Q&A with John Norton

January 29, 2015
Bridgman (Mich.) High School
With only 350 students, Bridgman High School competes in Michigan's second smallest classification. But when it comes to supporting its teams, the school can go head to head with others of any size.

This past winter, Bridgman was a finalist for the Michigan High School Athletic Association's "Battle of the Fans" contest, thanks to the work of its Orange Crush fan group. Run by students, the Orange Crush comes out in full force for all athletic contests--even filling the stands for soccer games.

The athletic director helping build enthusiasm at Bridgman is John Norton, CAA, who has been at the school since 2004. Norton is also proud of the department's high participation rates, as 70 percent of students suit up for at least one team. And the Bees boast success in several different sports.

In the fall, the football team landed its second straight state playoff berth after 37 years without one, and boys' soccer, boys' cross country, and girls' cross country won league titles. In the winter, boys' basketball finished as conference champions and received academic all-state honors, while the co-op swim team sent half a dozen athletes to the state meet.

In this interview, Norton talks about his role with the Orange Crush, earning his CAA designation, and overseeing co-op sports teams.

AM: What has been your role with the Orange Crush student fan section?
Norton: I oversaw the ramping up of the group three years ago, but the key component to its success has been making it student-run. Each year, I select half a dozen students to lead the group. I look for students who not only attend all the games but who other students look up to. I tell them, "This is your baby, and that means you're in charge of what happens. You're going to come up with cheers and themes and self-police other students' behavior." There are times when people will suggest other ideas to me, and my response always is, "That's a great idea, but it's not my section, so I can't make that decision."

At the same time, I maintain an active role in how the group is run. I have meetings with the leaders and we discuss the cheers that worked at the last game and ideas for upcoming contests. Sometimes, we bring our cheerleaders in so the Orange Crush members can better coordinate the cheers that occur during specific time-outs, and we've gone to band practice to talk about how we can better work with those students.

I also help the Orange Crush develop theme nights, some of which entail giving back to the community. Earlier this year, for example, they worked with our boys' basketball program to help raise $6,000 for the Selah House, an eating disorder treatment center. The students partnered with school administrators and the National Honor Society to organize speakers, sell T-shirts, and place donation canisters around town.

What is the key to successfully leading a small high school athletic department?
It's critical to emphasize participation. More than 70 percent of our students are athletes, and we're proud of that. Like a lot of athletic directors, I believe that athletics can enrich a student's life in numerous ways, so I look for ways to get more students involved. I tell them that even if they never thought about playing a sport, they should try out for a team because there's a good chance they'll make it and have a great experience.

One way I'm able to increase participation is by having a good relationship with our physical education teachers. For example, if the tennis coach tells me the team needs a few more players, I'll ask the physical education teachers if they have noticed anyone in their classes who might have the interest and ability to play. Then, I'll bring up the possibility to a student, and often they'll get excited and be on the team a few days later.

How do you approach fundraising in a small town?
When you're in a small community, you have to be cognizant that local businesses are asked to contribute to a lot of causes. So if you're too pushy, you're going to turn them off. Our department usually approaches businesses just once, at the beginning of the year. We tell them if they want to contribute, that's great, but if they don't, none of our teams will bother them again. That makes them more likely to have a positive opinion of us. And that helps when we approach them the next year.

How are you able to afford an athletic trainer?
We've made student-athlete safety a priority, and our coaches and parents see the value she brings. So during the budget process, we make sure that her stipend is funded. She's contracted hourly, and she does a lot of work when she's here. For example, if she's covering a soccer game, we'll have football players get their treatments on the sidelines, so she can do two things at once.

What are your thoughts on hiring and mentoring coaches?
I look for individuals with a strong work ethic who are passionate about coaching. We ask a lot of our athletes, and we can't do that if the coach isn't willing to commit 100 percent on their end.

I find out if prospective coaches are willing to do that by assessing how prepared they are for their initial interview. If a candidate does not show he or she has done background research on our school before we meet, it raises a red flag. I immediately start thinking, "Is this an indication of how prepared his or her team is going to be on game day?"

Why did you produce a parent-coach communication brochure and how did you decide what to include?
Parents have a lot of concerns about their children's athletic careers, so it's important they know their role. Our brochure explains what parents should do if they have a complaint, and the kind of communication they can expect--such as the coach's expectations for the team. The brochure makes it clear that if they think their child is being mistreated, they need to come to me immediately. But they also need to know it's not appropriate to question a coach's decision about playing time or team strategy.

Some of your athletes are involved in co-op teams with neighboring schools. How have you made this arrangement work?
It's all about suppressing your ego and telling yourself, "We're not going to have a school team for every sport, but that's okay, because we're going to give every student-athlete a chance to participate in the sport they love through a co-op." And you need complete buy in from coaches as well. Thankfully, we're all in it for the kids, so it hasn't been a problem.

Bridgman was the opponent the night Fennville High School boys' basketball player Wes Leonard died of cardiac arrest in 2011, which received national attention. How did that affect your program?
It was a difficult time. We issued a department statement of support for the Fennville community and encouraged our students to talk about and process it. Thankfully, our boys' basketball coach is a strong leader, and we knew his players would have no problem going to him with any concerns they had.

Since then, the Leonard family has begun the Wes Leonard Heart Team program, which promotes awareness of sudden cardiac death and distribution of AEDs. It is so impressive to see a family take such a horrible incident and use it to save lives of future athletes.

Why did you become an athletic director?
I decided in high school that I wanted to be an athletic director. Back then, I was a multisport athlete, and my coaches taught me a lot about responsibility, teamwork, and dedication. The athletic director was dedicated to putting together a coaching staff that instilled those values in young men and women. Seeing that, I realized that I wanted to have the same impact on students when I got older.

What prompted you to get your CAA (Certified Athletic Administrator) designation in 2006?
I think it's important for athletic directors to set an example for their coaching staffs. If I'm going to ask my coaches to go to clinics and continue their education, I need to be willing to grow in my own position.

I learned a lot in the program, especially about legal issues. I also had to demonstrate that I was able to host events, which has made me a more well-rounded athletic director.
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