Steamboat Springs A new contract last month for Jim Swiggart as the concessionaire at the Tennis Center at Steamboat Springs has led to an overhaul that gutted the center’s staff. The changes include the removal of longtime tennis pros and Steamboat Springs High School tennis coaches John Aragon and Don Toy and the stepping down of local tennis fixture Carol Baily, who’s been teaching there since it opened in 1975.
Aragon and Toy were not offered new contracts with the Tennis Center, while Baily chose to leave in support of them. Their departures account for half the pros listed on the Tennis Center’s website.
Swiggart said he could not discuss Toy’s non-renewal, but he said the decision about Aragon was the result of declining participation in the Tennis Center’s junior academy, a children’s tennis instruction program that Aragon headed up.
“The academy is down so dramatically that it led me to make a change in the direction of the facility,” Swiggart said this week. “I can’t go into this new agreement with the same results I’ve had for the last 3 1/2 years.”
Swiggart said that he is working quickly to replace the staff members and that the academy will remain intact. The decision does not affect Aragon and Toy's coaching status with the high school.
Tennis community surprised
The personnel changes come as a shock to the Steamboat tennis world, which for many youth and high school players has consisted of little but Aragon and Toy.
“It’s a shock to the community. They’ve been tennis in Steamboat,” said Steve Lowrie, a member of the Steamboat Tennis Association until last year.
He had two children play for Aragon, and he said the experience was invaluable for both.
“He taught life lessons, and he is a mentor. He teaches kids how to compete, how to live and how to straighten up their acts,” Lowrie said. “He didn’t just coach tennis; he changed lives.”
Swiggart said he doesn’t disagree with any of that.
“He’s the best on-court teaching pro I’ve ever met in a group situation,” Swiggart said about Aragon. “I really appreciate all the skill John and Don have brought to the program.”
It didn’t, however, change what he said was a difficult decision, and that’s where stories splintered.
Issues included vacation, focus
Swiggart said the main problem was academy participation, down 34 percent in three years. He pinned the blame on Aragon, who had been with the center since 1997 and, by all accounts, built the academy to great heights in the first couple of years.
That meant recruiting, talking to parents and finding new players for the program.
Swiggart said that Aragon has been unfocused in more recent years, however, and that it led to the drop in attendance. He said that’s been most evident in Aragon’s vacations and in other commitments that have kept him away from the Tennis Center, a city-owned facility.
“John’s absenteeism is the greatest reason I didn’t renew his contract,” Swiggart said. “It really boils down to, I don’t want to call it desire, but continued passion for the kids. He’s been gone seven weeks out of this year, and he is the guy. There’s nobody else.”
Aragon stepped down from coaching the boys high school tennis team this fall, citing an upcoming trip to Australia that would have kept him away for critical parts of the season.
While Swiggart and Aragon agreed there always were instructors there to cover for absences, Swiggart said those fill-ins added to his payroll.
Swiggart also said a steep decline in adult lessons — 52 percent — is a problem at the Tennis Center and that Aragon, who focused on the youth programs, wasn’t in a position to help. He hopes a new pro might be able to help in both areas.
“Not a lot of people take adult lessons from John and Don,” Swiggart said.
Swiggart said he did notice a change after a Sept. 1 letter he sent to Aragon.
“In the last three weeks, after he got the letter saying I may or may not include them going forward, he has done what he did so well five years ago,” Swiggart said. “Last week, we had 34 kids out again. Had that happened in January and carried through now, I don’t know that we’d be having this conversation.”
Swiggart said simply removing Aragon and Toy from the academy wasn’t an option.
“There are only so many lesson dollars to go around,” Swiggart said. “If they continue to take lesson dollars out of the pie, there’s not enough to bring new people in.”
Aragon points to economy
Aragon said that his work ethic hasn’t changed and that the economy is to blame for the lapse in youth academy participation.
“I said, ‘Ya know, Jim, the whole country is down 30 percent,’” Aragon said about the Friday meeting he had with Swiggart about his contract. “My motivation and work ethic did not change. The economy did change.”
Aragon, 59, said he was surprised by the decision, especially its timing.
“We’re aging a bit, but we still have some really good years that we could have contributed to the community,” Aragon said. “That was taken away. We were fighting for him to keep his job (via the new contract). A lot of people were working for him to keep it, then when he does keep it through the hard work of the community, he fires us.
“It’s like slapping all of those people in the face. I felt betrayed.”
As for the September spike in junior academy attendance, he said that’s illustrative of groundwork laid in previous months and of a lack of communication at the Tennis Center.
“If he sent the letter and there was a change, why didn’t he send the letter in January?” Aragon said. “I was unaware that we weren’t performing up to expectations. ... There was no guidance, no leadership of any sort.”
That’s an assertion Baily backed up. She said the staff could have helped produce the funds for what’s expected to be a larger bill to the city. Swiggart will be responsible for paying the entirety of the utility bill for the Tennis Center, which he expects to be more than $60,000 per year, or about twice what he’s been paying.
“He should have approached us and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to have to make more money. Do you guys have any ideas?’” Baily said. “There was never any discussion whatsoever.”
She said the decision to leave with Aragon and Toy was one she had to make.
“John and Don have done so much for junior tennis in Steamboat, and I felt they were let go without a chance to try to remedy the situation,” she said. “I needed to support them.”
Pros still hopeful
Aragon spent Monday trying to get his job back. He said he tried but failed to get a meeting with Chris Wilson, director of the city of Steamboat Springs’ Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services Department, and that his group planned to attend a City Council meeting later this month to plead its case.
“They definitely need to re-evaluate Jim and his actions,” Aragon said.
The Steamboat Tennis Association's board of directors met Monday evening to discuss the situation, but it's unclear what power, if any, the board has to intervene. Swiggart unanimously was awarded a new three-year contract by the city to run the Tennis Center, which he has operated for the past 20 years. Under the terms of the contract, Swiggart is responsible for all personnel decisions.
Regardless, Aragon said that he, Toy and Baily aren’t opposed to returning to the Tennis Center staff and that he hopes to continue to work with the high school program.
“I still plan on teaching tennis in Steamboat Springs, Colo.,” Aragon said.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com