Jefferson's troubles are another opportunity for PPS

Actions by coaches give leaders a chance to show their leadership skills
Sept. 17, 2012 / By Cliff Pfenning, oregonsports.com

“Accept the challenges so you may feel the exhilaration of victory.” 

George S. Patton

“An association of men who will not quarrel with one another is a thing which has never yet existed, from the greatest confederacy of nations down to a town meeting or a vestry.” 

Thomas Jefferson

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

“If you cannot punt, do not face fourth-and-long.”

Cliff Pfenning


There’s about a million famous quotes that can be referenced to the situation the Jefferson High School football program is facing this week.

The varsity team is 0-3 and lost its league opener on Friday, so reaching the state playoffs is what the players might be focused on. But, the bigger issue is one relating to the sidelines, where the coaches are during a game, or should be, anyway.

Friday, coaches from the team were so verbally abusive of officials during the 30-12 loss to visiting Madison that the head official actually stopped the game with time remaining.

The game outcome had been decided – just 2 minutes, 59 seconds remained – but those few remaining plays are the ones regularly used to get second- and third-team players into a game.

And, they’re part of the 48-minute game. No one there that I talked to had ever been to a game actually ended by officials because of coaches.

It’s a mini-disaster at a school that regularly encounters mini-disasters, both inside and outside its hallways. Jefferson is the lone school in the state where African-American students are a majority of total population. It’s had a constant rotation in its administration and was nearly closed just a couple years ago. Football and basketball home games attract what you might call and police outpost, around the ticket booth because shootings during those events are not uncommon.

So, what to do?

The team. The athletic department. The school. The district athletic department. The school district itself? The state officials association is involved. Even the Oregon School Activities Association has a reason to become involved.

When I tell people about the game’s end, and I was standing 20 feet from where it all went down, the response is consistent: how can adults act like that in front of kids they’re supposed to be setting an example for? In front of the community they represent?

Jefferson has faced and overcome similar challenges in the recent past. In 2009, the team had what amounted to a bench-clearing brawl during a road game at Crater in Central Point. That circumstance got the OSAA involved, and it was caused by players.

The Democrats lost the game and were 0-4 at the time, but won their next nine games to reach the Class 5A state final, where they lost to Hillsboro and Colt Lyerla.

What makes the coaches’ actions more of a challenge is the coaching staff itself – head coach Aaron Gipson had not coached at any level before being hired in late spring to lead the program.

His hiring was seen by more than a few members of the surrounding community as something of a “glam” hire because of his connection to the University of Oregon, where he played from 2002-05. Everything connected to the UO football program these days seems to exude excellence, regardless of the logic that leads to that conclusion.

Gipson played at Oregon, so he must know everything about football, including all the elements of coaching.

Having met him several times as both a community member – my kids can attend Jefferson – and as a reporter, and even watched two of the team’s three games, Gipson is the kind of coach I can see having my son play under:

• Jefferson’s players are well conditioned. In the two games I’ve seen, not one player has left the field from muscular cramping, even though they’ve played in conditions that would lead to that, especially as the key players are on the field virtually the entire game.

• Even under a first-year coach, the Democrats are a competitive team. They don’t have much of a running game, but a lot of teams don’t have much of a passing game. They focus on their strength.

• Jefferson’s players play with a lot of heart, a ton of heart. Despite being the smallest school at the Class 5A level (Jefferson would be one of the smallest schools at Class 4A, too), the Democrats have made the state playoffs six years in a row, and won the Portland Interscholastic League title four of those years. And, of course, they played in the state title game just three years ago.

The team’s big problem currently, is the simple lack of experienced leadership on the football field on game night.

Gipson’s background is in speed and agility training, so it follows the team would be set up to play for a whole game without cramping up.

Gipson’s further training is as a mentor, which is how he got involved with Jefferson in the first place - talking with athletes after a shooting at the school last year. So it figures the players might be able to overcome challenges and play with a lot of heart under his leadership.

Gipson just lacks the kind of coaching experience that would lead him to jump in the face of an assistant and keep them from getting a game halted. It might lead him to better control the flow of a game so that the Democrats might win in a close contest.

I can’t help but think Friday’s game would not have ended the way it did if only the Democrats could punt effectively, as in when it’s fourth and long, they were able to snap the ball to a punter, who kicked it away so that the strategic value of field position was affected.

Jefferson’s defense might not have given up four touchdowns if it was able to defend 60 yards instead of 35. The Demos set up to punt four times, but only got one punt away – the other three were disasters and didn’t involve the ball getting kicked.

