About Utah: His business is fun, games and sportsmanship

Published: Monday, Dec. 2 2013 7:00 a.m. MST

Rob Cuff, executive director of the Utah High School Activities Association, at the 2013 state football championships at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Nov. 14, 2013.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

MIDVALE — Among his earliest memories are bus rides on road trips with his dad, Bob, who taught math, science and P.E. and coached basketball and baseball for 38 years. His mother, Vicki, was also a career educator.

He participated in sports and music at Richfield High School, including playing on state championship football and basketball teams his junior year. He graduated in English from BYU and proceeded to teach English and coach at Mountain View High School in Orem, where his basketball teams won two state championships in seven years.

While he taught and coached, he earned a master's degree in education and served as an athletic administrator for the Bruins, one of the largest 5A schools at the time. Furthermore, he moonlighted as a football official, refereeing three state high school championship games.

With that history, is it any wonder that Rob Cuff would wind up running the Utah High School Activities Association?

He’s been executive director of the organization since 2009, following an eight-year apprenticeship as an assistant director. At 46, Cuff still qualifies as one of the youngest leaders of a state association in the country, but his lifelong immersion in virtually every aspect of high school sports also qualifies him as one of the most experienced.

In a conversation with the Deseret News, Cuff talked about the relationship among sports, activities and high schools, and offered his opinions and views on the current challenges that relationship faces.

DN: Thank you for your time today and agreeing to talk with us. Given your background, is it fair to say this is your dream job?

RC: Well, it was a very tough decision for me to leave high school coaching, so that was difficult. But when the UHSAA decided to add another assistant in 2001 I knew those kinds of jobs didn’t open up that often. I decided to apply, and if I was offered the job I’d be willing to give up coaching. And that’s what happened. It’s turned out to be a really natural fit for me. Everything about it is in my blood, I guess you could say.

DN: What aspect of it do you enjoy most?

RC: The relationships and the state tournaments. The relationships you get to develop and enjoy with administrators, officials, coaches, students, that really is the best part of the whole job. And being able to administer and supervise tournaments, for a lot of people it’s as good as Christmas. I remember as a young kid the week of the state (basketball) tournament going to BYU, riding the bus, getting out of school, following my dad around. Our family looked forward to that as much as we did Christmas. I still do. And now I can go to all of them. I get to be a part of the excitement over and over again.

DN: And the least enjoyable?

RC: The good and bad news of high school activities is that everyone has a passion, and when you have to make a decision there’s always going to be a division. Whatever it is, from realignment to transfer rules to the format and sites of the state tournaments, whatever decision is made, many will agree and many will disagree. No matter what is decided, based on our bylaws and policies, there will be some who support that and some who don’t. That is the most difficult part of the job, to balance everyone’s passion for high school activities.

DN: So, you need a thick skin for this job?

RC: I guess that’s why I spent 12 years as a referee — and coaching isn’t the easiest profession either. A lot of my job is just listening to people vent, hearing their concerns, lending encouragement. We want people to be heard, but at the same time we want to follow the processes and be fair. It can be a very stressful job. It’s one that’s very hard to predict. You can come to work and sometimes not get to anything on your list because you never know what emails or phone calls or issues are waiting.

DN: The Logan High quarterback, Chase Nelson, who was ejected from one game and expelled for an additional game for attempting to kick an opponent, was that a difficult call?

RC: It was not a difficult decision, but it was a delicate situation because it was a high-profile athlete on a high-profile team. The rulebook is clear that the consequence (for an ejection) is coaches and players are suspended from the next game. The tough thing is (Logan High) wanted an appeal and there isn’t a formal appeal for player ejections. The due process is right there on the field and when the official follows the rules and makes an ejection, then part of that process is the player sits out the next game. No exceptions. We’ve had officials in the past who, after a review by our office, say they misapplied the rule, they made a mistake, and in those cases an ejection has been overturned. Our office reviewed this situation and that wasn’t the case here. Ejections are not rare; unfortunately, they are part of the game. Last year we had 240 ejections throughout our 20 sports. You have to be careful not to treat one student any different than any of the others.

DN: Are there ever situations that cause you to re-think your rules?

RC: Our board is constantly looking at what we can do to be better as an association. Last year (in football season) there was the situation with East and Timpview having played some games with ineligible players before the state tournament. Our board made a decision as fair as it could, but some innocent schools were impacted because they had to play a different opponent (in the tournament). The rule at the time said that if a team used an ineligible player they MAY forfeit games. That created a situation for the board to revisit and change the rule so it now says SHALL forfeit. That’s a lot easier rule to enforce and defend. That’s just one example where something unfortunate happened but it caused our board to change and improve the rule.

