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Mike Churchill: Creating a new playbook for LBHS

Written by: SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by: MARY HURLBUT

In his eight years as Laguna Beach High School Athletic Director, Mike Churchill has seen the school win 109 League Championships and 10 CIF Championships. 

“Even though our league isn’t very good,” he says, “it’s still hard to do.  It’s easy to mess up success.  And winning CIF is hard; it’s really a tough thing to do.  We’re riding a crest of success.”  

Churchill only has a few more weeks of “we” when he talks about the LBHS Breakers.  He is retiring at the end of this year. “I’m going to take a month off and do nothing.  I’m going to try not to wake up at five a.m.  I’m going to figure out what I want to do,” he says of his upcoming retirement.

LBHS Athletic Director, Mike Churchill, is retiring at the end of this school year

From Coach to LBHS Athletic Director

Churchill was a football coach for most of his career.  He was head coach at Riverside Poly High School from 1980-86 when his team won CIF and got to play at the Los Angeles Coliseum.  He remembers vividly the night his team arrived to play for the championship.  

“Most of those kids had never been out of Riverside.  When we pulled up on the bus and they saw the lights of the stadium…” He trails off.  It was clearly as meaningful an experience for him as coach as it was for his young players.  And yet, when he came to LBHS at the suggestion of the then newly hired principal, Don Austin, he was ready to do something else.  “I had interviewed for a job here (at LBHS), but hadn’t gotten it.  I was kind of disappointed. When Don came he called me and asked, ‘Are you still interested in the job?’  And I said, ‘Sure.’ And he said, ‘Get your paperwork in.’ And so then I got an interview.  This district does a lot of interviews,” says Churchill.  “That’s how I got hired.”

A dynamic duo

Churchill and LBHS Athletics Secretary, Tracy Paddock, were hired at the same time.  “Nobody really told us what our jobs were.  I didn’t have a job description.  So Tracy and I sat down together and decided that the only way we could get into trouble was if the busses weren’t there or a player was cheating or we were playing people who were ineligible. We divided it all up, but she likes to get involved in everything,” he says smiling.  “She’s great.”

The complex world of high school sports

As the man responsible for 70 coaches who are responsible for 650 student-athletes, Churchill handles much more than busses and eligibility.  When we talked about why LBHS was in the Orange Coast League, as opposed to a stronger league, the complexities of high school sports became very apparent.  

“Laguna doesn’t really have a place to go that fits.  We’re so small.  We used to fit in with the schools down in South County, but now that’s all built out, and we’re still the same.  The athletes are more diluted.  Only 170 kids are two sport players.  We’re in a league that isn’t very good, but it’s good for us,” says Churchill, adding “I believe when you learn how to win it’s easier to win. And the reverse is also true.” 

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Mike Churchill in his office at LBHS

LBHS shines in the Orange Coast League

Leagues are re-evaluated every four years.  LBHS is in its first year of the four-year cycle so, as Churchill explains it, “We’re stuck in this league for three more years.  Things will change after that.  A new Irvine school is coming in; they’ll probably be with us. Crean Lutheran (High School) needs a place to go.  Some of the Santa Ana schools might not be with us going forward.  Another thing is we’re hard geographically to get to.  Hard for other teams to get here; hard to hire coaches, too, for that reason.” 

No uniformity for LBHS in the CIF Southern Section

And divisions?  Most of the sports at LBHS are Division 4, but some are Division 5 and, of course, there’s the girls water polo that’s Division 1.  According to Churchill, the Divisions are set up with two considerations: how good is your league and how good are you in your league?  

“We are in the Southern Section.  Each sport is different.  Take tennis, they go back three years and see how your team did when deciding what Division you are.  Baseball is determined solely by the size of the school.  Football is based on geography, but that changes every two years.  Then you’ve got boys water polo where the other teams (in the League) petitioned to be put in a lower division so we got moved down through no fault of our own.”  Trying to keep up with this makes coaching football seem simple.  Churchill would passionately disagree.

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A show of Breaker pride

A reluctant, but successful, football coach at LBHS

“No one knows how much time it takes to be a coach,” says Churchill.  When he came to LBHS he thought he had left his coaching days behind.  But when Jonathan Todd resigned as head football coach, Don Austin knew just the guy to take his place. 

“I didn’t really want to do it.  I came down here to be the Athletic Director, but I really liked those kids.  Plus, we went to the gunfight with some bullets,” says Churchill smiling.  During his two seasons as LBHS head football coach (2011 and 2012), Laguna won League both years as well as made it to the CIF Southern Division semi-finals.  In 2012, the team won 11 games, the most in the school’s history.  Bullets, indeed. 

However, despite the team’s success, Churchill was ready to hang up his clipboard and just do the job he was originally hired to do.

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Proof of many years of athletic success at LBHS

Two sport athletes, recruiting and other musings

“I miss coaching during the season.  It’s the off season that wears coaches out,” says Churchill.  He feels the same can happen to the athletes. “I think it’s important for kids to do other things, but not all coaches feel that way.  I think it’s good for a lot of reasons.  Kids can get hurt doing the same thing over and over.  Plus, after awhile they tune you out. But if another coach tells them basically the same thing they might hear it because it’s being said differently,” he says.  

As for the high stakes proposition high school sports has become?  Churchill is emphatically opposed to high school recruiting, for example.  “It’s just wrong.  Kids should be playing in their neighborhood.  Now, it’s just wait a month and go (there is a 30 day wait for transfer students in order for them to become eligible).”  Then he tells me a statistic he got from the NCAA.  “If you’re a girl and you want an athletic scholarship, the best sport for you to play is golf. .4% (notice the decimal point) of high school girls who golf get a scholarship.  And that’s the highest!  If you’re a boy, your best bet is football then basketball.”  In other words, the chances of an athlete, boy or girl, receiving a full athletic scholarship to attend college are minuscule.

The importance of learning to compete

For Mike Churchill, high school sports aren’t about what might be; it’s about learning to compete now.  “Learning to compete is part of life.  I just loveto the see the kids compete; watch them grow up and get better every year.  I can’t believe I made a living teaching kids how to play a kids’ game.  I remember as a senior in college telling my friend, ‘If I could just get a head coaching job and make $10,000 a year, I’d be set for life,’” he says, grinning.  That goal stands (and then some), but now Mike Churchill gets to create a new playbook.  

Goodbye X’s, O’s and CIF requirements.  

Hello, bogey, par and, more than likely, a very early tee time.