Freeport High athletic director Craig Sickels was facing a big problem in early 2015. The softball season was fast approaching and he was still without a varsity coach.

“We needed a girls’ varsity softball coach and we got zero applicants,” Sickels said. “We ran the ads, we had school announcements. Finally our JV coach at the time said, ‘Hey, I’ll step in and do it.’ But zero applicants for a varsity position.”

Sickels had faced a similar situation when he needed a junior varsity field hockey coach last fall. With no applicants, the varsity coach was forced into double duty.

Freeport is far from the only school that has had to scramble. Finding candidates who are willing and able to coach has become an increasingly difficult task at schools in Maine and across the country.

Over the past two decades, there has been a 22 percent increase in the number of sports programs offered at Maine high schools. Today there are more than 2,500 athletic programs – most with a need for coaches not only at the varsity level, but for junior varsity and middle school teams as well.

The biggest change from a generation ago is that fewer teachers are opting to coach, in large part because of greater demands in the classroom.

“I was in high school in the ’70s and this is my 32nd year as an athletic director,” Sickels said. “And back in the day, every single coach was a teacher. I mean every single coach came from the teaching staff and that’s just not the case anymore.”

Sickels and other athletic directors estimate that teachers now account for about half of the coaches at Maine schools.

“The demands on teachers, with all the standards-based curriculum and the generalized testing, it’s more time-consuming now than it was,” Sickels said.

Other factors contribute to difficulties in landing a coach:

Low pay, long hours. Stipends for varsity basketball coaches, for example, range from $3,900 to $7,400 in a sampling of southern Maine high schools. The job can require about 30 hours of work per week during the season, and significant offseason demands.

Odd hours. Most teams must practice after school and play games in the afternoon or evenings, precluding many non-educators who hold 9-to-5 jobs.

Greater scrutiny. As parents invest more in their children’s athletic pursuits, coaches can feel pressure if certain kids are not getting enough playing time.

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‘NO ONE APPLIED FOR THE JOB’

Fryeburg Academy had just one applicant for its varsity baseball opening this year. The junior varsity job is being shared by two people, because neither could fit a full coaching schedule around other responsibilities.

South Portland’s middle school baseball team had no applicants for its head coaching slot, forcing athletic director Todd Livingston to actively “reach out to people I knew, and fortunately I found someone.”

At Kennebunk High, athletic director Joe Schwartzman could not find a junior varsity girls’ lacrosse coach for this spring. So he is coaching the team himself.

Schwartzman also had to fill four middle school lacrosse positions. Each was a struggle. He finally had to ask an assistant high school principal to coach the seventh-grade boys.

“No one applied for the job,” Schwartzman said. “So now the seventh-grade boys practice at 7 p.m.”

Cooper Higgins, the athletic director at Falmouth High, said he is faced with filling a coaching vacancy “every season” and often has to scramble to fill the posts because of limited applicants.

“With the hectic life we lead nowadays it is very difficult for a person to justify giving up the time for little money and numerous headaches to devote themselves to coaching,” he said.

Falmouth schools have 93 paid coaching positions, including head coaches and assistants. Falmouth offers 28 varsity sports, 14 junior varsity sports and two freshman teams. Plus it has 32 middle school offerings. Base stipends for varsity coaching positions range from $2,849 (golf) to $5,872 (basketball) and average $4,518. A few veteran coaches are “grandfathered” at higher stipends than the base rate. Middle school positions average approximately $2,000.

Joe Schwartzman, center, the athletic director in Kennebunk schools, confers with volunteer assistant coach Joe Bush, center left, as they lead the junior varsity girls' lacrosse practice Friday. Schwartzman stepped into the coach's position this spring after he got no applicants for the job.

Joe Schwartzman, center, the athletic director in Kennebunk schools, confers with volunteer assistant coach Joe Bush, center left, as they lead the junior varsity girls’ lacrosse practice Friday. Schwartzman stepped into the coach’s position this spring after he got no applicants for the job.

