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Coaches vs. Cancer

The 2006-07 school year marked Mick Lowie's 18th year head coaching the Cortland (N.Y.) High School boys' basketball team and the Purple Tigers' 10th year participating in the American Cancer Society's Coaches vs. Cancer, the society's fundraiser geared toward basketball programs to raise money in the fight against cancer. "Cancer touches so many people," he says. "It's hard to find someone in your community not personally affected." Lowie himself has lost two close friends and his mother-in-law to the disease.


Lowie, his coaching staff, and several administrative assistants dedicate more than eight months to the fundraiser, which this season, raised more than $3,000. Lowie says the setup of the fundraiser is what makes it popular among his players and the community. The team raises money through a season-long three-point pledge drive and donates the pledges to the Syracuse chapter of the ACS. In return for the team's effort, the chapter offers a percentage of the money they raised as a scholarship for a graduating CHS basketball player.


Lowie talked with FundraisingForSports.com about this and how Cortland's basketball program is doing its part to fight cancer.


What prompted Cortland's participation with Coaches vs. Cancer?
It started in October 1997 as a request by the local chapter. An ACS representative visited one of our pre-season league meetings and talked about Coaches vs. Cancer and the various ways schools can participate. Assistant coach John Tobin and I just looked at each other. At the time, one of our female athletic coaches had just died of cancer. She was a friend and a former student of mine and a very good friend of my brother's and his wife. So the interest was there to get involved, but what and how, we really didn't know.


Where did the idea of a three-point pledge drive come about?
The rep talked about a variety of "big" day, one-night-type fundraisers, like tournaments and half-court contests. But Syracuse University did a "three-point attack" against cancer for their version of a fundraising program. They were successful, and we just copied them.


How did the team solicit pledges? Paulette Young—a person whom I couldn't do this without—is our former athletic department secretary and current guidance secretary. She created the original letter, outlining the fundraiser, pledging options, and form. To make it easier to read, she includes an example of a pledge and breaks it down. So people can see, "Oh, is that all? That's not much."


She mails the letter to all Cortland School District-area businesses, parents of student-athletes, all school district staff, and anyone we can think of who's associated with the school district. We try very hard not to go anywhere near the other school districts; we don't want them to lose support of their fundraising projects.


For our part, my coaching staff and I talk about the program during parent-teacher conferences. A couple of my basketball assistants are also elementary teachers, and their students will hold a special fundraiser, like a soda can drive, and give that money to the fundraiser. Paulette maintains all the names of those solicited and those donating in a large Excel file.


A member of the community pledges a certain amount per three-pointer made by the team throughout the season, including post-season play. Some, though, donate flat rates. This year, one organization donated $500 to the team. The average donation is roughly 10 cents a shot, but there are a bunch who give $1 a shot. Nine out of 10 checks that come in, the person rounded up the donation, like $23 is round to $25.


How does the team manage the collection of pledges?
The mailing goes out the first week of November and forms return over a two-week span. At the end of the year, Paulette tallies the pledges and mails another letter to contributors detailing the number of three points made, their pledge form, method of payment, and mailing information.


During their study halls, the team members open envelopes while the team captain and I record the money and deposit it into the team's bank account. It's quite the process, and it usually begins March 1 and lasts until the first week of May. Reminders are sent out to those who have not returned their forms. We usually don't have too many of those.


Once all the money is collected, I write a check to the chapter. A few weeks later, the chapter sends the team a thank you note and a check for 20-25 percent of the money raised, and this money is used for our senior scholarship.


How is the senior scholarship awarded?
After we send the Syracuse chapter a check, they issue us a check after a few weeks. There is no set formula for choosing the student-athlete who wins the scholarship, other than being a senior basketball player.


Some things the coaching staff looks for are:


In years past, the scholarship has been split between two players. It's not about the money. It's about being called up on stage and getting the recognition.


How does the local chapter help the basketball team promote the fundraiser?
There are a lot of schools participating in this program, but the Syracuse chapter gives Cortland a pretty good plug at speeches. We're right at the top for raising money in non-tournament events for New York State, so they talk about us when they go to other schools to discuss Coaches versus Cancer. The Syracuse chapter also gives us a boatload of T-shirts to hand out during games, which the cheerleaders throw in the stands during halftime. (Laughs.) The superintendent isn't always happy, having kids claw and climb over each other to get the shirts, but the fans appreciate it.


How has the fundraiser changed from 10 years ago to today?
The amount collected each year varies, but lately we've averaged $3,000 a year. Last year the team made 110 three-pointers and just made $3,000. But this year, the team made 93 shots and we more than exceeded $3,000. It all depends on a couple of factors: the number of contributors and how much they're contributing. 2001 was our biggest year, with $5,000 raised. That team had probably the best shooters I've ever coached, and it was also the year that had the most number of contributors.


Surprisingly, the pledges have decreased over the years, primarily because of the so many other things the American Cancer Society has been doing in the community, like the Relay for Life. The overall cause has grown and there are more opportunities for the public to participate and get involved. So, that's an okay thing. This fundraiser is for our basketball community in Cortland.


Has this fundraiser affected your coaching style?
No, that's the one thing we made of sure we don't do. We just look at the kids we have and figure out how we are going to play the season. There are some teams we've had that were more outside shooting than others. For instance this season—which is a very successful season—we were not a perimeter-shooting team. We told the kids, "Do not shoot from the three-point range. Shoot inside." As it turned out, the team became pretty good later on shooting from the perimeter, and for a while, we got pretty hot.


What is your team's perception of on this fundraiser?
My assistant coaches do an excellent job talking about this program, and some promote it to the elementary school, where a couple of them work. They'll have their students conduct a soda can drive, and at the end of the season, they'll present the team with a check. So it's a neat thing with the younger kids. It's not every year, but it touches on the fourth to sixth graders. It also gives the players a chance to talk about what we're doing as a team and a chance to talk about Coaches vs. Cancer.


The little kids are great because, number one, a lot of them know someone with cancer, so it helps them understand. Number two, they play elementary youth basketball up here at the high school, and my kids officiate the game. So the basketball players are like celebrities. (Laughs.) It's a big deal when we go down to the elementary school and talk. And we talk about what it takes to be a basketball player:

What has been some of the feedback from the community?
Very, very positive. A few people write notes when they send their checks like, "This was a great season. Thanks for doing this. Keep it going." And there are people who have been with us since day one and look forward to it each year.


The neatest thing for all of this is that the fundraiser allows the public an opportunity to contribute to a worthy cause and offers a way for them to keep track of the team. They read the stats of the game in the paper. In addition, we have a great video program here at the high school, and all of our home games are broadcast. It's amazing how many people came up to us after a game, telling us they watched us and made comments about the team's progress. I'm just surprised at just how many are watching us. At first, some of the comments this season were, "Oh, that's a great shot. Good job.' But when we got hot, we started hearing comments like, "Ah! You're breaking the bank! You cost me a lot of money last night!"


To learn more about the Cortland High School boys' basketball Coaches vs. Cancer program, you may contact Mick Lowie at: mlowie@cortlandschools.org.



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