In a closer contest, the Jefferson’s assistants would have had more reason to control their emotions to avoid penalties for their actions.

So, what to do?

Suspend coaches? The level of penalties suggests this to some degree.

Fire coaches? There’s at least one assistant who should be removed.

Fire the whole staff?

This would be a significantly harsh move and would affect the players on the field to an unfair level. Gipson and his staff have guided the team to a competitive level, but just had a really bad game.

It was a rough game to watch, too, because of all the penalties. There were a lot of penalties, especially holding calls. Without having kept track, I can’t say how many, but if someone suggested there were 20 holding calls in the game, I wouldn’t doubt it. There were a lot of holding calls, on Madison, too.

Coaches from virtually any team would have been frustrated with the level of penalties called in the game, and the state officials association might look into the game as well.

What Jefferson needs is access to an experienced coach, and not a replacement for Gipson, but simply a mentor. There’s tons of experienced coaches who might step in and sit down with Gipson and his staff and provide some expertise on how to move forward.

“Guys, here’s how we can succeed off the field, and on the field as well.”

The leadership of Portland Public Schools district doesn’t have a strong reputation, but this would be a fabulous way to look at the challenge of Friday night as an opportunity to show a path to success.

There’s corrective action that needs to happen, but there’s guidance that can happen, too.

The Jefferson football program is a chance to showcase what leaders of Portland Public Schools have learned. Let’s see what they’ve learned.


The key to more money is getting more from the money you already have

Mon, 04/16/2012 - 11:08am
Cliff Pfenning
Cliff Pfenning's picture
Last seen: 2 weeks 1 day ago
Joined: 2010-07-01

In 2007, the Parkrose School Board looked several years into the future toward a bond measure it knew it would send to voters in 2011 and came up with a plan to help lobby the public: fix the football team.

For nearly two decades, Parkrose High had struggled to win on the field, especially in conference games. Headed for its second year in Class 5A, the Broncos hadn't won a conference game in 15 years.

That's right, no conference wins for 15 years.

The streak was easily explained by the school (around 1,100) being smaller in size to other schools within the Mount Hood Conference, but other schools the same size across the state were competitive on an annual basis. Ashland, roughly 1,100 students, had won the state title three times in the previous three decades.

So, school board members decided to devote energy to fixing the team. And, it had no trouble talking about a future bond measure being a motivator.

"Football is what gets press," School Board Chair James Woods said after Parkrose had lost its 81st straight district game dating to 1992. "We've got a great dance team, great drama, a great girls water polo team, but they never show up in the paper.

"Football is where the action is and we have to do a better job on the field to get people's attention because we've got things we need here. Our schools are bursting at the seams and if we're going to get a bond measure passed in the near future, we've got to be able to show that we can make things work, like the football team."

Four years later, the plan worked. The board and high school administrators had worked to revitalize the football program, which finally won a league game and then even qualified for the state playoffs, and voters passed a $63 million bond, which included money for a new middle school.

The bond passed by just six votes, but it passed.

In the neighboring Portland Public Schools district, a much larger bond measure - $548 million - failed. It failed, by one account, by just 601 of more than 120,000 votes, but it failed.
Football success likely had no impact on voting as most people had no reason to focus on football teams winning or losing. But, that can change.

As district leaders in Portland attempt to figure out how to organize another bond measure and then get it accepted by Portland voters, the Parkrose plan provides a good, and much needed, example for success: fix the football team.

What better way to show voters the district can put its energy to an issue and create results?

There's a lot of teams to fix, too.

In 2011, the district's six Class 5A schools struggled to win in alarming fashion. In the OSAA rankings that determine state playoff seeding, Jefferson ranked No. 21 among the 5A schools and won the Portland Interscholastic League title. The other five PIL schools? Dead last.

Among the 37 Class 5A school, the bottom five were from Portland: Franklin, Wilson, Benson, Cleveland and Madison.

At Class 6A, both PPS schools: Grant and Lincoln; won playoff games, and Roosevelt qualified for the Class 4A playoffs. But, at Class 5A, only Jefferson reached the playoffs, and the Democrats, who played for the state title two years earlier, lost 54-0 to eventual state champion Mountain View in the first round.

In non-league games, the six PIL teams went 2-26.

It's easy to argue that winning in football has nothing to do with academic success or why people vote for or against a bond measure, but the Parkrose plan offers at least a theory for how to get a bond passed - tell your constituency you're going to do something and then make it happen.

Football is the sport with the greatest chance to show off as there's simple ways to keep track of success - wins and losses, especially if the improved wins and losses were achieved without the need for more money. Some self-analysis might be all that's needed.

