Utah High School Activities Association executive director Rob Cuff returns to his small-town roots each year, joining his father, Bob, on a tour of small-town high schools in different parts of the state.
The trips no doubt remind Cuff of his playing days at Richfield, where Bob was a longtime coach. Much of the social life in these towns revolves around school events. Of course, those were simpler times before open enrollment, athletic specialization, transfer rules, club teams, recruiting services and magnet schools with facilities and coaches sometimes funded by rich boosters.
"Things have evolved," said Cuff, who oversees 10 girls' and 10 boys' statewide sports programs as well as music, drama and debate competitions activities that involve about 85,000 students. "My dad coached in the '60s, '70s and '80s. I coached in the '90s and early in the 2000s. Some things were better then. We've lost some of that community and the spirit of playing where you live. …When I played, I wanted to play for my community."
When he was a highly successful Mountain View basketball coach, Cuff said he encouraged his athletes to play more than one sport, something that is anathema to some prep coaches. Too many want their athletes to specialize and steer them toward club or AAU teams in the off-season.
"When they get away, they come back a little hungrier," he said of athletes who play more than one sport. "I do believe there could be burnout, but that depends upon the individual student and the passion for the sport. But schools need kids to participate and help other parts of the program succeed."
The flip side, Cuff said, is that specialization increases participation by some students who might have been cut from teams in the days of three-sport athletes.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of high-school sports around Utah has been the transfer rule. The most recent example came last fall when the East and Timpview football programs forfeited games for playing ineligible athletes who ran afoul of a simple rule.
In the mid-1990s, the Utah Legislature passed a law allowing parents and students to select any school to attend. Just as my late wife and I shipped three of our kids out of the Highland boundaries where we lived so they could participate in the International Baccalaureate academic program at West in the early '90s, the new law allowed parents to choose an athletic program they felt best fit their child's needs.
That created "magnet" programs where an athlete looking for a high-profile football team, for example, would transfer out of a home district to play and perhaps get better exposure to scouts for college teams offering scholarships or play for a winning program.
Under the law, that's fine if parents and athletes pick a school and stay with it. Problems arise when things don't work out at their first choice and they want their children to attend a different school. Transfer rules require sitting out of a sport for a year. Athletes, parents and some coaches and administrators try to get around that rule, often by asking for waivers.
As someone who has written about high-school sports since the late 1960s, my perspective is that most participants won't go on to college and very few will ever get a pro contract. So why not pick a school and stay with it? Learning to deal with adversity or making the best of a bad situation is part of life.
I liked what Cuff told me about his philosophy about high-school activities.
"If you participate in something, you get set for life," he said. "You learn lifelong lessons of teamwork, discipline, integrity, getting along with others and hard work."
I fear that in their effort to turn their child into a star athlete by playing year-round for a high-profile, winning program without regards to the personal or physical costs, many parents and young athletes lose the real reason athletics and other extracurricular activities are part of our education system.