NIAA issue may come down to battle of North vs. South
“It’s not about winning, it’s how you play the game,” is an adage parents and coaches the world over have taught their children.
At high school level principals and coaches speak about the benefits to students of their sports programs: enjoyment; improved academic performance; health; sportsmanship, and the opportunity to train and try hard.
Winning, most agree, is important, but it’s not why high school sport exists.
Not every coach agrees.
According to Jeff Knutson, football coach at Moapa Valley High School and head of the Nevada Coalition for Nevada High School Athletes (NCNHSA), winning is important enough to warrant the removal of five California schools from the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA).
The schools targeted are Coleville, Needles, North Tahoe, South Tahoe and Tahoe-Truckee high schools.
The issue, Knutson said, is about the rights of Nevada students. He said that Nevada teams were unable to compete against California schools, and that they shouldn’t have to anyway.
He also said that no other states in the U.S. had to put up with inter-state competition.
“California teams are denying the best teams in Nevada the right and honor of being Nevada State Champions,” he said. “Nevada kids are getting the short end of the stick.”
Mike Altenburg, vice principal and athletic director of Spring Creek High School, said that the issue is raised every few years, and stems from parents of Nevada students curious as to why California teams were eligible to win Nevada titles.
“Each year parents new to high school sport ask the question, and I think that coaches and administrators are getting tired of explaining, so they want to change the system,” he said.
Knutson said about 22 schools and coaches had joined the coalition, out of 78 NIAA member schools. What started as frustration with the apparent domination of the 3A league by North Tahoe and Tahoe-Truckee escalated into a campaign against the three other Californian schools when the NCNHSA found out that when it came to expulsion, it was all or none.
Knutson said the NCNHSA would depart from the usual NIAA procedure of asking school administrations to vote on the expulsion of Californian schools, opting to petition coaches individually.
The NCNHSA would then take the information to the NIAA and force another vote on the issue. However, Knutson said that if the vote failed because school administrators’, rather than coaches’, opinions were being expressed, the coalition would be prepared to circumvent usual NIAA procedure and take the matter direct to the Nevada State Legislature. The reason for this, Knutson said, is that NCNHSA believes a count of coaches’ yes and no votes would be better proof that Nevada schools don’t want California schools in the NIAA.
A number of California and Nevada high school coaches and administrators believe the NCNHSA is seeking a quick fix to a complex issue, without attempting to understand the history of Californian involvement in Nevada leagues, and by bypassing the NIAA’s established procedures to remove schools.
North Tahoe football coach Bill Freeman recalled North Tahoe’s admittance to the NIAA. “We had played some of those Nevada schools prior to joining the NIAA. They needed teams to fill out their leagues and asked North Tahoe and Truckee if we wanted in.”
Freeman said that although he never felt that Nevada schools openly embraced the outsiders, it was considered a matter of mutual good. “Nevada needed us, and provided us with more opportunities for our athletes.”
According to Knutson, the history behind Californian team’s admittance to the NIAA is irrelevant.
“It was a mistake then and our kids shouldn’t have to live with it forever.”
That “mistake” began with Coleville joining the NIAA in 1949 and continued up until Needles’ admittance in 1987.
The NCNHSA’s approach, timing and bluntness is frustrating several onlookers, including North Tahoe principal Don Beno, who spoke with Knutson before Christmas.
“I think it is unfortunate that the coalition has chosen a time when we were winning state titles to raise the issue, rather than when we were losing. He (Knutson) indicated to me if we hadn’t won state titles, they wouldn’t feel as strongly as they do.”
Beno said that removing California teams from their league because they win Nevada titles is not a valid argument.
“The NIAA has done a lot of work to promote good sportsmanship within the league. It’s not the hallmark of good sportsmanship to remove teams from the league on the basis of winning.”
Battle Mountain High School principal and athletic director Susan Davis agreed.
“My superintendent and I feel that a group of schools want California teams out. In November we voted to not remove those teams and our stand remains the same.
Davis said that given that Californian teams had not broken NIAA bylaws, “it’s ludicrous to toss schools out because they win too much.”.
Knutson cited North Tahoe and Truckee’s successful 1998 fall season when the teams won six of seven titles, Truckee’s four football championships this decade, the 1997/98 basketball final between North Tahoe and Truckee and two basketball championship wins by South Tahoe as evidence that California teams were too dominant.
He said that he was mainly concerned with the 3A league, and that Needles, Coleville and South Tahoe high schools had been tolerated in their leagues because they were not competitive.
