Alex Martinez ready to take soccer coaching career to next level at Legion Collegiate Academy
Strait Herron spent the spring assembling a coaching staff that has raised eyebrows in York County.
Legion Collegiate Academy’s newly-hired sports coaches include established legends -- there are a pair of current Hall of Famers and a pair of future Hall of Famers -- and young hotshots who could have similarly lengthy and successful coaching careers.
It’s not been as easy as Herron just picking up the phone and calling candidates, though.
Legion is Rock Hill’s newest public charter school. It opens its doors for the first time this fall at a temporary site (505 University Drive, Trinity Bible Church), while its permanent campus off S.C. 901 is finished. Herron, the former five-time state championship football coach at South Pointe, is coaching Legion’s football team and is also the athletic director.
The school is different from its neighboring traditional public schools in several ways, namely its split-day schedule, its financial offerings for potential coaches, and the fact that almost all of Legion’s coaches will not teach at the school. All three factors have created hurdles for Herron to clear as he recruits coaches.
“You’re trying to find people that fit into that mold,” he said. “Retired people work pretty easily, but it doesn’t matter to us. We want to find the best fit.”
Little overlap between jobs
At Legion, teachers will teach, and coaches will coach. The two jobs will rarely overlap.
A few Legion coaches, like Parker Thomas, will work at the school in additional capacities. Thomas, Legion’s new lacrosse coach, will handle sports information duties, sharing info about all Legion sports programs with the media and public.
Herron said Legion’s two sister schools, Oceanside Collegiate and Gray Collegiate, each had at least one coach who also teaches. But if a young sports coach already has a flexible day job and just wants to coach, Legion is a perfect situation.
“They’re not caught up in lesson plans and teacher meetings,” Herron said. “They’re just there to do their job, and then go coach.”
Former Northwestern soccer star Alex Martinez and former USC Gamecocks women’s basketball standout Asia Dozier both fall in this category.
Martinez was hired to oversee Legion’s boys and girls’ soccer programs, an ideal situation for him and Legion for several reasons. First, he hadn’t taught in the public school system and didn’t have time and money vested in the state’s retirement system. Second, he still plays professionally for the Charlotte Independence and trains in the morning, leaving the afternoon open for him to coach. And third, he’s a highly-qualified candidate that’s only 27 years old and should have a bright coaching career future ahead of him.
Many of those same reasons pertain to Legion girls’ basketball coach Dozier, whose four-year college playing career at the University of South Carolina ended with a 121-18 record. Crucially, she too has other sources of income, including personal training, and a flexible schedule.
“I never really thought about teaching necessarily,” Dozier said. “My passion has always been coaching, and I actually intended on doing it at the college level. I had some opportunities to do that, but we have a lot of elite level student-athletes out there that deserve an elite level of coaching.”
Retirees fit at Legion
All three are Hall of Fame-caliber coaches. The combined experience residing in their minds will undoubtedly be a huge resource for Legion’s younger coaches.
Additionally, all three are retired from public education jobs -- Carroll and Wallace from high school education and Cooke from Winthrop. Their schedules were open and flexible, so they could coach their teams during Legion’s morning or afternoon sessions, and they’re already vested members of the South Carolina public retirement system, collecting monthly pensions from the state.
That’s notable because there is a distinct lack of coaches at Legion who are in the primes of their careers; the majority are either just starting out, or are long-established.
Legion is part of the state’s charter school system, not the public school system, so its teachers and coaches can’t contribute to South Carolina’s public education retirement system while working at the new school.
It was always going to be tough for Legion to attract local coaches established in the school system retirement plan. Many teacher/coaches working in Rock Hill and other surrounding districts have put too much time into the state system to pull out now, which would cause them to lose their state retirement pension.
Legion project coordinator Jack Frost pointed out that his school offers coaches 403 B plans, which are similar to 401 K plans, but geared toward teachers and other public sector employees. Legion matches three percent of employees’ contributions to its employees’ 403 B plans.
TERI change played a role in Legion hires
A change in South Carolina’s retirement system is what ultimately led several coaches to Legion, including Herron.
When South Carolina ended its Teacher and Employee Retention Incentive (TERI) program in 2018, it limited the ability of retired teachers to continue working in the state’s public schools. A new $10,000 earnings cap -- after an employee earned $10,000 in a fiscal year, they can’t take retirement at the same time -- was placed on teachers that had reached retirement thresholds but were still teaching, essentially forcing them out of the public school system.
The end of TERI only impacted teachers/coaches that retired after 2013, like Herron and Carroll.
There are plenty of retirement aged-teachers in South Carolina that still want to work. For many, that meant getting jobs in North Carolina so that they wouldn’t compromise their South Carolina pension status by making more than $10,000 in S.C.
At Legion, Herron and Carroll can earn as much money as they want working in an education environment, while still receiving their public retirement pension. And they don’t have to teach.
Plus, Carroll said in March, “we don’t have to move.”
“It turned out to be a great move and came at just the right time,” Herron said this week.
Two other key differences between charters and public schools
Herron said Legion’s unique schedule was an equally big challenge in hiring coaches. The school’s 600 students will spend one half of the day focused on academics and the other half focused on their sport. Some sports teams will practice in the morning, while others practice in the afternoon.
The school will pay coaching supplements to its coaches, but in most cases, especially for the younger coaches, they’ll need to have other jobs with flexible schedules, a luxury not available to everyone.
One other key difference between Legion’s setup and the public schools’ setup is the lack of an employer insurance plan.
Frost said in an email that the charter school offers a stipend to its coaches that can be used on insurance. If the coach doesn’t use the stipend for insurance purposes, it still goes into their paychecks. But Herron said there have been coaching candidates he missed out on because Legion doesn’t offer traditional employer insurance plans like public school systems do.
Even with the challenges that Legion’s non-traditional setup threw in front of Herron, he and the school are thrilled with the quality of coaching hires.
“Coach Herron and (principal) Dr. (T.K.) Kennedy did a great job hiring collegiate-caliber coaches to coach on the high school level,” said Dozier.
Dozier won a national championship at South Carolina and was an All-SEC academic selection all four years of college.
Martinez won a club national championship with Discoveries Soccer Club, where he’s coached for several years, and still plays professionally.
Cooke won 767 games during his time at Winthrop, where he is a member of the school’s sports hall of fame.
Baseball coach Devon Lowery played in the Major Leagues with the Kansas City Royals.
And Wallace, Carroll and Herron are three of the greatest high school football coaches York County has known.
“I’m just ecstatic at the people we have and the different types of coaches we have,” said Herron. “All of them have had success at some level, and my No. 1 goal when I interviewed these people was high character. These are very, very good people.”