‘Retired’ Labeta looks to bolster North County prep sports in new position

New North County Conference Commissioner John Labeta
(Thom Vollenweider Photography)

When North County high school athletes, coaches and administrators return to the fields, courts and pools in 2020-21, they’ll find a familiar face in a new role but still passionately supporting their endeavors as he has in one form or another for the past 26 years.

Fresh off retirement from a nine-year stint as assistant commissioner of the CIF San Diego Section (CIFSDS), former La Costa Canyon Athletic Director John Labeta has been selected to succeed Jim Stant as commissioner of the North County Conference (NCC). The NCC is an alliance of 23 schools that form four leagues—the Avocado, Palomar, Valley and the newly-designated Coastal.

The 68-year-old Labeta’s diversified career allows him to bring a virtually unparalleled wealth of applicable knowledge to his part-time NCC post. A San Diego native, Labeta was raised in Pacific Beach, played basketball at Mission Bay High School and earned a human development degree with a physical education minor from Christian Heritage (now San Diego Christian). He was a teacher, five-time CIF-winning head coach (two sports) as well as athletic director at both Serra and La Costa Canyon prior to joining then-incoming Commissioner Jerry Schniepp’s staff at the CIF office in 2011.

Labeta’s stuffed high school-centric resume becomes even more impressive when coupled with the fact that he was a late-comer to education and athletics. Pivoting after selling a successful landscaping business, he went back to school and became his family’s first college graduate in his 40s. Already a seven-year-plus walk-on coach at Serra, the college degree allowed him to step into a teaching position and “officially” set his second career into motion. Today, although stepping into “retirement,” his presence still brings unquestioned value.

One of Labeta’s colleagues to be, Torrey Pines Athletic Director Charlenne Falcis-Stevens is enthused about how his talents can work for the betterment of all North County athletic programs. “He’s been in so many different roles and has history at so many levels that he really can’t help but be a benefit to all of our schools,” said Falcis-Stevens, concluding her 15th year and sixth as the Falcons’ AD this spring. “John’s a strong leader with a big picture take on things, a proven consensus builder and, personally, I’ve always found him to be very accommodating.

“He’s also participated in and helped craft some of the most important CIF decisions, like competitive equity, the two-week no-contact period and the current transfer rules. I believe he will be a huge resource and provide invaluable guidance.”

Labeta at the 2019 CIF Open Division Girls Basketball Championship awards ceremony.
Labeta at the 2019 CIF Open Division Girls Basketball Championship awards ceremony.
(Thom Vollenweider Photography)

Labeta and his wife, Kelly, have been married 46 years. Their only child, Kari (DiGiulio), was an All-CIF honoree and part of section championship teams in field hockey and softball at Serra. She later became the head field hockey coach at Torrey Pines where she was at the helm of two CIF title teams. Following her father’s footsteps, she is currently approaching a decade as the athletic director at La Costa Canyon.

As he closes out his tenure at the CIF while simultaneously getting up to speed with the issues of the NCC, Labeta took time to discuss topics ranging from his reasons for this latest chapter of his career, perspectives on his time at the CIF office and what he expects to see in regard to local high school sports in 2020-21.

Q—What motivated you to investigate and ultimately take the position as Commissioner of the North County Conference?

LABETA—I knew the position for North County was potentially opening and, having been an athletic director on two campuses previously, I saw that as a viable option for me to continue doing something that I love—being active in some capacity with high school athletics.

When people like me retire, I think they look to the next phase in their life. I felt it would be a good fit, a perfect way to stay involved while transitioning smoothly into less than a full-time commitment.

Q—After a successful career as a coach, athletic director and, for the past nine-plus years assistant commissioner with the CIF, what unique skill set do you bring to this new job?

LABETA—Good question! Above all, I have learned patience and have become a good listener (although my wife may dispute the listening part!). Those are not unique to me but are necessary tools for an administrator to have.

