Ray Plutko, one of the most influential high school athletic administrators in the country for the past decade, sat quietly last week in a windowless office at Glendora High plotting his future.
The former CIF Southern Section commissioner is nearing the end of a four-year tenure as commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Assn. and planning a return to Southern California. He is returning without a job, however, and there is uncertainty about what lies ahead.
"I decided after the first of the year that I was ready to make a change," Plutko said. "Although I don't have a new job yet, there is no doubt that I want to remain in education. Education is going through a lot of changes right now, and I want to be a part of that. I'm ready to get back in the trenches."
Plutko, 50, said he would like to become an assistant principal at a high school and has already applied for two jobs with districts between Glendora and Riverside. He would not say which schools he's talked with. Plutko, a former history and journalism teacher, hasn't worked in a classroom in 15 years.
"I am confident in my abilities and am confident I won't have trouble finding a job," he said. "I hope to have one secured in the next few weeks."
As was the case when he resigned as Southern Section commissioner in 1986, Plutko's announcement that he was leaving his post in Colorado shocked even his closest associates. He was praised by administrators and coaches there for initiating many popular changes and improving communication lines.
Plutko announced his decision in mid-April and is officially finished Aug. 31. He has spent most of the past three weeks in Los Angeles vacationing and looking for work. He also is doing a six-week administrative internship at Glendora High through Azusa Pacific College.
One position Plutko has secured is that of executive director of the Southern California Basketball Coaches Assn. The association, which promotes local basketball, approached Plutko several weeks ago in hopes he could supply needed leadership.
"It doesn't pay me anything, but there are possibilities to make this organization the force it was once," he said.
Plutko cited a combination of reasons for his desire to get out of athletic administration. He said as commissioner he was constantly on the telephone and limited to the creative fieldwork he enjoyed. Long hours and endless pressures meant limited time with his family. He also said he missed Southern California's weather.
Close friends suggest Plutko simply burned out. Plutko said he averaged four vacation days a year while he was in Colorado and worked many 15- and 16-hour days. Others believe family pressures to return to Southern California added to his decision. Plutko admitted both played a factor.
"My daily routine in Colorado was resulting in more of a reactionary job," he said. "I was reacting to countless phone calls, eligibility rulings and court appeals. While I had to deal with such things in California, there has been a trend in recent years for more of these types of problems. And I sensed things weren't going to change any time soon. So I asked myself if this is something I wanted to do for the next 17 or 18 years of my life. My answer was no.
"I didn't want to lose my creativity. I came to the conclusion that I could be creative and visionary again if I got back to a school setting where I could work with students and a faculty. I want to get to know the community. I think I could make a great team with the right principal."
Dr. Tom Jacobson, principal at Corona del Mar and a member of the Southern Section executive committee, said he would welcome a man with Plutko's reputation on his staff. He said although some principals might shy away from such a qualified candidate, he prefers working with very talented administrators.
Some might wonder, though, how a man who has had great influence and authority in athletics for the past 10 years will adjust to a role as an assistant principal.
"I'm very surprised at what Ray is doing from both a financial and authoritative point of view," said Stan Thomas, who replaced Plutko as Southern Section commissioner. "I know if I left the CIF, I would want a position with even more responsibility.
"I'm also surprised that he's switching to an entirely new arena. CIF administration is not school administration. School administration has just a small page of athletics to worry about. They're like two different worlds. Like salt and pepper."
Plutko, who earned $68,000 annually in Colorado, disagrees. He said an athletic commissioner is constantly crossing the boundaries into the education world. He also subscribed to many education journals and newsletters to keep up on all the latest developments. "I've stayed on top of education, even though I haven't been in a school," he said.
Plutko isn't necessarily intent on finishing his career as an assistant principal. He said he might eventually like to become a principal and then, perhaps, a superintendent. He said he isn't going for the bigger jobs now because he needs to "start from the ground and build up". He said he has no interest in returning to the CIF.
Before joining the Southern Section office as an administrative assistant in 1976, Plutko was the assistant principal in charge of athletics at Notre Dame High in Riverside. He started his teaching career at Mariana High in San Diego in 1968.
The organized side of Plutko surfaced when he went to work for the Southern Section. He was known as an impeccable administrator who didn't know when to go home. He was chosen over six finalists for commissioner in 1980 when Thomas Byrnes resigned to take over as CIF state commissioner.
