Volunteer Assistants Face Steep Challenges During Shutdown

Image credit: Indiana volunteer assistnat coach Derek Simmons (Photo courtesy of Indiana University Athletics)

Alonzo Wright, like so many Americans, is waiting for his stimulus check to arrive from the federal government. He’s also looking forward to another stimulus check from the local government in Jacksonville, his hometown, as a part of a program designed to mitigate the effects of economic loss in the coronavirus pandemic.

The stimulus money is crucial for Wright, the volunteer assistant coach at Eastern Kentucky. The pandemic has had a deep affect on college baseball. It led to the unprecedented cancellation of the season and the College World Series and shuttered college campuses across the country.

For volunteer assistant coaches, the season’s cancellation and campus’ closure have been particularly difficult. Those measures have also resulted in the cancellation of camps, clinics and tournaments that colleges host around their own schedules. Those events create the revenue that fund volunteer assistants’ roles around the country.

“I’m waiting on my stimulus check and Jacksonville has a program as well,” said Wright, who returned home to Jacksonville after the season was canceled. “That’s where I’m at.”

The volunteer assistant coach title is a misnomer created by the NCAA rulebook. NCAA rules allow teams to have three full-time coaches – typically that means one head coach and two full-time, salaried assistants. Each team is also allowed a volunteer assistant, who cannot be salaried or receive benefits. But they are not true volunteers either. Their position is funded by revenue generated by events like camps and clinics.

At a school that can hold big camps (usually those in a major conference or near populous areas), the volunteer coach can make a solid living, albeit a benefits-free one. But at a school without those advantages, the volunteer assistant often makes more of a spartan existence to break into coaching. Many are earning less than $15,000 a year.

The volunteer assistant role has in recent years attracted some prominent former big leaguers like Matt Holliday (Oklahoma State), Tim Hudson (Auburn), Greg Maddux (Nevada-Las Vegas) and Troy Tulowitzki (Texas) and some ex-head coaches. Still, it remains effectively college baseball’s entry level job and is mostly populated by young men chasing a dream.

“Most of the volunteers in Division I work full-time and then some,” said Rich Maloney, Ball State head coach and a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association board of directors. “You’ve got to really have a passion because it is a sacrifice. You’re going to be surviving, you aren’t going to be thriving.”

So, with campuses shuttered and camps canceled for the spring and into the summer, volunteer assistants are feeling the pinch. While some have second jobs in normal circumstances, many do not, preferring to focus on their team and career development. Those that do have second jobs typically work in industries that have also been heavily affected by the pandemic like retail or restaurants.

They all have more time for a second job these days. But those that are looking for jobs to make up for the camp money they won’t be able to make are facing a strained job market with extraordinary unemployment around the country.

“I think the biggest thing is we’re all looking for jobs that aren’t there,” Wright said. “I have one buddy that’s doing virtual online training with kids to make up for lessons he lost, but everyone seems to be driving for DoorDash. If I get to that point, it’s bad for me.”

Many volunteer assistants are still in relatively solid situations. Those that didn’t have any in-season camps planned haven’t lost much in the way of income. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worried about what’s to come.

Some schools have canceled all on-campus activities until the end of July. Others haven’t canceled events quite that far out, but it’s seems likely at this point that nearly every one is going to miss at least some camp opportunities, to say nothing about any difficulties in filling camps in the pandemic’s aftermath and a recovering economy.

“Not having summer camps – that’s huge, whether it’s revenue coming in from youth camps or prospect camps and it hurts in recruiting with not being able to get younger kids on campus,” Indiana volunteer assistant Derek Simmons said. “It just hurts all around. If someone said they’re not taking a hit they’re being pretty naive. It is affecting us for sure.”

Many volunteer assistants haven’t missed many events yet. But once the summer begins, the missed opportunities will start piling up. Camp season really gets underway in the middle of June and into July. If those events must be canceled – and they already have been in some places – it will really start hitting volunteer assistants in their bank account.

