The Georgia High School Association will begin the search for a new executive director after Gary Phillips agreed to retire at the end of the 2016-17 school year in a move to appease Georgia legislators who threatened to put the organization under state control.
The GHSA unanimously approved a proposal from the executive committee on Monday that will pay Phillips’ salary and benefits through the 2017-18 school year. He will retire from the job this summer.
The original recommendation from the board of trustees, which called for his resignation, was unanimously rejected by the 66-member executive committee as a symbolic gesture of respect. Phillips has held the position for 2 1/2 years.
“There was a vast number of members of the executive committee who wanted to show their support for Gary,” said Gary Long, the athletic director at Gwinnett County’s Mill Creek High School and one of the trustees who supported Phillips’ removal. “There was a lot of emotion. People wanted to support Gary and that’s how they did it.”
In a closed executive session that lasted more than 90 minutes, committee members spoke on behalf of Phillips and sought a solution that would have enabled him to remain in power. After returning from a break, Phillips reiterated to the board his desire to retire, saying he needed to do “what was best for the association and my family.”
A new proposal from Christian Suttle of Hillgrove High School in Powder Springs and Bruce Potts of Sonoraville High School in Rome was then introduced and passed without dissent by the group.
“He’s done a great job for us within the GSHA, but he feels like it’s time for him to move on,” said Floyd County board of education’s Glenn White, the GHSA president.
Phillips’ position was jeopardized by the introduction of House Bill 415 and Senate Bill 203, which called for replacing the GHSA with a new statewide governing body that would operate under the state board of education. Phillips agreed to retire early in an attempt to derail those bills.
Sen. Bruce Thompson, who wrote SB 203, said GHSA’s future remains unclear.
“Both bills will sit still till next year,” Thompson said. “We will work with GHSA in that time.”
Regarding Phillips, he added, “(SB 203) is based on hundreds of challenges (GHSA) has had. I think fairly and unfairly, Gary was at the center of that. … In some cases, he didn’t help himself.”
White acknowledged the work that remains with the legislature but underscored the importance of Monday’s action.
“I think the legislature will consider what’s happened and see what we do between now and next week,” White said. “This is the first step and they want to see us start making some changes and how we do things within the GHSA. We want a cooperative, friendly relationship with the legislature. I can’t say that strong enough.”
Phillips did not answer questions after the meeting. But in a prepared statement that was read before the executive committee went into executive session, Phillips did not mince words about the possibilities of high school governance falling into state hands.
His statement said: “The prevailing societal and political issues make this era as challenging as any in the GHSA’s history. The overall experience of Georgia’ student-athletes is not served by turning a blind eye to the issues of athlete recruitment and eligibility related fraud.
‘The student-athlete experience is not served by pandering politicians who seek to disband the GHSA and replace it with a governmental body whose bylaws prohibit consideration of any geographic or residency related factors in determining student-athlete eligibility. And it is not served by knee-jerk opposition to the GHSA because of some perceived slight arising from past GHSA rulings or decisions.”
Phillips said he agreed to retire for the benefit of the association.
“Because of the respect I have for the GHSA and the faith that I have in the job we are doing, my initial inclination was to fight to the bitter end,” Phillips wrote. “This, however, would benefit no one, including the student-athletes whom we are supposed to serve, and my family, which has been devastated by the events of the past two weeks.”
Phillips has been the GHSA’s executive director since July 2014, when he succeeded Ralph Swearngin. He was an assistant director for the organization for 13 years after a longtime career as an educator, coach and administrator. He was only the fifth director in the organization’s 71-year history.
The GHSA board of trustees will likely meet within the next two weeks to plan the next move. White said the goal will be to have a recommendation for Phillips’ replacement before he leaves at the end of the school year.