Being in charge of a college athletic department can be quite a challenge. Not only must your teams be competitive on the field; you must also make sure your athletes are doing well in the classroom.
Those tasks are even more arduous when your program has been rocked by scandal—and that’s the task Gary Plunkett faced when he became College of the Desert’s athletic director early last year.
In early 2012, one COD football player was shot to death by police in Palm Desert while in the process of committing a burglary. Several others were subsequently arrested for criminal activity. Later in 2012, then-new COD President Joel Kinnamon vowed to clean up not only the football program, but a culture that allowed such miscreant behavior to occur.
The 45-year-old Plunkett is the man charged with continuing to change that culture. The South Bay native previously spent nine years as the head women’s basketball coach at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga. At COD, he oversees 14 sports—seven each for men and women. With the exception of the football team, the COD Roadrunners compete in the new Pacific Coast Athletic Conference.
“I was coaching basketball against COD in the same conference when the issues with the football program arose,” says Plunkett. “While Dr. Kinnamon did not specifically address the past in the interview process, I was fully aware all that had transpired. I knew the challenges we faced. I took the job with the goal of meeting high standards and making sure we were in compliance both on and off the field.”
Plunkett is aware that community colleges have had a lousy reputation for “parking athletes”—in other words, bringing on athletes who are only looking to earn a scholarship to play at a four-year school, and who don’t care about academics. He said that COD is working to emphasize the academic component.
“At this level we have academic requirements,” he says. “We have a full time academic coordinator who meets with athletes weekly. Also, faculty members alert us to students having problems, and we try to help.”
The yearly athletic department budget at COD totals a little more than $300,000, not counting coaches’ salaries. A large chunk of that goes toward travel expenses.
Plunkett says coaching is one of his biggest challenges. “Our coaching staff is excellent, but with the exception of the men’s golf coach, who also a professor here, the coaches are part-time and have other jobs,” Plunkett says. “They are extremely dedicated, but they have time constraints as well. It also makes it difficult to retain coaches who have been offered full-time opportunities.”
One of the unusual things about the Coachella Valley is the large amount of retirees—including retired coaches from major sports who live here at least part-time. Therefore, Plunkett says, his coaches sometimes get some good unsolicited advice.
“My staff has some connections to these people, and every once in a while, they get a message,” he says. “They are very grateful to get advice from those who been at the top.”
As the college continues to expand, COD wants its athletic program to better reach out to the community. About a year ago, it hired a sports information specialist to work with local media to publicize events. Plunkett says he’d love to see more community and fan support to grow the Roadrunner brand.
“We absolutely want to ramp up our local outreach. When we see young kids at our events, we know that these are potential COD students or athletes,” he says. “I hear from many local people who say after attending a local event, ‘I never knew you had such a beautiful campus or facility. I am definitely coming back.’”
Plans are in the works to reach out more to local high school coaches as well. A high school basketball tournament that was played at the COD gym led to some financial problems, but Plunkett says he is open to a new tournament if arrangements can be made.
According to Plunkett, good things are ahead for the Roadrunners.
“The future is very bright. We are in a new league with a great staff,” he says. “Not only are we poised to win championships; we want to see more and more of our student athletes leave COD and compete successfully on the four-year level.”