By Alan Goldenbach
Thursday, March 11, 2010; A01
In Natalie Randolph's first season as wide receivers coach at H.D. Woodson High School in the District a few years ago, one of the most difficult moments each week came at the end of the game when the two teams lined up for their traditional handshake.
"I hate shaking hands," she said at the time, "because they walk right past me and don't realize I'm a coach."
Randolph has been dealing with slights like that ever since she fell in love with football, a passion that led to a five-year career as a wide receiver for the D.C. Divas of the women's professional football league and a two-year stint as a varsity assistant at Woodson.
Now the 29-year-old science teacher is putting herself on the line again.
On Friday, Randolph is scheduled to be formally named the head football coach at Coolidge High School in Northwest Washington, making her what is believed to be the only woman coaching boys' varsity high school football in the United States.
The appointment, which Randolph confirmed in a brief telephone conversation Tuesday, was applauded by some of her peers in the coaching profession. It also prompted a modest amount of predictable sniping in anonymous comments on an online version of this story that a woman is unfit to be coaching a sport long dominated by boys.
"Some people say she's just a woman and she doesn't know anything. There's definitely going to be a higher level of scrutiny because it's a woman in a man's world," said Toni Morgan, a referee for the Eastern Board of Officials and a regular official of football games in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Said one D.C. high school football coach: "All I know is, I don't want to be the first one to lose to her. That's going to be wild."
Randolph, a 1998 graduate of Sidwell Friends and former sprinter at the University of Virginia, is hardly a football newbie. She was a receiver for the Divas of the Independent Women's Professional League from 2004 to 2008 and an assistant at H.D. Woodson in 2006 and '07. She joined the Coolidge faculty in 2008 but has not coached the previous two seasons.
"She can do it," said H.D. Woodson Coach Greg Fuller, who hired Randolph as an assistant in 2006. "She's a no-nonsense kind of coach. She's a disciplinarian. She handled [the questions about being a woman coaching football] very well because she takes on any challenge you put in front of her."
No one is believed to have kept records on the number of women who have coached football in the United States, although the number is small.
According to Sydney Chambers of the Clell Wade Coaches Directory, which maintains a database of all coaches at U.S. colleges, high schools and junior high schools, there was no woman listed among the 15,675 public or private high school football coaches last season.
D.C. public schools officials have been tight-lipped since word of the hire leaked Tuesday, and Coolidge administrators would not comment.
Randolph refrained from speaking further until Friday's news conference.
The hiring of a woman to coach football is not unprecedented in D.C. public schools. In 1985, Wanda Oates was named head football coach at Ballou. She lasted one day in the position, before opposing coaches pressured the deputy schools superintendent to remove her from the job because they didn't want to coach against a woman.
When Oates learned Wednesday that Randolph had landed the job at Coolidge, she smiled and shook her head that it took 25 years for the next woman to take this step.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for that young lady," said Oates, 67, who teaches physical education at Wilson High in Upper Northwest Washington. "Football is the macho of all macho sports, and once we break that glass ceiling, there's no limit to what we can accomplish."
Randolph was introduced to the Coolidge team after school on Tuesday, according to a person who was at the meeting. The boys on the team displayed some initial skepticism, this person said, but Randolph won them over.
"Some of the kids tried to test her knowledge of football, and she just shot them down," said the individual, who asked not to be identified because school officials requested that the information not be made public until Friday. "At the end, they were clapping for her. They didn't know she played football."
While Randolph had the power to discipline the players on the H.D. Woodson team when she was an assistant, she said she had to work harder to establish herself with the other coaches on the Warriors' staff. "After the first week, I had more apprehension about the other coaches than about the players," she told The Post in 2006. "It was about proving myself to the other coaches."
She won't be taking over a league doormat, but the Coolidge team she inherits does have a mixed reputation. The Colts were 39-36 during the seven years of previous coach Jason Lane's tenure, making the DCIAA playoffs four times. Lane resigned in January, amid reports that school administrators were unhappy with the academic and behavioral performances of many football players.
Prior to this school year, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee turned control of Coolidge over to Friends of Bedford, a private management firm in New York.
People familiar with high school athletics said the transition to head coach at the school will be a challenge for Randolph, albeit not an insurmountable one.
"Change is not easy. I was there when Wanda was at Ballou, and it was tough then," said Allen Chin, the DCIAA's athletic director from 1991 until 2008 and the athletic director at Anacostia High School before that. "But [Randolph] has done her time. She's been an assistant, and I don't see any problem in the locker room because she can just leave.
"It's tough, but change has to happen. It's going to take time. It's up to each individual student and how they handle it."
Fuller saw how Randolph handled any preconceived prejudices and questions about a woman operating in a male-dominated domain when she worked for him at Woodson. He said Randolph is well-qualified to coach and can handle the scrutiny.
"You always know, with her, she'll get the respect because she'll demand it from you," Fuller said.