When Dick Mynahan began coaching high school football 37 years ago, he never thought twice about driving some of his players home. After all, it made sense.

They were kids – often just 13, 14, 15 years old – and he was their mentor.

“A lot of the fun of coaching was the relationship you had with the kids,” Mynahan said.

But nowadays, the Lisbon High School coach doesn’t drive his players home. A coach alone in a confined space with a teenager leads too easily to questions, allegations, potential trouble.

“Times have changed,” he said.

In the last 30 years, as child sexual abuse has become a prominent issue, improper teacher/student and coach/student relationships have increasingly made headlines. In Maine, at least 10 coaches have been in the news since 2000 in connection with accusations of having some sort of inappropriate contact with students.

Some of the alleged assaults were recent, while others went back decades. Two of the 10 coaches are women. One of the 10 is Donald L. Hebert, a Dirigo High School head varsity baseball coach and teacher who was arrested earlier this month and charged with sexually assaulting a teenage student in Rumford, where he was previously a junior varsity coach.

Although sexual abuse by coaches is not common, a mere allegation can ruin a career. To avoid even the hint of impropriety, some Maine coaches have changed the way they operate. No impromptu lifts home for students. No invitations to have dinner with the family. No being alone with a kid, no matter the reason. But while many coaches have curtailed their relationships with students, shying away from friendships and maintaining a professional distance, some others say the old way is the best way for kids and the only way they can function. Even if that means they’re almost always on edge.

Tara Eretzian, who’s coached boys’ and girls’ skiing and girls’ track at Edward Little High School in Auburn for four years, says she often hugs both students and parents. “Sometimes I wonder about it, but then I’m like, ‘That’s who I am.’ “

‘Coaches do step over the line’

The Line, as it’s often called, has always been there for coaches, who, more than many teachers, deal with kids both emotionally and physically.

Thirty years ago, coaches said, they were able to stay clear of crossing The Line as long as they acted professionally and with compassion. It was OK to hug young athletes. It was OK to have a kid over for dinner or to keep a teenager after practice to talk, alone.

“When I first started coaching, I was obviously much younger. I got along with kids in a different kind of a way,” Mynahan said. “You know, I’d think nothing of giving three or four kids a ride home from a football practice or, on a Friday night game, hanging out with seven or eight football players.”

But gradually The Line moved.

“When I started I was 30, 31, now I’m 56. In how I looked at the kids then, and how they looked at me, is altogether different today,” said Edward Little’s Dan Campbell, a multi-sport coach for 25 years.

If allegations surfaced, a coach’s hugs, car rides and visits could be called into question. Sometimes for good reason.

In 2002, Travis White, a former Little League coach and Bucksport High School basketball coach, was found guilty of gross sexual assault, unlawful sexual contact and endangering the welfare of a child. During his trial testimony, White denied the charges but admitted to giving players alcohol when they visited him socially.

In 2005, Morse High School coach and teacher Deborah Lepkowski was charged with unlawful sexual contact after police said she and a female student embraced and licked each other’s ears during a private tutoring session at Lepkowski’s home. The 17-year-old girl had told Lepkowski that she had romantic feelings for her. Lepkowski later accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.

“If you’re not careful, all of the sudden, call it transference issues, whatever you want to call it, coaches do step over the line. They do,” Campbell said. “I know several of my colleagues in the past who have. And I know they have. I can honestly tell you that I’m a person of character, and I would never cross that line. But it happens. It does. There’s no question about it.”

According to a national report released in 2004, nearly one in every 10 kids has dealt with some kind of sexual misconduct, from inappropriate jokes to rape, by school employees. The report found that teachers were the most common offenders, followed by coaches.

Because no one tracks coach misconduct in this state, it’s unclear how many Maine coaches have been convicted or accused of an improper relationship with students.

It’s also unclear how many child abusers have tried to become coaches in order to gain access to young people. Maine requires that school coaches submit to a criminal background check before being hired, but state law prohibits the release of any statistics about those investigations.

Policies and boundaries

During the last few decades, the Maine Principals’ Association, a nonprofit group that governs interscholastic sports, has seen the scrutiny of coaches increase.

“There was a time when all you had to have was a whistle, and a school system that would employee you,” Executive Director Richard Durost said.

