I’m not sure who the next principal at Cocke County High School will be.

But I can outline what should be one of their first decisions: Hiring a new athletic director. It’s the perfect time to breathe a fresh air of new life into an athletics program that has been declining in rapid form the last several years.

A culture change for the entire program is sorely needed and long overdue.

This is not an advocation that athletics should trump academics. Especially in this community, where the educational attainment for a high school diploma is 77.8 percent and a bachelor’s degree is 9.4 percent, according to data from the US Census Bureau.

In the current economy, when it’s already enough of a challenge to bring jobs into our community - those numbers are simply unacceptable and make the leaders’ jobs even more significantly tougher.

Factor in the ever-changing testing standards, legislation and other initiatives - and how far the American education system is behind that of other countries, and there’s no excuse for athletics to be the primary focus of a school.

However, it can’t be forgotten the impact that athletics has on the health and viability of a high school.

It seems though that maybe somewhere along the way Cocke County High School has forgotten that. It’s one thing to win at all costs like some private schools and even larger public schools in metro areas are doing today. It’s another thing to try to have a competitive athletic program, which benefits a community and boosts school pride and the educational environment.

A study conducted in Ohio by Jay Greene and Dan Bowen examined if athletic success came at the expense of academic success. Their results found that schools that devote more energy to athletic success also tend to produce more academic success. That too can happen at Cocke County High School. It’s evident when the football team struggles, that school pride is nowhere to be found. But during competitive years, like 2011 or 2014 - school and community pride can be at an all-time high. It’s also worth mentioning that those competitive years are in seasons where the record is just near the .500 mark, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that the school needs to bring home state titles, but just to be competitive with most teams on its schedules.

There are many factors an athletic director can not control. Those range anywhere from wins and losses, poor feeder systems without a middle school, a lack of talent in a particular season and many other items that can affect athletic teams. The one main issue though that an athletic director can have their hands ingrained in is that of the culture surrounding the entire program. That’s where the Cocke County athletic program has had its downward trend since former athletic director Patrick O’Neil left in the summer of 2014 to become principal at Cosby High School.

Non-revenue sports have taken on an intramurals type feel for years at Cocke County High School. While that is acceptable at small schools, which sometimes struggle to fill out rosters, it’s not what is needed to compete at a Class AAA level against some of the bigger schools in the state.

How do those non-revenue programs give off a club sport type feel? Last October proved a prime example.

The Cocke County High girls soccer program was permitted to forfeit its District 2-AAA Tournament game, reportedly after a player vote was taken via text message on whether or not to play the game. The vote was reportedly held because the contest was held over fall break and some players would be absent, along with injuries mounting all season.

While the outcome of that game would likely not have been in question had the game been played, due to missing players and the matchup with Jefferson County, the message sent to student athletes that its OK to roll over and quit is one that’s unacceptable.

It’s a terrible message to send to a young team that has talent and can be competitive in future years. Most of the soccer team’s best contributors this year were freshmen. So what lessons there are being taught? Allowing a team to forfeit a postseason game is a poor message sent to a student body and a community, which includes many prospective young student-athletes - who in today’s current times have their choices among solid athletic programs and schools to attend. It’s an even worse message sent to other teams in your own athletic program.

One area coach told me that if that’s the attitude surrounding the department then there should never be an expectation to win. Not just in the current year, but forever.

Unfortunately, the feel of intramural-like teams has slowly permeated the major revenue sports as well. It’s evident from the size of the school’s football coaching staff over recent years. Until three assistant coaches were hired this offseason - all of whom were hired at county elementary schools - Cocke County’s football staff was among the smallest in Class AAA. In 2014, the football staff was the smallest in District 2-AAA by three coaches, as coaching vacancies went unfilled for years.

A small football staff is worse than taking a plasticware knife to a gun fight, especially at the Class 5A level. The lack of coaches, makes holding a football practice almost impossible to achieve, when you have 55-60 plus players on the roster. Add in that those coaches must do the same duties for freshman and junior varsity teams and it’s easy to see why some players decide to quit, because they’re unable to receive proper reps during practice.

These are definite blows for the job that football coach Caleb Slover has tried to do since taking over in 2013 in trying to change the culture of the school’s team and build a football program. It’s quite surprising that Cocke County High has been able to hold on to him, with his background and resume.

Add in the fact that in 2014, a game was decided to still be played on Halloween night, which then turned windy, rainy and cold and was played in front of a near-empty Larry Williams Stadium. The lack of attendance on that night was not befitting of the effort that year’s senior class exhibited, nor was it helpful for the program’s budget - which makes the majority of its money from gate receipts.

Taking other sports into consideration, it’s a shame that most of the school’s other coaches have had to try to deal with and overcome the culture that’s been allowed to fester without much remedy over the past two years.

Most of the school’s coaches do a tremendous job in fighting what is an uphill battle. When teams have to go head-to-head with teams from Sevier County, Knox County and Morristown, in terms of wins and losses on a consistent basis - it’s a tough job. Baseball and softball coaches Andy Chrisman and Jan Sneed have to fight against programs that have more money, more tradition and more talent on an annual basis. Same for basketball coaches Ray Evans and Jeremy Byrd, who have their own obstacles to overcome.

Clay Blazer, who recently took the reigns of the school’s track and field program, has done a remarkable job in trying to grow the team. Golf coach Boddie Bible has success on the course, as his teams have won two district titles in as many years. Soccer coach Mitzy Hall took over the program to fill a void and has been able to give players the opportunity to take to the field the last three years. Jennifer Slover recently wrapped up her first year as volleyball coach and has had to fix the culture issues as well.

This situation is one that didn’t occur overnight. It’s one that has built up over time and there’s no one specifically to play the blame game with. However, it’s a challenge that a new athletic director must take on to help fix a culture in bad need of a change.

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