Singing the Praises of Unsung Heroes

July 2, 2013

By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor

“Standing in the Shadows of Motown” is a documentary released in 2002 celebrating a group of musicians who called themselves the Funk Brothers.

Never heard of them?

All this unheralded group did was rack up more No. 1 hits than the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Beach Boys and Elvis – combined – during their unparalleled run as the musicians who drove the Motown sound.

Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, et al, took the bows; but it was this group of selfless, tireless, talented artists which thrust the vocalists to the front of the stage.

How quickly we recognize those songs from the first notes of that signature bass; the vibrant siren of horns, and rhythmic snapping of fingers before a single lyric is introduced.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, we introduce to you the Funk Brothers (and Sisters) of school sports: the athletic administrators.

The profession calls for selfless, tireless, talented individuals who trumpet the efforts of students, orchestrate harmony among coaches and parents, and set the stage for local, affordable entertainment within their communities.

In Michigan, the group assumes this responsibility with unwavering ambition and enthusiasm, setting a solid foundation for the futures of roughly 300,000 athletic participants annually.

As MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts notes, “They don’t try to be the stars of the show, but they are indispensable for letting the stars shine – the student-athletes and their coaches.”

It is a role they cherish, taking nearly as much pride in their school family as their own. It’s both a byproduct and a prerequisite for such a job that commands long hours and a knack for interaction with a wide array of personalities and age groups.

Mostly, it’s the young people who make it all worthwhile. They are, after all, the reason the job exists.

“Just watching so many students grow up from immature kids to young adults who now are very successful, and how they appreciate all the extra time you spent with them is rewarding,” said Marc Sonnenfeld, the district athletic director and dean of discipline at Warren Fitzgerald.

“And most important is the, ‘Thank You,’ you get five or 10 years later for pushing them and teaching them life lessons they will never forget.”

In a position largely devoid of gratitude, it’s little wonder that the smallest displays mean the most.

“Having a coach thank me for supporting them, and watching student growth through athletics mean a lot to me,” said Eve Claar, in her fourth year as athletic director and assistant principal at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School.

Brian Gordon, less than a year into his post as director of athletics and physical education for Novi High School/Middle School after 22 years as a coach and teacher in Royal Oak, also enjoys the impromptu reunions.

“One of the things I most enjoyed was having kids come back to the programs either as a coach, parent, or simply as a fan,” Gordon said. “Nothing is better than when I would look behind the backstop and see some former players watching and laughing while listening to me say the same things I had said 10 years earlier.”

Lessons learned along the way

The typical path taken to the administrative office usually includes a stop or two in the coaching realm, which assists in the transition to life outside the playing boundaries.

“The experiences you bring from coaching are a huge help. I made plenty of mistakes as a coach that I see my own coaches make to this day,” said Chris Ervin, in his seventh year as the activities director at St. Johns High School. “You make mistakes, learn from them, and then make sure not to make them again.

“My philosophy – although not realistic, but certainly something to strive for – is this: we would have much better coaches if these three prerequisites were in place. 1) Coaches must be a parent first; 2) must be an official, and 3) must be an athletic director. If coaches had to have these three experiences before being allowed to coach, they would have a whole new perspective when working with students, parents and officials.”

Having been coaches first, however, lends an appreciation to the task of working with students on a daily basis and an understanding as to how an athletic director can best assist his or her coaches.

“Being a coach helped me to learn time management, and I became better at making relationships. In my job now, it helps me to look at things from the coaches’ viewpoints,” said Christian Wilson, the athletic director and assistant principal at Gaylord High School for 11 years. “As a coach, you have an immediate impact on students; administration involves more interaction with adults.”

A coaching background also can cause an athletic director to re-examine his or her days as a coach, and how they might have had a greater awareness for a former administrator’s tasks.

”The learning curve as the athletic director is massive,” said Gordon. “The job itself is huge. As a coach, you just worry about your own sport. As athletic director, I have more than 70 teams to tend to and over 100 coaches to worry about. Coaching and teaching only scratch the surface of what happens in any athletic office every day, but doing that for more than 20 years has helped the transition significantly.”

It is a viewpoint shared by Ken Mohney, a 14-year director of student activities for both the high school and middle school at Mattawan Consolidated Schools.

