The toughest opponent for East Bay Athletic League football teams this season will not be the team lining up on the other side of the field each Friday night.
In fact, the biggest obstacle to a successful season has nothing to do with what happens on the field, either during practice or games.
The biggest adversary our local public school teams face each year is the financial burden on the teams to make ends meet, with the brunt of the work falling on the head coach.
For many years, coaches coached. It was simple -- they worked with the kids, helping them transform from impressionable teenagers to young adults, heading off to college, one step closer to the real world.
The kids always benefited because the EBAL is loaded with a history of high-quality coaches who made their players better people as well as better football players.
Now coaching almost seems like a small part of the job as funding their programs has taken over -- and at times has replaced coaching -- as to where a coach's time is spent.
"I'm losing sleep over it," said Foothill High School head football coach Greg Haubner regarding raising funds. "Right now, I have 60 helmets total for 100 players in my program. It cost $400-$500 per helmet, and it's hard to play without them."
The ones losing here are the athletes. It is common thread of conversation I have written about for years. Athletics is a vital part of the maturation of teenagers.
As technology keeps advancing and students are more and more into their phone or other devices, interpersonal communication continues to dissipate. Athletics helps keep interaction on the front burner.
It teaches the student-athletes face-to-face interaction, and teaches responsibility to both themselves as well as their teammates. It also teaches that success on several levels can be achieved with hard work.
These valuable lessons seem to be getting lost a bit more every year. I have seen examples of it throughout the EBAL. Some school administrations embrace athletics and the life lessons taught, while others, not so much. In fact, I feel confident there are a couple of principals of EBAL schools that would be happy to see sports disappear.
"I think we have lost our compass as educators as to what our job is," said California High School head coach Danny Calcagno. "I think there is a lot of administrators that don't understand sports and what it brings."
Amador Valley High School head coach Danny Jones was a star quarterback for the Dons in his high school days and now is back leading the Amador program.
He sees the times have changed as well.
"We just want to make football cool again," said Jones. "Our parents do a pretty good job (of raising funds), but outside of that there doesn't appear to be a lot of support for athletics."
Now with funding becoming a bigger issue every year, the pressures become greater on the coaches to make ends meet for their programs.
"It's an unspoken part of what we do," said San Ramon Valley High head coach Aaron Becker of raising funds. "It is a bigger part of what we do than any of the parents realize."
No coach enters the high school ranks unaware of fundraising responsibilities, but it takes its toll.
"I understand you have to fundraise," said Calcagno. "But because of it, the burnout is quicker. You don't see very many coaches last 30 years anymore."
One common denominator amongst all the football programs in the EBAL is paying the transportation costs to away games.
With the cost of gas having gone up substantially, as well as with inflation going through the roof, transportation costs for the football programs have gone from $10-12,000 each season to $20-25,000.
"Our numbers are strong," said Becker regarding the number of players the Wolves get each season. "I need two buses for the freshman team, one for the junior varsity, and two for the varsity. If the games are close, we can use a bus that can circle for the JV and varsity. If we have a game in the Central Valley, Marin County, or Sacramento area, we can have a trip of two hours in the heat. We can't have an old bus to deal with that weather."
As of now, every school in the league pays for their transportation through the football program.
Some schools try to help.
"I try to pay for a bus or two if I have some money left over," said Livermore High athletic director James Petersdorf, who also is the Livermore basketball coach.
As far as finances go, some schools are better off than others. The Danville schools of Monte Vista and San Ramon Valley are in a much better spot than the schools to the south.
First-year Monte Vista coach Johnny Millard came from Foothill where he has been a player, and then after playing college ball, a coach.
"I am very lucky to have come into Monte Vista with the system they have in place, said Millard. They have done a really good job here of explaining accountability to the parents. They have established what our fundraisers are all about. Really, I am so fortunate to have the staff I do."
Becker agreed about conditions at San Ramon Valley.
"I've never had a problem at San Ramon Valley since I have been here, said Becker. We ask for voluntary donations and we have never had a problem with funding."
What goes into the funding besides transportation? There's equipment, which is obviously a large part as well.
Add in coaches stipends, coaches' gear, officials, apparel (the team must front the money to buy items they sell for fundraising) and it adds up quickly. In the case of Foothill, the football budget is $100,000 for each season.
So where does the money come from?
It depends on each school and, in turn, each school district. In Livermore, the school district pays for the reconditioning of the equipment that is done each year and for the head coaches stipends at each level. After that it falls to fundraising and the gate money.
The Pleasanton Unified School District covers the cost of the athletic trainer for Amador and Foothill, with the rest of the funding to come from the football program or the school.
In the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, the stipends for the head varsity and junior varsity coaches are covered.
Dublin Unified School District covers the coaches stipends for football, as well as the recertification for the helmets since it is a primary safety concern.
A big part of high school athletic funding that has become the norm is the "fair share" aspect of playing sports. Teams take their budget for the season and divide the total they need to cover and split the amount between the players. At Foothill, for example, the yearly fee is $600 per player.
