THIS IS NO TIME TO REST : Basketball Coaches Find Busy Summer Schedule Is Essential for Success
Tim O’Brien moved to Orange County in the summer of 1984. He had just been hired to coach basketball at Santiago High School and thought he would take a little time to settle in and relax before the school year began.
There was only one problem: Summer basketball.
“I landed right in the middle of it,” said O’Brien, who now coaches at Estancia. “In Arizona, I couldn’t do anything with my team during the summer. I couldn’t even be around them. But California has its own set of rules.”
Or lack of rules, when the subject is summer athletics.
In California, high school basketball is a year-round sport. It’s not a requirement, mind you, but it has become a necessity for success. Southern California--particularly Orange County--is the most active area of the state, where powerhouses such as Mater Dei and Ocean View jam as many as 40 or 50 games into an eight-week period during the summer.
The Southern Section has a firm grip on the regular season. A team can play only 20 games, plus tournaments in the regular season. If a team manages to reach the playoff final, it may total only 30 games.
A pittance compared with the summer season.
There are plenty of opportunities for high school athletes to compete during the summer, in all sports. Football has its passing leagues, baseball has American Legion, soccer has a strong club program.
But basketball, with its summer camps, summer leagues and summer tournaments, is at the forefront.
“I understand that some teams are playing 40-50 games this summer,” O’Brien said. “That’s two seasons worth of games in an eight-week period.”
Most Orange County coaches agree there are benefits to be gained from the games. Basically, the more a team plays, the better it gets.
But it has also created a situation where coaches work as hard if not harder than they do in the regular season. Because of this, some believe burnout is inevitable.
“When I coached in Indiana, you couldn’t work with your players from the end of the season until October 15,” said Gene Lloyd, former Brea-Olinda coach. “Here, it’s non-stop. Year-round programs can drain a coach. I think it’s the reason there are so few coaches over the age of 50 in California.”
Summer leagues were relatively low-key through the 1970s. Coaches were satisfied to play 20 or so games, just enough to keep their players sharp.
That changed drastically in Orange County in the early 1980s and most credit--or point the finger--at Ocean View’s Jim Harris and Mater Dei’s Gary McKnight. Both programs began playing more and more games in the summer and both also were successful in the winter.
“Gary learned that from me when he was my assistant for a few years,” Harris said. “I’ve been doing it this way for 13 years.”
This summer the Seahawks will play nearly 40 games, including tournaments.
“This is one of the more relaxing summers for us,” Harris said. “We’re going to have a couple weekends free and I’ve never had that before.”
Harris runs the Huntington Beach-Ocean View League, which is sponsored by the Huntington Beach parks and recreation department. He views the summer as a time for learning and experimenting.
Ocean View practices from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. every weekday during the summer. The players have the rest of the day off, except on game days. And Ocean View plays an average of one game per day.
Harris uses the games to try different combinations and play kids who might not see any playing time during the regular season.
“When else do you get a chance like this?” Harris said. “Some coaches don’t want to play the tough teams, even during the summer. We do. Who cares if you lose a summer league game. In all my years in coaching, I had only one team that didn’t benefit from the summer.”
Coombs, who was at Santa Ana last season, is another booster of summer games. He attributes it to the rise of Orange County basketball.
Orange County teams have won 10 Southern Section titles in the 1980s compared to four in the 1970s.
“The competition is such that Orange County is now a high-caliber sport,” Century Coach Greg Coombs said. “Most people think the year-round program is why Orange County has improved.
“We had a team of inexperienced sophomores and juniors last season and everyone thought we were in trouble. We used the summer to get them that experience and ended up winning 19 games.”
Coombs believes burnout is not a problem. He points out that classes aren’t in session, so he doesn’t have to teach, and the games are less intense.
Still, Coombs admits that he’s away from home more at this time of the year then during the regular season.
“But it’s not like Mater Dei,” Coombs said. “They’re in two tournaments this weekend alone.”
Harris’ success at Ocean View and McKnight’s at Mater Dei (which will play nearly 50 games this summer) have led other coaches to escalate their summer programs. Most agree, it’s the only way to keep up with the successful programs.
This summer almost every team will play 30 games. And it’s not just the boys’ programs.
Last week, Century High School played host to a girls’ tournament in which 32 teams competed.
