Family obligations thinning out coaching ranks

Published on: 8/2/2010

A quiet, dignified leave-taking occurred under the pine trees near the lovely shores of the Wisconsin River in Stevens Point on July 29 after Germantown's WIAA state baseball quarterfinal loss to Waukesha West.

And it's emblematic of a trend that there is probably no going back from.

'My son (Hruz) is 10 now and playing Little League and I haven't had the chance to coach him yet,' said Germantown baseball coach Parrish Wagner, a father of three. 'I've just discovered that I'm missing too many of my son's activities, so I want to focus on the family more.'

Wagner's resignation after six years on the job - after a career high point of giving the school its first state baseball berth in 24 years - surprised many, but it was something that had sat on his mind all summer.

Longer terms becoming extinct

Something that a lot of 20- and 30-something coaches are finding themselves facing as we are more than likely seeing the end of the line for coaches who are on the job for 20-, 30- and yes, (as in the case of still active Germantown football coach Phil Datka) sometimes even 40-plus years.

And the old warhorses in summer baseball are becoming fewer and fewer, those who know where all the bones are buried and know all the little secrets to winning titles. Franklin legend Jim Hughes (close to 750 career wins) just got his first state title after 24 years on the job last week and it seems like Nicolet's Dick Sykes has been at it forever (he won a championship in 1998 and passed the 500-win mark this summer).

Just this spring, long-time favorite Tim O'Driscoll of Arrowhead stepped down for health reasons.

No, more and more often, it's become like the situation at Brown Deer, where Mike Donahue's wife brings over their two adorable toddler-age sons, with one happily trailing an ever-present foam-rubber bat and the other laughingly taking a turn at the PA from time to time with Dad helping out.

Family comes first

It's a way for Donahue to make time for his kids.

Society has changed, as the concept of both parents working and juggling schedules has been the rule rather than the exception for many years now. Further, with people having to work harder to make ends meet, time is often at a premium, and naturally parents want to spend more time with their children before they become resentful that Dad or Mom is not around to see their basketball game, dance recital, etc.

'I've had my daughter come up and say to me 'I hate (your sport),' ' said one successful coach of an area spring team. It was a sport that caused him to be out late night after night, long after the little girl's bedtime.

'It's hard to hear that.'

And getting more difficult all the time.

'You have a situation where the veteran coaches are retiring and the younger coaches who are coming in want to spend more time with their families,' said Sussex Hamilton Athletic Director Mike Gosz. 'The landscape is not the best right now (for keeping coaches long-term).'

Wagner is a living, breathing example of Gosz's point.

He came through Germantown in the late 1980s, a three-sport star, coached by long-time veteran coaches (including Datka and his predecessor in baseball, Chuck Ritzenthaler) when long-time veteran coaches were the rule.

His father was even an assistant for a time.

Coaching Little League

Flash-forward 20 years to a different time with different kinds of cultural pressures surrounding it.

Hruz Wagner, like his father, loves baseball, but Parrish, with almost daily games and practices from mid-May until the end of July, has had to miss out on a lot of what Hruz has been achieving these last few years.

'He (Hruz) finally asked me this past summer if I would coach his team,' Parrish said, 'and he was upset when I missed his championship game. Hruz is a kid who loves the game and I don't want it to leave a bitter taste in his mouth. I know he loves hanging out at the park (at the high school Dream Field) with us, but there have been a lot of times where I've come home and he's asleep already not having been able to tell me how his day went.

'Anybody who's been a coach of 16- to 18-year-olds for months and sometimes years at a time and not been able to spend time with their own kids understands what I'm saying.'

Yet, the coaching bug, once caught, is hard to shake.

That previously mentioned spring coach, whose daughter is upset with the lack of time he has for her, will probably try serving as an assistant for a time, with fewer responsibilities (and presumably more bedtime stories told) than the head coach.

And Wagner next spring will happily get used to the idea that the Little League players he will be leading are younger, less skilled and maybe a little less passionate about the game.

But when he's able to see his son make a good play in the field or hit a home run, that smile or hug he'll get in return will be more than worth that trade-off.

By a long shot.