Not so, said Terry Bruce, principal of Needles and president of the NIAA’s 2A league.
Although he had not been contacted by the NCNHSA, he felt that Knutson’s remark that Needles had been tolerated was off the mark.
“Needles has been an active participant in the league since our admittance. I’m currently 2A president and I have been divisional president,” said Bruce.
He said that 2A schools had not contacted him with any problem with Needles’ presence in the league. “And I don’t think many 3A schools have a problem,” he said. “I think it’s really that some people want Truckee out.”
History also tells a different story of title dominance. Since 1981/82, the five Californian schools have won 64 Nevada team titles, with 46 going to North Tahoe and Truckee. About 740 team titles were contested in that time. Since 1981/82, California schools have won approximately 9 percent of Nevada state titles. Within the 3A league, North Tahoe and Truckee have won about 20% of all titles.
Knutson was unclear as to whether he felt that these statistics reflect a dominance of Nevada sport by California schools.
But he is adamant that Nevada titles are for Nevada teams.
“We’re not trying to deny California teams sport ,we just don’t want them in Nevada.”
Knutson offered a solution – go back to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF).
But it is not that simple and the history that Knutson considers irrelevant clarifies why.
Moving out of the NIAA will damage North Tahoe’s sports programs, said Beno. “We would lose hard fought rivalries. We would have to travel a lot more in general and traveling over Donner Summit in winter is a concern. And we would not be able to fulfill winter obligations under CIF rules. Girls soccer is a winter sport in the CIF and we can’t host outdoor sports in winter, so we’re not sure how to work that out.”
CIF Northern Section Commissioner Darow Adamson was not available for comment at press time.
Several coaches and administrators don’t feel that the coalition will get the support of all Nevada coaches.
“This is really a big move from the South (Nevada schools),” said Davis.
Altenburg said that Spring Creek coaches and teams see the lake schools as adding quality to the league.
“The more good teams in the league,” said Altenburg, “the better the league standard.”
The most successful coach in the 3A league, North Tahoe cross country coach Warren Mills, said he couldn’t recall any animosity from Nevada coaches, even though North Tahoe teams have won 20 team titles in the past 18 years.
“One year south Nevada coaches nominated me for national coach of the year after we had won state,” he said. “I have good friends among Nevada coaches.”
Freeman echoed Mills’ feelings. However, Freeman is concerned that many of his friends in Nevada no longer coach, and that coaches new to the scene will be quick to jump on the anti-California band wagon, without looking at the history of the leagues.
“It’s jingoism at it’s worst,” said Freeman. “Kids are kids. I don’t like the idea of making a big deal out of it.”
Altenburg, Freeman and Mills didn’t think that the NCNHSA would get enough support to oust the California schools by polling coaches .
“I feel that there will be split votes within some schools, and yes/no votes from schools within the same school district,” said Altenburg. “A clear result from a polling process would be tough to get.”
Knutson thinks otherwise. However, he said that if the poll showed that coaches want California schools in, the NCNHSA would leave it at that. But, he said, the coalition intends going to the state legislature if it has to.
Knutson was aware that this action might be to the detriment of the NIAA.
“It would be tragic should this be pushed beyond the NIAA. THey do an excellent job, but if they don’t do things the way the majority thinks they should be done, then that’s what we’ll do.”
While the coaches and administrators acknowledge the coalition’s right to pursue the matter further, some are upset that NIAA processes and bylaws are being ignored.
Bruce pointed out that NIAA is a coalition of all schools working together. “Now,” he said, “a few schools are saying that they don’t like the bylaws”.
Beno agreed. “They went through the NIAA system, didn’t get the answer they wanted, and have attempted to invent a new process.”
Dr Jerry Hughes, Executive Director of the NIAA, said he will wait for the NCNHSA to present it’s information and go from there. In his opinion, though, he said that the Californian schools had been good members for a long time and should be treated like any Nevada school.
He too believes it is a question of winning and losing.
“California schools have set standards in the league that are higher. Some coaches find that to be a positive thing,” said Hughes. “Winning shouldn’t be the issue. It’s about competing, doing the best you can.”
Beno said that North Tahoes’ success was the result of providing good programs and dedicated coaches for students. “If (any) program is good for the kids, then they will respond to it successfully.
“We’ve never worried about needing to win. We’ve just put our best teams forward each year and have been fortunate with our success.”
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