There is no exact formula for making a football team win. What works for some teams won't always work for others, particularly in high school, where the demographics of a neighborhood affects the level of play as much as the knowledge of the coaching staff.
Over the last decade, a number of area schools have lost consistently. The reasons for their failures are as diverse as the schools themselves. The following is a look at five schools: two in Maryland, two in Virginia and one in the District. One of the teams is enjoying success this fall. In fact, Einstein has a chance to equal in one season its victory total for the preceding nine years.
Bishop Ireton High School has always been proud of its academic program, and with the stringent entrance examinations, quality athletes who weren't quality students didn't represent the Cardinals on the football field.
"You could best summarize it as a Catch-22 syndrome," said Rev. William Walsh, the school's principal. "The team was no good, so the kids didn't go out (for the team); and the good kids didn't go out, so the team didn't improve. We had to break that cycle . . . and the losing feeling."
Walsh said he thinks that the cycle finally has been broken, although the Cardinals have won only four of their last 49 games and are 1-7 this season.
Fullback/linebacker Jim Skorupski, perhaps, exemplifies a new spirit. After playing football for 12 years, "since the ankle-biters," Skorupski still dreams of a college career and, he says, he wears his football letter proudly, although it attracts stares on the streets of Alexandria.
Despite a banner headline in the latest student newspaper, the BI-Word, announcing the Cardinals' first victory, 20-16, over Bethlehem Baptist, fellow students don't always help the morale. "They don't ask whether we win or lose, but how much we lost by," Skorupski said. "It gets on my nerves."
The administration's attitude is reflected by the school's decision to join the athletically tough Washington Metropolitan Athletic Conference the 1986 football season.
"Everybody says we must be crazy, but the competition will make us better," Walsh said. "Unless you have competition, you're not going to be strong. We have superior students because of the competition."
Ireton presently has 18 varsity players; 16th-ranked Carroll, the smallest football-playing school in the WMAC, has a 45-player varsity team.
Retaining quality coaches is the key for getting better on the field, according to Athletic Director C. Lawrence Rentch. "We have to bring the expectations of the coaches up to the level of what we expect of the boys," he said. "When the coaches stay, the students respond because of that. You have to give somebody a reason in life.
"What was happening in the past, was that a coach would come in and excite the kids. But then they would lose and get down and he'd leave. They had to see that somebody cared."
Realizing that grass-roots preparation is necessary first, Rentch is willing to wait. "For football, we are growing in number and commitment, and hopefully we will grow in wins."
First-year Coach Jim McGrath leans away from the inspirational. Instead, he focuses on a rational approach, preaching belief in teammates and avoiding the loss.
"I had to start at base one," he said. "There was no talent, no weight program. They've been here three years as losers. I had to get them to believe in themselves."
The conversion has been slow. But where a season ago the team would lose by astronomical sums, the margin of defeat has been less this year. The mistakes of the past have cropped up, though; when they do, McGrath makes his players atone with extra drills at practice.
Still, football lags far behind other school activities in importance.
"It's not an end-all. Learning comes first," McGrath said. "We help them develop into full men on the field and spiritually in the chapel."
Einstein has been losing football games for 22 years. Now that the team is finally winning, the student body's response may be greater than that of the football players.
"The students are more enthused than the football team," said second-year Coach Jamie Hunter. "They believe that if you wheeled in the Washington Redskins, we could beat them. It's something in the past that they never even talked about."
Entering this year with five winless seasons and a record of 15-105 in the past 12 years, winning was something many of the students didn't even think about, except to remember the Titans' 33-game losing streak that finally ended last season.
Even the cheerleaders had a hard time. "The spirit wasn't there," said senior Mary Porter, the squad's captain. "We always lost."
But now, thanks to winning on the field, "Mondays are really fun around here," said Diane Mero, the school principal.
The Titans won their first three games of the season and are 5-3.
"The winning season is having an effect on the kids. It's hooked into their self-image," Mero added. "Einstein is now seen as a winning school. There's an installation of pride, and that's something that is really significant."
Spirit week for the school's homecoming has picked up new interest. "In the past, pep rallies fell in disfavor with the kids," said Mero. Last week, though, students sporting togas were commonplace; the hall decoration committee centered on the theme "We've only just begun."
"We're optimistic," said senior class President Christopher Garland. "Last year we expected to lose. But those years of losing are behind us."
And although the number of players on the varsity (32) hasn't increased, added attendance due to winning and night games has doubled the school's revenue.
Added Mero, "Einstein is on the upswing . . . It can compete, both academically and athletically."
The circle at Cardozo High School almost is complete. In the late 1960s with Bob Headen coaching, Cardozo was the power of the Interhigh. But then came the sour days, when the band out-numbered both the football team and the crowd. Last year, the Clerks hit an all-time low, 0-10, "and in the last game," said Athletic Director Frazier O'Leary, "we were lucky if we had 20 guys dressed. And let's just say, you didn't have trouble finding a seat."