On the surface it is a hefty price tag, but with so little coming from the respective districts and schools, there is no other option.
All the schools are around a similar amount, with some splitting the donations with a payment over the summer and then a second payment in the fall.
But here is the kicker it is a voluntary donation. Being a public school, you cannot keep an athlete from playing a sport if they dont come forward with the voluntary donation.
This coincides with the schools in more financially stable areas.
"We've been pretty good here," said Becker of SRV. "We've never had a problem with the donations, and it all goes into the football program."
But it still doesn't make it easy.
"When you are a high school football coach, it comes with the territory," said Becker of setting the voluntary donation. "There are some uncomfortable conversations (with the parents) at the beginning of every season."
Calcagno is one of the longest tenured coaches in the EBAL, having spent years coaching at San Leandro before going to Cal.
"Last year, we had 65 to 70% pay the donation, which was one of the better years," said Calcagno. "But we are in more of a blue collar area, so you never know."
The growing issue at some schools is that people have stopped paying the fair share. There are families each year that legitimately need the help due to a financial crisis, or perhaps those that have multiple kids, playing multiple sports, which by the end of the school year force the family to pay $2,000 to $3,000 for their kids to play sports.
The issues blow-up when families take the approach of "if they aren't paying, then neither are we," or the family of a senior saying, "we've paid for three years, we are taking this one off."
If a school can get 70% of the families to pay the fair-share, they will realistically be good for the season. But it's when the percentage drops below 50% where problems really arise.
If they can't cover expenses with fair-share, then it falls to their school and fundraisers which, while similar in some ways, also see a big difference in ways.
When 'fair-share' isn't fair
Every school has fund-raising events, ranging from an e-mail fundraiser where each player sends out e-mails to friends, families and acquaintances, asking for donations, to other things like "lift-a-thons," barbecues, discount cards to local businesses, summer camps -- anything to help defray the costs.
In his short time at Monte Vista, Millard has seen the benefits of a strongly run fundraising system.
"They do an amazing job of getting the parents involved and making it fun for everyone," said Millard. "We had a cornhole tournament where it was a parent and a player. It was a blast, and everyone had a great time. All of this gets us to where we need to be."
But even running the fundraisers differs from school to school. At Amador, Jones runs a summer camp to earn money for his program, but he must pay a rental fee to use his own fields.
(Figure that one out. Raise money so you can rent your own fields, so you can raise money? Hmm. Okay. Local organizations renting the fields makes sense, but a school's own teams?)
Game day is also a great opportunity to raise money, but once again, it is horribly inconsistent from school to school.
Some schools have the football team staff and work the snack bar, with the football team reaping the profits; but others use the snack bar to help fund the other teams on campus.
The gate revenue from the games also fluctuate, with the schools usually taking the revenue, but there are also schools where the gate goes to the football program. Jones was able to negotiate the football team keeping one gate a season. It can't be the Foothill game or the Pigskin Roast, a big moneymaker for the athletic department, but that one game a year can make a dent.
The snack bar and the gate could be difference-makers for every football program in the EBAL.
High school sports are basically the same as college athletics. Most of the sports are not revenue producing sports, so it means money from the football program helps to support other sports that operate under deficit funding.
Booster clubs at each school are a blessing for the programs. The groups at each school do whatever it takes to make sure the program's not just football, but all sports exist.
Derek Perez heads up the Foothill Athletic Boosters (FAB). Perez has worked miracles at Foothill, but when his son graduated from Foothill this past spring, it seemed like there was going to be a huge void to fill at Foothill as no one was stepping up to take over.
Here we are just a couple weeks out from the fall sports starting and Perez has made the commitment to stay on for this year.
"I couldn't just walk away," said Perez. "There was no one to take over. Its the community aspect -- I know what the sports mean to the people in Pleasanton."
People like Perez at each school make a huge difference for all sports.
At the end of the day, there is no perfect solution to funding high school football programs, nor is there one organization to blame for the programs facing.
The reality is everyone could step up a little more.
The respective school districts take some unfair criticism when compared neighboring leagues and districts. For instance, in San Leandro, the district covers the cost of transportation, but that district is also allocated more funding from the State of California because of financial need for the area as compared to, say, the EBAL area.
If each district covered the transportation for their football teams it would help on so many levels. Something like $20,000 a year from the district into transportation costs would be a game changer.
"Oh my God, having a $20,000 infusion into our program would allow us to pay our bills," said Haubner. "It would be the best insurance policy we could have."
Jones agrees at Amador.
"Oh my God," echoed Jones. "We would never be in a hole. Think of all the other sports that could be helped as well."
I think coming up with a consistent system for schools regarding gate receipts and snack bar proceeds could go a long way to establishing solid fundraising.
Athletics is a necessity, not a luxury. It is beneficial to all students and not being able to provide this option is a detriment to the development of the young men and women of our community.
If we are all on the same page when it comes to this, then our communities become a better place to live and raise our kids.
Editor's note: Dennis Miller is a contributing sports writer for Embarcadero Media's East Bay Division. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.