Starting off

The Baltimore Sun

Three initiatives, one already in the books and two in the works, pledge to bring substantial changes in state public school athletics.

The state Board of Education has approved changing the start of fall practice from the fixed date of Aug. 15 to the second or third Saturday in August to ensure that the end of the fall season doesn't push further into the winter season.

The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association is also looking to begin a certification process for emergency coaches as well as enact procedures that could allow high school coaches to coach more of their athletes in the summer.

Of the two proposals, Ned Sparks, the MPSSAA's executive director, said a plan to certify emergency coaches, while also limiting the time they can serve in an emergency capacity, might be the most difficult to get approved, as the plan would have to be approved by three groups: the MPSSAA's board of control, the superintendents of the state's individual school systems and the state Board of Education.

Yet, with the steady growth in the use of emergency coaches who are nonteachers, Sparks wants to "raise the professionalism" of the fill-in coaches while protecting them from potentially losing their positions to teachers.

Under the plan, formulated by the MPSSAA's strategic planning group, a coach who does not teach at a school could only serve in an emergency capacity for a set period, say two or three years. That coach would have to take coaching education courses as well as get some training to be certified. From there, a certified coach would be able to compete for the permanent post, rather than automatically losing the job to a teacher who wanted to coach, as is currently the case.

It's the provision about the permanent post, Sparks said, that makes it likely that this plan will be opposed by state teachers, who might fear losing coaching opportunities, not to mention the stipends that go with them. Still, Sparks believes, something needs to happen because emergency coaches aren't going away any time soon.

"It's a fact that we're always going to have emergency coaches with us," Sparks said. "The truth of the matter is they [the teachers] can't supply [all] the coaches as it is now."

In a best-case scenario, Sparks said, coaching certification, which would require a change in state bylaws, would begin in the summer of 2009.

Meanwhile, the MPSSAA's board of control, made up of coaches and athletic officials from around the state, will vote next Friday on a proposal to loosen restrictions on how many players from a school team can play on an outside summer team that is led by a coach of a sport.

Currently, a school coach can have only 80 percent of a starting lineup on an outside team, meaning, a summer basketball coach could have only four players that he or she coaches at a school on an outside team, while a volleyball team could have only four players from one school under the direction of that school's coach.

Under the new proposal, a coach could have as many players on the team as he wants. All other restrictions would still apply, meaning the outside team could not use the school's name or equipment and that the team is sponsored by an organization outside the school system. The 80 percent rule would still apply to out-of-school teams that play during the school year, say fall basketball or baseball squads.

The rule, though not necessarily targeted at Amateur Athletic Union teams and coaches, would, if passed, allow school coaches to have more influence over their players. In turn, some of the excesses of summer basketball, which have been criticized in the halls of the NBA and NCAA, might be curbed.

The fall practice date change, which goes into effect this year, solidifies the sixth Saturday after the first full week of July as the first day that football, volleyball, field hockey, soccer, cross country and golf teams can begin formally working out. Though that date this year will be Aug. 16, one day later than usual, the plan, Sparks said, is to move the fall season ahead enough to minimize conflicts with winter sport tryouts.

That conflict is particularly nettlesome for football players who wrestle or play basketball in the winter, as the state football finals have increasingly edged into the second week of December since the tournament was expanded a few years ago.

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