Phase-in period shines spotlight on the value of quality assistant coaches

East Fairmont High assistant football coach Jeff Noechel, left, and Bees head coach Shane Eakle direct the team during a game last season at East-West Stadium.

FAIRMONT — After almost three months of high school sports sitting idle in West Virginia, this was the moment sports programs across the state had been longing for.

And the timing was less than ideal for East Fairmont girls’ soccer coach Eric Wright and the Lady Bees.

The West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission announced its proposed design for the state to gradually re-introduce high school sports with a three-phase plan set to begin June 8 and run through July 25. WVSSAC officials then set up a conference call with high school coaches across the state to go over the plan’s dates, restrictions, guidelines, etc. for those intent on participating.

Wright and the Lady Bees — like so many teams across the state — were committed to reuniting and returning to the field as soon as possible. They’d sit in on the WVSSAC’s conference call, get all the details of the three-phase plan, and then form an in-house layout for workouts. There was just one problem: Wright was out of town on a golf trip during the WVSSAC’s scheduled conference call, and if a team didn’t have a coach present for the conference call that team wouldn’t be permitted to participate in Phase I of the three-phase plan.

Two of Wright’s assistants, his daughter, Breana Wright, and Katie Sharpe, sat in on the conference call instead, which gave the Lady Bees the green light to participate in Phase I.

“They actually had to sit in on the meetings and they did the leg work to prepare us,” Wright said of his daughter and Sharpe. “To be honest with you, we wouldn’t have been able to participate in Phase I if it wasn’t for Breana and Katie.”

The Lady Bees’ situation was a rare case — born out of unforeseen circumstance — but over the course of what’s been a three months-long pandemic, unprecedented situations have become commonplace and navigating uncharted waters has become the norm. In the realm of high school sports, specifically, COVID-19 has brewed up a storm for coaching staffs that required an “all hands on deck” approach, that has illustrated the essentiality of everyone, that has cast a light on just how vital the contributions of assistant coaches are.

“Definitely in this type of situation, you have to trust your assistants,” said Shane Eakle, East Fairmont High’s second-year football coach.

The guidelines and restrictions of the WVSSAC’s phase-in plan have forced assistant coaches to operate solo on the field with players. Extra safety precautions have introduced new responsibilities for them at every turn. New workout designs in the forms of player “pods” have tested their voice as leaders and their handling of ownership as overseers.

“You get to see how valuable your assistants are,” said Nick Bartic, Fairmont Senior High’s football coach, who’ll be entering his fourth season this fall. “We have every member of the staff directly involved and contributing in one way or another in this format.”

The past three weeks and counting have shined a light on both the capability and quality of assistant coaches in a way it never has before of practically every high school program in the state that has chosen to participate in Phases I and II of the WVSSAC’s phase-in plan. It’s a test of assistants’ merit to some degree, sure, but talk to most head coaches and the past few weeks have more so served as an overdue and underdone acknowledgement of just what their assistant coaches give and mean to their respective programs. They tout their assistants as program backbones, men and women willing to devote their own time and expertise on day-to-day basis — usually with no reimbursement — for the long term benefit of the student-athlete and the team as a whole.

“I’ve been fortunate to have good assistants since I’ve been coaching and you have to have good people working with you to keep on being successful like you have been,” said North Marion girls’ basketball four-time state champion head coach Mike Parrish, whose current assistants Dean Brown and Paige Tuttle have each managed their own workout pods over the past three weeks. “(Brown and Tuttle) both do a good job, and like I said, you have to have good assistants to keep things going.”

“I’m a hands-on person and I like to see everything so that part is tough. I only get to see my eight or nine kids,” said Eakle, who has had to run a pod of his own the past three weeks for the Bees. “But I have a great staff and my assistant coaches do a good job. I’m very blessed.”

Any program is bound to suffer, perhaps even crumble, if its assistant coaches aren’t up to the task, but equally, an assistant is reliant on the head coach and dependent on the program to provide an environment in which they can discover the best version of themselves. One can frame it either as a trickle down effect from the top or a pyramid built from the bottom, but if one level of the structure splinters, it all goes down.

“It’s important that we’re all on the same page,” said 12th-year North Marion football coach Daran Hays of his staff, “and I think that might be what makes us a little bit different — we spend a ton of time together and we’re all pretty close off the field as well. The one thing we want to do is make sure we’re having consistency across the board so (the players) aren’t just hearing it from the head coach, not just hearing from the offensive or defensive coordinator, but they’re hearing it trickle down from the leaders at their position group, to their position coach, to their coordinator, to their head coach. I think that shows great vertical alignment within the program, and that’s what they need to get.”

For a program to truly thrive, for a coaching staff to operate at its absolute peak, and, perhaps most importantly, for players to maximize their high school careers, assistant coaches have to be empowered and trusted to be empowered. They need a voice. They need sway.

“My assistants, I don’t look at them as assistants — we’re one coaching staff. We all have our role in it,” said Wright, whose assistants include his daughter, Bre, Sharpe and Emily Gallagher. “They’re not just there to show up. I put a lot on them for every practice — actually, they’ve been the ones coming up with our workouts to do — and they’re all good at what they do.”

“I personally think it’s really cool,” said Bre of her father’s outlook of the Lady Bees’ collective coaching staff. “It makes us not really feel like assistant coaches. It makes us feel almost kind of even with my dad. Like I know one time in the fall, I led a whole halftime speech because I was just very moved by how we were playing.”

Grant that type of influence and offer those sorts of liberties to assistant coaches and gradually their confidence rises, their comfort surges and their performance progresses to a point where not even a pandemic that has disrupted practically everything throws them into a set of circumstances they haven’t been vetted for.

“I stress — I’ll say ‘I’ which I usually don’t use that word — but I stress that every coach we have is the head coach at their position. Our receivers coach coaches receivers everyday, etc.,” Hays said. “So (now) it’s nothing new — it’s a different group of kids that (an assistant) is coaching — but we’ve seen (assistant coaches) develop as coaches as we’ve promoted them through the ranks.”

“It really reinforces why it’s so important to have your assistants involved and get them experience in being delegated different responsibilities so they’re used to handling that,” Bartic said. “Then it’s not a big shock for them to come in and run a pod because they have a lot of experience of having autonomy within the groups that they coach.”

Adhering to that kind of structural philosophy is a bet to some degree on the part of head coaches, a noteworthy show of faith in their assistants’ aptitude. But for those head coaches who have seen their program rise on the basis of their assistants’ collective knowledge, efforts and belief, it’s hardly a gamble at all.

“We trust those guys as much as anything in the world,” Hays said.

Email Bradley Heltzel at bheltzel@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.