I bring knowledge of the various functions of the CIF San Diego Section (CIFSDS) office and its bylaws, policies and procedures. From my experiences, as an athletic director in the city and North County, I bring the knowledge of the daily operations and challenges our athletic directors and school administrators face. I don’t look at myself as unique but simply somebody that cares about the people I work with and enjoys sharing the knowledge that has been passed on to me by some great mentors and people that have shaped my career.

Q—Having been on the “front lines” of a campus with coaches and student-athletes for over 20 years, how difficult was the transition to an administrative post with the CIF, one further removed from the action?

LABETA—Actually, moving to the CIFSDS office intensified the action for me. Not only did we oversee one school or two, like I did as a former athletic director, we now oversaw all 127 schools within the section.

Having said that, I remember getting the word from the new CIF Commissioner, Jerry (Schniepp), that I had been chosen as the next assistant commissioner. It was one week before the start of the girls’ basketball season and at the time, I was the head coach at La Costa Canyon. It hit me hard that I would not be coaching anymore or I would be coaching in a much different capacity. It was very difficult for me to tell my team I was not returning especially after the success the program was experiencing at that time. I came back to watch games from time-to-time but it was not the same. Truthfully, the interaction with the student-athletes is something that was tough to walk away from.

While I am still in communication with former athletes from both Serra and LCC, I can honestly say that not coaching was more difficult than I thought it would be. I missed the camaraderie the most, not only with the student-athletes, but the campus staff, daily operations people, the parents and boosters—they all came together to improve the overall experience. Watching students go from freshmen to seniors, aspiring to and then reaching varsity and achieving goals. Later, talking to them as adults, seeing their successes and hoping I might have played a small part. You miss those things.

But, one of the plus sides to this retirement is that my grandsons are still playing youth sports so I intend to coach their teams in basketball, at least, in the near future. And, with more time, I will be able to see my freshman granddaughter Mia play field hockey and soccer for the Mavericks next year!

Q—What do you feel was your greatest accomplishment or area of most impact as part of the CIF leadership team and is there an area you wish you had been able to achieve more?

LABETA—I am not sure I can point to any one accomplishment. Jerry and I changed the playoff format to competitive equity-based divisions and changed the seeding meetings to a data-based format that allowed for some human element as well. To me, those were positive changes and long overdue. I am sure we have detractors about this format but it is the format that is currently used in nearly all of the 10 CIF sections throughout the state.

I think the communication aspect was another of our goals that we achieved and face-to-face interactions with our coaches’ advisories for various sports were dramatically improved during our tenure.

I am proud to have initiated the Competitive Cheer championships for our section and the tremendous growth in the number of teams competing. In 2019-20, we had 47 schools and nearly 1,000 students competing. Battle of the Fans is another program I was instrumental in establishing. The purpose of this was to promote positive crowd behavior in the stands. It allowed us to interact with student leaders and see their schools foster a positive experience for all fans in attendance. If anything, I wish I had more time to put into the Battle of the Fans and getting more schools involved.

One of my dreams was to start a group of student-athletes that would be a student council for the CIFSDS and help them gain an understanding of what the CIFSDS truly does in its day-to-day operations. We were never able to find the time and money to make that happen but, hopefully, it will occur in the future.

Q—How difficult will it be walking away from the CIF position under the circumstances that currently exist?

LABETA—With the onset of COVID19, we are truly in unprecedented and challenging times. Jerry and I have said our last day is June 30, but we’re not planning on walking out the door and running away. We won’t be making the final decisions anymore but we’re definitely still on call and, hopefully, we can be solid resources.

I don’t look at this as walking away but merely becoming a mentor if needed for the next assistant commissioner. There are challenges awaiting the new administration but they are fully capable of dealing with them. We are currently working with Joe Heinz, new commissioner, and Todd Cassen, new assistant commissioner, in preparing them for their new roles. When they request help we will be there and give advice when needed. My role is changing but the success of the CIFSDS and section student-athletes is not.

The coach in me likes new challenges and this 2020-21 school year will definitely be a challenge in many ways. Whatever I can do to assist them, I will be happy to do while the transition takes place.

