Swearngin relinquishes GHSA balancing act

jheeter@macon.comJune 12, 2014 

Georgia provides a unique challenge for administering high school athletics.

The state has geographic issues unlike most states in the country. Its capital and largest city sits in the northern part of the state. More than half of the state’s population resides in metro Atlanta. Louisiana might be the most comparable state -- certainly in the South -- with the similar issue of one huge city in one portion of the state.

The GHSA, the body that presides over athletics for most of the state’s high schools, has the responsibility to set rules and regulations for schools that have different needs. In southern Georgia, one of the biggest concerns is travel, matching up schools of similar size and placing them in regions that don’t require hundreds of miles for every game. In Atlanta, schools deal with traffic and face problems such as regular transferring of athletes around the metro area.

The man at the head of the GHSA, executive director Ralph Swearngin, is the one most likely to draw the ire of folks unhappy with the state of athletics across the state. After 13 years at the helm of the GHSA -- and many years prior as a staff member -- Swearngin retired following the 2013-14 school year. Gary Phillips, the former football head coach at Johnson County and Swearngin’s top lieutenant for 13 years, has taken over as the new executive director. He has massive shoes to fill.

Swearngin, The Telegraph’s Sam Burke Award winner for service to high school athletics, has been beaten up by a lot of people across the state for as long as I can remember. It comes with the job. The man in the big chair has to take the hits. His predecessor, Tommy Guillebeau, surely did. Even Burke, the GHSA’s first executive director, must have taken considerable heat.

But most of the inflammatory comments or thoughts towards Swearngin are unwarranted.

Swearngin brought an almost legal approach to the position.

I’ve been to more executive committee meetings during the past six years than any other person not on the committee or affiliated with the GHSA, and it would take more than two hands to count on my fingers how many times Swearngin told executive committee members they couldn’t do what they were trying to do.

There were committee meetings some wanted to hold in private, which would have been a violation of open meeting laws, but Swearngin halted them. A large portion of the executive committee wanted blood when the Houston County school board rezoned later that requested and changed the projected populations of schools in the county. Swearngin and the GHSA attorneys told the mob nothing could be done without the threat of a lawsuit coming.

Plenty of issues require a deft touch rather than a hammer, and Swearngin excelled at taking a legal approach to them instead of an emotional one.

Many of the big issues that drive conversation in this state? He could do little about them.

Southern schools don’t always agree with reclassification, but what can be done? There is a lack of large schools south of Macon. The association is too Atlanta friendly. The basketball, golf, softball, track and field, wrestling and cross country championships aren’t in Atlanta, even though most of the member schools are located in the metro area.

The private schools that don’t like the public-private split in Class A? Swearngin wasn’t a fan of it either, but the executive committee voted for it and the GHSA largely made the best of the situation.

Too many schools recruit. The NCAA can’t police recruiting, so how is a small GHSA staff going to do so?

This isn’t to say Swearngin and I haven’t butted heads. We’ve argued about the release of reclassification information before his staff could tell the state. I think the GHSA could do a better job with news media access and the distribution of information at state championship events. But I respect him, and I’ve always thought he did the best job he could despite having to answer to the association’s oversized executive committee.

Now, Phillips has all of those same challenges to deal with.

Contact Jonathan Heeter at 744-4400 or jheeter@macon.com

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