Damien’s Dean of Debate Celebrates 27 Years of Coaching

June 27, 2009
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Chuck Ballingall

Chuck Ballingall

Don’t get in an argument with Chuck Ballingall. He’s heard every angle, ruse, excuse and illogical thought in his 27 years as Damien’s debate coach. And Chuck, 48, will probably hear a lot more as he plans on being Damien’s debate coach for years to come.

He’s sort of like the John Wooden or Phil Jackson of debate. He produces champions. Two of his newest, Sean Hernandez and Reid Ehrlich-Quinn, took first place in policy debate at the National Speech and Debate Tournament, sponsored by the National Forensic League (NFL) in Birmingham, Ala., June 19.

He already has his calendar marked for Sept. 10, when Damien will participate in the Greenhill Round Robin debate in Dallas, Texas. Only the top 14 debate teams in the country were invited. Chuck has such a “rep” around debate circles that his debate topic, “The Federal Government Should Substantially Increase Social Services to People Living in Poverty,” has been accepted as the national debate topic for 2009/2010. This is big-time stuff!

For suggesting that topic, students nationwide will either cheer him or jeer him.  That’s because debaters  research just the one debate topic for an entire year. Debaters who eagerly plunge into the research begin to appreciate the levels of complexities and shades of arguments underpinning the issues they’re studying; others with less patience will simply wish to move on and tackle other subjects like health care and foreign policy issues.

As savvy and experienced a coach as Chuck is, he realizes his success starts and ends with his players, of which it appears Damien has no shortage. In fact, Damien’s debating riches are almost scandalous. If Damien’s debate squad were a football team, rivals would be crying foul. Charges that Damien’ debate team doesn’t have to restock, just reload, are true. Damien also benefits from the skills of Nick Fiori, assistant Damien debate coach and USC graduate.

Damien is a debate factory without peer. The private high school offers five debate classes that students are automatically enrolled in when they attend Damien.  Thus, Chuck doesn’t have to cherry-pick a couple of debaters from an honors English class to try to form a team. He has about 150 to 200 students who will learn something about the rhetorical arts. The best ones will stick with it. No school in the Southland has a comparable program. The payoff for students and their parents footing tuition bills is well worth it. Many of Chuck’s students go on to be lawyers and judges and other top professionals.

“I can probably think of a couple of dozen off the top of my head,” Chuck said.

But that’s not the students’ motivation, Chuck explained.

“They do this program because they enjoy it” he said. “They’re willing to spend dozens of hours a week preparing. They love the intellectual game.”

And to many it is a game — a serious game that requires hard work and preparation to excel. “They’re like elite athletes,” Chuck said. “They’re so competitive and driven. But instead of expressing themselves athletically, they’re expressing themselves intellectually and academically.”

Occasionally, (it’s the exception not the rule) Chuck will have to sit one of his players down for loss of focus (not taking care of business in other classes). “If they miss a couple of tournaments because of grades, that’ll often help them get their focus back,” Chuck said.

The tournaments are the big games. Competitions have taken Chuck and his teams all over the country, from the Southland to the nation’s capital. Chuck can’t possibly take all his students to every tournament, without breaking the budget, so he tries to match his debate teams with teams of similar strength and reputation  from other schools, not unlike college or high school football coaches scheduling a mix of powder puffs and powerhouses to help give their  teams confidence and experience. 

Chuck’s debaters are smart, quick-thinking, and confident. “There really isn’t a trick to it, it’s all about putting in the work,” Chuck said. “Our best don’t just talk pretty, they’re powerful and persuasive speakers.”

Another reason Damien ranks among the nation’s top debate teams is Chuck knows the ropes better than any other coach. Here in the Southland, he’s the dean of debates, helping organize and run many of the local tournaments, which often attract more than 100 teams. His confidence and experience rubs off on his debaters, and keeps them cool under fire and cross-examination.

Damien’s debate budget is five figures, defrayed by the debaters’ parents and local sponsors, many of whom have come through the program and reaped its benefits. With many airlines now adding excess baggage fees, debate teams like Damien have been especially hard hit. Damien teams haul four large Rubbermaid plastic storage bins filled with their notes, books and papers to every event. Another $80 in baggage fees per flight, and Damien, like every other traveling debate team, feels the financial pain.

Fortunately for Damien, Chuck knows how to budget in addition to wearing a lot of other hats. He teaches history and micro and macro-economics. He has also been the voice of Damien basketball for 27 years, plus a lot of baseball games over the years.

“It’s a good way to keep in touch with kids outside of class,” Chuck said humbly.

The bigger question is, how will Damien’s kids keep up with Chuck?

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