When the Interhigh League football season opens next week, eight of the 13 schools will have new coaches, an unprecedented turnover that some coaches say may hurt football programs at those schools.
In addition, some schools with new coaches have been hit by transfers of top athletes to winning or more stable football programs. Coaches and players alike say this may create an imbalance of power if the leading teams grow stronger and continue to dominate the city league while the others become weaker.
The imbalance could spiral further, some say, by making it difficult for some teams to attract the paying crowds that help boost the athletic budget and to gain the attention from talent scouts that ambitious players seek.
"I think that all the changes will definitely have an impact on the quality of the football programs in the Interhigh," said Willie Stewart, head football coach at Anacostia High, which compiled a 7-4 record last year. "Kids get attached to their previous coach, and once he leaves they don't want to go through the necessary transitions when a new coach arrives.
"The talented players, particularly the seniors, don't want to wait for a new program to develop, so they transfer to a more established program. That hurts the weaker programs and strengthens the quality programs even more. You end up having three or four teams who win, and everyone else just plays out the season."
Otto Jordan, D.C. Public Schools athletic director, disagreed.
"Basically, I would say that the changes will have some impact on the programs at the respective schools," said Jordan, who is beginning his 10th year as athletic director. "But I would not go as far as some people to say that it would be in a negative way.
"From what I have observed, the schools with the changes seem to be in pretty good shape. All of the coaches have some football experience and, more importantly, they are teachers with good reputations from what I can ascertain. Everyone has to start from somewhere. From a manager's standpoint, we are looking for something different. We are mainly interested in leadership."
Floretta McKenzie, D.C. schools superintendent, however, said she views the coaching changes as positive. "It will give a fresh look to the athletic programs and make them more exciting," she said.
Some of the former coaches were transferred to other schools, others were laid off because of budget cuts and some quit coaching. Other sports, such as basketball and track, also undergo periodic changes in coaching staffs -- but never as many as this year's football program.
The schools this season with new coaches, appointed by each school's principal, are McKinley, Chamberlain, Cardozo, Coolidge, Wilson, Phelps, Ballou and Spingarn. Chamberlain had a poor turnout last year, however, and already has dropped its nonleague game. A decision whether the team will play at all this season is expected this week.
The league's five other schools are Anacostia, Eastern, H. D. Woodson, Dunbar and Roosevelt.
At Ballou, Steve Powell is the city's only new coach with previous head coaching experience. The other rookie coaches were assistant coaches or have never coached high school football.
In some cases, the coaches teach at elementary or junior high schools and commute to team practice at the end of school, which sometimes creates logistical problems.
Michael Durso, principal at Wilson High, said it is important for coaches of major sports to teach in the same school where they coach.
"In order for a coach to be effective, I think he has to have that day-to-day contact with the student athletes," Durso explained. "If he is in the building, he can monitor their academics and establish the necessary relationship with them.
"And if the coach is not in the building, there are problems, such as logistics and giving out of equipment. We've had those problems here in the past, and I know it makes a difference if the coach is always available."
Durso's philosophy will be practiced at Wilson. The school's new coach, Horace Fleming, will teach physical education at Wilson this year, after working last year at Paul Junior High.
Among the five schools with veteran head coaches, Dunbar, Roosevelt and H. D. Woodson have had the same coaches for more than 10 years. Four of those schools either won the league title or finished first or second in their divisions (East or West) over the past five seasons. The football coaches at those schools have 54 years of combined experience as head coaches.
Coaches and players say coaching experience and time to develop and train a young team are important to team success.
Phillip Edwards, an industrial arts teacher at Cardozo, will be the school's fourth head coach in five years. A football power in the early 1970s, Cardozo has lost 19 straight games over the past three seasons. Edwards said the frequent coaching changes have had an effect on the team.
"I've already lost three players who could have really helped us this year," said Edwards, whose only coaching experience has been at an area boys club. "A kid is a senior and he wants to play for a winning team or get some visibility, so he decides to transfer to a school where he feels he can benefit. What can we offer him here at Cardozo?
"I've always wanted to coach. But the fact is that I am not as qualified as a lot of other people around. I realize that and so do the kids. But no one else wanted the job here. They know it is a headache. The first few days of practice, I had a set lineup in my mind for the season. Then I go upstairs and pull out the records from the files and find out that almost 25 percent of the kids are academically ineligible.
"Then there's a problem with equipment. A lot of it just does not fit the kids, or there's not enough of it. I feel embarrassed giving it out to the kids. On top of all this, the kids have so many personal and financial problems that you can hardly get enough people out on a consistent basis to get things done."
Adding to Edwards' woes, he has only one assistant to help train 32 players. Coaches usually have three or four unpaid assistants.
Victor Taylor is one of the Cardozo players who transferred. He was the team's leading receiver as a junior last year, with 28 catches. Rather than have to get used to a new coach and philosophy and face the prospect of another winless season, Taylor decided to play his last season at Roosevelt, the preseason pick to win the Interhigh West Division.
"Actually, there are three reasons why I transferred," Taylor said. "First, I moved out of the zone. Then I wanted to take driver's education, so I could get cheaper insurance. Roosevelt offered it and Cardozo didn't, so it worked out well. But the most important reason was that I just got tired of losing.
"I know that at Roosevelt I'll get good coaching. They have good facilities, a large coaching staff (five assistants) and people who are qualified to deal with you more quickly if you get injured."
Although budget cuts have forced the reassignment of some coaches and the dismissal of others, Jordan, the school system's athletic director, said budget cuts have not affected funding of this fall's football program. In fact, additional money is available.
"We are encouraged by the fact that we have more money to spend this year on equipment and supplies," he said. "In fact, we have 25 percent more to spend this year than last year. For example, each school will get 30 new helmets ($63 each) this year. We responded to the inventory from last year, and with the increase we have, we can disburse equipment and supplies according to need."
Some schools have larger team budgets than others, however. The money comes from two sources: the annual athletic budget of $3,300 a school (unchanged since 1964) for male sports, which is divided among all sports, and nonappropriated funds, generated from ticket sales and from fund-raisers by the individual schools.
Schools with bigger athletic budgets are sometimes able to attract more quality athletes. If a team has a winning season or is ranked among the area's top 20, it will draw larger crowds and, consequently, generate greater ticket sales and overall profits for the team. Larger crowds also mean larger concession sales.
Often the good team further benefits by being able to play out-of-town schools, which guarantee a portion of ticket sales. The extra money from nonleague games often covers the team's entire budget.
For example, Anacostia will receive $5,000 for playing Pulaski County High of Dublin, Va., in its first game of the season. Stewart said the money will cover of Anacostia High's athletic costs for two, perhaps three, years.
Other schools are not as fortunate.
"When I was at Eastern, we often ended up in the red," said Stewart, who left Eastern last fall to be head football coach at Anacostia. "We had no fence there, so we couldn't charge admission. That's not so bad, but the real problem was that we had to pay the game officials $100. . . . We were not making any money, and at the same time having to pay some out."
Eastern still does not have a fence and continues to lose money as a result, he said.
From the coaches' standpoint, the rewards are few, other than personal ones. They are paid $900 and they put in countless hours away from their families. Still, Stewart remains optimistic about the future of the football program:
"I think these new coaches are a group of enthusiastic guys who will do an admirable job. Sure, we don't get paid that much and there are a lot of problems, but I still get a lot out of it. I would do it for no pay. I'm a product of the D.C. Public School System (graduate of Dunbar), and I want to put something back into it. I think most of these new coaches feel the same way."