It could be argued that the most altruistic of all coaches exist at the lower levels of high school sports.
Stipends are less hefty than those of their varsity colleagues. Practices can be held before the sun is fully up, because that was when the space was available. There isn’t much glory or outside recognition of what’s accomplished.
The purpose is obvious: to get kids ready for the varsity level. But another priority is more basic: to simply provide a hard-earned, meaningful opportunity for kids to connect to the school.
Paso Robles High’s freshman boys basketball coach, Brian Kerr, has been fulfilling both of those objectives at the lower levels for the past 31 years on the Central Coast — with the past 29 seasons spent overseeing the Bearcats’ lower-level programs. He’s planning to retire following this season.
There are other “lifers” locally who’ve coached basketball for similar spans at the varsity level. Scott Larson is in his 33rd year coaching varsity boys at Paso Robles, a run that has had just a one-year break. Jerry Tamelier isn’t far behind him in experience, in his 28th straight season with Atascadero’s varsity boys. And Cary Nerelli is also comparable, in his 24th consecutive year coaching Morro Bay’s varsity girls (he also had three previous years coaching the Pirates’ varsity boys).
But what makes Kerr particularly unique is his longevity outside of the spotlight, a three-decade commitment to such a preparatory endeavor.
“I can’t imagine it’s ever happened before,” Larson said. “It could be unprecedented.”
Kerr, 55, got his start as Santa Maria’s freshman coach in the 1980-81 school year. There was then a one-year stop as Atascadero’s freshman coach, before running Paso Robles’ JV program from 1982-83 through 1985-86. The past 25 years have all been with the freshman program.
He recalls everything from the days when three-piece suits were the standard on the bench, to the advent of the 3-point line, to the recently increasing trend of “walk-on coaches” — those who don’t teach on campus.
“Things have changed a lot,” Kerr said, later adding with a reflective laugh, “I’ve seen a lot of coaches come and go.”
Even after his games are over, Kerr sticks around to keep the scorebook for the varsity game.
“He’s been such an unselfish person,” Larson said. “Whatever’s necessary to do, he’s willing to do.
“He’s dedicated a part of his life to our basketball program, to the kids in it. That’s a unique thing these days.”
Rewards come down the line
In the earliest days of his tenure, Kerr said, he might’ve considered chasing a varsity position, but as time went on — with his family rooted and a longtime varsity coach already in place at his school — he was comfortable to stay put.
“Kids learn life lessons from sports,” Kerr said. “I like that. That’s why I’ve done it so long.
“My goal, our goal, is not for me to win as many games as possible. I coach kids and then I get to watch them play for three more years, and for me, that’s really rewarding.”
But that isn’t the be-all, end-all.
“Seeing kids that have tough lives at home, the positive thing in their life is basketball, and seeing them 20 years later be dads and husbands, successful people in the community — to me, that’s the payday,” Kerr said. “Years later.”
Freshman sports: An endangered institution?
As a consequence of the state’s budget problems, stipends were recently eliminated for lower-level and assistant coaches in the Paso Robles school district, and transportation funding was cut 50 percent last year.
All around the state, such cuts are placing a never-seen-before burden on athletic departments to creatively raise funds, and on parents to help out.
Kerr’s team, for instance, has had parents drive more than ever before.
“We haven’t used a bus this year,” Kerr said. “There are some negatives to that; you’re not together as a team.”
With money tight for public schools, lower-level sports, in addition to other extracurricular activities, are often one of the first avenues turned to in penny-saving efforts.
Heading into this past year, for example, the Elk Grove district in the Sacramento area eliminated all freshman sports. Last year, the nearby Los Padres League decided to axe freshman sports, although low team turnout throughout the league — generally not an issue at PAC 7 schools like Paso Robles — contributed to that move.
Many other districts throughout the country have recently considered placing such programs on the chopping block.
“To me, that would be a travesty,” Kerr said. “We’re trying to teach kids life lessons through sports and motivate them to do well in school, and have them have a great experience and connect to the school somehow.
“Sports make kids do better. They behave better in class and try harder in school to stay eligible.”
Another concern would be the possible chilling effect that eliminating a lower-level program could have on potential late-bloomers who might not get “hooked” from the start.
“You never know who’s going to rise to the top,” Kerr said, “and I tell my kids all the time: I’ve never had five starters on a freshman team be the five starters or even the five key players on the varsity team later.”
Added Larson: “It’d really cut out a whole class of potential players. A lot of times kids develop late; it would shut the door on some kids.”
Kerr wants to believe that future students will always get the same types of opportunities after he’s gone.
“We’re in a downward cycle right now (economically), but it’ll come back,” Kerr said. “I hope that schools tough it out and keep their programs and do what’s best for their kids — keep the band, keep the choir, keep drama and all those things, including athletics.”