The final season for Juneau-Douglas High School football coach Rich Sjoroos may have passed by with no accolades.
No retirement ceremony. No tip of the hat on the road in Ketchikan, Soldotna, Anchorage, or any of the other towns he’s coached games in through the years.
Last season his Crimson Bears team finished runner up in the Medium School State Championship falling to Soldotna 56-49. Next season was to be his swan song before stepping down and leaving the team in another’s hands. That swan song plunged into the murky depths of Juneau School District policies. Sjooros isn’t a district teacher or employee. Someone who is wanted Sjooros’ job. That’s all it took.
“This is tough,” Sjoroos said. “I love Juneau-Douglas football, I love working for (Athletic Director Sandi Wagner). It will be hard to see it all go.”
Sjoroos is not a certified teacher but assistant coach Kevin Hamrick is. The two had initially agreed to one final season with Sjoroos at the helm before making the transition to Hamrick as head coach. Those plans changed two weeks ago, however. Since Sjoroos has been head coach no teacher ever asked to supplant him.
“It is going to be a real life-change for sure,” Sjoroos said. “I really wanted to go out on my own terms and that looks like it won’t be an option now. We have a lot of light bulbs out around the house, I guess I will be getting that kind of stuff done.”
Under the negotiated agreement between the Juneau Education Association and the Board of Education, priority for leading activities and coaching sports goes to JEA members first. Next priority goes to certified staff, then community members.
Athletic Director Wagner said the district “will be going through the hiring process as we do every year,” declining to elaborate on the Sjooros-Hamrick situation.
Each year the district sends coaches an email asking if they plan to coach the following year. Coaches are then notified by May 5 if they’ve been rehired. If a coaching job is vacant, or in Sjoroos’ case the coach isn’t a district employee, the job is posted within the district with staff members having five days to respond. Unfilled positions are posted district-wide and within the community until filled. Applications are typically finalized by May 19.
“Each situation is different,” Wagner said. “If there is an interview, it is a committee that is put together. It consists of a JEA member, a JESS member, a parent and sometimes an athlete. Sometimes it is more than that, sometimes it is less, and it really just depends on the situation. That committee would make a recommendation to the administration and the administration makes a decision.”
If no one applies for a vacant coaching spot then JSD administrators can place someone in the position. That typically doesn’t happen though.
“In the 17 years I have been here, at the high school level, that has never happened,” Wagner said. “I cannot speak to the middle school or elementary school level. If it were to happen you could only require them to do it for one year and then you have to find someone else to fill it.”
Hamrick has to wait until the coaching position is officially advertised to apply. Because football camps and activities are already being planned for next season he has asked that the position be advertised earlier than usual.
“I have struggled with what role to take right now,” Sjoroos said. “It creates confusion with the kids. Am I coach or not? Am I resigning or not? On a personal level you, really get connected to these kids. In the offseason when you are not out in the rain doing practice is where you connect with these kids, to know them a little better. It is tough, you develop relationships, and it is hard. Right now, I am kind of in the middle. I have gone to some workouts and I have missed a couple.”
Hamrick served as defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator from 1992-94 and as defensive coordinator from 1997-2000. He stepped away after the 2000 season to coach his sons in the Juneau Youth Football League.
“The only reason I joined the Bears again after a 15-year hiatus to raise my kids was because Rich told me he was retiring at the end of this last season,” Hamrick said. “He wanted to leave the program with somebody who would take care of it and had experience with it.”
Last season Hamrick was the JDHS assistant coach and in charge of the junior varsity program.
According to the two coaches, they had worked out an agreement since both Sjoroos and defensive coach Eddie Brakes were retiring after this past season. It was expected Hamrick would take over the team in 2015.
“I made all my plans starting way back before last season even started,” Hamrick said. “I was glad to have the opportunity to come on and learn what they were doing and learn the things that I wanted to change and things I wanted to keep, and to just get back into the politics of football.”
Last year the idea was to groom Hamrick for the following season. Half way through games, however, Sjoroos said he would like to do one more year.
According to Sjoroos, Hamrick told him, “I would never take it from you until you are ready.”
Sjoroos asked Hamrick to be the defensive coordinator to replace Brakes this coming season and Hamrick agreed.