“Athletic administration opens up the big picture of the department and school mission. Instead of only focusing on the sport that one coaches, administrators must coordinate a program so that all sports collectively enhance the academic success of the entire school,” said Mohney, who also coached three sports at Mattawan for eight years prior to assuming his current duties. “I miss the connection to players and students that I had as a teacher and coach, as it is much more difficult to create and maintain positive relationships with kids in an administrative role.” 

The majority of administrators who have had experience coaching admit to missing the close interaction with students and the opportunity to watch them develop into successful adults.

But, in some respects, the number of lives one can reach as an administrator is multiplied, and the scrapbook moments just take on slightly different poses.

Mike Thayer, athletic director and assistant principal for the past six years at Bay City Western High School following a decade at Merrill, recounts one of his proudest days in the business.

“In 1999, Merrill Community Schools had two MHSAA Scholar-Athletes Award winners,” Thayer said. “The senior class that year had approximately 80 students; yet, they produced two winners of this prestigious award. I miss the student interaction and school pride associated with team-building in coaching, but I do not miss the travel.”

Many duties call

Some ADs, however, might rather board the buses than schedule them, another of the many duties carried out on a weekly basis. In some cases, the position is responsible for school-wide transportation, not just athletic transportation.

Where once being the AD meant just that, the title for many in the profession today also includes a “/” before or after the words “athletic director.” It’s a trend which threatens the growth and quality of athletics in the educational mission of schools.

Even in schools where athletics are well entrenched and participation numbers soar, the people leading the charge are being asked to do more with less, often taking on responsibilities once doled out to two, and even three, individuals.

“Some of the larger challenges for me include the budget, balancing a very large work load, and just having enough time to evaluate coaches and programs effectively,” said Claar, who estimates that 60 percent of Pioneer’s 1,893 students participate in at least one sport.

Figuring conservatively, that’s more than 1,000 students deserving of her utmost attention in their extracurricular pursuits. But Claar also is assistant principal to the entire student body.

“Given the additional responsibilities, ADs are often spread too thin,” she said. “The time constraints make it difficult to complete all of the assigned tasks.”

Sonnenfeld, like so many others, attempts to split the time down the middle, but it rarely works out that way by the time he’s also done monitoring the cafeteria during lunch for a couple periods most days.

“I see between 35-60 kids every morning for various discipline issue,” said Sonnenfeld of one portion of his title. “I usually get to athletics by 1:00. I do as much as I can in the time that I have and then stay late on game days and catch up. And in my free time I’m responsible for renting out the athletic facilities. I make myself leave at a normal time on non-event days so that my family sees me.”

Additionally, he oversees the middle school athletic program, and feels guilty that he can’t devote more time to that level. He needn’t feel that way. If it weren’t for Sonnenfeld, the middle school would not have athletics at all.

“The middle school suffers because I cannot get down there to watch over stuff, but this is better than not having any middle school sports at all. They canceled them for a year, and got rid of the middle school athletic coordinator position and put the duties on me,” he said.

Sonnenfeld is not alone. Duties seem similar across the board.

“I am also responsible for coordinating all building facility usage, fundraising and transportation as well as lunch/hallway supervision before, during and after school,” Mohney said. “Athletic administration alone for grades 6-12 in a Class A school is a full-time, 14-hour-a-day job.  It is extremely difficult.”

While not included in his title of activities director, Ervin, too, is expected to mete out discipline and supervise lunches on a regular basis.

“Time is a major obstacle,” Ervin said. “When our assistant principal is out of the building I take on most of the discipline in his absence, which leads to days where athletics and activities get zero attention.”

Rewarding pursuit

While frustrations can mount, the leaders of school sports programs also tend to be tough self-critics. Somewhere along the line, these folks noticed sacrifices being made by people like them while they were the same age as today’s students. They now carry those lessons forward. 

“I had a very positive experience as a three-sport athlete in high school. My coaches all motivated me toward excellence while providing positive lessons and guidance,” said Mohney. “After graduation and upon returning to Michigan after four years of active military duty, my high school football coach offered me a JV football coaching position and strongly suggested that I may have what it takes to be a good teacher and coach. That guidance inspired me.” 

Ditto for Gordon.

“When I hired into Royal Oak, there were several people who impacted me as a professional,” Gordon said. “Chuck Jones was our district AD, and he along with Frank Clouser (varsity baseball coach) really made a difference in where I am today. Chuck was always the constant professional who is arguably the most organized and efficient man I have ever met. Frank is the best coach I have ever been around. I have never met a coach who would break down skills and have the unique ability to teach every facet of the game.”

