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Coaching high school football in greater Richmond is a 12-month job on a 3-month salary

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Highland Springs football coach Loren Johnson runs a drill with players in late November. He says there are team activities every week of the year outside dead periods.

When Loren Johnson isn’t coaching football at Highland Springs, and when he isn’t teaching physical education, he delivers packages for Amazon.

He’ll spend four hours on a summer day shuttling boxes around the city in his Toyota Sequoia, earning him about $90. If the football team is scheduled to work out that day, he’ll drive to school, open the weight room, leave to deliver packages and return hours later to lock up.

In the month of July, he drove 4,000 miles for Amazon, all to make a little extra money.

“You’re just looking for opportunities to supplement your income as best you possibly can,” said Johnson, who last weekend led the Springers to their fourth consecutive state championship.

It’s common for high school football coaches to take third jobs because coaching pays so little. Johnson makes more money delivering packages than he does coaching football.

He spends dozens of hours a week leading practices, meeting with assistants and communicating with college coaches. His coaching job - his second job - begins in January and ends in December. And for all that work, he earns a yearly stipend of about $4,000, which comes on top of his teaching salary.

Amazon delivery

Highland Springs football coach Loren Johnson delivers packages for Amazon when he's not teaching or coaching. He drove 4,000 miles for Amazon during July.

As high school football has become more competitive, the sport has transformed into a year-round endeavor. The Virginia High School League legalized out-of-season practices in 2011, and now almost every team practices and trains throughout winter and spring.

If you want to stay competitive, coaches say, you can’t rest during the offseason.

“Football never stops,” Henrico coach Gerald Glasco said. “It’s a 12-month grind.”

But what has become standard in football is still considered extra by the school divisions. Many coaches work on a contract that begins in August and ends in November. Most head coaches are teachers, and their stipend comes added on to their September, October and November paychecks or in one lump sum at the end of the season.

That means, in a sense, every out-of-season workout and meeting is conducted off the clock. So are state tournament games played in December. When Highland Springs and Manchester played Saturday in the state championship games, their coaches weren't paid anything extra, even though their season continued longer than others.

This arrangement isn't found in every state. Farther south, in states such as Georgia, Alabama and Texas, coaching high school football is a lucrative full-time job. A handful of coaches have left Virginia for bigger paychecks farther south.

Coaches still here are left wondering how such an arrangement is legal. Could a lawsuit improve their compensation?

Despite the long hours and low pay, men across the Richmond area continue to coach the sport. Their reason for showing up day after day is a simple one: They love football, and they care about molding young men.

“You’ve got to love what you do,” Johnson said.

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Former Colonial Heights High School coach Buzz Edwards once figured that he earned 87 cents per hour as an assistant football coach at another school. “None of us are out here to get rich. I did it because I enjoy it,” he says.

‘We are doing something every week’

At L.C. Bird, the 2018 season ended Nov. 16 in a second-round playoff loss to Henrico. Three weeks later, offseason workouts began in preparation for the 2019 season. Coaches throughout the area agree that you can’t be successful if you don’t train out of season.

“You can’t survive without a strength and conditioning program,” former Colonial Heights coach Buzz Edwards said.

Colonial Heights went 0-10 the year before it hired Edwards. Then he installed a year-round weight lifting program and won three games the next year. Almost every school conducts out-of-season conditioning now.

While some school divisions offer small stipends for offseason conditioning, many coaches make nothing for the hours they spend overseeing the weight room. And yet, players and parents expect coaches to work when they’re not getting paid. If a coach doesn’t hold enough practices or treat them seriously enough, players are apt to transfer to another school. That was one reason cited after several players left Hermitage in the summer.

“There’s a lot of expectation,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to [practice year-round] to compete.”

Exercising 12 months a year isn’t new to high school football. But before 2011, teams were limited to training and conditioning only – they weren’t allowed to touch a football before August. Once the VHSL legalized out-of-season practices, teams began to run drills and play 7-on-7 games, further adding to their offseason schedules.

But staying competitive isn’t the only reason why schools practice and train so hard, Edwards said. It’s a safety issue, too. Take out-of-shape boys, put them on the field against bigger, stronger opponents, and someone is bound to get hurt.

"There’s a lot of expectation. You’ve got to [practice year-round] to compete."

-Loren Johnson, Highland Springs coach

At Highland Springs, the football team meets two days a week for two and a half hours a day during the winter. In the spring, they up their regimen to three days a week. There are dead periods and limits set by Henrico County on how much a team can practice. Still, Johnson estimates that the team meets more than 50 times during the offseason.

