Carlsbad’s Eshelman looks for same success in new endeavor

Sam Eshelman
Accomplished basketball coach Sam Eshelman has moved into the role of athletic director at Carlsbad High School.
(Ken Grosse)

If the topic on the table following last winter’s CIF Championships was the best up-and-coming boys’ basketball coaches in San Diego County, one of the names sure to be included would be Sam Eshelman. In four years at the helm of the Carlsbad hoop team, his program has become one of the best in North County, rising to the upper reaches of the rugged Avocado West League while posting an overall record of 80-48, playing in a CIF title game in three consecutive seasons (in three different divisions) and capturing the section D-II crown in 2019. Well, you can remove Eshelman’s name from that discussion, at least for the time being.

On July 1, he stepped into a new role, that of athletic director at Carlsbad, his alma mater, where he played two years of varsity hoops. A graduate of Arizona State, Eshelman is currently pursuing his masters in education administration and, while somewhat surprising in its timing, the change of career direction fits seamlessly into his long-range aspirations.

Eshelman, married (Jill) with a one-and-a-half-year-old son (Thomas), has followed a career path that so far has been basketball-centric. He started as the freshman coach at Carlsbad, had a stint as an assistant at Army-Navy and was the first head coach at nearby Sage Creek High School before returning to Carlsbad for the 2016-17 season. Despite his lack of experience on the administrative side of prep sports, those close believe Eshelman will find the same type of success he achieved in coaching.

“To me, the selection of Sam was not a surprise, he’s a great fit,” said Amanda Waters, now the athletic director at prep powerhouse Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana and the person Eshelman is replacing at CHS. “He knows the program and has great organizational skills, which will keep him afloat as he’s learning the ropes.

“The relationships he’s already got and he really cares for the community—he went to Carlsbad High and bleeds purple. He’s going to have to be looking at things from the proverbial “10,000-ft. level” now instead of the narrower concentration that a head coach has but I think he’s going to do very well.”

Taking over in the COVID environment, he’s rarely been to his office since taking the reins from Waters but that doesn’t mean the 34-year-old Eshelman has not been moving full-speed ahead in anticipation of the slated re-start for San Diego prep sports, originally Dec. 12 but now looking like the early part of 2021. He took time from that busy schedule to talk about his reasons for the occupational plot change, his relationship with Waters and some of the things he hopes to accomplish in this latest chapter of his life.

Q—You were just entering the prime of what many would consider a potentially prolific high school basketball coaching career—and then you stepped away to accept the position of athletic director at your school, Carlsbad. Why?

ESHELMAN—My goal has always been to be involved in educational leadership. That said, it was not my immediate plan to shift gears at this point. I was happy teaching and coaching but when this opportunity came, I just couldn’t pass it up.

Admittedly, it was a hard decision, but with this door opening, kind of lining up with where I wanted to eventually go professionally, I realized that these types of positions are hard to come by and sometimes you need to act when the situation dictates.

Q—What was the process like?

ESHELMAN—I had a pretty good working relationship with Amanda Waters, our athletic director, and caught wind of her interest in the AD job at Mater Dei. We had some preliminary conversations about what Carlsbad might do if she made the move. That piqued my interest.

In these types of job openings, employees within the district are offered the first shot. When it was posted, I think I might have been the only internal candidate, but I didn’t take that lightly and was prepared as I would have been in any other situation. I may not have direct experience but I feel I’m well-qualified and have a good vision for our program, one that aligns with that of the school administration and district.

I knew that having worked with Amanda and having her as a guide and resource would help bridge the gap with anything I didn’t know. I feel confident I can build on what Amanda was doing.

Q—Is their any other school where you would have made this move?

ESHELMAN—No. I feel like the fact that it was Carlsbad is what made it something I couldn’t pass up. In my grand vision, I was expecting to be the head coach at least two-to-three more years and then begin looking for something in educational leadership. This is a special place and my familiarity with it made the choice easier.

Q—There have been plenty of prep coaches who have made the move to athletic director while retaining their coaching title. Did you ever consider a dual role?

