Q&A with Roy Turner

January 29, 2015
Eugene Ashley High School, Wilmington, N.C.
When Roy Turner became Head Baseball Coach at his alma mater, Dudley High School in Greensboro, N.C., in 1992, the baseball facility the school had started building when he was a player still had not been completed. He responded by quickly creating partnerships in the community to raise enough money for a scoreboard, fences, and dugouts. The following year, the principal offered him the position of Athletic Director.

Twenty-two years later, after also serving at Southeast Guilford High School in Greensboro, Turner is now Athletic Director at Eugene Ashley High School in Wilmington, N.C. Taking the reins in 2006, five years after the school opened, he has tackled starting traditions from scratch as well as developing a strategic plan at Ashley.

Active on the state and national levels, Turner, CMAA, is a former President of the North Carolina Athletic Directors Association and is currently the co-chair of its Leadership Training Program. A member of the NIAAA Board of Directors, he has created and taught several of its professional development classes and was honored with the group's Frank Kovaleski Award in 2009. In 2012, he spoke on behalf of the NIAAA at the Congressional Caucus on Youth Sports and continues to be a forceful advocate for educational athletics.

AM: What are the challenges of being Athletic Director at a school that is only 13 years old?
Turner: None of our athletes' parents went to this school, which means there is not even one generation of traditions. We try to turn that into a positive by telling athletes and their parents that they have an opportunity to create their own traditions and start something special.

One way we are doing this is through teams engaging in service activities. I have a soccer team right now that does 30 to 40 hours of community service during each season and another 60 to 80 hours in the offseason.

How else are you developing traditions?
Our senior banquet has become really important. One of the biggest problems we had when I arrived was a lack of senior leadership. Our community is near the beach, and by the time the kids became seniors many would rather surf than compete in athletics. With the booster club's support, we started an oceanfront senior banquet.

We invite every senior athlete who lettered in a sport that year along with their families. They receive a plaque that has their class, their name, and the sports they've lettered in over their four years of high school. The booster club pays for a nice dinner and we hand out several awards. It's a culminating event and the kids walk out of there saying: "Man, I'm glad I did this."

I also feel very good about our Athletic Honor Society. It's similar to the National Honor Society, but for athletics. To apply, athletes have to be involved in athletics all four years, must complete community service hours, and have an academic average of at least 3.5. We give them a sash to wear at graduation and we recognize them at our senior banquet. It has been one of the best things we've done. The kids buy into the community service component and have a lot of pride in being recognized as an athlete who also succeeds academically.

Why and how did you construct a strategic action plan?
Being a new school, we wanted to create a unique identity and not do the same things everybody else was doing. I thought by discussing goals with our coaches and putting them down on paper it would be an important step to achieve this.

Our first job was to come up with core values. But that was easier said than done. We would come up with ideas then throw them out. I went home one night and I started doing a bit of research about the school. I found out that our namesake, Sergeant Eugene Ashley, made the ultimate sacrifice serving in Vietnam. That led to coming up with four core values, based on our acronym, EAHS: Excellence, Achievement, Honor, and Service.

From there we started to devise action steps with those values in mind. Our goals are modeled so that we pursue excellence and achieve success on the court, off the court, in the classroom, and in the community. And we want to do this all with honor and integrity.

This fall, we've started looking at roles and goals in order to get more specific in defining who is responsible for what, when certain things will get done, and how to assess what's been accomplished. It's a work in progress. Are we where I want us to be? No, but we are not where we were when we started. That gives me the energy to keep working on it every day.

Are all your coaches involved in developing the strategic plan?
I started working on the plan by meeting with all my coaches. To be candid, it was soon clear that some of them felt obligated to be there. But after three or four meetings, I began seeing a nucleus of coaches who became very engaged in the process.

I formalized the group by giving it a name--the Ashley Athletic Advisory Council--and handed out T-shirts to members. Last year, we added a person from the booster club. It's a leadership team for athletics and provides representation from each of the stakeholders. Anyone involved in this council becomes a dream caster for the athletics department.