As times changed, the MPA changed. It now requires its coaches to complete a course and abide by a code of ethics that, in part, makes them aware of their influence over student athletes and requires they uphold the dignity and honor of their profession.

The MPA leaves it up to each school system to come up with further policies regarding coaches, students and behavior. Some schools simply urge coaches to use their best judgment when dealing with students. Others are more stringent.

SAD 21, the Dirigo High School district, reminds teachers and coaches every year to remain visible with students, leave the classroom door open if they’re working with kids after school and never drive a student home alone. The district has been working on a firm employee conduct policy for the last year-and-a-half, long before Hebert was accused of sexually assaulting a teenager from his old school district. The policy is now going to the teachers’ association for review.

“We emphasize you need to understand boundaries,” Superintendent Tom Ward said. “You’re the adult. You need to know where that line is and not to cross it.”

Regardless of whether their school districts have a policy, many coaches interviewed say they’ve changed the way they deal with students.

Anita Murphy has coached girls’ tennis at Lewiston High School for nearly 30 years and has served as a mentor for new coaches. She used to drive students home all the time.

“You never thought twice about, ‘Hey, sure, hop in. I’ll drop you off. I’m on my way home.’ I mean, kids lived right in my neighborhood,” she said. “I never felt uncomfortable about it, and I don’t think they did, either.”

But now, Murphy doesn’t give anyone a ride home unless she knows the student well and has gotten parental permission.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to that,” she said. “On the other hand, I think it’s also good protection for coaches.”

Rebecca Hefty, who’s coached girls’ track at Edward Little for two years, keeps her work as transparent as possible. She talks to parents, sends notes home and writes a newsletter to keep people informed. She gets parental permission and signed liability waivers even to drive her students to Bates College, a couple of miles away.

Hefty adores her job, but she also believes its scarier to coach now than it was 20 years ago.

“Communication, I think, is key. And you protect yourself that way,” she said.

Edward Little’s Campbell, who has a background in exercise physiology and massage therapy, used to help his student athletes with stretching and massage. He did it for 18 or 19 years until a parent one day questioned his school’s principal about it. Campbell now refuses to touch a student for stretching or massage unless he gets a parent’s OK or talks with mom or dad personally.

Campbell changed what he was doing to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, of having crossed The Line. But to him, it all comes down to intent. His intent is to help student athletes avoid injury and play better.

“Where the line becomes crossed is if you’re not sure what your intent is,” he said.

Just coach

But while some coaches have changed the way they coach, others say not so fast.

“I think there are times when kids need a hug. But I’m old-school,” said Bill Fairchild, who’s coached a variety of sports for 33 years and who now serves as athletic director at Oak Hill High School in Wales.

He’s sorry to see scandals weigh so heavily on good coaches.

“The majority of coaches are doing the right thing all the time,” he said. “And the few that cross the line cause the rest to have that one little worry, ‘Jeez, I hope I don’t do anything wrong.’ When in the reality, just go about doing your job right, and it’s fine.”

In Auburn, Eretzian, the young track and ski coach, is aware of the precarious position coaches are in, but she enjoys being close to her students and can’t imagine doing her job any other way. In the winter, she can spend up to 10 hours each Saturday with the boys and girls she coaches in skiing.

“They’re my kids, and I’m their parent for the winter,” she said.

Eretzian gives her students rides. She listens while her track girls tell her “everything.” She hugs everyone.

“Are they hanging out with me too much? You just always have to think about what other people are going to say,” she said.

But at the same time, Eretzian, whose mother retired as superintendent of schools in Auburn, doesn’t want to change – and so far hasn’t changed – her coaching style.

“It’s in my nature,” she said.

As arrests like Hebert’s make headlines, and coaches fall under increasing scrutiny, some coaches aren’t choosing between changing their style and risking an accusation.

They’ve simply walked away. Those left to fill their spots say that walking The Line is one of the reasons – along with low pay, high stress and parental interference.

Scott Walker, athletic director at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, was one of 12 applicants for his first coaching job over a decade ago. Now, as athletic director, he’s lucky to get more than one applicant per job.

“We often hear, ‘If I could just coach, that would be great,’ ” he said.

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