Creating similar moments for countless student-athletes in their hallways is the ultimate goal for today’s athletic directors. Being told they’ve done just that is enough to make all the cafeteria supervision worthwhile.

“The most rewarding part of athletics is when I observe a student who has come from a tough home environment, and through his or her involvement in athletics, they shine,” said Ervin.

“I always love it when graduated student-athletes come back to visit the school,” Mohney said, “so I can meet their children and hear of their successes in life.”

PHOTO: Greenville athletic director Brian Zdanowski points out features of the home lockerroom at Legacy Field, which opened for his school's football teams last fall. 

2023 Forsythe Award Celebrates Leinaar's 40 Years Dedicated to School Sports

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

March 8, 2023

Few people in Michigan have had a longer-lasting influence on the rules and policies of educational athletics than Frankfort’s Karen Leinaar, who has served in several roles locally, statewide and nationally over more than 40 years contributing to the school sports community.

Thank you, Bill Baker.

The longtime teacher, coach, principal and superintendent during a career that stretched across multiple schools – including Leinaar’s growing up, Delton Kellogg – made an impression on the standout multi-sport athlete before she graduated from high school in 1977. Baker’s philosophy and work led Leinaar to study education at Michigan State University and then brought her back as Delton’s athletic director to begin four decades of making the same impact on children in her hometown and eventually in hometowns all over Michigan and beyond.

Baker died in 2009, but not before continuing to mentor Leinaar through many good times and tough ones.

“The man had two daughters that I grew up with, his wife was a teacher, and he demonstrated to all of us – he never missed an event – that we were important to him. That even though we weren’t his kids, we were his kids and athletics was a way to help kids become better people – and for some kids it was the only thing that they had positive in their life,” Leinaar said. “And he made it known just to that individual kid how important their participation was and their involvement, and how that helped them become the person that they were.

“That to me was such an example of how to help people be good people, that I just took that role on.”

It’s a role in which she continues to serve. Leinaar began her career as an athletic administrator in 1982, and as the interim athletic director currently at Frankfort High School is serving her fifth district in that position. Since June 2019, she also has served as executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), the professional organization for school sports administrators in the state with a membership of nearly 700.

Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998. To recognize that longtime and continuing impact, Leinaar has been named the 2023 honoree for the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Charles E. Forsythe Award.

The annual award is in its 46th year and named after former MHSAA Executive Director Charles E. Forsythe, the Association's first full-time and longest-serving chief executive. Forsythe Award recipients are selected each year by the MHSAA Representative Council, based on an individual's outstanding contributions to the interscholastic athletics community.

Leinaar also served 22 years on the MHSAA’s Representative Council and a four-year term from 2009-13 on the Board of Directors for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), and just last week was named to the 2023 class of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) Hall of Fame.

“It is impossible even to estimate the number of students, coaches, administrators and others who have been affected by the work Karen Leinaar has done to make school sports the best they can be – not only in her communities, but across Michigan and throughout the country,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are few who have equaled her dedication and her support and promotion of the ideals of school-based sports. She has always placed an emphasis on being in the room, on the field or at the arena, actively participating in her leadership roles, and our programs are better for it.”

Leinaar first served as athletic director at Delton Kellogg for nearly 17 years, from March 1982 through October 1998. She spent three years at Gaylord, then 8½ at Benzie Central before taking over at Bear Lake in November 2010 and spending the next decade organizing athletic programs for students in grades 5-12 before retiring in January 2021. She came out of retirement to return to the athletic director’s chair this past fall as interim AD at Frankfort. She has completed nearly four years as MIAAA executive director, moving into that position after previously serving nine years as an assistant to the executive.

Leinaar began her service on the Representative Council in Fall 1999 and completed her last term as a statewide at-large representative at the Fall 2021 meeting.

She has been honored several times for her contributions. She received the MHSAA’s Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998, a Citation from the NFHS in 2000, and she was named MIAAA Athletic Director of the Year in 2001. She received an MHSAA’s Allen W. Bush Award in 2014 – recognition given for work done generally behind the scenes and with little attention.

“This is the top of the mountain, per se. This one does mean so much,” Leinaar said of the Forsythe Award. “The names that are associated with this over the years, I never thought I’d be put in that group.”

