Hey, have you heard the one about the coaches who cried wolf?

That image endures when I think of the Howard County Coaches Association.

Can you think of a group in the county that has issued more threats in the past year? And can you think of a group which has made morethreats that ultimately carried less weight than the paper on which they were written?

I can't.

The coaches concluded the last school year with a typical exercise. Perturbed by the County Council's refusal to approve the 6 percent raise teachers were supposed to receive under a three-year contract signed last year, coaches -- specifically "teacher-coaches" -- met several times last month to formulate an appropriate response to County Executive Charles I. Ecker and the council.

Coaches were determined to conduct a job action, like their fellow teachers were discussing. Many teachers and administrators wanted to make a statement and vent their anger by not participating in extracurricular activities, such as field trips and chaperoning school dances.

The coaches figured they could concoct a similar plan centered around their athletic programs. That's when the threats started coming.

Unless you return the money that is owed to us, they said, we won't play any county games on weeknights or Saturdays next year. We won't play in any tournaments. We will ruin the schedules that have already been prepared.

After nearly 50 coaches of the 110-member association met and talked of such action, they agreed on the threats and put them in writing.

Then, a week later, School Superintendent Michael Hickey met with principals interested in doing the samekinds of disruptive things as the coaches. Things like refusing to fulfill crowd-control duties at evening and weekend sporting events. He told them flatly that the schedules would stand.

The coaches association, hearing what happened to the principals, promptly backed off. Oh, they did insist on making some threats.

They said they wouldn't plan or prepare any end-of-season sports banquets next year. Andthey said if the council didn't fund their 6 percent raise next year, they would withhold their coaching services during the 1992-1993 school year.

Gee, where have we heard that last warning before? You only have to turn the clock back a little over a year.

In May 1990, the coaches threatened to strike during the 1990-1991 school year over pay.

They were dissatisfied with the coaching salaries agreed to in the just-signed, three-year contract. And they spent nearly twomonths trying to convince the school board that if it didn't reopen talks, they would refuse to coach.

Along the way, coaches raised the public consciousness regarding the tough work they do, and the lowcompensation afforded them in one of the nation's richer counties and richer school systems.

They talked on several occasions with Hickey and board members about their concerns. They even got Hickey to promise he would look seriously at a more attractive deal for them come negotiation time in early 1993.

The bottom line is, coaches began signing contracts. They blinked. Not Hickey, not the board.

No wonder several coaches expressed concern this spring while members of the association were discussing job action alternatives.

"There isn't a person in this county who is taking us seriously," Oakland Mills cross country coach Steve Carnahan said at one meeting. "We've bluffed so many times."

And the association's sense of timing has proven to be about as sharp as its bluffing skills.

Last year, the coaches cried foul after the contract had been signed. Their protests, while loud, still came after the final bell. And the board, citing a precedent in which negotiations had never been reopened, refused to budge.

Then, this past June -- months after Ecker and the County Council had sent clear signals that teachers' raises were in danger and two weeks before the end of the school year -- the coaches decided tounveil their latest threats.

One would think that, after all its big talk and backpedaling, the coaches association is learning more about timing and bluffing -- and itself.

For one, the association rarely can reach a consensus. Forget consensus. The association rarelycan persuade half of its 110 members to show up at a meeting.

Part of the coaches' reluctance to do something bold like going on strike hinges on some tough questions.

How do you make a statement without hurting the kids you coach and preach to about hard work and commitment? How do you take a principled stand without compromising your natural sense of competitiveness? Where do you draw the line between looking out for the kids and looking out for No. 1?

The association may have found an answer.

Instead of asking every school to agree to a list of job actions -- a process that has always proved fruitless -- they've decided to let coaches in each athletic department decide how they wish to protest the pay raise denial.

Ironically, an association that likes to boast about increasing unity may have discovered the best approach in this case is an every-man-for- himself strategy.

Coaches are hoping that, by eliciting community reaction sympathetic to them, they can retain next year's already-negotiated payraise for teachers and possibly recoup this year's lost wages.

Ifsome coaches finally make good on their threats, the reaction will come.

For example, Howard High lacrosse coach Dan Ross promises he will not play any night lacrosse games at Howard next spring and willnot take part in any spring tournaments, two staples of the Howard program during Ross' 16 years.

If Ross follows through, county or school system officials probably will be hearing about it from angry parents. Imagine how many phones will be ringing if just a few coachesfrom every school followed Ross's lead and conducted a meaningful job action?

One thing is certain. If they want to retain a shred of credibility, coaches cannot stand by and do nothing. As Glenelg baseball-boys basketball coach Terry Coleman put it, "How many times can you cry wolf?"

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