AURORA — Paul Angelico is in his final weeks as the Commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Association.
It will mark the end of a 40-year career in education, and a 27-year career at CHSAA. The past seven have been spent in the organization's highest role, overseeing the office that administers high school activities for the entire state of Colorado.
On July 1, Rhonda Blanford-Green will officially become the CHSAA's ninth commissioner, though she and Angelico will overlap during the NFHS Summer Meeting in Providence. In addition to working at CHSAA from 1996-2012, Blanford-Green was Angelico's Associate Commissioner for two years.
We caught up with Angelico and asked him to reflect on his career, and ponder the future of high school activities.
Question: Do you remember your first day as a Commissioner?
Paul Angelico: (Laughs.) Huh. No, I don't think I do. I don't think I do. It wasn't any big deal. You know, it was summer. Bill left right after his retirement dinner. I didn't even move into this office for a week. I just felt weird about it.
Angelico: Because he was still the Commissioner. It was still June. He had moved out, but I didn't move in right away. I didn't feel like that was my place.
Q: Do you remember the first big decision you had to make?
Angelico: Yes, I do. It was a girl that went from Chaparral to Highlands Ranch, girls basketball. The dad walked in here, a very nice man, and told me her story, and then asked, "What are you going to do?" I said, "I'm going to do what they pay me to do. I'm going to follow the rules." And he said, "OK."
And we had a good working relationship. Even though we went to court, I always respected that he knew why, that it wasn't vindictive, it was what I had to do, and he was doing what he had to do.
So, yeah, right out of the chute, we were in court.
Q: Did it feel different, in that there was no one above you to change your decision?
Angelico: What struck me immediately was that all I had as backup was this book (the CHSAA bylaws). I've got to follow what this book says, because if I don't, I don't have justification for what I do. It became very apparent that it's not an optional thing. Right out of the chute, it was like, "The book is my only security blanket."
Q: What was the adjustment like, going from Associate to Commissioner?
Angelico: I sort of had an advantage because as soon as Bill became Commissioner, two things happened: First, he had a surgery, so I spent like two weeks doing waivers, and then he became president of the (NFHS), and he was gone a ton that first year, so I was doing a lot of that stuff. It wasn't all too new, because of that.
Q: Did you have a grand plan?
Angelico: I had one goal, and I told it to the Legislative Council, that we were going to go back to talking about kids' human growth, not about their stats and how good they are, and their accomplishments athletically. It seemed like I kept hearing more and more conversations all around these stats, this kid's done this thing, done that thing.
Nobody was talking about their human development, and that's what we're about. I said, "Before I leave, we're going to go back to talking about kids, not about athletic prowess."
Q: Is the culmination of that the InsideOut Coaching Initiative?
Angelico: It's You Can Play!, the InsideOut Initiative, it's Positive Coaching Alliance, it's our partnership with the coaches association, partnerships with CADA, videos that go to school boards. It's all of that.
And I can't tell you that that was some master plan. It was not. As opportunities showed themselves, we took advantage of them.
Q: Do you have any favorite memories from your time as Commissioner? Or maybe what you enjoyed the most?
Angelico: Enjoyed?! (Laughs.)
Obviously, any state championship you're at. It's a mixed bag, because anything could go wrong and the whole thing could blow up, so you kind of have your breath held. But watching the culmination of all the work is always good.
Some of my favorite days were at the All-School Summit, or the coaches' clinics, or that event down in Douglas County. We got to talk about kids and what they were doing, and how they are growing, and what our sports and activities are doing for them. Any opportunity to tell people about what great things kids can do when given the opportunity, I've thoroughly enjoyed.
Q: It seems like it's a job that doesn't shut off.
Angelico: It never does. It never goes away.
Q: And how do you juggle that?
Angelico: Humor. Truly. Well, two things for me: Humor, and — nobody dies in what we do. We're not doctors where if we make a mistake, it's the end of the world.
I never was let down when I got people together to solve a problem. No problem was ever insurmountable when we approached it as a group, whether it was the eight administrators in this office, or some committee of coaches and ADs. Every time I've felt the pressure of, "We'll never get this fixed, this is hopeless," it'd be like, "No, if you put enough good people in a room, we'll come out of there with a solution." And it always worked.
Q: Did you aspire to a job like this early in your career, when you were a teacher at Air Academy?
Angelico: Never. Never. I'd left Air Academy kicking and screaming, thinking, "Well, what good am I if I'm not working hands-on with kids?" Honestly. And it's only now that I'm starting to realize that some of the things we do will affect a lot of kids directly.
I had someone write the other day, saying, "Thanks for insisting that we hire coaches that will be role models for kids, because they might not have them anywhere else." And you don't think of those things at the time. That was a meaningful sentiment.
Q: You've told me the story before about how you were hired by Ray Plutko, and then ...