“We’re doing something every week except dead periods,” Johnson said.

Deep Run coach Chad Hornik worries that teams are stuck in a never-ending arms race to see who can train the hardest. He estimates the job of coaching high school football occupies 60 hours a week during the season and 20 to 30 in the offseason.

Practicing all or most of the year isn’t limited to football. Teams in other sports have taken advantage of out-of-season practice rules, though it’s not as common. The Hanover baseball team practices from September to June, and the girls basketball team at Highland Springs trains every month except July.

While coaches spend numerous hours at practices and games, that’s not where their job duties end. They paint fields, attending coaching clinics and booster meetings and drive players to out-of-state college camps.

In 2016, Johnson and one of his assistants spent a snow day meeting college coaches who had flown in to visit Highland Springs senior K’Von Wallace. The coaches were supposed to meet Wallace at school, but class had been canceled. Wallace’s mother was at work, and Johnson didn’t want Wallace hosting coaches all day by himself.

“We weren’t at work, but we were working,” Johnson said.

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Highland Springs coach Loren Johnson at a November practice. The average stipend for a high school football coach in Henrico County is $4,415.

‘I really wasn’t getting paid that much anyway’

Before he got the head coaching job at Colonial Heights, Edwards was an assistant at Dinwiddie, and his stipend was $3,200 a year. One day he added up all the hours he spent at summer camp, 7-on-7, film reviews, lifting sessions and meetings with players. He figured that he earned 87 cents per hour as an assistant football coach.

In the Richmond, Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield, head football coaches make between $3,100 and $5,800 per year. The average stipend in Henrico is $4,415 for a head coach and $2,704 for an assistant. In Hanover, the averages are $4,309 and $2,796, respectively.

The average stipend in Henrico is $4,415 for a head coach and $2,704 for an assistant.

Spokespeople from the Chesterfield and Richmond school divisions were unable to provide average stipends, but they did provide a range. In Chesterfield, head coaches are paid between $3,199 and $5,157. In Richmond they make between $3,300 and $4,100.

If a coach is a teacher, he earns his stipend on top of his teaching salary, which in the four largest local school divisions averages between $48,000 in Chesterfield to $56,000 in Hanover, according state data.

But some don’t get paid any stipend at all, such as Keylon Mayo, an assistant coach at Highland Springs.

After spending two years as the head coach at Glen Allen, Mayo resigned following the 2015 season. The next summer, he was offered a spot on the coaching staff at Highland Springs. There was one caveat – the position was unpaid.

But Mayo accepted. He was making $3,100 at Glen Allen, so he figured taking a volunteer job wasn’t that significant a pay cut.

“When I was getting paid to be a head coach, I really wasn’t getting paid that much anyway,” he said. “So volunteering wouldn’t be that much of a difference.”

For the past three years, Mayo has coached the centers on the offensive line, led the team’s college recruiting efforts and taken on other tasks. He is one of nine volunteer assistants on the coaching staff. While there are 19 coaches on the team, only 10 get paid.

Henrico County gives each school six assistant football coaching stipends, but a stipend can be split to increase the number of coaches on staff. At Manchester, which is located in Chesterfield and won the Class 6 state title last week, 18 men coach the team, but 10 are unpaid.

The low pay is one reason why turnover is so rapid. The median length of stay for a head coach in the Richmond area is three years. At nearly half the local schools, the current coach has been in place two years or less.

Their stipends can increase slightly. Chesterfield raised them by 2 percent this year, the same increase it gave to all teachers' salaries. But they can also be the target of budget cuts. In 2014, the city of Hampton cut them by 25 percent during an economic downturn. In 2010, then-Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed eliminating stipends altogether and asking coaches to work for free.

"Our coaches earn every dollar of their stipends and then some."

-Amy Cashwell, Superintendent of Henrico County schools

Earlier this week, current Gov. Ralph Northam proposed a 5 percent raise for teachers, but it's unclear if the increase would affect stipends.

Henrico County superintendent Amy Cashwell praised the work of the school division's coaches as well as its teachers and other employees.

"Our coaches earn every dollar of their stipends and then some," Cashwell said in a statement. "Perhaps only the coaches themselves and their immediate families know just how much hard work after hours and on nights and weekends goes into leading a team of student-athletes, and we're so grateful for that commitment.

"I look forward to working with our state leaders to make things better across the board for all of our employees and students."

A spokesman for Hanover County schools said the division wasn't aware of any concerns expressed about football coaches' stipends.

