue said. "I knew it would be difficult, but I didn't realize it would be that difficult."
Bleggi had a more positive, but no less hectic, first 12 months on the job.
He was appointed to the post just weeks before he left to umpire the 2010 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. When Bleggi returned, his wife gave birth to the couple's first child. He took a paternity leave to help with his newborn son and missed the first two months of the school year. That left him scrambling to catch up for the rest of the 2010-2011 year.
"I never got into a rhythm that first year," Bleggi said. "The second year went a lot smoother."
Planning may be an ADs most critical single responsibility. The spring seasons haven't even begun, but each AD already is preparing for next year. They say it is normal to try to stay two seasons ahead in scheduling.
But bad weather can thwart the most careful planning -- particularly because schedules are drawn up months in advance.
Because of spring's extreme weather, short season and loaded calendar -- an athletic director can have more than 20 freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams playing on any given weekday -- Manfredonia and Donahue agreed that the final season of the school year is the most difficult.
"The weather is inconsistent," Manfredonia said of spring. "Plus, there are the most sports offered."
But at Ludlowe, Schulz said the fall is the toughest season because the school has only one one suitable varsity field -- the turf-equipped Taft Field-- for autumn sports. It is shared by the school's freshman, junior varsity and varsity boys and girls soccer, field hockey and football teams.
Add in cross country and girls volleyball, and Ludlowe's fall schedule is packed.
"Every night there is something," Schulz said.
Bleggi calls the winter season his most difficult. In addition to being the school's lone site director, he doubles as an assistant varsity hockey coach, plus the proliferation of 7 p.m. games has him working a split shift.
"Everything is at night in the winter," Bleggi said. "So I'm always going home, and coming back."
Weather can raise havoc in winter, too. The vast snowfall in January 2011 had athletic directors scrambling not only to rebook games but also alter practice schedules around school closings.
Scheduling games is one logistical challenge. Getting teams to road games is a whole other one, but the ADs get a hand with that.
"Whenever we need a bus, she gets us one," Schulz said. "She's a huge help."
But while public-school teams travel expenses are covered by taxpayers, the two Catholic schools have to pay for each ride. Prep is the only Fairfield County team in the outhern Connecticut Conference, and Donahue estimated transportation to places like Xavier in Middletown or Daniel Hand in Madison is one of his biggest expenses.
"Getting a bus for a freshman game to Middletown, with gas prices the way they are, can cost in the upwards of $450," he said.
Rush-hour traffic through New Haven is always a factor in planning, too. Asked whether Prep might move to a more travel-friendly conference -- such as the FCIAC -- Donahue admitted he's considered it. But he still appreciates what the SCC offers the Jesuits' programs.
"It'd be great for everyone if all four schools in Fairfield were in the same conference," he said. But, he added, "The SCC allows us flexible scheduling, and we're proud to be there."
At the public schools, Schulz and Manfredonia also work together to host events at their respective schools.
Ludlowe hosts the FCIAC girls basketball tournament, girls and boys volleyball tournaments and boys basketball quarterfinals. The boys semis and finals move to Warde's bigger gym.
"We like to host events here," Schulz said. "The location is good and I have a good working relationship with the cops in this town and always have."
As for facilities, Prep is at the mercy of Fairfield University for field and court time time. The Jesuits' varsity programs are fourth on the facilities food chain -- behind Fairfield U's varsity, recreational and club teams.
"We're fortunate to have great facilities," Donahue said. "The price we pay for these facilities is we have to be flexible."
Manfredonia calls Warde's facilities a blessing. It has two gyms, separate football, baseball and soccer fields, plus large multi-purpose fields on its campus.
"We have enough space," he said. "It's nice when the CIAC or FCIAC calls and asks to use our gym that we're able to show our best face."
Parents and winning
All four ADS -- unlike many of their college counterparts -- say they are under no pressure to win.
"We're a public high school, there's no pressure to win," Schulz said. "A coach can do all the right things here and not win a lot."
At private-school ND, Bleggi feels stress for the Lancers to have winning records, but it's innate.
"I put more pressure on myself to win," he said.
All the ADs insist parents have no influence over which coaches are hired or let go and no influence over their children's playing time.
Prep's status as a legacy school makes its alumni vocal, but Donahue asserted that parents have no influence on coaching decisions, and coaches are not under pressure to win.
"If we let the alumni influence our decision, it would open such a Pandora's Box," Donahue said.
But while the ADs say parental pressure doesn't influence coaching decisions, that doesn't mean they don't hear from disgruntled mothers and fathers.
At Prep, Donahue said, most parents understand that players compete for positions and getting playing time is not a right.
"Most parents get it," he said. "It's a privilege to play sports at Prep."
Still, Donahue said a small percentage of parents complain to him -- either about lack of playing time, not starting or not being named captains.
At Ludlowe, parents' complaints about their kids' playing time was enough of an issue that the school redefined its communications protocal. That protocol allows parents to voice their concerns about teams or coaches without jeopardizing their kids' playing time.
But that policy includes Schulz's refusal to discuss playing time.
"I want parents to know the lines of communication are open, and that they have a voice," he said. "I want to hear about their concerns, but not about playing time. That's up to the coach."
In dealing with parents, each AD stressed communication. The ADs all host pre-season meetings for parents that lay out behavioral guidelines.
Despite the stress that comes from covering night games, being away from family, cranky parents, organizing facilities and budgeting costs, Manfredonia speaks for each when he says he's proud to do what he does.
"I'm one of only 19 athletic directors in the FCIAC," he said. "That's pretty cool."