A HIGH TURNOVER RATE

Richard Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said Maine is not unique in facing a coaching shortage.

“From my conversations with peers around the country, everyone is facing the same thing,” Durost said. “There is a shortage of people that want to take on the good and the bad that comes with coaching.”

And it can be difficult to retain the ones who are willing.

“There’s no question the turnover is high for coaches,” said Dan Schuster, director of educational services for the Indianapolis-based National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS.

Neither NFHS, which tracks participation and establishes rules for interscholastic sports in the United States, nor the MPA keeps data on coaching turnover. But Schuster said a common estimate is that schools replace 20 percent to 25 percent of their coaches each year.

“There are also more programs and more opportunities for kids than there’s ever been,” Schuster said. “More teams and more kids participating (means) you have to have people who administer and coach those programs.”

In Maine, participation in high school sports grew by 10.4 percent in the two decades between 1994-95 and 2014-15, according to data from NFHS. Girls’ sports participation was up 14.7 percent and the boys’ rate increased 8.1 percent.

The number of high school sports programs in Maine jumped by 22.5 percent during that span. In 1994-95, there were 1,090 boys’ athletic programs and 996 girls’ programs for a total of 2,086. In 2014-15, the state had 1,302 boys’ programs and 1,255 girls’ programs for a total of 2,557.

Much of the increase has been from the growth of football, lacrosse, volleyball and girls’ ice hockey programs. One new program typically creates multiple coaching positions for teams at the varsity, sub-varsity and middle-school levels.

‘IT’S A 12-MONTH-A-YEAR JOB’

Meg Cressler tried to make time for coaching.

Cressler led the Camden-Rockport girls’ basketball team to a state title in 2000 and went on to score more than 1,000 points at the University of Southern Maine. For three seasons she was the varsity girls’ basketball coach at Belfast High and then became an assistant at Camden Hills. The plan was to take over as varsity coach after her former high school coach, Jay Carlsen, retired.

“Then I became a mom and I wasn’t ready to take on the job,” Cressler said.

When the Camden Hills job reopened a couple of years later, Cressler felt ready to balance coaching, motherhood and selling real estate. She knew her coaching stipend of roughly $5,500 would barely make up for the loss of potential real estate commissions. But Cressler wanted to coach, particularly at Camden Hills.

Cressler guided the Windjammers to a 15-6 record in 2014-15, then decided to shift her career path and enroll in nursing school.

“I hated to give it up and I miss it a lot. Hopefully coaching is in my future, but not for the next four years or so,” she said.

Mike Zamarchi stepped down in March after 21 years as the boys’ basketball coach at Marshwood High in South Berwick. He said he was worn down by the full-year commitment on top of his ever-expanding duties as a history teacher at Marshwood.

Zamarchi estimated he put in roughly 360 hours as a basketball coach last winter, plus an additional 30-45 hours on season-ending tasks in the month afterward. His coaching stipend, for the seventh consecutive year, was $6,375. After taxes, Zamarchi pocketed roughly $11 per hour to oversee Marshwood boys’ basketball from late November to mid-March. But the demands go beyond the season.

“It’s a 12-month-a-year job,” Zamarchi said. “The other things in the offseason are getting to be too much. Now you have to prepare for summer basketball, summer teams, camps for younger kids, team camps for your high school guys, team weekends. The boosters are being asked to raise more money and you’re doing things for them. Never mind all of the classes you’ve got to take to stay certified.”

Zamarchi said he expects to return to coaching eventually, in some capacity.

“But it’s just a lot. I needed to step back and take a break,” he said.

DEMANDS HAVE GROWN FOR TEACHERS

Gone are the days when the phys-ed teacher would coach a sport in all three seasons. Today, those teams are typically coached by three different coaches – and fewer of those positions are filled by teachers.

As Maine schools advance toward a state-mandated proficiency-based diploma system, and adopting the Maine Learning Standards, teachers must spend even more time planning instruction and defining how students are graded, said C.J. Betit, who heads programming and research for the Maine Education Association. In 2012, a report by Scholastic and The Gates Foundation pegged the average teacher’s workday at 10 hours, 40 minutes – not including extracurricular activities.