Angelico: Yeah, and then the never day, he had resigned. Well, it wasn't the next day. The day after I was named officially at the Legislative Council, the radio story came out on KOA that Ray Plutko has resigned. That was also the day after the Board at District 20 had accepted my resignation (from Air Academy).
I was going, "Well, I wonder how long this will last." Because Bob [Ottewill, the Commissioner who succeeded Plutko] didn't have to keep me. He could have hired his own person. And I called him and said, "Bob, let me know if you still want me here, or if you want somebody else." He did keep me on, and then it was his decision. I hadn't signed a contract, or done anything like that.
Q: What were those early years like at CHSAA?
Angelico: Those were the most stressful. I was coming out of a school where you have a lot of latitude around policy, because you have hands-on with kids, and if the policy says, A+B=C, you can work with kids and make A+C=D. But here you can't.
What occurred to me early, early on was that you can't do that in a state this big. Because if you make this exception for Kid A, how do you not make it for Kid B, and if you do that, then you really don't have that rule anymore. And it didn't take long for that to sink in.
So the pressure of making sure what you said was making sure was right — that was a good year, year-and-a-half of making sure, "Am I right?" A decision carried a lot more weight than it did at a school.
Q: How have high school activities changed since then?
Angelico: At its core, nothing. But what we do, and how we do things, certainly has. We do many more activities. Kids have lots more options. Kids can do more than one thing at a time, kids can be in a club and in a high school.
None of those things could happen back then, it was all very regimented, and then state law changed a lot of that. You were stuck at your school when you were enrolled, and if your school didn't have a program, you lost out, and you just didn't participate.
At that time, kids adapted to programs. Now programs are starting to adapt to what kids want. For example, girls wrestling.
Q: In the last couple years, while we may not have added sports, classifications have really grown.
Angelico: Yeah. The number of classifications, how we're classifying. I think that's going to even go further, to get some kind of equality, so when you step on the field, there are actually similar schools that are hopefully somewhat alike.
Q: Is that the biggest challenge, you think, that high school activities are facing?
Angelico: I think right now, the biggest thing is how do we combine community rivalries that are healthy with playing the right schools to make for good competition. Schools can be five miles apart but a million miles apart in their abilities.
In today's world, socioeconomics can determine the quality of programs. How much time are kids spending in the summer paying for camps, or year-round, paying for clubs?
A school of 300 in the Denver area, where kids go to clubs, is not the same as a school of 300 by Bethune. Because they don't have the same access to clubs and outside training.
Q: What has the process of your retirement been like to go through?
Angelico: Painful. It's been way long, way overblown. I think we've drug it out to where the staff and the schools are ready to move on. As they should be. It's like, "OK, already. Let's move."
And I think with Rhonda coming on, her energy and her enthusiasm — I think if we have the fundamentals and the basics down and we're going to continue to keep those as our center, she'll be able to do a lot of other things that I was not prepared to do.
Q: You had worked closely with her before. What are the good things she's going to do with the Association?
Angelico: For starters, she'll know our basics. She's on the same page about the fundamentals, about why we have high school sports, as opposed to club sports. And she understands the value of both.
She was an elite, All-American athlete. So she gets the elite level of that, and yet she understands that we're here for the average kid. I think that's an unusual combination today. And I think that's her best quality. She'll understand what we have to do for all kids, not just get pressured by the elite level.
Q: You've said that you will kind of take a step back after you retire for a year or so, and not really be around a lot of CHSAA events. Why do you think that's important to do?
Angelico: Rhonda needs to have full latitude to do what she wants, and she doesn't need anybody saying, "Why are you doing that?" She needs to try things on her own, succeed on her own, fail on her own — not that I think she'll fail — but what happens next year needs to be hers.
Now, does she need to know pitfalls she might not know about, or politics? Sure. But she doesn't need anybody telling her, "Here's what you need to do." She needs to look at whatever it is she wants to accomplish, and work towards those ends.
Q: What do you think you'll miss?
Angelico: The people. The people I work with inside the office, and the people I work with outside the office.
I'm not going to miss court, I'm not going to miss lobbying, I'm not going to miss accounting. I'm not going to miss all that stuff — although I'm glad that I did it, because I feel like I did it the way I wanted it done, those things — but I'll miss not seeing everyone everyday. That's really the bottom line.
Q: If you look back, what are you most proud of over the course of your career?
Angelico: I knew you were going to ask that.
What I hope — and you don't know if you've done this — is that we've reestablished that rules are good, parameters for kids are good, and the higher we raise our bar, the more kids will respond. They'll respond to however high we want to make our standards, and in today's society, we're shy to do that.
I think member schools are feeling like without what we do here, everything isn't as educationally valid as it should be. Having high standards and demanding high standards and expectations — and high integrity — is good for kids, even though it's harder for kids. It will make them better adults. That's all we're here for. So if we want a mediocre society, we'll have mediocre standards.
That could be it. Tomorrow I might have a different answer.