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Stepping into the spotlight

By Alan Goldenbach
Friday, August 6, 2010; D1

The coach had seen enough after the player's third attempt to perform a squat lift. Brandon Carson's feet weren't positioned properly, and the coach called him on it.

"You're doing a pli," the coach said.

Senior Daniel West laughed - "a pli!" - and teased his football teammate who had crossed the line into ballet. Natalie Randolph thought nothing of it.

"I took ballet when I was younger," Randolph said. "When I was in my prime, I could squat 300 pounds."

The room fell silent. Teenage boys twice the size of their 5-foot-5, 130-pound coach had no retort. Randolph, who in March became one of just a handful of women ever to be named head coach of a high school football team, pounded her thigh to show she still has some muscle from her days as a hurdler at the University of Virginia and wide receiver for the D.C. Divas women's professional football team.

When Randolph, 30, stands before her players for their first practice Friday at Coolidge, she will hardly be an unknown commodity. In the nearly five months since the March 12 announcement of her hiring attracted national media coverage, a proclamation from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, and a spotlight on the Coolidge team, Randolph got to better know her players without the cameras present. Among her summer projects with the Colts: Organizing an SAT preparation class, implementing a complex conditioning program, and having her players regularly clean the Brightwood school's classrooms and athletic facilities.

Off the field, she has long been quiet, with a voice characterized by her friends and students as "squeaky." On the field, her personality is atypical of the football coaching archetype; bombast and intimidation are not her usual calling cards, nor does she seek the spotlight.

"I like staying in the background," said Randolph, who has been trailed by an ESPN camera crew since April. "But what can you do? It comes with the territory. This has been hard. It's probably been one of the hardest things I've ever done."

On the day before her first practice, Randolph visited the Redskins' training camp in Ashburn, where she met with team owner Daniel Snyder, Coach Mike Shanahan, General Manager Bruce Allen and former quarterback Sonny Jurgensen - "all the big-wigs," she said.

She also received a tutorial in how to handle the crush of attention.

Tony Wyllie, the Redskins' senior vice president in charge of media relations, advised her to allow the cameras to film only the first 10 minutes of practice and then send them away.

"I'm a high school coach, just a high school coach," Randolph said, standing on the sidelines at Redskins Park. "All of this is so foreign to me, and he had just a few simple tips. I'm like, 'Wow, I didn't think of that.' "

Evolution of a coach

The only child of physical therapists Nate and Marilys Randolph, Natalie enrolled at Sidwell Friends in the third grade, and played basketball and volleyball for the Northwest private school during high school. Track, though, was her first athletic love, because that was also her father's passion. Her dad, who died in a 2008 automobile accident, ran when he attended St. John's College High School.

"She always liked sports and not just for the sports aspect of it, but because of the team element," said Marilys Randolph, a professor of physical therapy at Florida International University in Miami. "As an only child, she's been very loyal to her teams because that's her family, too. She's never been someone who liked the limelight."

Football entered Natalie's life at a young age, when she and her parents would spend the holidays with her father's side of the family.

"Since she was a toddler, she had football at all of her family gatherings," Marilys Randolph said. "That's how she learned the game. . . . She's a very confident person, and confident in what she knows."

She was confident and determined enough to walk on to the Virginia track team as a freshman in 1999, aiming to run the 400-meter hurdles.

"The first year, she wasn't an impressive athlete," said former Virginia coach Randy Bungard, who now coaches at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. "But the [improvements] she did in those next four years were unlike anything I've seen with any other athlete."

Bungard said Randolph's time of 59.22 seconds in the 400 hurdles at the 2003 ACC championships was nearly an eight-second drop from her time as a freshman.

"She ran one of the hardest events you can run in track and field, and in my 23 years of coaching, that was one of my proudest moments, seeing her finish second in the ACC," Bungard said. "She was not going to be denied, and that's what these football guys need to understand."

The Divas learned that pretty quickly.

"You see a progression with her," said Divas General Manager Rich Daniel, who met Randolph when she debuted with the team in 2004. "The way she grew up from a track athlete where she wasn't being hit, to in her second year [with the Divas] where she became a standout on special teams where she'd lay into people. All the progressions that she went through in football you're seeing with her as a coach."

In 2006, she began teaching environmental science at H.D. Woodson, where she also became a wide receivers coach . Even with a master's degree in education, Randolph said teaching in D.C. public schools required her to improvise her teaching methods. Students tend to equate her petite frame and high voice with someone easily intimidated.

"People weren't paying her any attention, screaming and everything," recalled Stephon Stevens, a Coolidge senior who took Randolph's class last school year and is expected to play quarterback this fall. "All of a sudden, she got up on a table, and said, 'You people need to do your work.' I was like, 'She's not playing. I've got to move from the back to the front of the class.'

"When she became coach, I was like, 'Uh-oh, here comes a yeller.' But it's hard to predict with Coach Randolph."

Don't expect Randolph to scale the bench and berate her players in the fourth quarter of a tie game. During a 7-on-7 passing league tournament at Dunbar in June, a Coolidge defender bit on a fake that allowed a Ballou receiver to catch a deep pass for a touchdown. The Colts' sideline erupted in frustration.

At the far end of the sideline, Randolph stood calmly with her arms crossed. In an even voice, she directed her secondary, "Talk to each other." She then summoned junior Felonte Misher, the defender who let his man get deep, and spoke to him authoritatively, but not loudly.

"I need you to run as hard as you can and stay focused. Can you do that?" Randolph said. "Forget about that last play."

Said Misher: "She makes you think about what you did wrong. She doesn't have to yell at you to do that."

Center of attention

At the time of her hiring, Randolph said, "While I'm proud to be a part of what this all means, being female has nothing to do with it."

But she knows otherwise, and as averse as she may be to the attention, she knew it would ultimately benefit resource-starved Coolidge. In addition to ESPN, the coverage of her hiring has meant a steady stream of TV appearances, including "Good Morning America," "The Early Show" and CNN.

Daniel said: "With the exposure, I think the question with her is, 'Are you willing to go through it?' rather than, 'Are you seeking it out?' "

Randolph does not seek the exposure - she didn't apply for the head coaching position the first time she was asked - but she addressed it directly in her presentation to the school's search committee, which convinced her to apply in its second attempt. The publicity, she said, would work in the school's favor.

Terry Goings, a 1977 Coolidge graduate who is now the school's parent representative, was one of the committee members. "When she did her presentation, I was amazed," he said. "Nobody else came in as prepared as she was. She blew everybody else away."

In June, Randolph spent 24 hours in Chicago at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition's 39th annual conference to receive its Sports Trailblazer Award.

The award was meant "to congratulate her and encourage her," said Rainbow/PUSH President Jesse L. Jackson. "It takes a special person to even try to do something like this."

Randolph said she was flattered by the award. She is learning to adapt to the spotlight, mainly because the attention from her hiring has also brought donations to the school.

"Did I think it would be this crazy?" Randolph said, "No. I thought it would be crazy for a month, then I thought it would die down."

One donation has come from the NFL Players Association for transportation for the team to spend last weekend at a camp in Pennsylvania; another donation has come from a Pittsburgh company, CRONS (Come Ready or Never Start), which is providing the team with uniforms and equipment.

"We do need help in this city, and [Coolidge] isn't the only one," Randolph said. "All the media [attention] helps. The kids are going to get more visibility. The school, the city will benefit, too."

goldenbacha@washpost.com

Staff writer Sally Jenkins contributed to this report.

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