High school coaches keep working even during losing seasons

CorrespondentNovember 28, 2013 

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    Stuart Albright teaches and coaches at Jordan High School in Durham. He is the author of Sidelines: A North Carolina Story of Community, Race, and High School Football. He can be reached at his web site, www.stuartalbright.com.

As our regular-season game against Riverside (a 49-13 loss) came to a close, the disappointment finally settled in: We wouldn’t be going to the playoffs this year.

I hate it for our seniors, especially the ones who’ve been with us for four years. I’ve watched them grow from clueless little freshmen into young men of character, ready to take on the world. I also hate it for my fellow coaches, who sacrifice so much in order to work with these players. We do it because we love kids, and because we believe that football teaches some of life’s most important lessons.

This season has been a lesson in perseverance. In our first game against Leesville Road, we lost both of our varsity quarterbacks to injuries. In our game against Green Hope, the stadium lights blew out for half an hour. The day before our game against Panther Creek, a bogus bomb threat closed down the entire school, including all after-school practices. During our game against Holly Springs, word spread down to our players that one of their best friends had just died in a car accident. Our guys were understandably devastated. A week later, our JV team lost 5 of its 10 offensive linemen to injuries and academic issues.

Many of our freshmen are playing football for the first time. As I stood in the end zone before our first JV game, a lineman asked me if he was supposed to remain there for the whole first half. I thought he was joking; he wasn’t.

“No,” I told him. “We watch the game from the sidelines.”

By the end of the season, that same lineman became a starter, doing things that he never could have done back in August. As coaches, we live for stories like that.

But we also know how important it is to win ballgames. We want our players to see that if you work hard and you do things the right way, you will be rewarded for your efforts. Most of the time, winning comes with that.

Our head coach, LaDwaun Harrison, works hard to build a sense of family and a commitment to excellence within our team. Our coaches have a unique blend of talents. We have a police officer on staff, plus a social worker, an accountant, and a former NFL player. We have full-time teachers in math, English, and special education. These men bring years of experience coaching high school football. We do things the right way, but even then, winning doesn’t always follow.

In the 12 years I’ve coached football at Jordan High School, I’ve seen it all – PAC-6 conference championships, deep playoff runs, heartbreaking defeats, blowout wins, blowout losses. In the good times, we’ve been praised. In the bad times (and let’s be honest, this year is one of those bad times), we’ve been hammered online and in the stands. Parents go directly to our principal when they’re unhappy with playing time. Opposing fans spread false rumors about our incompetence, about how we don’t care for our players, just loving the fact that Jordan football is struggling.

It comes with the territory, now more than ever.

These days, college and NFL coaches are paid like company CEOs, and when they lose, they get fired. I don’t feel too bad for a guy who leaves town with a $2 million severance pay.

But unfortunately, this win-at-all-cost mentality has seeped into high school football.

We are expected to win regardless of the skill level of the athletes walking our hallways.

Success stories

We do it for little to no pay, and those of us who are paid typically spend half of our tiny stipends on football supplies and summer camp fees for players who cannot afford it.

Football is a year-round sport. In the offseason, we work for free, leading our players through workouts every Monday through Thursday, helping them with tutoring, contacting college coaches, and doing everything we can to prepare these kids for life after high school. We don’t ask to be compensated, because the real payout is seeing these kids go on to happy and productive lives. I’m proud of the fact that over 55 Jordan players have played college football over the past decade. But I’m even more proud of the many more who come back and tell us that football made them a better man, a better father, and a better husband.

I try to remember these success stories as I pass up part-time work after school so that I can spend more time with our football players. As a public school teacher, I haven’t gotten a raise in over four years. With a wife and two kids, money is incredibly tight. But I live a life that is rich with purpose, and coaching is at the very heart of it.

Coaching has a predictable rhythm. I lose about 15 pounds each season, simply because I don’t have the time or energy to eat. Over the course of a typical week, our coaching staff spends roughly 26 hours with our players. On most Wednesdays we get home around 10 pm after painting the field. Thursdays and Fridays, it’s usually later than that. I often don’t see my two boys, ages three and one, from Tuesday night when I put them to bed until Saturday morning.

On Saturday night, our coaching staff watches film and grades each player from the previous game, and on Sunday we spend most of the afternoon planning out the coming week.

My oldest boy, Brett, already knows that when Daddy’s not home, he’s with his football players. I can’t wait for him to be old enough to stand on the sidelines with me every Thursday and Friday night. I want him to see why his dad spends so much time away from home. I want him to know what it means to be committed to a worthwhile cause.

Our spouses make sacrifices as well. Last year, my wife called me during a pregame meal to say that she was going into labor. “Coach the game first,” she said. “Then meet me at the hospital.”

The same thing happened to one of my fellow assistants. (We really need to stop having children during football season.)

Our coaching staff will evaluate what we did wrong and come back ready to work again next year. We’ve invested too much in these kids to give them anything but our very best.

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