Putting athletics under the microscope

By Josh Shure and Troy Barnes

Instability in the department causes concern

William Miguel

Junior college athletics provides a platform for thousands of student athletes around the nation to play collegiate sports while optimizing their academic and athletic potential to eventually transfer to a four-year university. Athletics is constantly used by institutions as a promotional tool to attract prospective students because success in it can easily be determined. Santa Monica College's Vice President of Student Affairs Mike Tuitasi judges success of Athletics based "on the positive experience that student-athletes have in their sport. In addition, student-athletes reaching their academic goals as well as their athletic goals is an indicator of success."

After what has been a roller coaster calendar year for SMC athletics, a thorough examination is in order to determine the current status of the department.

The SMC Athletic Department, which offers 17 sports, 8 men’s and 9 women’s, had a successful year by Tuitasi's definition, as shown by the awards handed out on May 12 by the SMC General Advisory Board to the most outstanding scholar athletes of the past year.

Since SMC brought in Reggie Ellis as the new interim athletic director in September 2015, the football team went undefeated and won a championship, men’s soccer, women’s soccer and men’s volleyball all reached the playoffs, both the men’s basketball and women’s volleyball teams finished with winning records and cheerleading took fourth at Nationals.

However, with all the success athletics had this year came turmoil as well. The cheerleading program was indefinitely suspended, head football coach Gifford Lindheim and many of his supporting coaches left for El Camino College, women’s volleyball coach and SMC alumna Nicole Ryan left to take a job at Brentwood High School coaching volleyball and women’s soccer coach Aaron Benditson was fired. The department also faces sanctions handed down from the district. All of these things leave several questions loom around the Athletic Department's future heading into the summer.

Problems like these are nothing new to SMC athletics though. One of the major problems for the program has been the lack of consistency at the head of the department.

Since Ellis arrived at SMC, he has had to tackle issues that stem from well before he ever stepped foot on campus. Over the past couple of years, there have been several violations by several different sports, consequently resulting in sanctions. An integral part of working past a probation period is implementing a system and structure that this department has been lacking. However, the athletic director position has simply been a revolving door hiring process.

“It’s always been tough because my whole time here, there’s been so many different athletic directors," said Brian Eskridge, who's been coaching water polo at SMC for the last five years. "It’s always changing from one to the next to the next. There’s no real stability.”

Over the course of the last seven years, there have been six different athletic directors and three in the last four years.

“Two of those AD’s served as interim AD,” said Tuitasi, who is in charge of oversight of the Athletics Department. “I hope to hire a permanent AD this year.”

It’s not surprising to see violations occur when there has yet to be a constant head of the department.

As the summer approaches, some good news has come from the department in regards to handling the coaching vacancies.

Aaron Benditson, who was fired a few months ago, has been reinstated as the head coach of women's soccer. After numerous meetings with union representatives and SMC administration, a decision was made that the firing should have never occurred. Benditson was unable to be reached for comment.

In a recent development, a new head football coach has been hired. Tuitasi confirmed that SMC has hired William Laslett to replace the departing Lindheim.

[pullquote speaker="Josh Shure" photo="" align="left" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]Since Ellis arrived at SMC, he has had to tackle issues that stem from well before he ever stepped foot on campus.[/pullquote]

While the football coaching vacancy has been filled, the women’s volleyball coaching position remains open, but Tuitasi said that they are in the process of filling it.

Lastly, the cheer program will continue in this upcoming semester, however, it is not considered part of the Athletic Department. A cheerleading class will be offered in the 2016 Fall Semester, but Tuitasi said, “Cheer does not fall under CCCAA [California Community College Athletics Association].”

Neither the women’s volleyball nor the football coaching positions have been approved as full-time positions.

The reason why SMC was unable to retain the coaching services of two of their most decorated coaches, Lindheim and Ryan, is the fact that neither of them were full-time.

Currently, the Athletic Department only has one full-time head coach: women’s basketball coach Lydia Strong. Besides Strong, all 16 of the other head coaches are part-time.

The differences between a part-time coach and full-time coach are drastic.

First, being full-time provides job security. Former swimming coach Steve Contarsy was fired from his coaching position, however, retained his tenured kinesiology position.

Additionally, the difference in pay and benefits is nearly $100,000. For instance, Strong’s pay and benefits as full-time faculty totaled $144,107 in 2014, while part-timer Lindheim’s pay and benefits totaled $50,828. For someone like Lindheim, who has a family to provide for, this was insufficient to live on.

“I taught Middle School PE from 7:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. [while at SMC],” said Lindheim. “[El Camino] offered me a full-time teaching job on campus. I have been part-time at SMC for the past 7 years.”

“Full-time faculty positions are submitted to the Full-Time Faculty Hiring Committee. A full-time coaching position was submitted this year. However, it didn’t rank favorably,” said Tuitasi.

Glendale Community College’s athletics program offers 12 sports, has 10 head coaches and seven full-time coaches. LA Valley College has 10 head coaches, six of which are full-time. El Camino College, where Lindheim took a new job, has 14 head coaches, 10 of which are full-time and it has an additional seven full-time coaches in the department besides the head coaches.

“The department has submitted proposals for head full-time coaching positions for the past five years,” said Tuitasi. He also explained how having more full-time head coaches would provide stability for the department, specifically because “they are more accessible to their student-athletes.”

In addition, in an attempt to break the mold of previous years and provide stability to the department, Tuitasi hopes to hire a permanent AD this year. "The position will be open to all qualified applicants," he said.

Reggie Ellis was unable to be reached for comment on whether he will seek the permanent position.

For the time being, time will only tell on who will fill the remaining coaching vacancy and whether the department will retain an athletic director for longer than a year.

However, even with all the stresses of being a part-time faculty mixed with the minimal support from the administration, coaches such as Eskridge can't fathom the idea of leaving SMC saying, "I love SMC... this is where I want to be."

The legacy of the Corsair athletics department as seen from the awards that line the walls of the Corsair Gym offices.
The legacy of the Corsair athletics department as seen from the awards that line the walls of the Corsair Gym offices.