At Parkrose, administrators studied another school district and developed the varsity football program into the programs at younger grades. It hasn't turned the varsity team into a consistent winner, but the team does win and is competitive in most of its games. Kids register to play at a young age and keep playing so that numbers are not the problem they were before the board vaulted into fixing the team. The school board energy "fixed" the program by redeveloping how the teams got onto the field.

Getting the football team to be competitive might have only affected a few dozen, or even just a handful of voters, but it was something the district could promote as a success story in an extremely intense election year. The Parkrose bond was replacing a bond measure that was expiring, so it wouldn't raise property taxes. The Portland bond measure was being created, so property taxes were slated to increase, and Parkrose administrators had to battle to explain the difference to its voters.

With every little bit of success likely needed to get any future bond measure passed, especially in the current economic climate, success on a football field can be a significant factor for Portland Public Schools if the district can utilize that success appropriately.

It doesn't need to even involve winning, it just needs to involve success.

As it turned out, Portland's two non-league wins were both over the same team - Parkrose. Wilson beat Parkrose during the regular season, and Jefferson beat Parkrose during the play-in round that qualified the 16 teams for the state playoffs.

That was on the field, though. Off the field, Parkrose had already beaten Portland 601-6, and was making plans to construct a new middle school.

Tomorrow, the PIL's football history.

When will Portland's school leaders re-examine Coach Smith?

Wed, 05/18/2011 - 6:41am
Cliff Pfenning
Cliff Pfenning's picture
Last seen: 2 weeks 1 day ago
Joined: 2010-07-01

In the sports world, if you were a fan of the Portland Public School system, you’d be pretty upset today with the impending failure of a bond measure sent to voters that would have rebuilt a number of buildings in the district.

A serial levy aimed at supporting the annual budget was passing by about the same margin as the bond measure was failing – 53 to 47 percent.

That’s winning with the levy - $57 million, but losing on the bond measure - $548 million.

After this result, hopefully the district’s Board of Directors will come to their senses and make a dramatic, yet needed decision, if a similar bond measure is to have any chance of passing during the 2012 general election: it needs to replace superintendent Carole Smith.

With the failure of another big idea, district leadership has another example that it simply doesn’t understand its own district, that’s parents and voters. Smith is the head coach of district leadership. So, she should get the fallout. And, that fallout should be in the form of a new job – somewhere elese.

Portlanders had two very different votes in front of them Tuesday.

The levy was a much easier vote to pass because it replaced a levy that voters had previously passed. This one just cost a little more, but every homeowner was already paying basically the same amount for a similar objective.

The bond measure? Well, it kind of sucked the more anyone learned about it. And, as a voter and parent and homeowner within the district, I felt that way, too. I live in the Jefferson High district and would love to have seen the school rebuilt from the ground up, because that would have been like getting an old school replaced with … Jesuit. My kids would get there in five years, when the smell of freshness would still be overwhelming.

Rebuilding Jefferson and several other schools, including Roosevelt and Cleveland High, were the key elements of the bond measure. A bond that paid for just rebuilding those schools might have had a better chance of passing because the results of the money were clear. It’s the rest of the bond that caught everyone’s attention, mine, too.

The elementary school my kids attend would have gotten a new, more efficient heating system, some other repairs, and … a covered playground. That’s right, a covered playground that it doesn’t need. It needs a new gym that can be constantly used by the school and community, not a covered playground that would rarely be used.

So, yes the bond gets you tickets to see the Lakers, the Heat, the Celtics, Bulls and Thunder. But, you’re also paying to see the Cavaliers, the Wizards, the Bobcats and Timberwolves. And, you get to see the Heat as many times as you get to see the Wizards.

Opponents of the bond didn’t need to spend any money, they just wrote a few op-ed stories pointing out how the district wanted to use money to build things like covered playgrounds.  Build schools? Yes. Build playgrounds. No. When they were attached to the same vote that would cost a homeowner an average of $350, that vote had failure written all over it.

Yes, the gym would be more expensive to build, but it would have been easier to see its value and attach that feeling to the rest of the bond. If a voter is going to pay for something big, it better have some big results – a gym, not a covered playground.

Way to go PPS Board of Directors and its public leader, Carole Smith, for firing up another 30-foot bomb that only had a remote chance of even hitting the rim, much less finding the net.

When the district recoils and puts another bond on the ballot in 2012 (and it damn well better because the need for all the projects covered by this one is still there), it needs to have different leadership for that bond to have any chance at passing.

And that means a different head coach.

RSS feed