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Backed by trusted staff, Natalie Randolph set for debut as Coolidge High football coach

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010; 10:42 PM

Coach the Coolidge football team? Not a chance, Natalie Randolph told the school administration when the science teacher was first asked last winter.

"I wasn't ready to be a head coach," she said.

When the school persisted, Randolph knew that if she was going to do what few women nationwide had ever tried, she would need plenty of help.

While the 30-year-old Randolph will absorb the glare of the spotlight Friday when Coolidge opens its season at home against Carroll, standing in the shadows will be a staff of 10 assistants with varied backgrounds, ready to help the former wide receiver for the D.C. Divas women's professional team navigate a coaching playbook that extends far beyond post patterns and zone blitzes.

"I chose people who I could trust," she said of her staff, which is typical in size for area teams.

Aside from finding her comfort zone in just her third season as a coach (she worked with the receivers in 2006 and 2007 at H.D. Woodson), Randolph has had plenty of off-the-field issues to tend to, including a media glare that has intensified over the past five months. The school has received credential requests for Friday's game from all four local broadcast television stations, HBO, ESPN, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and even Forbes magazine, among others.

"It's a billion times tougher than what I had to go through," said Coolidge offensive coordinator Torrance Dawkins, comparing Randolph's job to his tenure as head coach at Theodore Roosevelt in 2006 and 2007. "But she has more people with her than I did. And she has guys that want her to be successful. A lot of times, guys are looking to take your job."

Randolph anticipated her hiring would bring media attention. Handling the scrutiny, in addition to the responsibilities of being a head coach, made her uneasy about taking the job.

She reached out to a close friend at Coolidge, special education teacher Keino Wilson, for guidance. Wilson, who had coached boys' basketball at Spingarn and Woodson, called the one person who he knew could ease Randolph's concerns - longtime Woodson football and girls' basketball coach Bob Headen, 70, who spent 28 years as a head coach before stepping down in 1999.

"You tell her," Headen told Wilson, "that if she gets the job, I'll come help her."

After Wilson relayed the offer to Randolph, she called Headen, who was also on the Woodson staff when Randolph made her coaching debut in 2006. Headen was impressed with Randolph's know-how, organization and energy that season.

Randolph asked Headen if he was serious about the offer.

Headen said he was, and the next day, Randolph told the Coolidge administration she would interview, confident that with Headen aboard, she could build a staff that could give her all the backing she needed.

"It's not just X's and O's," said Headen, who won 284 games and eight league championships as Woodson's football coach. "It's strategy. It's working with the administration. It's working with the athletic department.

"When she got the job, the toughest thing was getting her to know the rules and regulations of DCPS, knowing how to get kids and build a program. Then you add on that a lot of people didn't want to be dealing with a woman. It was a lot to deal with."

With all the attention focused on Randolph and the Coolidge program, there was hardly a shortage of candidates to fill the Colts' staff. Plenty wanted a piece of the spotlight, and Wilson watched Randolph study the applicants' intentions last spring.

"A lot of people called me trying to help get them jobs," said Wilson, who was named Coolidge's athletic director last week, "and I told [Randolph], 'Just pick people who are going to be loyal to you.'

"She can see through people, and that's the greatest thing about her in her position."

Among her assistants are those with experience as high school head coaches (Headen and Dawkins), high school assistants (defensive line coach Heywood King and linebackers coach John Marlow), a player (quarterback coach Lisa Horton, who faced Randolph in the Independent Women's Football League for the Pittsburgh Passion) and a former Divas assistant (defensive coordinator Shedrick Young).

"We've got a good mix of coaches, a good mix of personalities," Coolidge senior Daniel West said. "They all bring a little something different."

Headen said he never had a staff of more than six, because he liked to be involved with every aspect of the team; he called all the plays, and the defensive alignments. With him aboard, several coaches at other D.C. schools, recognizing Headen's thirst for winning and control, have said privately that he is calling all the shots, and Randolph is just a figurehead.

"A lot of people see me and say, 'Oh, it's your team,' " Headen said. "Well, I tell them, 'Come by practice and watch.' It's her team."

Whether it's a practice or game-planning session, Randolph's role among her staff is not domineering. She picks her spots to inject comment or instruction, and, with so many other responsibilities off the field, she has the confidence to allow her assistants to run certain parts of practice.

"I wanted to do everything," Headen said. "Natalie's not that kind of a coach. She doesn't want to do everything. She just wants to manage everything. I told her, 'You just worry about the academics, and we'll take care of everything else,' She's learning fast."

The size of her staff, plus her insistence upon improving the team's academic record, mean Randolph runs the Colts like a CEO.

"There are a lot of things I wish I could've done when I was a head coach that she's getting able to do," Dawkins said. "She can just direct, and then drop in and help a kid who needs it."

It's the only way Coolidge could have arrived at Friday's game ready to go.

"We're going to be prepared. We're going to be organized," Randolph said. "I can control that. I can't control the other things."

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