After six years with the Southern Section, Plutko was ready for a new challenge. He wanted to run an entire state, but since Byrnes seemed locked into his job for many more years, Plutko looked elsewhere. He replaced Ray Ball as commissioner in Colorado on Aug. 1, 1986.
His stay in Colorado has been marked by sweeping changes, many modeled after things he did in the Southern Section. He turned Colorado association from a lethargic watchdog to a highly visible office. The normally reserved Plutko spend much of his first year visiting many of the state's 300 high schools.
"We had to let people out there know we cared and were interested in their needs," Plutko said. "A lot of schools felt we were a Denver-based organization that didn't care about anyone outside of the city."
Half of association's member schools are rural with enrollments of less than 300 students. In contrast, a majority of the Southern Section's 500-plus member schools have enrollments over 1,000.
Plutko also brought financial security to the association. The organization had been operating in the red for nine consecutive years before his arrival. During his four years, it has operated in the black. In addition, he orchestrated the construction of a $1.3-million office, initiated corporate sponsorship that now accounts for one-third of the annual budget and increased the staff by 2 1/2.
Many state tournaments were reorganized to unite the varying classifications. For years, the state track meet was held at three different sites. This year, the three classifications all competed at the same site and the meet finished 11 minutes ahead of schedule.
"Nobody ever thought it could be done," Plutko said.
Starting this September, the Colorado association will undergo is first reclassification process in more than two decades. While many member schools wanted reclassification, they couldn't agree on one system. Plutko sold them on a six-class setup that won approval, 51-2, at a board of control meeting in April.
Plutko said Colorado was a good experience and he accomplished 99% of what he set out to do.
"Ray has a way of presenting ideas in such an organized fashion," said Gary Cox, president of the Colorado organization and director of divisional instruction in the Boulder Valley School District. "But he didn't come across unilateral. He was just an outstanding person."
Plutko recommended associate commissioner Bob Ottewill, an administrator with Colorado association since 1972, as his replacement. The executive committee appointed Ottewill as commissioner in May.
It seemed whatever Plutko wanted he received.
"I was upset when I lost out on the commissioner's job to Ray," Ottewill said. "I felt I deserved it then. But I'm certainly glad the way things worked out. I learned so much from him that I will be a much better commissioner now than if I had never known Ray.
"He opened up my eyes to so many ideas. He never took all the credit. A success or failure was always something done as a team. Ray didn't like being in the limelight."
The dislike for being the center of attention might be the reason Plutko is getting out. He is a stickler for privacy and at one time chided a reporter in Denver who uncovered his unlisted home phone number. Although he cooperated with the press, he never initiated free publicity.
Plutko, a religious man, prides himself on strong family ties. He and his wife Sharon have been married for 27 years. They have six children, ranging from 6 to 26. Four of the children live at home. The two eldest, Greg and Scott, live in Southern California. Greg is the assistant varsity basketball coach at Glendora and Scott is attending Cal Poly Pomona and coaches the freshman basketball team at Glendora.
"I have a very supportive family," Plutko said. "It was difficult on them when we moved to Colorado. They made friends, but I think their hearts always stayed here. They're excited about coming back."
Plutko's move comes at a strange time. At 50, it seems he is a little old to want to start over again. He has long said he isn't interested in moving up the college ranks. For several years, though, there have been persistent rumors that Plutko took the Colorado job to prepare him for a post with the National Federation of State High School Athletic Assns., which governs all of the state associations. Some felt Plutko would be a prime candidate to replace Brice Durbin as executive director when he steps down.
Plutko has shocked many of his close friends with this latest decision.
"I'm surprised Ray would leave such a good situation up there in Colorado," said Dean Crowley, associate commissioner of the Southern Section and a longtime friend of Plutko. "But if the job was going to bury him then it wasn't any good. He has a hard time saying no, so I can see where he might have burned out.
"Ray isn't the type to go the beach or go fishing. Maybe he feels he's at a point in his life where he wants to start doing those things."
Plutko said he would like more time to himself. As commissioner of the Southern Section, he maintained what he called "a well-oiled machine." But the job in Colorado required significantly more work.
Taking a break from pressure at the top will be a welcome change.
"I never look at myself as a man of power," he said. "I always look at myself as someone with influence who can help others make decisions about changes and what's best. Whether I'm a commissioner or an assistant principal doesn't matter to me as long as I can help make a difference. Only the job description changes for me."