Athletic Directors in Public Schools vs. Private Schools

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Student-athletes and parents have different perceptions and expectations of public and private athletic programs.

In athletics, the issue of public vs. private high school sports programs is something of a hot-button topic. Athletic administrators and coaches at public schools have long griped that private schools have a significant advantage for many reasons, including the lack of district residential limits on enrollment, better funding due to high tuition fees for students, and a higher socio-economic profile of families and students.

These issues and others underlie a national trend of top student-athletes leaving public programs to attend private schools, where they hope to be more successful and visible in high school and beyond.

Arguments and valid points can be made on both sides of the issue, and the question is not likely to be settled anytime soon. What is certain, though, is that student-athletes and parents have different perceptions and expectations of public and private athletic programs. The schools themselves, too, tend to take different views of the matter.

These different perspectives impact the job responsibilities of workers in the athletic department. Athletic directors, who must steer the department and set the overall policies and tone, are particularly affected.

Gauging the requirements of an individual institution and sport can be a tricky balancing act for the AD and is a high-level task best undertaken by someone with an advanced degree, obtained from a program such as Ohio University’s Master of Athletic Administration online. Featuring targeted instruction in sports administration jobs, this program provides background information that can prepare candidates for success in either a public or private setting.

Building the Team

The process of team-building may be the essential difference between public and private schools. Public high schools are focal points in their communities, not least because athletics provides a way for the area to come together and support the accomplishments of local young people. Coaches, however, must choose from eligible students within the district and are limited to whoever shows up.

In a private high school, students can come from anywhere. The athletic director plays a role in making the program attractive to applicants, meeting with prospective student-athletes and their families, and other marketing-type functions.

Active recruiting of high school athletes is forbidden by state athletic associations. Athletic director Tom Wilson of the private school West Des Moines Dowling, for one, abides by this rule. “I will never reach out to someone first, nor will I meet with them off campus,” he says. “If they have an interest in us, then they need to reach out to us and come to our campus to meet.”

Drumming up interest, however, is something a private school’s athletic program would definitely do — and this type of initiative falls under the AD’s supervision. One common tactic, for example, is to build a robust social media presence.

“There is hardly a private school out there which doesn’t offer play-by-play tweets of its games and other athletic activities,” says Robert Kennedy, co-founder of R-E-S-P-E-C-T Academy in Nassau, Bahamas. This type of outreach might fall by the wayside in public schools, where time and money are always in short supply, but in a private school, ADs are expected to keep the effort going.

Parent and Student Expectations

Enrolling in a private school is a major decision. Tuition is expensive and travel to and from school can be long and inconvenient. The families of many student-athletes are willing to make these sacrifices, but they expect something in return. They count on the sports program, under the direction of the athletic director, to provide advantages that they believe public schools cannot match. Factors cited by private school athletes include:

  • Access to better, state-of-the-art training facilities
  • The opportunity to work with higher-level athletes and coaches
  • Better-funded travel options, with attendance at more and better tournaments
  • A training emphasis on the sport of the student’s choice
  • Increased exposure for college and university recruiting, including extra attention from and contact with scouts
  • Powerful alumni networks, including students who have gone on to become professional athletes

The landscape is starkly different in public high schools, where parents and students alike tend to accept the status quo and look beyond the athletic aspect of a sports program.

“I just think the high school experience isn’t necessarily about winning. It’s about developing the student-athlete to be the best person they can be in every other aspect of their life,” says Marty Trimmer, athletic director at the public Central York School District in Pennsylvania. This philosophy informs the public AD’s approach, which is necessarily different from that of a private school counterpart.

A Matter of Emphasis

In the end, the essential job duties of the athletic director — the myriad tasks involved in organizing and overseeing the details of an institution’s sports program — vary little between public and private institutions. The difference between the two positions is mostly one of focus, and the candidate’s personality and inclinations will be a major driver of this choice. Public and private schools both offer unique rewards and challenges to ADs.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration Degree

Ohio University’s online Master of Athletic Administration program is designed to teach professionals how to successfully approach sports administration jobs, such as athletic directorships in private vs. public school sports. The university launched the nation’s first academic program in sports administration in 1966 and continues to be a leader in sports business education. The online MAA program is housed within the university’s College of Business, underscoring its dedication to providing world-class sports business education.

The program works in collaboration with the National Intercollegiate Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) to prepare graduates for certification and is accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA).

Recommended Reading:

Ohio University Blog, “How to Build an Athletic Department’s Brand”
Ohio University Blog, “The Finances of Youth Sports in the United States”
Ohio University Blog, “5 Tips to Help Your Athletes Earn College Scholarships”


The Gazette, “Private vs. public an issue in high school athletics”
The Lariat Online, “Athletics in private vs. public schools: The ongoing debacle on whether or not parents are paying for guaranteed athletic success”
The Gazette, “Private vs. public an issue in high school athletics”
Private School Review, “Athletics Are Not Optional”
Washington Times, “Athletes going private could drain high school sports”
The Balance Career, “What Does an Athletic Director Do? Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More”