What is one goal you are currently focused on?
Last year we had a student-athlete not graduate for the first time in the eight years that I've been here. We developed a goal to assist athletes who are struggling and gave ourselves the role of monitoring our athletes' academics. Beginning this year, we have established a process that tracks at-risk athletes in the classroom. We're identifying the kids who are struggling academically earlier and trying to work with them.

Our teachers give me the names and I ask them to share the student's progress with me through the Student Online Academic Report (SOAR). To use the reporting program, the teacher goes to the student's name, opens up a pull down list and plugs in the answers to a few questions. It asks: Did they complete all their homework? Are they missing any assignments? Are they maintaining a 77 percent or better average? Are they working at their capacity or is there room for improvement?

That gives me a weekly snapshot versus getting a progress report at the end of nine weeks. I share the information with the coaches, who can also access SOAR themselves.

How are you working to engage parents and fans?
This fall, we hosted something a little different called the Garnet and Gold Meet the Eagles Night, with the idea of turning the general preseason meeting into a family event. So instead of the usual informational meeting where everyone has to listen to me talk for 45 minutes about expectations, we have an informal, fun meet-and-greet.

We start with a short presentation to relay need-to-know information, followed by breakout meetings for each team, and then the booster club feeds everyone. The athletes wear their uniforms and play little scrimmages, and Mom and Dad can take pictures. We've made it more than just another meeting and we'll do it for every season.

How focused are you on overall athletic improvement?
We never talk about the need to win a conference or state championship. Instead, we talk about doing things well. Winning will be a by-product of that.

For our measurable goals, I look at participation numbers. This season, we show a 10 percent increase in fall athletes from last year, and that's great. With our football team, for example, we are struggling to win games right now, but we have 103 athletes playing. They enjoy the program, love playing the game, and get a little bit better every week.

I tell my coaches three things. I want the kids to love one another--for them to understand how important it is that we are mutually accountable to each other. I want the coaches to love the kids. And I want them all to have fun. If we can do those three things, I think we'll be doing a good job.

What are the secrets to hiring coaches who share your program's goals and values?
I don't know if there are any secrets, but my first step is to look for quality traits. I hire for passion, character, and integrity over technical and tactical knowledge. If the coach is a communicator, can engage with people, and is an empathetic listener, the athletes will respond. That is who I am looking for.

It's also important to find out if the candidate can clearly define what a student-athlete is. I ask the question: When a kid needs to go to tutoring in the afternoon and the only time they can go see the teacher is during your practice, what do you do? If the coach says, "I'll tell them to hurry up and get that done so they can get to practice," they aren't a good fit for us.

If our student-athletes don't take care of their academics, they're not going to be part of the team for long anyway. Instead, I want to hear the coach say he or she is willing to adjust things, modify practice, or possibly start later.

What led you to become involved in state and national organizations?
On the day I said yes to my first athletic director job, the principal handed me a roll of keys and said, "Good luck." That was my orientation. All the outside work I've done over the years with the state and national groups was predicated by that moment and how unprepared I was.

In my first year at Dudley, it became clear to me fairly quickly the impact I could have as an athletic director, but I had no training in being on a platform. A colleague recommended that I take courses in the NIAAA leadership program, which had just started. I was asked to learn the material, practice it, and then train other athletic directors in my state. I've been training others ever since.

It's been very rewarding to teach my peers and it has continually pushed me to look hard at my weaknesses and turn them into strengths. A lot of it is about being a lifelong learner.

How do you make time for the outside work?
As administrators, I think we tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period of time and underestimate what we can do in a longer period of time. I do have to prioritize my commitment to learning and being part of the organizations to find the time, but the other part of it is realizing the synergy among all of them. Being involved with peers, learning from others, and being a successful athletic director at one's own particular school are all interconnected.
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