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Scarcity of Courts Kills Coach’s Vision

By Robert Campbell

Alec Horton’s dream of turning Laguna Beach High School’s girls tennis team into a top-notch program ended abruptly when the district decided recently not to extend the coach’s contract.

And while Horton’s departure appears unrelated to his job performance, it’s just another in a long line of coaching departures that have beset the school in recent years for different reasons.

“I wasn’t fired. I was not renewed,” said Horton, who two years ago gave up college and club coaching positions to take what he describes as a lower-paying post at LBHS. He did so with the understanding that administrators supported his vision to create an off-season tennis academy to groom girls for the varsity roster. “The words were, ‘That’s fantastic; that’s exactly what we want’,” Horton said, recalling an early conversation with Athletic Director Mike Churchill.

“I concur with that,” said Churchill. “I mean, that’s kind of what we wanted to do.” Churchill, who wrote Horton a glowing letter of recommendation, said, “I think he did an excellent job. There’s no question about that.”

But from the outset, it became clear Horton’s vision would be clouded by a city and school district pact, allowing joint use of the pool, tennis courts and theater by the public as a result of a $1 million city infusion. The pact expires in October 2012.

The agreements give school functions first priority on school facilities; city functions have second priority, and the general public third.

Horton tried unsuccessfully to establish privately run off-season and after school tennis lessons and summer camps, which he deemed necessary to improve the competitiveness of the girls’ program.

Under the terms of the pact, however, his endeavors were deemed non-school related, thus sending Horton to the end of the priority line, explained Susan Cannan, the city’s director of community services.

Unlike most of the school’s coaches, Horton did not enjoy the luxury of a teacher’s salary but filled a “walk-on” part-time position. He earned about $2,000 after taxes for each of his two seasons, which he figures at about $1.50 an hour for all the time he gave to the program.

If he can’t pick up some extra revenue in the off-season to subsidize his career as a tennis pro, things get tight. “Why would [a non-teacher] take that job?” he said. “The reason they would take that job is so that they could develop a program.

The coach could not get his program off the baseline because of the scarcity of lit courts and existing city contracts with two tennis instructors who have priority for use of his own team’s courts in the off season.

“Probably when it comes to tennis, that’s one of our most challenging sports to find facilities because there’s such high demand, and there’s a smaller number of lit courts,” said Cannan.

Horton isn’t alone in his frustration over the joint-usage agreement. Brian Ricker, who left LBHS after the 2003 season to coach the girls at Corona del Mar, said in an email that the pact, “has kept me from ever considering returning.”

While he stood to benefit from a program, Horton believes his vision was also best for his girls and their development. “Those kids that are developing will go somewhere to take lessons. Why not keep it in house?” he said.

Horton is more bothered, though, by the lack of administrator support during his struggles with city officials. “That’s the only thing I’m disappointed about,” he said.

“We’re not against [Horton’s off-season] programs,” said Churchill, “but that isn’t something [the district] wanted to get involved in.”

Churchill is currently interviewing potential replacements. “There are not people beating the door down, because they know how difficult it is,” he said, referring to the legal restrictions. “That kind of trumps a lot of stuff right now.”

Photo by Robert Campbell

Former LBHS girls tennis coach Alec Horton, shown here during a 2009 match, was not renewed for next season.

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