High school athletics in Horry County Schools are a rubber stamp away from taking one of their more sizable steps forward in the last decade.
The district’s board will vote June 7 to reactivate its long-dormant countywide athletics director position. By all accounts, the measure will pass easily and become a recurring portion of the annual budget again.
What that means to the area’s high schools and middle schools is the addition of a much-needed and educated voice in the district office.
“Having that person, the buck stops there for Horry County,” said board member Neil James, who originally proposed the amendment on May 17. “You have a decision maker in place. [Athletics are] 100% of their duties. That will make it easier for everyone to get their answers. It may not always be the answer they want, but they’ll get an answer.”
Of the 10 largest districts in the state, Horry County is one of six that currently folds its athletics programs into the duties of a non-specific senior official. Velna Allen, the HCS chief officer of student services, holds that distinction now. Previously, it was part of Daryl Brown’s responsibilities during his time as director of student affairs.
The district has not had a full-time countywide athletics director since Herman Norman in 2009-2010, when he oversaw its sports and physical education programs. When he departed, the position was left dark as a cost-cutting measure. Norman was paid a salary $94,207.95 that year.
However, Horry County is prepared to re-join the likes of the Greenville County, Charleston County, Lexington 1 and Richland 1 school districts with a dedicated countywide athletics director. The reactivated position will still fall under Allen’s jurisdiction, although it will remove much of the day-to-day athletics requirements from her plate.
To a degree, that’s been the case of late with Roger Dixon, the district’s athletics liaison and a former athletics director at multiple schools. But even Dixon — whom several coaches and athletics directors have said is invaluable in recent years — refers to himself as more consultant than decision maker and admits his role comes with a limited scope.
“In athletics, we’re making decisions on the fly. If you wait, conditions could change,” Dixon said. “The way it’s set up, we probably aren’t giving the ADs what they need on a daily basis. … This is something that we’ve been asking for for some time.”
Now that it appears it’s happening, what will it mean?
‘WE’RE WAY BEHIND’
Dixon hates the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses.”
But when it comes to high school sports, he’s also not ignorant to the bells and whistles that attract coaches, athletes, fans and booster club support. People want to be associated with winners. Winners want to win pretty.
Despite the fact that North Myrtle Beach, Green Sea Floyds and Myrtle Beach football, North Myrtle Beach girls and Myrtle Beach boys basketball and a slew of non-revenue sports have made or won state championship games in the past three years, the facilities in Horry County are by no means the cream of the crop in South Carolina.
From Florence to Charleston to Columbia to Greenville to Anderson, the likes of field turf, upgraded weight rooms and improved fan experiences are the new lay of the land. Horry County’s facilities don’t reflect the fact that the district is the third largest in South Carolina.
“Traveling around the state and seeing Byrnes High School and Lexington High School and their facilities, especially of late, throughout Horry County Schools, we’re way behind,” Myrtle Beach football coach Mickey Wilson said. “And there’s no reason for that with all the money brought into this county. Our facilities should be up to par. And to me, why shouldn’t they be better than anybody else’s?”
Wilson qualified his remarks by pointing out that the partnership between the district and the City of Myrtle Beach provides him access to the district’s only field turf facility, Doug Shaw Memorial Stadium, and the adjoining Ashley Booth Field. However, he pointed out that the eight others in the county aren’t so lucky. Many of them have dealt with drainage and grass issues even after a number of repairs.
And while MBHS is frequently lauded for Doug Shaw, the basketball gym there has had multiple problems with roof leaks that have paused or postponed games in the past. A booster donation was also required in order to update the school’s weight room.
Likewise, the state-of-the-art LED light system installed at North Myrtle Beach’s shared football/soccer/track/lacrosse venue prior to the 2020 season was a product of private donations. And when Josh Vinson was hired as Socastee’s athletics director earlier this month, one of his first public statements after getting the job revolved around fundraising to improve facilities.
Horry County Schools is in the midst of wide-scale track and tennis improvements, getting rid of surfaces that were previously deemed antiquated or, in some circumstances, unsafe. Still, it’s a long way from a large-scale facilities push that would place the district’s athletics venues in line with several other pockets of the state.
“We have to be careful when we say we want to compete with the Dormans,” James said, naming the high-profile school in Spartanburg. “It’s kind of hard to say you want to be the flagship. But I think we are placing an importance on athletics. Having the best involves a lot of financial investment.”
Hiring a district athletics director may not necessarily lead to an open wallet. But everyone who spoke to MyHorryNews.com believed a district athletics director would add more of a vision to the county’s sports programs.
Yes, facilities are a big part of that. As are other aspects of need. Athletic transfers, team travel, communication with the South Carolina High School League and support on a bigger scale will all come into the job.
“Improvement to the facilities would be a No. 1 priority,” Dixon said. “Two, would be an immediate accessibility to respond to questions and concerns. Three, it would be the benefit in dealing in outside issues — eligibility, parent issues, something else. They need to have someone who they can communicate with and run things off of.”
By the time the board votes to make the move official on June 7, the district could very well have the job description ready to post for potential applicants.
HCS spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said this week that the pay scale for the position had not been finalized by the human resources department. Early estimates conduced by MyHorryNews.com — based upon the administrator roles in the district, inflation from the last time the position was open here and other athletics director jobs around the state — point to it falling somewhere in the range of $110,000-$125,000 annually.
That will almost certainly increase the attractiveness of the job to a high-level coach or administrator looking to move to Horry County, including a recent trend of hires from North Carolina who can retire there and then draw off their pensions while still working full time here.
The hope is interviews can be conducted swiftly, and that a hire can be approved and take over prior to the start of the 2021-2022 school year in mid-August. That may seem like an expedited path for a senior-level administration position, but the rapidity is somewhat misinterpreted.
Just prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, there were informal discussions within the district of adding the position to the 2020-2021 budget. It was ultimately not introduced then while the county dealt with more pressing issues. The idea, though, was never shelved, especially while school administrators and coaches continued to ask for it to happen.
That all played a role in the amendment passing the initial board vote unanimously.
Which leads to the potentially obvious questions: Does Horry County Schools already have someone in mind? And, will a widespread search even be necessary?
If the district — one that has a tendency to promote from within — chooses to look at its own ranks first, there are individuals with the institutional knowledge, administrative background and commonality between schools who fit the bill. The current athletics liaison, Dixon, said he would “entertain” the idea of a more formal role (he’s currently an at-will hourly employee), although he was quick to say the district would also likely benefit from someone younger.
He recognized this type of position should not be full of ceremonial duties.
Nor is that the district’s intention, according to James.
“We’ve had someone who has been filling in in that position,” James said. “But there’s definitely a need for a person to lead all of the athletics for Horry County.”