With all the uncertainty surrounding camps and when things might get back to normal, many volunteer assistants are working through various scenarios for when they are allowed to again hold camps. Arizona State volunteer assistant Michael Earley is one of the coaches working on contingencies.

“I have a lot of different plans for the future for what can happen,” he said. “My day-to-day is so unknown. I’ve got like four different ideas for how to do the rest of the year once we can do camps.”

Earley didn’t have any camps scheduled until July, giving him plenty of time to work through various scenarios. One of his ideas is to hold a virtual camp. It’s still in the early stages of development but would involve video instruction from the coaching staff and players sending in video of themselves doing drills for feedback.

For now, however, planning and video calls with their players and recruits who have already signed their letter of intent is about all the baseball work volunteer assistants can do. It’s a strange spring for them, just as it is for everyone else in baseball.

And, like so many others, they’re looking for silver linings. For many, that can be found by spending more time with their families than they usually get to.

“At first when this happens, you’re worried about our season and the things closet to us,” South Florida volunteer assistant Karsten Whitson said. “Then seeing how it affects the community and world as a whole puts things in perspective individually. It’s given me a time to hit reset button, spend time with my family, which has been the blessing to this all.”

Simmons said he knows he’s better positioned than most other volunteer assistants both because he’s at a program like Indiana and because his wife, Erin, has a successful career of her own in insurance. His days right now are occupied with many of his typical duties as well as helping his two children with their schoolwork.

It’s a different dynamic, but he’s trying to enjoy it as much as he can for now.

“Typically, I’m away at the field or whatever it may be, and I never get to see what she does and it’s really impressive what she does,” he said. “It’s cool to see her work and work so hard and cool to be able to be with the kids.”

The current situation also puts into sharper focus last year’s defeat of proposed NCAA legislation that would have converted the volunteer assistant role into a full-time, salaried job. The proposal was rejected by the Division I Council in a close vote, a decision that was difficult to stomach for coaches around the country.

The measure can be brought back up for another vote in 2022, but with talks of budget tightening around college athletics, the measure is likely to get pushed to the back burner in the near term.

Around the profession, there is fear that the shutdown will push some volunteer assistants out of coaching.

“You worry about the future of the game when you’re not allowing these great young minds the opportunity to coach and make a living,” Maloney said. “When you have a time like this when the economy gets smacked, every school is looking at cuts of some sort. The landscape looks quite different than it did two months ago.

“I would say it’s concerning for the young people to have an opportunity in our profession and I’m concerned for our profession, period.”

Simmons, Whitson and Wright all took their jobs as volunteer assistants less than a year ago. Whitson, a 2010 first-round pick, began his coaching career in junior college and with USA Baseball before last summer joining Billy Mohl’s staff.

Wright was hired by Edwin Thompson at Eastern Kentucky just before the season began. He moved from Jacksonville to Richmond, Ky., found a small apartment for the spring and planned to be joined by his fiancé and son after the school year ended. After years of coaching travel ball and in junior college, this was his Division I break.

Simmons has been in coaching for a decade, sometimes working as a volunteer (Central Michigan, Alabama, Indiana) and sometimes as a full-time assistant (Kennesaw State, Kent State). He last summer left his job as Kent State’s recruiting coordinator to join Jeff Mercer’s staff at Indiana.

Despite what now appears to be some poor timing, none of them regret their decision.

“I don’t regret it at all because I’m doing something that genuinely makes me happy,” Wright said. “I knew the risks. The money side, but the benefits is the kicker. I don’t regret it at all. I’ll do it two, three times again.

“My timing is so bad, but I saw something the other day that Jalen Hurts tweeted. ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand’ from John, chapter 13. I saw that and I was like, ‘Alonzo, maybe you don’t understand now, but you will. This too shall pass, but you’ll get through it. It’s happening for a reason, keep pushing.’

“I don’t regret it at all. I knew the risks going into it outside of a pandemic. I’m fine.”

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