Barbara Fiege to retire, ending an era in City Section

Barbara Fiege will depart what she calls 'a dream job' — overseeing L.A. high school sports as commissioner of the City Section — in June. She'll leave a legacy of integrity, and a big challenge for her successor.

After 39 years of working in the Los Angeles Unified School District as a teacher, coach and athletic administrator, Barbara Fiege says she will retire on June 30, 2013.

The Los Angeles high school sports scene won't be the same.

She is the second-longest-serving commissioner of the City Section and the only woman to head the sports program of the nation's second-largest school district.

Fiege took over from Hal Harkness in 1993, when there were 49 LAUSD high schools. Now there are more than 130.

She's the one who has been the enforcer of rules and regulations at a time of growing pressure to win. So it comes as no surprise that as the breaking of rules has increased, her role has become more controversial.

Athletes have been declared ineligible. Teams have been stripped of City titles. Coaches have been sanctioned.

"Barbara will research it to death and agonize, and agonize to be fair," said former assistant commissioner Cheryl Barkovich. "And even if it's not popular and is the right thing to do, she'll do it."

If there's a legacy Fiege will leave, it's the integrity she has demonstrated. Someone has to stand up for the rules, and Fiege has done so even if it means being cussed at by an athlete, criticized by a parent or ridiculed by a coach.

"What I've felt disappointed about for too long is having to spend so much time with those in our schools who chose not to comply with the rules, and it does not allow me enough time to do the things that are positive for both the school district and the section," she said.

Fiege said the temptation to cheat is "more prevalent now because of the thought there's an availability of college scholarships. There's so many outside organizations pulling on the students to play not just in high school but on club teams ... where it used to be just the high school coach and the athlete."

Fiege is leaving at a time of major changes coming to the City Section.

On July 1, LAUSD will no longer run or finance the activities of the City Section. Schools will have to start paying thousands of dollars in dues to help run an independent City Section that will coordinate playoffs, handle eligibility questions and do the business of the California Interscholastic Federation. It's creating uncertainty and unease, because a new leader needs to be found to provide leadership and guidance for a new governing structure.

"Being a CIF commissioner has its challenges," Fiege said. "On the other hand, it's a dream job. If you've grown up with athletics and it's your passion, it can be very rewarding."

Fiege started coaching in 1975, when the opportunities for girls participating in high school sports were just beginning. She coached volleyball and softball at Dorsey, then went to Belmont and coached volleyball, basketball and softball.

"The joy of coaching was taking those kids who came in as ninth-graders and seeing them through to who they became as 12th-graders — that was the biggest joy and always will be," she said.

As for accomplishments she is proud about, Fiege said creating an LAUSD sports hall of fame ranks high. It took three years to happen and was almost dropped, but now the second class of inductees is scheduled for this coming year. New sports opportunities in wrestling and water polo have been created for girls. Playoff divisions have increased in all sports. A television contract with Time Warner Cable has helped widen the exposure for City Section athletes.

Among her disappointments is having to reduce the number of coaching stipends in an attempt to deal with budget cuts.

"I've always felt the coaches are extremely special here," she said. "They absolutely don't do what they do for the stipend they get. They do it because they care about our kids."

So does Fiege, even though she has been stuck in no-win situations many times. The power she had to grant athletic eligibility was never taken lightly. And like a good judge, she always tried to be a fair arbitrator.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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