Q—How would you describe what your role will be with the NCC? What are some challenges you expect to find?

LABETA—In accordance with NCC policy, as a non-voting member, I will be preparing agendas for and presiding over bi-monthly meetings of the conference athletic directors. I will also regularly attend meetings of the conference principals and, in essence, serve as a conduit between the two groups.

The commissioner is also responsible for maintaining financial records and updating the Constitution and bylaws as necessary. I will also serve as a mitigator should issues arise involving two or more conference schools and be available to interpret CIF, conference and league rules as needed.

There are obviously challenges in any situation but, by-and-large, the group of administrators in this conference has exceptional credentials and a solid grasp of what needs to be accomplished. I don’t foresee any drastic changes but will attempt to re-organize some items in the near future and keep myself available as a resource while I better familiarize myself with the institutions and their leadership teams.

One of the things that makes the NCC unique relative to the other CIFSDS conferences is the fact that its schools are aligned with nine different districts. Most of the others are more unified along district lines. There always needs to be somebody that can pull all of those representatives together. A commissioner with experience and without agenda would logically fill that role.

Q—Comparing your time in high school athletics with today’s environment, what’s the best of each?

LABETA—Now you’re aging me. I have to say that we did not have the training that is available now and no club teams were even around. Most of us were gym rats, we hung out at the various recreation centers and played every seasonal sport they offered.

No cell phones, for many of us no cars and no computers or iPads to play games on. We were out playing in the street from daybreak to sunset and beyond sometimes. We competed against other recreation centers and were involved in the punt, pass, and kick and similar competitions. We also, for the most part, attended and competed for our local high schools. For me, the best was we saw more multi-sport athletes back then. I played multiple sports until high school. .

Today specialization starts at a far too early age, in my opinion. The training that is available to our student-athletes is a big plus, however, being asked to compete in one sport from the time you are 8 years old, to me, is wrong. We are seeing burnout at earlier ages and sports injuries from this specialization that is unnecessary. I do think club sports have a purpose but it should not be at such an early age. In addition, the social side of competing with your childhood friends for a common goal has great value at the high school level.

Q—What do you expect we’ll see from high school sports in 2020-21?

LABETA— I wish I had the answer to that. We are currently working on various plans for the upcoming fall season. Until such time as we have a firm date with clear guidelines, we can only speculate on how those seasons will look. When we view sports returning, we look at the big picture and not just one sport. We are concerned for the health and safety of the student-athletes, the coaches, athletic trainers, teachers, parents, grandparents, officials, scorekeepers, custodial staffs, all fans and the media.

I am currently working with a group of NCC athletic directors on the items we can control and establish a universal set of guidelines for schools to review and use as a guide for the safety at their individual school sites. There are some creative ideas we have discussed and are preparing a rough draft now for all parties to review with the administration and risk management groups in their districts. We have reviewed safety precautions for each fall sport and found common characteristics that would pertain to each sport’s preparation for before, during, and after contests.

There are tremendous challenges for us in the future but I am fortunate to be working with many veteran athletic directors who have been in place for quite a while, giving them wisdom and a global perspective. For someone like me coming in, that’s a huge advantage.

Q—Looking back at what has been a very successful, if somewhat unorthodox, career, do you feel there were any benefits to getting into prep sports later in your life than most?

LABETA—I think there were. After working with student-athletes and other coaches in a high school environment as a walk-on coach for many years, I made a mid-life change because I knew that’s what I really wanted to do. Many people go through life and end up saying, “I sure wish I had done this or that.” I was fortunate enough to come to that realization in time to do something about it.

For years, I had been telling student-athletes how important their education was and the importance of following their dreams. When I grasped that high school athletics was where I was meant to be, I also recognized that I needed to follow the advice I’d been giving my players. Going back to school and getting a college degree while supporting a family was a struggle at times but I don’t know if I would change a thing.

I’ve loved everything I’ve had the good fortune to do during this journey and where I am now is a perfect ending. I have no regrets.