19 May 19
San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Roger Blake is an example of what happens when you’re up for anything.
For 43 years, Blake has been involved with education and school sports as a teacher, coach and administrator. For 21 of those, the kid who grew up the son of a coach in San Bernardino has been with the CIF state office in Sacramento, the last seven of those as the executive director of the organization that oversees California high school sports.
“Who would have thought I ever would end up in this job?” Blake asked in a phone conversation from Sacramento. “And it’s all just because I was dumb and never said no when somebody said, ‘Hey, why don’t you try it?’ “
He is about to hand off that job. Blake, 65, will retire August 1, and his lieutenant in the CIF office, Ron Nocetti, will take over. Blake and his wife, Karen, will pursue the retired life, including quality time at the vacation home they’ve purchased in the mountains outside of Eugene, Ore.
His career could be an example for young coaches. He got his degree from Cal State Fullerton in 1976, coached and taught at Sonora High in Fullerton and Cajon High in San Bernardino and then landed at Elsinore High in Wildomar, where he was boys basketball coach and ultimately athletic director for the Lake Elsinore Unified School District before joining the CIF office. Most of those changes or promotions, he said, were the case of somebody making a suggestion and Blake saying, “Sure, why not?”[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-section”]
But maybe that’s less of a model than it once was. Coaching has changed, as have so many other aspects of high school sports, and the good ones don’t always stick around long enough to have that choice of going into administration.
“It’s just a different world,” Blake said. “It’s driven by very unrealistic parental expectations these days. And now that I’m getting out it’s easy for me to say, but administrators don’t have a backbone to stand up and say, ‘No, this is our coach. They’re teaching, they’re coaching, they’re doing the right things for our kids.’
“That’s why I think you see young coaches that are good, after a couple of years, go, ‘I don’t need this headache.’ And it doesn’t matter the sport. It’s across all sports, and it’s disappointing and it’s sad.”
Blake –as an ex-coach sensitive to such issues – also believes some of the bonhomie between coaches has been lost. Transfers and money and expectations have raised the stakes, especially in high-profile programs, and he wonders if it may have become less of a fraternity and more a gang of sharks circling each other.
Blake said as a young coach he remembered a rival coach in his league, a guy who he would be competing against for league titles, giving him sincere (and good) advice.
“I don’t see a lot of that any more, which is sad, because it made us all better,” he said. “And I think from a coaching standpoint, that fraternity of fellowship has disappeared.”
He went back further to when he was 8 or 9, and his dad, Ray Blake, was the basketball coach at San Bernardino Valley College. One night after a loss to rival Riverside, Ray had a get-together at his house, and in walked then-RCC coach Jerry Tarkanian and his wife, Lois.
“I go to my dad and go, ‘Why are they here?’ ” Blake said. “And my dad’s like, ‘It was a game. We’re still friends. And that’s what coaching is about.’ It’s one of those things that just stuck in my brain all those years, that fellowship. And that really made me excited when I started coaching and saw that same thing.
“That fellowship, I think, disappeared. It’s become scary. It’s become about the banners on the wall, and I call it the arms race of high school sports. It’s too bad.”
The challenge of coaching stays in your bloodstream for a long time. But the administrative challenges of high school sports are no less of a Rubik’s Cube. For instance:
• Transfers. Blake pointed out that of the total number of students in California, 98 percent don’t transfer. The two percent just happen to include most of the elite athletes looking for better opportunities. “And that ‘better opportunity,’ that is just so untrue,” he said. “We know that from all of our years in coaching. If the player is good, it doesn’t matter where they are.”
• The public/private talking point gets him fired up. “Honestly, I blow my stack over it, because it’s the haves and the have-nots,” he said. “It isn’t a public/private issue. Parents have a choice. They can take their kids where they want. It’s an issue of, ‘Let’s go compete.’ “
It is why there is an Open Division, and it’s why the Southern Section has gone to a competitive equity model, so teams are more often facing opponents of similar ambition in the postseason.
“I’ve used this analogy a ton,” he said. “When we get to the end of the school year where we’re going to take all the big tests, we don’t put the general math student in the same classroom with the trigonometry student to take the test. We put them where they belong based on their ability. We do that in the classrooms of our schools. And we’re now doing that in athletics across the state. And it’s really led to parity, new teams having opportunities to have success.”
• Football participation has decreased steadily in recent years and probably will go down again when the latest numbers come out. Blake believes football is safer now because the doctors and sports medicine experts play a greater role in concussion management. But he recognizes that more kids are participating in sports other than football.
“The days of 100 kids standing out there on the sideline at a varsity football game are long gone,” he said. “I don’t think kids will go stand on sidelines as much any more. They just want to play.”
• As you might imagine, leading a federation that encompasses 10 sections, 1,606 member schools and 838,000 athletes can be potentially thankless. There have been times when section commissioners were intractably polarized, focusing on what was best for their sections rather than for the state as a whole.
“I had one commissioner say at one time, ‘I would rather get a root canal than come to a commissioner’s meeting,’ ” Blake said. “I was like, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because I hate it. It’s brutal. Everybody’s arguing and nobody’s looking for common ground.’
“It’s changed, I truly believe, because of the leadership in the section offices. Rob (Wigod, the Southern Section commissioner) is a great example. Rob will always advocate what he thinks is best for the Southern Section, but he’ll also look at things and go, ‘You know what? My section’s probably not going to like this proposal but this is best for 1,600 high schools in the state of California. This is what’s best for kids.”
With such collegiality among the 10 section commissioners, Blake feels it’s easier now to step away and hand the reins to Nocetti, who became associate executive director in 2012 when Blake was promoted to the top spot.
Besides, he said, “My wife’s been retired for about six years now, and she’s been so patiently waiting for me to join her.”
That’s an even better reason.