DN: One issue it seems you’re constantly tinkering with is realignment

RC: Our board used to do it every four years, now, because of all the different options for education these days, with charter schools and home-schooling and private schools and fluctuating enrollments, our board made the decision to go to an alignment review every two years. This is the one issue that creates the biggest passion in our communities. Everyone would like to be the largest school in the classification, not the smallest. The issue is fairness, to make the level of competition as fair as possible. That’s what led the board to create six classifications in football. The board felt like football is a sport where you don’t play as many games, usually one per week, you use more players, and it’s a sport that really becomes a numbers game. Our board felt like schools shouldn’t be playing anyone more than twice their size when it comes to health and safety in football. In the past we had football schools three times bigger playing in the same classification. It’s not unusual to see states with more classifications for football than for other sports.

DN: What challenge gets the lion’s share of your time?

RC: That’s easy. Transfers. We had over 1,200 transfers last school year alone that we dealt with. This includes change-of-residence transfers as well as hardship situations. There are 51 state associations, including Washington, D.C., and there are 51 variations of the transfer rule nationwide. It somebody had the perfect answer or perfect rule we’d all be following it.

DN: What makes transferring schools so difficult and time-consuming?

RC: In the mid-1990s our state Legislature approved open enrollment where students and parents can choose where they’d like to go to school. There are positives to that, but there are also negatives when it comes to fair play and sports and competition. So what we’ve established is what is called first-entry. A student establishes first-entry by starting high school or by making a high school team as a ninth-grader, if ninth grade is not in the high school. After that, you are not allowed to switch to another high school and participate on its teams without a documented change of residence or an approved hardship appeal. We are losing a sense of community, especially in some of the urban schools. You’re seeing it in the size of the crowds. You’d think a team winning regularly would have the biggest crowds, but that isn’t always the case. If you have a really good team but the players come from 10 different communities, how do you attract one central community feeling?

DN: So the idea is to maintain that sense of team?

RC: That’s where we hope high school sports and activities are different than any other level. Ideally, you’re not just competing, but you’re learning the value of hard work, integrity, dedication, the chemistry of the team. It should not be all about winning. In life that’s not reality. I always told my teams when I was coaching that one of the saddest things would be to go undefeated. I wouldn’t tell them that until after they lost a game, but the truth is you can learn so much from a loss. Many would argue we learn more from a loss than a win. Not that you want to lose consistently, but life’s going to throw curveballs just like sports is going to present challenges. If our student-athletes come out as better people, better citizens, better able to face and endure life’s challenges, that’s what high school sports and activities are supposed to do. We feel that sportsmanship and citizenship are developed through positive learning laboratories where practical life lessons are taught. We feel that those students who participate in UHSAA activities get set for life through education-based activities.

DN: And your role is to provide the best environment to make that happen?

RC: We want to help make participation a positive experience for the more than 88,000 students who participate in the 10 girls and 10 boys sports we sanction as well as music, drama and debate. We want our coaches and advisers to promote the development of character and ensure the teaching of positive values, philosophies and principles of educational value that will last a lifetime. That’s the reason we exist. This association was first formed back in 1927 because the high schools wanted a nonbiased group to oversee things so the principal of a school wasn’t running the basketball tournament that his school also happened to be in. We are a nonprofit organization. We do not receive any legislative money. Eighty percent of our revenue comes from postseason ticket sales, 15 percent from corporate sponsorships and less than 5 percent from member dues and fees from the schools. We’re here to help and serve. As I said, relationships are the most important things. We want people to talk to a live voice when they call our office. We don’t want people to reach an answer machine. We are a service organization committed to assisting those who oversee sports and activities in our 136 member high schools.

DN: Thank you again. Any closing thoughts?

RC: I think it’s good to point out that our paramount goal is to be a very fair and accountable organization to our member schools. Oftentimes, we get portrayed as trying to make life miserable for all because of the difficult decisions that have to be made and that attract such a large share of public and media attention. Great UHSAA programs like our “raise the bar” sportsmanship initiative, student leadership conference, unified sports partnership with Special Olympics Utah, annual administrators, coaches and referees training clinics, and the academic all-state teams we honor too often get forgotten in the rhetoric.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com

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