Since the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) established the full-time position of executive director in 1940, only five individuals have been at the helm of the national leadership organization for high school sports and performing arts programs. On August 1, that number will climb to six as Bob Gardner ends his eight-year run as NFHS executive director.
Following in the footsteps of H. V. Porter (1940-58), Cliff Fagan (1958-77), Brice Durbin (1977-93) and Bob Kanaby (1993- 2010), Gardner will conclude a 48-year career in secondary education, including the final 18 years on the NFHS staff in Indianapolis. He was the organization’s chief operating officer for 10 years before moving to the CEO position.
Ironically, Gardner’s entire 48-year career was spent in the state of Indiana. He was a teacher and coach at three schools for eight years and also served as an athletic director for a period of time. In 1978, Gardner became principal of Milan Junior-Senior High School, followed by a stint as superintendent of the Milan Community Schools.
After serving on the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) Board of Directors during his time at Milan, Gardner joined the IHSAA staff in 1985 as assistant commissioner. He served 10 years in that role prior to becoming commissioner in 1995.
During his five years as IHSAA commissioner, Gardner led the change in the IHSAA football playoffs to permit participation by all schools, negotiated the association’s largest corporate sponsorship agreement in history with Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance and led the transition to multiple classes in team sports.
Since assuming duties as NFHS executive director in 2010, Gardner has vigorously promoted the values of high school activity programs and expanded opportunities for participation by boys and girls nationwide. During his eight years as executive director, participation in high school sports has increased by almost 400,000, including the expanded opportunity for students with disabilities in high school sports.
Gardner has led the organization’s focus on risk minimization in high school sports, with particular emphasis on concussion awareness, and has brought a heightened national presence to the work of the NFHS and its member state associations.
In addition to the continual expansion of the NFHS Learning Center during his tenure, Gardner is credited with starting the NFHS Network, the first-of-its-kind digital coverage of high school sports with more than 25,000 events covered during the 2016-17 school year. In addition, during his eight years as chief executive of the organization, operating revenue for the NFHS increased by $4 million.
Following are some of Gardner’s thoughts as he reflected on his time as head of the NFHS, along with his feelings about what is ahead for the organization and high school sports and performing arts across the country.
HST: What do you believe are some of the significant changes that have occurred in high school sports/activities during your time as NFHS executive director?
Gardner: I believe the continued growth in sports participation affirms the value of these programs in our schools. In addition, we have initiated a national focus on the essential elements of meaningful participation that enables students to maximize their athletic potential while developing into good citizens.
On the flip side of this good news, however, has been a decline in the number of contest officials in almost all sports. I believe the heightened demand for perfection has been one of the biggest reasons for the negative impact on officiating. This past year we initiated a national officials recruitment campaign, and I am encouraged by the response to date – there is much work to be done, however.
Another significant change has been the turnover in leadership among state association administrators as well as local school administrators and athletic administrators. This is concerning as we must continue to spread the messages on education-based activities to new individuals in these areas.
HST: What accomplishments are you most proud of during the past eight years?
Gardner: The highlight for me has been developing relationships with our membership and all of the various sister organizations with which we work. The quality of the staff that we have put together is something I’m proud of as well.
I’m very pleased with the development of the NFHS Network to tell the story of high school sports and activities and feature the amazing accomplishments of our student-athletes. In addition, the phenomenal growth of our online education program (NFHS Learning Center) has been tremendous – from a beginning of just two courses to now 60 courses by the time I depart and with a focus on others than just coaches. We now have courses for students, parents, administrators, performing arts directors and officials. Finally, I hand the organization off in a sound financial position. We have diversified our income and managed our expenses.
HST: What are some issues going forward that you believe the NFHS must continue to address?
Gardner: As has been the case for most of our 99-year existence, we must continue to support our member state associations in writing good playing rules that minimize risk for students, while continuing to promote participation.
Also, I believe we should continue to encourage multi-sport participation during the high school years as a means of combating injuries that occur from year-round specialization on a single sport.
I think the continual expansion of technology should be used to enhance our programs and our messaging as we continue to build strong relationships with our member state associations and with all other organizations that impact our students.
Certainly, I would encourage the continued focus and growth of the NFHS Network and its capacity to support high school sports and activities. Finally, I would encourage better dialogue between the high school and college groups for the benefit of those student- athletes who continue participation at the next level.
HST: Do you have any closing thoughts to share?
Gardner: I would like to express my appreciation to the dedicated staff of the NFHS during my tenure for all their accomplishments and the support they provided me. I also thank the staffs of our member state associations across this great nation. I have enjoyed working on their behalf. It has been my honor to serve as the NFHS executive director, and I wish the NFHS and member state associations much success.
Bruce Howard is NFHS director of publications and communications and editor of High School Today.