“It’s unbelievable, it really is,” Mission Viejo Coach Bob Minier said. “I’ve jumped into it more than in the past. I had to, not just to compete in the winter but to satisfy parents. They see other teams playing a lot summer games and wonder why we don’t.”
Said Harris: “I don’t think it has anything to do with keeping up. A lot of coaches just don’t want to put in the time. I consider a guy who just wants to work his three months during the regular season a part-time coach.”
But a few coaches believe the time has come to say enough is enough.
“The mental grind of a year-round program is too much,” said Ed Graham, who resigned as Troy’s coach last spring. “But the pendulum swings slowly. It will swing back.”
A little more than 20 years ago, the Southern Section policed summer sports and didn’t allow any contact between coaches and players. Athletes could play during the summer, but were coached by parents or other volunteers.
In the late 1960s, the California Interscholastic Federation relinquished its summer duties, giving the responsibility back to individual districts.
Schools ran their summer athletic programs in conjunction with summer school. But when Prop. 13 cut district funds, summer school was cut back.
“The whole thing broke loose then, all bets were off,” Southern Section Commissioner Stan Thomas said.
Technically, summer leagues are made up of club teams not affiliated with a particular school. However, coaches use school gymnasiums, school equipment and the roster is the high school team.
Because most districts are not involved with summer leagues, the coach must secure a sponsor who will accept liability in case a player is injured. Most often they turn to their city’s parks and recreation departments.
“Some districts, like Tustin, run their own programs, but most don’t want to be involved,” Katella Coach Tom Danley said. “We go to the parks and recreation department in Anaheim. Others use the Boy Scouts and some are privately run.”
Regardless of the sponsor, the coach usually runs the league.
Danley runs three leagues at Katella--varsity, junior varsity and freshman. It’s a time-consuming activity because each league plays twice a week.
Even before the league begins in July, Danley must collect entry fees, have players sign waivers and arrange for referees. When league play begins, Danley normally works 12-hour days, Monday through Thursday.
“I know a lot of people are talking about coaching burnout and I guess it does happen,” Danley said. “We try to restrict our games to between Monday and Thursday, then take the weekend off. We call a halt at the end of July. By then the kids need to get away from their coach and their coach needs to get away from them.”
But even with the work involved, most coaches prefer to run their own leagues, especially those that involve younger players who can’t drive.
“It would be tough to try to arrange rides for 10-12 freshmen players,” said O’Brien, who runs a freshmen league. “You can’t get district transportation during the summer, it’s not allowed. So you end up trying to get parents to help out. It’s much easier to keep the freshmen at home.”
Nash Rivera, who was hired by Santa Ana in the spring after 10 years away from high school basketball, has had to deal with the transportation problem. His freshman team plays in the Estancia league twice a week.
“Fortunately, I have a pickup truck with a camper shell,” said Rivera, who coached at El Dorado from 1966-80. “I end up taking 12-13 kids with me. If I had a compact car, we would have problems.”
Rivera, like many other varsity coaches, also has to coach the freshman team, as well as the sophomore team. Most coaches at those levels are walk-ons and can’t take time off to coach during the day, when most sophomore and freshman leagues are played.
Twice a week, Rivera leaves homes at 11:30 a.m. to coach the freshmen. He returns to Santa Ana and then drives to Westminster for the junior varsity and varsity. He coaches the sophomores on alternate days.
“I had forgotten how things were,” he said. “We used to run a pretty good program at El Dorado, but I had a lot of people helping me. Today, there are so many walk-on coaches and they can’t afford to take off from work at 11:30 a.m. So I’m pretty much on my own.”
Greg Katz, a coach at Century High School, begins his day by teaching summer school. He’s in the classroom from 8 a.m. until noon. Then he goes to the gym to help run a camp. By then, his day is only half over.
At 3:15, Katz coaches in a freshman summer league at Century and in the evening he’s at a junior varsity-varsity summer league for two games at Westminster.
And Katz is only an assistant coach. He said head coach Coombs works even harder.
“Greg will go for hours, I don’t know how he does it sometimes,” Katz said. “It’s a 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. job. It does call for the young at heart. I never thought I would feel this way, but it’s sometimes difficult for me to attend both games in the evening.”
Yet most coaches agree it’s necessary to get all they can out of the summer.
“If you don’t do it, you’ll see the difference during the regular season,” O’Brien said. “You have to keep up with everyone else. It’s a year-round job.”