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Friend of Athletic Network: Simmons to enter national Hall of Fame

Kevin Foote, The Advertiser, Oct. 28, 2015

Sometimes the suggestions of friends and colleagues can get you in trouble.

Then there are those special times when they change your destiny forever for the better.

That’s certainly the case with former Lafayette Parish Athletic Director James Simmons.

Back in 1990, Simmons was finishing up his 20th year as a high school coach, focusing primarily on football and track and field, when a few colleagues encouraged him to apply for the parish A.D. opening.

Content with being a coach, a reluctant Simmons inquired anyway.

Sure, he had some thoughts in the back of his mind of perhaps one day becoming a principal, but didn’t really think he was quite ready to leave coaching.

“I still miss coaching to this day,” Simmons said. “To me, there’s nothing like coaching a 15, 16, 17-year-old kid.”

As it turned out, Simmons got offered the position and he accepted it.

The New Iberia native made such an impact during his unexpected tenure that Simmons will be one of 12 national inductees into the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association Hall of Fame on Dec. 15 at the Marriott World Center Hotel in Orlando, Fla.

“At the time, being an athletic director wasn’t even on my radar,” said Simmons, who coached at Crowley High for 13 years before going to Acadiana High. “I was going to be a coach for the rest of my life and I would have been happy with that. I enjoyed going to work every day. I had fallen in love with coaching at Acadiana.”

Honestly, Simmons does remember thinking back then that becoming a principal one day might be a future option.

And yet he was willing to accept the encouragement to experiment with a new career avenue.

“A couple of friends, colleagues asked me to apply (when Frank Foreman retired from the position),” Simmons said.

Simmons’ first thought was that former AHS football coach Bill Dotson had once mentioned being interested in that position.

“The first thing I did was ask Bill if he was interested,” he said. “If he wanted it, I wouldn’t have applied for it.”

As soon as Simmons got the position, he went to work on making changes. He also noticed a huge change.

“At first, it was a little different,” he said. “It’s not just one school any more. Now I had the whole parish on my shoulders.

“I just tried to get everybody on the same page as much as possible. Coaches that I used to just laugh with, now I had to talk seriously with.”

Perhaps the most gratifying achievement to his day to Simmons is making it possible for certified athletic trainers to be in each of the parish’s public schools.

Through an association with Acadiana Physical Therapy and SportsCare, it’s given care to the parish’s athletes that never happened before.

“And the really great thing about it is that it was basically at no cost to the school system,” Simmons added.

As the story goes, the summer before getting the job, Simmons used some of the free time during a week-long visit to LSU’s campus for LHSCA All-Star Week to discuss physical therapy options for parish athletes with a trainer from Ascension Parish.

The original idea was to have one at a central location – like Lafayette Middle – for local athletes to get treatment.

“James was a mentor, a teacher,” Carencro Athletic Director Kenny Gennuso said. “He taught me how to be an athletic director. Not so much all the things you have to do (for LHSAA), but how to deal with parents and different ways to deal with kids. He showed me programs that I could use to make me better.

“He was very analytical, but he wasn’t afraid to take a stance if he knew his coaches were right.”

The next big achievement in Simmons’ mind was getting a legal, working relationship between the school system and the parish recreation and parks department.

The idea was to create a mutually beneficial system where the schools could use city facilities that they didn’t have access to and the city programs could use school facilities where they lacked.

So for example, schools were able to play golf at Vieux Chenes and Hebert Municipal and tennis at Beaver and Thomas Park, while city programs were allowed to practice at parish gyms, ball fields and hold track meets at Lafayette High.

“The toughest thing was to get the middle schools to agree,” Simmons said. “At first, they didn’t feel like they were getting anything out of it, but it ended up working out for everybody involved.”

Simmons also made efforts to streamline the paperwork activities for each school’s athletic department.

Whatever the goal, he attempted to lead with a calm manner.

“I took a lot of psychology classes in college and studied a lot of different leadership styles,” Simmons said. “At times, I tried to be a very democratic person. Sometimes I had to be autocratic, but I tried to bring everybody in and feel a part of the process as much as possible.

“The main thing I didn’t want is a Laissez-Faire approach where everybody just did what they wanted to do. For the most part, I think the coaches knew when it was time to get serious.”

And while it wasn’t the ultimate priority, the parish won big during his tenure. When Simmons began in 1990, the parish only had two state championships – one volleyball and one track. That total almost approached 30 by the time he retired.

To honor the accomplished performers, Simmons instituted an end-of-the-year banquet to honor all the parish athletes who achieved All-State level recognition.

These days, Simmons remains involved despite being retired for two years now. He’s currently assisting the LHSAA as an auditor at area schools, making sure they’re adhering to LHSAA rules, and is still heavily involved as a track and field official.

All told, Simmons was a part of three pages full of panels and committees and specialty jobs over his career – all in support of high school athletes.

All of those will be on his mind when he walks into that ceremony under the shadow of the Louisiana flag in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 15 to honor his career as an athletic director.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” he said. “I guess the closer it gets, the more real it’s going to be to me.

“All the coaches and athletes and administrators that I worked with over the years, I’m going to be representing all of those people on that night. It’s going to be an honor I’ll never forget.”