James “Satch” Sullinger coached basketball from 1983-2011 at Grambling State, Oberlin College, East High School (Ohio) and Northland High School (Ohio), and is a former administrator with USA Basketball. He was the 2010 Naismith High School Coach of the Year and won the 2009 Division-I Ohio State Boys Basketball Championship at Northland. This is the second installment in our series with him. You can find the first chapter here.
When Satch Sullinger built his programs, it was important to him that they stood for something.
In 2008, Sullinger risked an undefeated season and state championship by sitting his superstar son, Jared, in a playoff game after the big man failed to turn in a Spanish assignment and was placed on academic probation.
His team lost, but the decision paid off. The following year, his Northland High School program was on top of America, winning seemingly every award possible, local and national. He attributes much of that success to accountability.
This is something Sullinger said he sees less and less in basketball, though. The retired coach said there is too much of an emphasis on results and not enough on everything else athletics should bring.
“We need to go back to the grade school and quit winning at all costs,” he said. “We have to start holding kids accountable in the classroom and in their citizenship and understand that this is an extracurricular activity.
“If you come to my house, and I tell you, you can have all the steak you want, before you have the second steak, you have to eat the first steak. Well, the first steak in the building, in that school, is the classroom. The second steak is your citizenship and accountability. The third is extracurricular activities. Until you handle the first two, how can you get to the third one?
“It’s like a kid who hasn’t done any work all semester come to the teacher and says, ‘Is there any extra work I can do?’ What do you mean extra? Extra means you did something above and beyond. You haven’t done anything. But teachers give it to them. Coaches go to them. They go to teachers and say, ‘Can you give them a break, I’m trying to save this kid.’ Well, if you’re trying to save them, why are you letting them go all grading period not doing anything and do something now? It’s because you want to win.”
Sullinger said there has been a fundamental breakdown in how adults handle kids in athletics, and that to reign the monster back in, the accountability needs to start at the top.
“The tail is wagging the dog, so we have to start from the top,” Sullinger explained. “You want drugs eliminated from sports? Then let’s start having the super intendents, the principals, the assistant principals, the athletic directors, coaches, basketball officials all step up to the plate and take a drug test. When we do that, then we can hold the kids accountable. You want drugs out of it? Let’s have the NBA owners, the NFL owners, the MLB owners, the general managers, the managers, whatever, let’s test all of you. Let’s get them clean, then we’ll deal with the players. See, they don’t want to hear that, but if I wasn’t doing drugs, I’d be the first to step up and say, ‘Coach, test me,’”
The former coach is concerned money has become too much of a motivator in basketball. He cited the recent trend of more colleges selling alcohol and their athletic events and the mixed messages it sends.
Sullinger used the example of former Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, who was suspended for one game in 2015 after being cited for an OVI. Sullinger said he applauded the suspension when it happened. But that good will was undone when he saw beer being sold at the next home game, which he said indicates how little the powers that be actually cared about drinking and driving.
“What are our messages? Our value system is getting to the point where it’s not about right or wrong anymore like it was when I was coming up,” he said. “It’s about how much does it cost, how much will I make, and I’ll tell you whether or not it’s right or wrong. We’ve lost our whole value base.
“Athletics now has become a big business. What are they going to do next, selling beer at high school games? Somebody’s going to say, ‘Well, we could make money.’ Yeah, you could make money, but are you going to start selling beer at high school games? When does this end?”
He said it now falls on the public to make a stand with its actions and wallets.
“Those are the things that we as a society have to learn. We control the dog because we buy the tickets, and we need to find a way to bring this greed, this golden cow, back into check,” Sullinger explained. “We have to find a way. Generations on top of generations of kids are being wasted because no one’s dealing with the whole kid. They’re dealing with winning at any costs and making money. Then they wonder how our society is like it is.”
Sullinger still lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife and dogs. You can find him at Thomas Worthington High School games watching his grandson or at the Starbucks on Market Street in New Albany, enjoying the community he’s spent most of his life in. His experiences in coaching, his view on modern athletics and more will be featured in the next part of our series with him.