Jason Meade

Jason Meade coached at Lee-Davis before taking a higher-paying job in Georgia. There are more resources for high school football there, he said.

Farther south, coaches make six figures

Hornik, the Deep Run coach, has a sister in Texas. A few years ago, his sister sent him an advertisement for a job coaching high school football in Austin. The position paid $105,000, roughly 28 times more than what Hornik earns.

But Hornik never applied. He has a business and a family in Richmond, which is the same reason why most coaches don’t move south to take better paying jobs. Many of them grew up in the Richmond area, and some coach at the school where they once played.

Some of them, however, have left for more profitable destinations. Jason Meade grew up in Richmond and coached at Highland Springs for five years and Lee-Davis for two before moving to Marietta High School outside Atlanta. Money wasn’t the sole factor for leaving, he said. But it did play a part.

At Marietta, he said, there are more resources directed toward high school football, including a better stadium, more practice fields and a more profitable booster club. Four years ago, Marietta’s football stadium was renovated at a price of $11.3 million. The cost was split between the Georgia department of education and Marietta City Schools.

“Football is a little more important here, community-wise,” he said.

He got paid more, too. His stipend as an assistant in Georgia was 50 percent more than what he made as a head coach in Hanover, and his teaching salary increased. He's now an assistant principal for the school.

In Alabama, head coaches can earn up to $130,000 annually, Bell said.

In Georgia, head coaches make substantially more than they do in Virginia. The job pays between $80,000 and $105,000, he said, and the coaches aren’t necessarily teachers. 

Another who left is Cris Bell, a former James River coach who now leads the program at Oak Mountain High School in Birmingham, Ala. In Alabama, head coaches can earn up to $130,000 annually, Bell said. What’s more important to him, he said, is that administrators there place a higher value on athletics. And that might be the crux of the problem. In Virginia, crowds at games can be smaller and support from the community is less enthusiastic.

With the bigger pay check comes a tradeoff, he said. Expectations are higher and losing is less tolerated.

“You make a mistake and it’s magnified,” Bell said. “You say the wrong thing and it’s magnified. You can’t be anonymous down here.”

Edwards, the former Colonial Heights coach, said he wouldn’t be surprised if more coaches in Virginia followed the path of Meade and Bell.

“All over [Virginia] there’s good football,” he said. “I imagine a couple of those coaches would roll the dice and see what they could do at a different state.”

Class 6 state football championship, Manchester vs. Freedom

Coach Tom Hall speaks to the Manchester football team after it won the Class 6 state championship last week. Of the 18 men who coach the team, only 10 get paid.

Could coaches sue?

Some football coaches have wondered how it’s legal for school divisions to let coaches work so many hours and earn so few dollars. The law generally requires employers to pay workers 1½ times their hourly rate for every hour that exceeds 40 in a week. Some coaches have discussed the idea of a lawsuit.

They wouldn’t be the first to attempt one.

A golf coach and security assistant at Hayfield Secondary School in Fairfax sued the Fairfax County School Board for unpaid overtime wages. James Purdham claimed he worked between 400 and 450 hours and was paid $2,114 for the 2008-09 school year.

"Until Congress or the legislature give schools a lot more money, which realistically is not going to happen, I don’t think it’s changing."

-Barbara Queen, an employment lawyer in Richmond

But the court ruled in 2011 that under the Fair Labor Standards Act, high school coaches are considered volunteers, not employees.

Under the act, a volunteer is an “individual who performs hours of service for a public agency for civic, charitable or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered," the ruling stated.

Barbara Queen, an employment lawyer in Richmond, says she doesn’t see the current financial arrangement changing any time soon.

“Until Congress or the legislature give schools a lot more money, which realistically is not going to happen, I don’t think it’s changing,” Queen said. “The reverse would be catastrophic. Schools would have to get rid of all their sports programs.”

And yet, despite the long hours and little pay, schools keep finding new coaches. At many schools the field of applicants is large and competitive. Some assistants spend years working their way up the chain.

While many coaches leave after a few years, some stay for decades.

“Every coach tells you the same thing,” Edwards said. “None of us are out here to get rich. I did it because I enjoy it. I love it. It’s the closest you can get to playing without putting a helmet on. It changed my life when I was growing up. To have the opportunity to have that role in somebody else’s life, that’s why we do it.”

Sports reporter

Eric Kolenich writes sports stories for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, focusing on local athletes and teams. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 2008 with a BA in English and joined the paper in 2009. (804) 649-6109

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