On the record ... with Phil Jerbi
GENOA – The new athletic director at Genoa-Kingston High School, Phil Jerbi, went into the “family business” of education. Among the 17 family members in education is his father, who is arguably Jerbi’s biggest influence.
“You talk about my father and then you look at my story; they are very similar,” he said.
Besides running track, Jerbi starred in basketball as a 2-guard at Gardner High School, earning third-team all-state honors his senior year and graduating with a 46 percent 3-point field goal percentage.
Originally intending to be an architect, Jerbi accepted an invitation to teach a provisional drafting class at DeKalb High School.
“I thought I’d try it,” he said. “I did it and I loved it and I started taking classes at NIU to get my master’s in education. The next thing I know I’m getting hired at G-K. That was 1993-94.”
Jerbi, who has five degrees from Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois universities, coached a number of sports at G-K, including varsity boys basketball and boys track.
Jerbi spent a few minutes recently with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson.
MidWeek: Is athletic director something you’ve wanted to do?
Phil Jerbi: I got my second master’s, my administrative degree, in 2004. That was the same year my second child was born. The reason I did that was when we had our first child, I said if I’m ever going to be an administrator, I’d better do it now. Even though I knew I wasn’t going to use it (the degree) then, I knew how hard it was going to be once the kids got older.
I had applied for some administrative positions before and they didn’t pan out, but it was probably for the best. I was a little bit younger then and not as experienced as I should have been. I also had some unfinished business in the classroom.
MW: Even more than coaching, you’ve been very successful in industrial tech.
PJ: When I got hired here, we didn’t have industrial technology here. We had to start from scratch. The first year we had these old wooden desks we found in the back of the boiler room. The T-squares we were using were scraps of wood that I found behind the school that I had screwed together. Now, we’ve got one of the best state labs for a school our size; multiple students go on to state titles in engineering and technology and go off to college.
Until this year, Don Billington is the only principal I’ve ever known here. He was here 22 years; I’ve been here 20. I was one of his first hires. Don never told me ‘no.’ He may have said, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to pay for it, but we’ll find a way.’ I owe a lot to Don, taking a chance on a young 22-year-old just coming in and starting up a program from scratch.
MW: Are you going to miss teaching?
PJ: I thought about that. I’m sure that first day when the bell rings for first hour and I’m in an office and not in a classroom it’ll be a little awkward and feel bizarre, like I should be somewhere else. But I feel pretty good about this and there’s two reasons why. No. 1, I don’t feel there’s any unfinished business there. Three years ago, I applied for the same position. I was one of the finalists, but I didn’t get it. I think there was a reason for that. The reason was I had unfinished business in the department. I think now I can easily say I don’t have any unfinished business. I’m ready for a new challenge.
No. 2 is, besides my family, I have three passions in life: I love working with young people, I have always loved athletics and extracurriculars, and I have absolutely grown to love and adore this particular district. It’s not the fact I wanted to be an athletic director. It’s the fact that I wanted to be the athletic director at Genoa-Kingston. You talk about your dream job. I believe this is mine. It’s too early to tell, but so far, so good. It just feels right.
MW: Sounds like you like it here.
PJ: There’s a reason why Kathy (his wife) and I have built a home here. The best compliment I can give a school district is that I want my children to graduate from here. And that’s why I’m still here. And why I want to be here.
The relationships I’ve built here at Genoa have been beyond my wildest expectations. If I had never come to Genoa, I never would have met my wife and I never would have had my two daughters. I owe a lot to this district. I am really ready to continue to serve it. It is really humbling and an honor to be in this position.
MW: Was it awkward sitting in on the interviews for your replacement?
PJ: I thought it would be, but it wasn’t. I can’t explain it. ...Any time I have the opportunity to talk about athletics or industrial technology, it’s a passion of mine. To have an opportunity to look across the table and think, ‘Is this someone I can see taking over this program?’ It’s the students’ program. But knowing where we were 20 years ago and where we are today, that you’re handing this over to someone you’ve worked your entire professional life for, you want to make sure it’s going to be in good hands.
It’s was actually quite exhilarating and exciting.
MW: Do you think your experience as a coach will help you as AD?
PJ: Yes. Now there are some drawbacks, but there are more positives than negatives. First of all, I’ve been a head coach of multiple different seasons. I think that’s even bigger than multiple sports. I’ve been a fall coach, a winter coach and a spring coach. Each one of those is affected differently. Are people excited because it’s the beginning of the year, or it’s end of the year? Being a spring sports coach, it’s ridiculously hard to get your uniforms turned in because school is out and we’re still playing. In the fall sports, you’re trying to get your team together before you’ve even seen them in the classroom. In the winter sports, I can’t start until fall sports is over and maybe they’ve made the playoffs or are going down into the regionals and I’ve got to get started. and then you’ve got the spring sports coaches going, ‘Can I please have my athletes?’
There are different issues with different coaches, depending on the sport itself and the time of year it is.
MW: How do you see the sports program?
PJ: We have to realize this is not my sports program, it’s the kids’, then the coaches’, then mine. I need to be in the background. This belongs to them.
MW: What are your biggest challenges?
PJ: The biggest challenge facing any school administrator in the state right now is finance. Our budget has been cut. We’ve already had several meetings talking about fundraising ideas. But we have to keep the money we’re cutting as far away from the students as possible.
Another challenge is definitely going to be that today’s student athlete is different from 15-20 years ago. A lot of these kids work. There are more clubs out there. We don’t have any control over the club sports. If a kid wants to develop in one sport, then by all means, go for it. But we want to promote two- or three-sport athletes.
We can’t tell a kid not to do it. We don’t have an opinion on it, but where we do have an opinion on it is that we would like them to try as many differnet things as possible while they are in school. I told my daughter who went into middle school last year, try everything.
MW: You won’t know if you don’t like it until you try it.
PH: Absolutely. Truly give it a shot. Until you try it, you don’t know. I tell my daughter and former students, ‘Don’t come back to me five or 10 years from now and say, ‘Boy, I wish I would have blank.’’ Don’t have any regrets. We want our student athletes to experience as much of everything as they can.
I’m sure there are going to be a lot of things that are going to be a challenge I’m not even aware of it yet. There’s still a lot of learning to do.
MW: I assume it helps that you’ve been here so long and know the district so well.
PH: I’m familiar with how things work in this district and that helps. I need to develop relationships with the other ADs and coaches within the conference. A lot of my coaching and official peers have already made the comment, ‘So you’ve gone to the dark side, eh?’
MW: What changes do you see yourself making?
PJ: Communication. Ripples, not waves. We have two new administrators for the first time in many years. People don’t know what to expect because we are going to have different supervisory styles than the old ones. We don’t want to make too big of changes.
MW: Do you have any goals?
PH: Our new motto this year is We are One. We are not a football program, a basketball program, or a golf program; we are an athletics program. We are going to support each other. A lot of times football and basketball are your primary sports. It’s where you have your homecoming and your senior night festivities and things of that nature. A lot of what you consider your middle tier sports, we want to give them as much notoriety as possible. We don’t want to bring the others down, we want to bring them up.
We want each and every athlete to feel they are a part of the whole program, whether they are on the team or just going to the game. We want to support accordingly across the board.
MW: Are you looking forward to this?
PJ: It has been a fun nerve-wracking, if there is such a thing. It’s like being a father for the first time. I’m holding Alexander in my arms for the first time. I had this rush of excitement come over me and two seconds later, I was terrified, because I was like, now what do I do. Then a couple of years later, Kaitlyn was born, and I knew exactly what to expect. Hopefully, by this time next year, I’ll be more comfortable.