When Coach Natalie Randolph wins at Coolidge, will losing feel any worse?

By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 10:03 PM

The Natalie Randolph survivor pool is about to begin.

Which Washington area team will be the first to lose to Coolidge and its female head football coach, who will make her debut at 7 p.m. Friday at home against Carroll?

There are about 200 head high school football coaches in the Washington area. All but one is a man, and each in his own way is glad he is not Carroll Coach Rick Houchens, whose team, 2-8 a year ago, will face Coolidge (6-4 in 2009) in a season opener expected to be documented by ESPN, major newspapers from coast to coast and every media outlet in town.

Since being named coach in March, the 30-year-old Randolph has appeared on several national TV shows and last week graced the cover of Parade magazine. Acquaintances and strangers alike are pulling for the popular science teacher and local product (Sidwell Friends, University of Virginia) who is more bookish than brawny but has enough football credentials (H.D. Woodson assistant, playing career with the D.C. Divas women's professional team) to not be dismissed as a 5-foot-5, 130-pound squeaky-voiced novelty, even though she is one of only a few women in the country to ever coach varsity football.

That sort of appealing back story can be intimidating to the most grizzled and accomplished of football coaches. It can feel like you're cast as the villain even before you jog onto the field. Who needs the hassle?

"I never feel like I want to get a whole lot of credit for winning, and I don't really want to get a whole lot of credit for losing," said a highly respected Virginia coach, who was granted anonymity for candor, given the sensitivity of gender issues. "I think you're going to get a lot of credit for losing in that one. Your name is going to be plastered everywhere. They're going to want quotes from you: 'How did it feel?' Not only is her ability being spotlighted, but yours, also. How you react to winning, losing, being ahead, whatever, is going to be under the microscope. That can be added pressure. If you don't handle that well, your reputation can be tarnished."

All rookie head coaches are a bit of a mystery, because no one, perhaps including themselves, knows their tendencies. With Randolph, that curiosity is tenfold. How will she handle her players? Can she get them to focus, amid all the hoopla? Will they press too hard to win for her?

So Houchens, in his third year at Carroll, is the test case, and that's fine by him. During his 10 years at Eleanor Roosevelt, his teams went 88-24 and won a Maryland state title, and he churned out Division I and NFL-caliber players.

Now guiding a long-faded powerhouse that has won 12 games in seven years, has won no league title since 1988 and has to try to compete with No. 1 Good Counsel and No. 2 DeMatha in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, Houchens says he has no time for "that gender crap" and insists that coaching success is more about desire and passion than chromosomes.

Instead of avoiding the Randolph spotlight, he's hoping his Lions can bask in it and perhaps take a high-profile step back toward respectability.

"I've heard some guys talk about that - 'I wouldn't want to be the first one to play them. I wouldn't want to be the first one to lose to them,' " Houchens says. "Well, hell, I hate losing, period."

The "beaten by a girl" stuff might not sound like progress, but it is, because it's not a matter of denying opportunity, it's a matter of saving face. When Ballou tried to hire Wanda Oates as its coach in 1985, opposing coaches pressured school officials into replacing her that same week.

For today's coaches, the issue isn't so much a woman coaching football. It's losing to a woman coaching football. In a few weeks, that might not be such a big deal either.

Varsity Letter is a column about high school sports in the Washington area.

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