The demands on teachers leave athletic directors to find roughly half of their coaches outside the educational system.

“If you’re not a teacher, you have to be in the right job situation because practices and games are in the early afternoon,” said Wells Athletic Director Jack Molloy. “It’s definitely one of the challenges of this job, finding the right person.”


Chris Kroski, left, a former minor leaguer, was the sole applicant for Fryeburg Academy's baseball head coaching job.

Chris Kroski, left, a former minor leaguer, was the sole applicant for Fryeburg Academy’s baseball head coaching job.

Fryeburg athletic director Sue Thurston said her school’s rural location limits the number of potential coaches she can find outside the teaching ranks.

“Most people in our community work 40 hours a week and it’s hard to get time off to coach,” Thurston said. “Our location hurts, but it’s also how many people can leave a job to catch a 1:30 bus to an away game?”

Kennebunk’s Schwartzman said some coaches can end up losing money, citing the example of a middle school coach who has to pay for child care in order to attend practices or games.

“With varsity positions there is some prestige and I think people are more apt to make sacrifices,” Schwartzman said. “But are you going to sacrifice your pay and vacation time to coach eighth grade? I don’t think so.”

THE PRESSURE FROM PARENTS

There is little doubt parents are increasingly involved in their children’s athletic lives. By the time their child is in high school, parents have often also made a sizable financial investment for instructional training and playing on travel teams.

“Not all parents, but many parents, have a sense of entitlement,” said the MPA’s Durost. “They’ve paid money – a lot in some cases – and have felt all along they should have a say in their child’s playing time. Some parents apply pressure and in some cases that makes coaching less attractive.”

Parents and players have many ways to express displeasure.

“I think the parent stress and some of those things that are involved can be overwhelming for basically a stipend position,” said Todd Sampson, who has been an athletic director at four schools and now is an assistant principal at Edward Little High in Auburn.

“In the past (a disgruntled parent) had to make an effort to make their opinion known and they probably had to do it face to face with the coach or the athletic director. Now you can go on Twitter or Facebook or a website with a different user name and not be accountable.”

Josh Plowman found out in February how a few unhappy parents or players can derail a coach.

In six years as the Westbrook High boys’ lacrosse coach from 2010 to 2015, Plowman took the Blue Blazes to four playoff appearances. Last season they finished 9-4, the best record in the program’s history.

“When I took over the program, Westbrook’s best record was 4-8,” Plowman said. “I would say Westbrook (lacrosse) improved tremendously over the past six years.”

But in February, Plowman said he was told there were “six or so kids that had a negative experience,” and the boys’ lacrosse job would be reposted. He was welcome to apply.

Instead, Plowman decided it was better to spend his time and energy coaching elsewhere.

Plowman is now the head lacrosse coach at Lake Region in Naples, a team that did not win a game in 2015. He said he knows he’ll probably face scrutiny with his new team. It comes with the job.

“As the head coach, everything you do is questioned,” Plowman said. “Everyone has their own theory of what to do and what will work. The difference is, the head coach’s theory of what is best for the entire team is tested every game and every practice.”

A LONGTIME PHENOMENON

The challenge of finding and retaining coaches is not a new phenomenon, said Marty Ryan, executive director of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.

“We have definitely discussed this topic on a number of occasions and we’ve not really come up with a remedy,” Ryan said.

Thornton Academy athletic director Gary Stevens wrote an article for the spring 2011 issue of Interscholastic Athletic Administration magazine detailing creative ways for athletic administrators to find suitable coaching candidates outside the school system. Those include filling hard-to-fill sub-varsity positions by turning to college students, alumni and recently retired educators.

Durost said increasing stipends would help lure more applicants. But the most important factor, he said, is to make sure coaches feel supported by parents and administrators so they will stay longer.

“There is no easy answer,” Durost said.