Leinaar remains a continuous source of support at a multitude of MHSAA championship events, and during her time on Council was one of the most frequent representatives handing out trophies and medals to champions and runners-up at Finals events. She began while athletic director at Delton Kellogg hosting the MHSAA Volleyball Finals in Class B and Class C and continues to assist with those championships now played at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.

She also hosted Competitive Cheer Finals at Delton Kellogg in 1996 and 1997, Ski Finals while at Gaylord, and many more championship events across the Lower Peninsula. She continues to assist at the MHSAA’s Lower Peninsula Cross Country and Track & Field Finals.

After attending Delton Kellogg High School, Leinaar earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, health and recreation, with a minor in driver education, from MSU in 1982. She completed a master’s in athletic administration from Western Michigan University in 1994.

Leinaar has been a member for 40 years of both the MIAAA and NIAAA, and has served as chairperson of the MIAAA Annual Conference and awards chairperson for both the state and national bodies. She’s also served as chairperson of the MIAAA’s Exemplary Athletic Program.

Past recipients of the Charles E. Forsythe Award 

1978 - Brick Fowler, Port Huron; Paul Smarks, Warren 
1979 - Earl Messner, Reed City; Howard Beatty, Saginaw 
1980 - Max Carey, Freesoil 
1981 - Steven Sluka, Grand Haven; Samuel Madden, Detroit
1982 - Ernest Buckholz, Mt. Clemens; T. Arthur Treloar, Petoskey
1983 - Leroy Dues, Detroit; Richard Maher, Sturgis 
1984 - William Hart, Marquette; Donald Stamats, Caro
1985 - John Cotton, Farmington; Robert James, Warren 
1986 - William Robinson, Detroit; Irving Soderland, Norway 
1987 - Jack Streidl, Plainwell; Wayne Hellenga, Decatur 
1988 - Jack Johnson, Dearborn; Alan Williams, North Adams
1989 - Walter Bazylewicz, Berkley; Dennis Kiley, Jackson 
1990 - Webster Morrison, Pickford; Herbert Quade, Benton Harbor 
1991 - Clifford Buckmaster, Petoskey; Donald Domke, Northville 
1992 - William Maskill, Kalamazoo; Thomas G. McShannock, Muskegon 
1993 - Roy A. Allen Jr., Detroit; John Duncan, Cedarville 
1994 - Kermit Ambrose, Royal Oak 
1995 - Bob Perry, Lowell 
1996 - Charles H. Jones, Royal Oak 
1997 - Michael A. Foster, Richland; Robert G. Grimes, Battle Creek 
1998 - Lofton C. Greene, River Rouge; Joseph J. Todey, Essexville 
1999 - Bernie Larson, Battle Creek 
2000 - Blake Hagman, Kalamazoo; Jerry Cvengros, Escanaba 
2001 - Norm Johnson, Bangor; George Lovich, Canton 
2002 - John Fundukian, Novi 
2003 - Ken Semelsberger, Port Huron
2004 - Marco Marcet, Frankenmuth
2005 - Jim Feldkamp, Troy
2006 - Dan McShannock, Midland; Dail Prucka, Monroe
2007 - Keith Eldred, Williamston; Tom Hickman, Spring Lake
2008 - Jamie Gent, Haslett; William Newkirk, Sanford Meridian
2009 - Paul Ellinger, Cheboygan
2010 - Rudy Godefroidt, Hemlock; Mike Boyd, Waterford
2011 - Eric C. Federico, Trenton
2012 - Bill Mick, Midland
2013 - Jim Gilmore, Tecumseh; Dave Hutton, Grandville
2014 - Dan Flynn, Escanaba

2015 - Hugh Matson, Saginaw
2016 - Gary Hice, Petoskey; Gina Mazzolini, Lansing
2017 - Chuck Nurek, Rochester Hills
2018 - Gary Ellis, Allegan
2019 - Jim Derocher, Negaunee; Fredrick J. Smith, Stevensville
2020 - Michael Garvey, Lawton
2021 - Leroy Hackley Jr., Byron Center; Patti Tibaldi, Traverse City
2022 - Bruce Horsch, Houghton

PHOTOS (Top) Karen Leinaar, left, awards the 2022 Division 4 volleyball finalist trophy to Indian River Inland Lakes coach Nicole Moore. (Middle) Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998.