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July 14, 2020

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Hoffman endures many challenges in first year as WIAA executive director

Former Vancouver Public Schools teacher, administrator has made some tough decisions

By , Columbian staff writer
2 Photos
Mick Hoffman, the executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, works from home on Monday afternoon, June 15, 2020.
Mick Hoffman, the executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, works from home on Monday afternoon, June 15, 2020. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Mick Hoffman hasn’t stepped inside the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s Renton headquarters much since the coronavirus pandemic closed schools and cancelled spring sports.

Instead, the living room inside his Vancouver home is now a makeshift office he works in six days a week, 10 hours a day, and too many Zoom meetings a day to count on one hand. For the record, it’s been as high as eight or nine.

“If I have four meetings in a day,” Hoffman said, “that’s a good day.”

Later this week marks one year for Hoffman as chief of the organization that oversees the state’s activities and athletics — a system that includes more than 800 middle and high schools and serves nearly 225,000 participants. Years working in Vancouver Public Schools as a coach, teacher, middle school principal and district administrator prepared him to tackle just about anything.

But there is no playbook for how to deal with a novel coronavirus that halted spring activities and athletics, could’ve ended state basketball tournaments early, and still remains so fluid that no fall plans are concrete.

As he’s learned in all his jobs within Vancouver Public Schools spanning nearly 30 years before becoming the WIAA’s executive director last July 1, he figured it’s best not to make changes on the fly the first 12 months in Renton.

“Well,” Hoffman said, “that went out the window. … I knew it was going to be a steep learning curve. I didn’t know I’d have to fall off a cliff and climb it.”

Optimistic for fall

Hoffman is optimistic for a fall sports season. What and how that will look remains fluid, but the picture became clearer last week when the WIAA released a state government-approved guidelines for how schools can safely resume summer activities heading into the fall amid COVID-19.

In addition, sub-committees made up of athletic directors, coaches and WIAA staffers prepared practice and competition guidelines for each sport.

The association said it plans to begin practices for the fall season on time — Aug. 19 for football and Aug. 24 for the remaining sports. Its top contingency plan is a delayed start to early September. It added that if schools are closed in COVID-19 hotspots, it remains committed to offering regular seasons and/or state championship events, even if not all schools can participate.

“We’ll still provide to students who can (play) because they’ve simply lost so much,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman, 51, likes being in the memory-making business, which is why he’s been in the kid business of education all his adult life.

His wife Tammi is an elementary school teacher in Vancouver Public Schools, where Hoffman got his start teaching English and social studies and coaching basketball and football at his alma mater, Hudson’s Bay. He later became Fort Vancouver’s boys basketball coach and girls golf coach before moving up the school and district administration ladder.

Last summer, Hoffman replaced longtime executive director Mike Colbrese, who retired after serving 26 years at the association’s helm. Hoffman also brought on BJ Kuntz and Justin Kesterson as two new assistant executive directors last summer.

And Hoffman’s leadership shown by representing Southwest Washington’s District 4 on the WIAA Executive Board stands out on a statewide scope, board president Greg Whitmore said.

Whitmore is athletic director and head football coach at Class 2B Lind-Ritzville High School, and first served on the Executive Board with Hoffman six years ago. He said the passion Hoffman has for kids shines brightly — first at a local level, and now across the state.

“It was the same thing I came to know of him working on the Executive Board,” Whitmore said. “I knew he loved his job down in Vancouver. I also knew that he wanted to work on behalf of kids. … It’s been one of the best decisions we’ve made. He came in and immediately empowered our staff.

“Change is scary, but change is always good,” Whitmore continued. “Mick has made us come through the most challenging times our association has ever faced.”

What lies ahead

For months, the WIAA staff of 12 has fielded questions from all directions about what’s ahead.

Hoffman cautions everything remains fluid and with return-to-play guidelines in place, sports and activities this fall may look vastly different. If there’s one question not allowed among his staff, it’s this: “What can happen next?”

“We have banned that question,” he said. “We can pretty much deal with anything, but that one will get you in trouble.”

When Gov. Jay Inslee extended school closures for the remainder of the school year on April 6, it also officially cancelled the WIAA’s spring sports championships. It marked the first time since 1943 (World War II) when Washington didn’t crown a spring sports champion.

Delivering that message on social media platforms was one of the toughest moments of Hoffman’s long career. It came weeks after tense times surrounding regional and state basketball weekends when he said COVID-19 concerns could’ve ended the events at any second.

Memories were made in spring, but not positive ones. Since then, Hoffman has seen nothing but resilience from students.

“Hopefully,” he said, “if anything good can come out of those incredible senses of loss it makes them more appreciative when they get it back.”

Hoffman still has several big-ticket goals on his agenda, but also pegs certain challenges facing the WIAA. One of them continues to be declining attendance at state tournaments.

Citing rising costs and lower revenue, the WIAA moved football state championship games out of the Tacoma Dome last fall. Many positive reviews came from holding championship doubleheaders at three Pierce County high schools in 2019.

For all state events, the association is taking a deeper dive into the overall experience for participants and attendees. Earlier this month, the WIAA put a hold on changes to the state basketball tournament formats after it sent out surveys seeking input on a trio of options.

“When 55 percent of revenue comes from attendance,” Hoffman said, “you have to pay attention to it. … We want to make sure we are putting on events that people want to be there. Finding ways to engage rather than a passive audience. What can we do to make it a more fun, meaningful experience.”

No matter the challenges ahead, Hoffman firmly believes high school sports are a lasting institution and vital to the educational process. And, he loves being part of it.

Even if he continues to climb the cliff brought on by COVID-19.

“It’s hard work, but it’s fun work,” Hoffman said. “If your goal is to help make things better and to serve other people, it’s the perfect job. If you love athletics and activities, you like working with people and want to help people and provide opportunities … it’s pretty rewarding, personally.”

The Mick Hoffman File

Age: 51

Before WIAA: Spent nearly 30 years in Vancouver Public Schools as a teacher, in-building administrator and district administrator. Also coached football, basketball and girls golf at Hudson’s Bay and Fort Vancouver high schools.

Served three years as assistant superintendent/Chief Operations Officer at VPS before being named WIAA’s Executive Director in 2019.