Ron Belinko spent a lot of time at high school games over the last 21 years, despite the heavy load of office work and meetings that came with being coordinator of athletics for the Baltimore County Public Schools.
He never could let go of the student-athletes who remained the focus of everything he did over a 46-year career as a teacher, coach, athletic director and central office administrator with the county.
Belinko, who will retire Friday, found no better measure of how well he did his job than seeing it all come together on the field.
"It's very important to be visible," Belinko said, "because if you're in an office all the time and running the program, you can't get a feel for it. You interact with parents, you interact with the student athletes, you interact with the coaches and athletic directors and administrators when you're out there, so that you're a person to them and not some bureaucrat from the central office."
Ever since he moved to the central office in 1983 as the No. 2 person, the supervisor of athletics to then-coordinator Mildred Murray, Belinko, 69, has remained visible all around the county.
"I think that inspired a lot of people," said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. "That showed he had an interest in them and what they were doing and their programs. He supported them and he showed up, if anything else, to show, 'Hey, what you're doing here is important and we believe in it.'"
Throughout his career, Belinko has been a strong proponent of public education and its interscholastic athletic programs. He is a product of both and has spent his entire career in public education.
He played football, wrestled and played lacrosse at Southern High (now Digital Harbor) in Baltimore City and graduated from the University of Baltimore in 1966. He followed his mentors, Southern football coaches Harry Dubick and Bill Lewis, into the classroom and onto the sideline. A physical education teacher at Eastern Tech and then Overlea, he coached the sports he played before spending five years as athletic director at Overlea.
Belinko has been around for many of the landmark shifts in education that also affected interscholastic athletics, including Title IX and inclusion. Baltimore County, however, was ahead of the curve on both.
The county offered girls sports long before the Title IX mandated them 40 years ago. More have been added since, including soccer in 1984 and golf in 2004.
With the introduction of allied sports in 1994, Belinko and then-supervisor of athletics Jill Masterman, at the request of then-county superintendent Stuart Berger, began a program modeled on Special Olympics. It provided opportunities for disabled students to play beside non-disabled students 10 years before national legislation required such programs.
During Belinko's tenure, the county's participation rate rose to 49 percent of all county high school students with 13,000 spots on varsity, junior varsity and allied teams during this school year.
Another big change came when Belinko moved games from afternoons to nights. He changed all football games to Friday night or Saturday. Some coaches resisted, but Belinko wanted the athletes to play in prime time and he wanted their parents to see them play — something his own parents were never able to do because of their work schedules.
"That's also when we started having a presence on the state level," Belinko said. "Towson High won a state championship in [boys] basketball in '63, and we didn't win our next one until way in the mid-80s sometime [Milford Mill in 1988]. During that period, we started winning some football championships [Randallstown first in 1984]. We attribute it all to the change that provided our youngsters with the same opportunities, playing under the lights before a large crowd, as our youngsters in neighboring counties."
Belinko has served on several MPSSAA committees and has been on the executive committee since 1991. He was director of the state wrestling tournament for 11 years and director of the boys' lacrosse tournament for 26 years before giving that up this season.
He helped build boys lacrosse from a three-jurisdiction sport — Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and Baltimore City — to a statewide sport and, by serving on the National Federation of State High School Associations' first boys lacrosse rules committee, helped grow the sport nationally. This spring, an annual award presented at the state tournament was named the Ronald Belinko Sportsmanship Award.
Last fall, he received the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators' Association's Frank Kovaleski Professional Development Award. Belinko, a member of the state and national wrestling halls of fame, said he will continue to work with the NIAAA and the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association in their leadership and certification programs.
Although he had mixed feelings about leaving the classroom for the central office in 1983, the opportunity to continue to teach made the decision easier.
"Because you have a love of teaching, you feel like you're teaching athletic directors, you're teaching coaches and you're providing a service to young people, trying to make decisions for young people not based on what's convenient for adults, but what's best for the youngsters," he said.
Not every change has been positive in Belinko's eyes. He laments the dwindling number of three-sport athletes, the declining number of teacher-coaches and the attitude among some parents that sports are more about scholarship potential than having fun.
While some have said it's time to cut athletics from public schools and put that money into the classroom, Belinko said he doesn't think that will happen — nor should it.
"When we talk about athletics and public education, we have to ask ourselves, 'Why do we have sports?' Because it's supposed to teach youngsters things that you can't teach them in a classroom setting," he said. "However, with the pressure of academic achievement, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, it does not mention that you have to have an interscholastic athletics program, so are we delivering what we preach — character development, sportsmanship, fair play, teamwork? To help deliver those virtues is why we have interscholastic athletics."
This school year, Belinko has had a little more time to attend games. He retired as coordinator last June but stayed on as consultant to help his successor Mike Sye with the transition.
For Sye, a Woodlawn graduate and former Woodlawn athletic director, taking over from Belinko is a daunting task.
"His name is a title," Sye said. "I'm always referred to as 'the new Ron Belinko,' so for me that's a lot to live up to. His integrity, his great vision and his commitment to excellence — those are the things that he has left with Baltimore County, to a program that is viewed by so many across the state as the program. Now that I'm here, I see so many other programs waiting to see what he does. He's build that aura around himself."
As Sye carries on, Belinko will play golf, fish and spend more time at Bethany Beach. He and wife Donna, who recently retired after 35 years as a teacher and guidance counselor, plan to spend more time with family and at social events they've missed because of his busy schedule.
However, Belinko's work has made an impression on thousands of student athletes and those who know him aren't likely to forget.
"The greatest job in the world is being a high school teacher and particularly a high school coach. There's nothing more rewarding," Belinko said. "You're not going to get rich, but you don't realize the impact you have on youngsters. I've been out of the classroom since '83 and it's amazing those youngsters who are now in their 50's still remember the influence you had on them as a teacher and a coach."