By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, March 13, 2010; D01
The members of the search committee weren't looking to make a political statement or even a big splash. They were trying to decide between 20 or so candidates with nice résumés, some of them long and impressive, who wanted to be head football coach at Coolidge High in Northwest Washington. The only problem, according to one member of the committee, was almost all of them talked about themselves, about their credentials and qualifications, their goals for the team.
One person, according to a committee member, stood out. She was stunningly different, and not just because she was a she. Her presentation went into specific details about tutorial programs and after-school mentoring, about raising GPAs and improved SAT prep classes, as well as winning football games. "She blew us away," the search committee member said. "It wasn't close. A couple of minutes into her presentation it was like: 'Okay, it's a wrap. She's the one.' "
So Natalie Randolph was hired and introduced Friday as head football coach at Coolidge. No, it's not the first time a woman has been head coach of a boys' varsity high school football team in America.
Jessica Poseluzny, as far back as 2004, coached the George Washington High football team in New York City, though it ended contentiously and with a discrimination lawsuit. Even so, the hiring of a woman to coach a football team was met, appropriately, with a "Wow." It was national news from CNN to ESPN.
One of Randolph's players, Oluwakemi Bamiro, said after meeting the new coach: "It's not like she's new to us. She's here as a teacher. I've learned a lot from her. I guess it's because she's a female coach. But if you think about it, women coach men in other things, like music."
But football, of course, is the sport where men revel in testosterone-soaked behavior more than all the others combined. Crude isn't just tolerated in the locker room, it's virtually required. As are intimidation, maybe some physicality, always some fear. And Randolph looks like a sprinter, a stylish and attractive one at that, which is worth mentioning because what the coach looks like and how that relates to his (now her) ability to ride herd is sometimes critical.
I asked Randolph on Friday if she was ready for all that's going to come: the scrutiny, the opinions, snide comments, political positions that will be attached to her very existence as a coach. "I have to be ready," she said. "The whistle blows, you gotta go, right?"
Oh, she's ready to go. Been ready. Graduate of Sidwell Friends and Virginia. Science major in college. Not just smart, she's very smart, obviously smart, in-command smart. "Sports is my thing," she said, "and science is my thing." So she married her two primary interests.
You know cynics will ask how a woman can be mean enough, tough enough, nasty enough if necessary, to coach boys? Never mind that just as there are screamers, such as Jon Gruden, there are people who rarely raised their voices, such as Tony Dungy. "I'm nice," Randolph said. "But that doesn't mean you can get away with anything. I'll love you, but not doing the work will result in a nice, pretty [grade of] F. And I'll be the same way on the field."
In my time talking to Randolph on Friday there was no sense that she cared about a social crusade, no sense of whether even other women would identify her as a feminist (not that it should matter). She said, "I know this is an important story. But making sure the kids aren't overshadowed" is hugely important to her. "I've got rising seniors whose time it is to shine."
What she sounded like was a savvy teacher, which is what so impressed the selection committee. But to be fair, football coaches have so many more demands, so much more pressure than science teachers. This is a feel-good story now, but it only remains one if Randolph wins. And if you think the good old boys she's coaching against will take it easy on her, think again. One player, Raynard Ware, told me, "different schools called me about transferring, and I said, 'No, I'm not going to do that.' "
Basketball has had a lot more experience with women coaching men than has football. Stephanie Ready -- from National Cathedral, then Coppin State -- was an assistant coach for Fang Mitchell with the men's team, then coached as an assistant in the NBA Development League (2001-03), where she was also head coach for five games (with a 4-1 record). All that experience helped her blow away other candidates for jobs with the Charlotte Bobcats and for TNT as a sideline reporter. Ready was the first person I thought of when I heard the news about Randolph, and she said, "I'm thrilled somebody was brave enough to give a young woman the opportunity to coach boys in football . . . It takes a certain type of individual to pull it off because she'll have to deal with the intense pressure competitively and gracefully. . . . And football is one of the most macho sports, maybe the most, in this country."
I know of exactly zero reporters who have coached professional basketball. Yet Ready, who has, endures all kinds of idiotic talk inside arenas on game nights, including, "You're a woman; you don't know what you're talking about."
I asked Ready if she could give one piece of advice to Randolph what it would be, and she said, "I have a package of advice, actually. There's so much she'll encounter. But, if you're limiting me to one piece, I'd say, 'Be true to yourself and the sport. You're already smart enough, professional enough and diligent enough. . . . If you start reading the columns, the blogs, paying attention to what's in the chat rooms it can so easily distract you.' "
Fortunately for Coolidge, the folks on that search committee saw something that also led them to believe Randolph, as hard and as bumpy as this mission could be, has exactly what it takes to be as good a coach as she is a teacher. And they hope, though she surely will be put to the test, that their new coach, no matter what ugliness comes her way, doesn't distract easily.