Talkin’ sports with Jeff Hartman

Jeff Hartman (photo by Rich Corozine)

I knew New Paltz’s Jeff Hartman before his resume. He was the “new” coach of the New Paltz boys’ varsity basketball team, taking over a program in disarray. We talked a lot during his five years there. I watched him handle his players. Saw the program make great strides, culminating in the program’s first-ever MHAL championship in 2000. Then he was gone the next year — back to his “regular” job as Wallkill athletic director.

“It was, and is, very difficult to coach and be an AD, particularly at two different schools,” says Hartman. “The AD is a full-time job and coaching can be the same, so something had to give.” The coaching resume was stellar: 1979 Coach-of-the-Year and winning the first-ever MHAL title for Wallkill; first coach of the Empire State Games boys’ basketball team; AD at Wallkill for 12 years (and teaching Social Studies for 13 years, until he retired eight years ago). From the 1950’s until 2010 he was totally involved in all sports, as a player at Rondout and onto coaching and running the sports program at Wallkill, and eventually as a (mostly) friendly critic of the entire local sports scene…which is how we reconnected.

What did Hartman want out of a sports program?

“To be consistent,” he answers quickly. “To have an agreement between the coaches, players, parents and administrators on the rules of engagement: don’t go to classes? no play; failing academically? no play; act disrespectfully? no play. No game is ever big enough, no player is ever good enough, no parent influential enough, to bend the rules of engagement. There could be extenuating circumstances, but not ongoing ones,” adds Hartman. 

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Sound hardass? Not really…more pragmatically philosophical. “The AD builds a schedule for every student, every athlete, working backward…the last thing, the end is the beginning,” says Hartman, “the last game back to pre-season, trying to answer the question: What is the athletic program doing for you? Usually it’s a reference to an individual athlete or a winning record: How many games did you win? Unfortunately, that’s not enough..”

Hartman’s first gig as head coach (boys’ basketball at Wallkill) nearly ended after that first year, as the president of the Board of Education’s son was the 12th man on the team. And he didn’t like it. “He’ll never coach again in Wallkill!” said the prez. But Hartman received a valuable lesson when AD (at the time) Don Averill stuck up for him. “That was a big lesson for me,” says Hartman. It’s worth noting in the present context of coaches leaving programs left-and-right. Something Hartman and I have discussed numerous times over the past year-or-so.

“So, why do coaches leave programs?” Hartman asks, rhetorically. The standard answer is to spend more time with their family. “But essentially it just isn’t worth the hassle. It’s not the money, which isn’t much to begin with, but leads to the next question: Why are so many non-teachers doing the coaching? It’s a Pandora’s Box,” adds Hartman, of expectations being too high…from everyone. And general lack of support. Especially from parents. “First, I think kids should play more than one sport. The absence of that social aspect of school could ruin their high school sports experience, always pursuing the ‘next level’, with scholarship talk, or making sports into something elitist, something you need money to play (travel soccer, year-round tennis, travel baseball/softball, etc., etc.). It’s great to persevere in your dreams, but let’s be realistic here in the Hudson Valley. How many professional or even Division 1 athletes come from here?”

“For the most part…not many,” I answer, thinking quickly of Marlboro’s Dermal Brown and Robbie Bell, Minisink Valley’s Stephanie Dolson, Liberty’s Maurice Martin, Kingston’s Artavius Fisher — all of whom have/had varying professional careers.

“A handful,” says Hartman. “It skewers the idea of success for everyone. And makes a false determination of failure. Failure is only failure if one lets it be so. Everyone should enjoy the games for what they are.”

And as far as teaching athletes? “You want to teach the whole kid, not just the athlete, so it’s better to have them spend more time with you, the teacher and coach, that way they can be made to be responsible for their behavior — something in short supply in our world right now of compromised values, where people are willing to win at any cost. Kids need to be called out in life or they become entitled. It is endemic in our entire culture, not just in sports. Look…if there’s an elephant in the room, introduce it.”

And Hartman mentions a couple instances where kids rose to that occasion. “They were tests of character,” says Hartman. One was about honesty in a game and the other honesty in a social situation. The first was a Wallkill golfer up against the best golfer in Section 9, who shot into the rough and couldn’t find his ball. It would have been a two-stroke penalty and could have cost the top player a Section title, except that the Wallkill kid found the ball. “He had two choices: he could have ignored it and had a shot at that Section 9 title himself, or he did what he did…said he found the ball. He lost the match, but won something much better, deeper in our win-at-any-cost culture.”

The second was a party in season where a bunch of the kids (and athletes who were present) were drinking. Hartman and the Wallkill administration questioned kids and parents alike and all denied being there or knowing anything about it. “Hearsay,” was what they called the charges. “All except one kid,” adds Hartman, ” a football player. He admitted to it. His father told us: ‘My job is not to raise the other kids, but be responsible for my son and have him be responsible.’ He was the only kid to take responsibility. and the only parent. So how many games do you give up so your kid can tell the truth?”

“How I look at athletes and coaches comes from themselves: Are they organized? Work hard? Have the fundamentals? Persevere? And most of all, do they have character? Do they put winning above doing the right thing?”

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