Do you want to know what Evan Excell, the gentlemanly leader of high school sports in this state, thinks is the No. 1 problem with prep sports?
After observing high school sports for 42 years 28 as a coach and 14 as executive director of the Utah High School Activities Association he thinks parents should just, well, chill.
The 64-year-old Excell will retire this summer, so this seemed like a good time to ask him what's wrong and what's right with prep sports.
He doesn't hesitate with the answer the first question. "Parents try to live through their kids," he says. "They will do anything and I mean anything to get their kids where they want them."
And where they want them is often at a high school outside their home boundary, so their kid can play for the best team and the best coach. Excell accomplished much during his watch the UHSAA's new headquarters, a good staff, consolidated state tournaments, the continued proliferation of girls sports but he never could figure out how to beat parents at the transfer game.
Every state wrestles with the problem of kids playing for schools outside their home boundaries. It's difficult to stop them when they are aided and abetted by parents. They're always one step ahead of the law the parents, not the kids. When Excell and the UHSAA created a rule that required prep athletes to establish residency within a school's boundary before playing for that school, parents rented an apartment in that area to circumvent the rule.
When Excell parried that move with a rule that required parents to sell their primary residence and actually move their belongings out of it into their new residence, they resorted to divorce.
Parents file for divorce or legal separation, allowing Johnny to move with one of the parents to a new school boundary and play for that school. Once that has been established, the parents remarry.
"We've seen that happen several times," says Excell.
The play-where-you-live rule has been the bane of Excell's existence. He never could figure out how to enforce that one. New York and Colorado actually gave up and allowed prep athletes to play wherever they wanted. After a couple of years, the situation grew intolerable and both states reinstituted a play-where-you-live rule.
"Dynasties develop very quickly," says Excell.
Excell's job has changed over the years. Early in his career, he spent much of his time simply planning activities. Now he spends almost all of his time enforcing the transfer rule, in hearings and appeals and in and out of courtrooms, and lobbying state legislators. Sign of the times: This year Excell hired a full-time lobbyist to represent UHSAA.
It's not exactly how Excell envisioned things when he took this job. He was a prep coach for nearly three decades, at Bryce Valley, Escalante, East Carbon, Carbon and Ben Lomond. He thought the UHSAA position would be a way to continue his involvement in high school sports in the last stage of his career; instead, he sat in hearings, settling disputes and wrestling with parents and their lawyers.
"If parents would stay out of it," says Excell, "kids would play where they live. Every kid wants to play with his peers and for his community."
Fortunately, Excell still managed to see the games and state tournaments, which helped him remember why he got into this business in the first place. He still believes that the right thing about high school sports is the opportunity it provides young men and women to play for their school and along the way learn the time-honored values of work ethic, teamwork, sportsmanship, winning, leadership, cooperation, discipline and self-confidence.
"We've still got good coaches who espouse those things," says Excell.
What worries him are the excesses of prep coaches, and especially club coaches in basketball, volleyball and soccer, who encourage and even demand specialization. Growing up in Panguitch and later, while coaching in small towns throughout Utah, Excell knew nothing about clubs or specialization or AAU teams or summer camps or combines.
"Kids were never discouraged from playing other sports," he says. "And we didn't go to camps. We played on the neighborhood baskets. Kids should play as many high school sports as they can handle. And they should take time off. Be a kid. I promise any coach that that kid will come back just as strong as if he had played through it. Kids are getting tired of it all."Excell, as even and fair as a summer morning, always was a great voice of reason. Too bad more people didn't listen.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Doug Robinson is an assistant football coach and head track coach at Alta High School. E-mail: email@example.com