FOUR QUESTIONS: A CONVERSATION WITH… CINDI SIMMONS
Cindi Simmons currently works in the central office of the Jackson County schools in western North Carolina after a brilliant career as a teacher and coach in two different sports at Sylva-Webster High School and then at Smoky Mountain when Sylva-Webster and Cullowhee merged.
A graduate of Hayesville High and then Western Carolina University, she was a star high school and college athlete. She captained the WCU women’s basketball team in 1981-82 and was seventh on the school’s all-time scoring list. She went on to coach volleyball 26 seasons and basketball for 30, winning three state titles in volleyball and the 2007 NCHSAA 2-A title in basketball.
She has earned a number of previous honors, including the NCHSAA’s prestigious Toby Webb Coach of the Year award in 2008. She was the first female president of the North Carolina Coaches Association, during the 2005-06 academic year, and joined the Western Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in 2000. She is also a member of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame.
What are the biggest changes you saw in high school athletics during your career?
The numerous opportunities for the high school athlete to play their sport outside of the school setting have increased significantly. It has been gradual but as I reflect over the past 30 plus years these outside opportunities have definitely impacted the high school sports arena. This has led to more specialization and created some challenges for coaches, athletes and administrators. It is not unusual for an athlete to choose the “outside of school” team over their school team.
There doesn’t seem to be as many “career” coaches out there as there used to be. By career I’m talking 20 to 30 years in the profession. School districts must go outside of the system and hire more non-staff coaches than ever before. This is one of the reasons we need to support and encourage Coaches Education. More than ever professional development for our coaches is a vital cog in providing quality athletic programs and insuring the Health and Safety of our student athletes. Coaches and Athletic Directors have tremendous resources available that we did not have when I first began my career.
Opportunities across the board for all participants in the high school sports arena have increased significantly and continue to expand with student interest. There are so many more sports offered for student – athletes to be involved with. I think expanding opportunities for young people is great but in doing so the challenge for school districts to support these programs financially is ever increasing. Opportunities for women have steadily increased. The young women (players and coaches) currently participating in high school sports cannot relate to just how far these opportunities have come. When I first came on the scene we did not have junior varsity teams for the girls. When permission was granted to begin these programs there were very few resources available. It has come a long way.
You had some outstanding championship teams in both volleyball and basketball as a head coach. From your experience, what do you believe to be the keys to championship success?
I was blessed with many outstanding young ladies that came through the program at Sylva-Webster/Smoky Mountain High School over the past thirty plus years. Those teams had talent but also tremendous player leadership and team chemistry. Winning was an attitude, expectation and tradition. The girls knew the value of hard work. The players on these teams embraced the team concept, understood and accepted roles. I was fortunate to have assistants that were committed to young people and shared the goals for each team. Our school system and community supported and got behind all our athletic teams. It’s all about those relationships and the journey.
You have a son who plays basketball for the University of North Carolina. Is it hard to switch from your coach’s hat to your parent’s hat when you are watching Jackson play?
Not at all! The “Mom Hat” is most important. I think my experience over the years working with young people made me realize that athlete’s need their parents as their parents. They have a coach. This doesn’t mean I don’t watch and break a game down through a coach’s set of eyes. As a coach I support the coach so my child has never gotten a lot of sympathy from me if he was upset or questioning a coach’s judgment.
How do you stay involved in high school athletics now that you are no longer coaching?
I retired from coaching but have not retired from public education. I have had the opportunity to stay involved through athletic administration at the district level in my school system. This has allowed me to stay in touch with the kids and athletic programs at all the schools in our district and at all levels. I continue to be connected and impact something that has been such a part of my life. My goals have shifted from preparing my own teams to providing support and empowering my school-level athletic directors, coaches and athletes.