ESHELMAN—As I told the kids on my team, they deserve to have a coach who is 100% focused on leading the basketball program. I was fearful that if I tried to handle both positions there would be times when my focus would necessarily be elsewhere. It wouldn’t be fair to the kids if their coach had to split his energy.

Q—Do you ever see yourself returning to the coaching ranks?

ESHELMAN—I might think about returning to coaching at some point. I’m not closing that door but right now the new job and my family are priorities. We have a young child and hope to eventually add to our family. One thing I’ve learned in my career is that coaching high school basketball requires a lot of time to do it well.

Early on I was able to devote all of my time to my program. If you’re not married and don’t have children, you can do that. I’m not saying you can’t balance the two but, to be successful, the most important thing is the time devoted—it takes an incredible amount of time.

Q—Given the crazy times everyone is facing, what have been the immediate priorities since taking over your new position?

ESHELMAN—I think right now every athletic director is rapidly planning and making sure everything—health and safety elements, scheduling, facility preparation, etc.—is in order should we be able to kick off on our scheduled start date which we thought would be December 12 but is now looking more like early January.

I’ve also been taking steps to communicate with all of our coaches to establish a common vision—to make sure we’re on the same page as far as what we’re trying to accomplish. The primary focus will to always be thinking about what’s best for our student-athletes. At the same time, I know that it’s important for an AD to constantly be striving to improve the working conditions for the coaching staff.

Q—Any idea when a sense of normalcy—kids back on campus, regular training routines, reliable game schedules—might occur? When it does happen, what challenges do you foresee?

ESHELMAN—I’m not sure anyone could guarantee an answer to the first part of that question. The biggest challenge I see from where I sit here in late November is testing, contact tracing and all things pertaining to that area. You’ve seen the issues that have cropped up at the collegiate level and they have a lot of resources we don’t.

We’re still trying to figure out the best way to do those things on a limited budget.

Q—So far, how difficult has the transition been—from hyper-focused coach to the more broad-based demands of an athletic director?

ESHELMAN—Moving into the AD’s office has surely been different than any previous job change. As the leader of a team, you have a very direct focus and you have control of virtually everything involved with your program.

From this new macro perspective, I have to look at things very broadly. I find that I listen more and I observe more. We have tremendous coaches and I’ve already learned quite a bit just by communicating with them. They have a lot to offer.

Coaches have a tough job. They have to be totally hands on with their teams but have a heavy load of administrative tasks as well. As an athletic director, you can’t always be hands on with the student-athletes like you can as a coach, but it doesn’t diminish the role that I will play or the value that I can provide to help our coaches be able to spend the quality time they need with their teams.

Q—In the short term, what would you like to accomplish at Carlsbad High School?

ESHELMAN—I believe branding will be a key—looking uniform, following a consistent set of shared practices and standards in regard to how our student-athletes represent the school and honoring our traditions. I want people to know about our history and things we have grown proud about.

As I mentioned, we have a tremendous athletic legacy but have not always received the notoriety that our coaches and student-athletes have deserved. We’ve been very successful at the league and CIF level while regularly sending athletes on to four-year colleges. We need to do a better job of highlighting that.

We’ll create a list of long-term priorities and strategies as things unfold. Everyone will have a stake in the conversations as those are developed. Amanda did a great job of bringing people together and I want to continue to build on that.

Q—Speaking of Amanda Waters, as a coach at Carlsbad, what was your relationship like with her? How will that relationship affect how you work with your coaches going forward?

ESHELMAN—I don’t know if I’ve met anyone with the attention to detail that Amanda has—and the work ethic to go with it. She really works hard and genuinely cared about the school and our student-athletes. I will be following what she did and be ready to listen to others like she did with me.

I always felt like she had my back. I want student-athletes and coaches to feel the same about me.

Q—After you’ve spent a more sizeable amount of time as Carlsbad’s athletic director, what do you think those around you might find surprising about your management style and personality?

ESHELMAN—Well, I would like for folks to find me a champion of their student-athlete(s) and enthusiastically supportive of all of our programs. I am not sure what people would be surprised by…I suppose that’s why it is a surprise.