“At the time it kind of caught me off guard and I said it would probably be fine,” Hamrick said. “But there is just too many things I want to do differently that I think will work better if I do it now, this way.”
Sjoroos received an email from Hamrick in late March requesting a meeting. Sjoroos thought the meeting was to discuss camps and weight programs.
“It was just the opposite,” Sjoroos said. “He asked me to resign and he wanted to take the team over now and he had a group of coaches who wanted to join him. The initial plan was that Hamrick was to be the defensive coordinator, work at the varsity level and connect with the older kids. That was our plan. He has a different plan now.
“He has made some strong statements. The biggest one is he feels that the program needs a complete overhaul. That is a tough one. That is not just offensive to me but to a lot of people who have invested in this program and elevated it to probably one of the strongest in the state.”
Hamrick stated he would not comment on exactly what would be tweaked in the JDHS system.
“There are just some things I want to do different,” Hamrick said. “I don’t want to put it in the newspaper because that would possibly degrade the things he did and that is not my intent. Certainly, as a teacher, I am going to value education extremely high. I am not saying it wasn’t valued. I didn’t deal that much with the varsity. That is one of the things I am going to change.”
Sjoroos defended the JDHS program.
“The program has the highest number of student athletes,” Sjoroos said. “We have what I believe is the most diverse group of kids compared to any other sport in the high school. We really embrace any kid, especially one who has had a challenging background or is harder to coach. We have embraced those kids and given them an opportunity to develop some skills and play a sport. A lot have made it through school because they have had those opportunities and have kept them on the right path.”
Sjoroos started with the JYFL in 1993 and coached for eight years. He became the Crimson Bears JV head coach for two years and the varsity offensive coordinator for six years before leading the team the past five seasons.
The Crimson Bears made the playoffs every year Sjoroos has been varsity head coach, went to the semifinals in nine of his 11 seasons and the finals five times, winning twice.
Normally JDHS runs a football camp on June 9 and then attends a camp in Boise, Idaho. Until the process of hiring a new coach is official, parent and players are in limbo concerning buying plane tickets, attending a different camp, or even possibly switching high schools.
“At this stage it is a strain on any program as they gear up for the following season,” Sjoroos said. “It would have been much smoother it this had been worked out at the end of the last season. There is a lot more than me involved. There are 40 other families.”
Sjooros said despite being asked he won’t resign.
“I do not want to resign. I don’t feel like it sends a good message to myself and my own family,” he said. “I committed to coaching this year. If it is deemed I am no longer needed to be the coach because they have somebody else, then that is one thing. But if I just resign, then that is saying I did not want to fulfill the commitment I made.”
Hamrick said he has been a Crimson Bears fan for 22 years. He has coached wrestling and still coaches track. He graduated high school in Washington in 1983 and attended college at Washington State University. He started as a walk-on and worked his way to a partial football scholarship.
“I am a fan,” Hamrick said. “I am a fan of any activity a kid is interested in, especially in a town where they are limited. It is not my intent to make this look bad on Rich. I respect what he has done with the program as far as winning goes. There is no denying it has been a winning program and I don’t want it to come off in any way that I am disrespecting him.”
Hamrick said he will interview the current staff and will absolutely be bringing in some of his own choices.
“I have talked to some of them,” Hamrick said. “They like football, they want to coach football. Some of them don’t care who the head coach is and some do, so we will just see how that plays out.”
Hamrick said the junior varsity program would run the same offenses and defenses as the varsity to minimize the learning curve.
Every year Sjoroos has faced the potential of someone applying for the head coaching position.
“But I have never had somebody just come tell me to my face that he was going to apply for it and take it,” Sjoroos said. “It has mentally been more challenging. If it had felt like this every year, I probably wouldn’t have stuck out coaching for so long. That uncertainty is hard. After 21 long years in this community coaching football, this hurts.”
Teams led by non-teaching coaches:
Jeep Rice (TMHS football), John Wray (JDHS swimming), Jason Wilson (TMHS swimming), John Blasco and Tanya Nizich (TMHS basketball), Dave Massey (JDHS softball), Jorge Cordero (TMHS softball), Will Race (JDHS baseball), Bill McCauley (TMHS baseball), Amy Skilbred (JDHS tennis), and Merry Ellefesson and Tristan Knutson-Lombardo (JDHS cross-country), among others.