Cardozo was outscored last season, 311-38, finishing the season with 23 players.
Now, with new uniforms, freshly-painted hallways and crowd support, Cardozo is on the brink of respectability. And there is a buzz in the hallways again, a kind of "controlled chaos."
"It's not that we're that good, but there is a commitment by Principal James Williams," O'Leary said. "We have big plans. We want to host the Interhigh championship. We're making money and at some games we're looking for between 3,000 and 4,000 people (the Clerks have already doubled last year's total attendance of 1,000 fans)."
Any spectators in the past "just came out to see the band and how many points the other team could score," said Coach Robert Richards.
Respectability also is evident on the field. After beginning the season with victories in five of its previous 45 games, Cardozo has a 3-5 record.
For O'Leary and Richards, this shows signs of returning to past prominence. For the student body, the record is a sign of the emergence of a new Cardozo -- a school not known just for its outstanding marching band.
"There is a whole different outlook," said O'Leary, who filled in as coach in 1980, watching the Clerks stumble through an 0-9 season. "In the past (the students) were sort of ashamed of the team."
Winning three of five preseason games helped, earning Richards respect from the team and instilling in the players a spirit long since lost. A junior varsity was added for the first time in recent memory, meaning an increase of 25 athletes (there are 45 on the varsity).
"When I came in here, it was like starting from scratch," said Richards. "The players were looking for organization and discipline. And they worked hard.
"For a couple of years Cardozo was really good. And there's a large alumni that remember the old Cardozo. But the kids don't know about the old Cardozo. They are thinking of making a new Cardozo. They're excited about being competitive. Just being .500 is real successful for Cardozo. But we're looking for bigger and better things."
Big yellow paw prints are painted on the streets to lead the way to Groveton High School. And trips to the school have been eagerly awaited by most Tigers' football opponents throughout the school's history.
There are many problems. The weight room is open year-round for the players, but gets little use. Many of the school's better athletes, for various reasons, don't even try out for the team.
"There is a commitment by the coaching staff and the athletic director," said Coach Vaughn Lewis, "and by about 10 players every year. A lot of people expect us to lose -- the parents, the players.
"The school is very individual. There is no single force. The players don't realize the difference between winning and losing. They don't care if they are better. They don't realize the importance of believing, of refusing to lose."
With a string of losses, players quit coming to practice and are cut.
"I want to play. I'm trying to stick it out," said sophomore lineman Randy Grant. "We try not to let losing get to us."
As of last count, the school's football squad, varsity and JV, totalled 44, with all but a few playing both offense and defense, which means practice time has to be split between the two units.
Nearby Fort Hunt, a school of relative size, has 92 players between the varsity and JV units.
"By the time they're seniors, we've lost six of our top 10 players," said Lewis, who has been at the school for four years as an assistant or head coach. "They either move away, are ineligible, or would rather do other things. And it seems we never get two good classes back to back. It makes it tough."
The school has had just three nonlosing seasons in 29 years, the last a 5-5 campaign in 1972. The Tigers are 0-7-1 this season, and are winless in their last 14 games.
"I try to teach them every day that if you play and work as hard as you can, you can walk with pride," Lewis said. "That's something they can't take away from you."
Still, the future of Groveton may be brighter. If Fort Hunt closes, about two-thirds of its students would be sent to Groveton, giving the small school a broader base for talent. And for hope.
Confidence doesn't seem to be the problem at Suitland, where the losses pile up, but the attitude, at least on the football team, remains optimistic. Inexperienced, and a bit naive, the Rams begin each season thinking they can conquer the world. Each season ends, though, with thoughts of next year.
As an underclassman, senior tackle DeWalt Stewart remembers looking up to the team on which he would soon play. Reality hit him quicker and harder than most opponents. "The whole team was superhuman to us. I thought we (the junior varsity team) would go 10-0; we were 3-7," he said. Little has changed, either in expectations or in outcome, at the varsity level. The Rams have lost 21 consecutive games, 55 of their last 58.
School support has remained constant -- but on a vastly different plateau. "People in class, even the teachers get on you," said quarterback Eric West, shaking his head. "I don't understand it, we work hard, but then we have the same problems in the game. In the preseason, everything was right; we were blowing people out. We had confidence. (But) even if we were 0-10, we'd have confidence."
The student body's attitude toward the team is apathetic. While in-school, early-departure games can attract almost the entire student population (which has the option of attending either a final-period class or the game), most spectators leave at halftime when the official school day ends.
"I don't have any school spirit," said sophomore Crystal Stanton, pointing to the team's "do nothing" tendency. "I came to school to learn, not for football."
The team itself perseveres, though. The players are in their second year of a weight program and there is an advanced weight training class on the curriculum. T-shirts are awarded for those who meet certain weight requirements.
"Suitland doesn't have the boys clubs like some other teams to feed in the students," said Coach Robert Johnson, in his seventh year. "For over 70 percent of the kids, this is the first time they have played competitive football. What we need to do is get the community involved."