Greg Sullivan's geometry classroom, in the back of a trailer, sits on the 20-yard line of the old football field at T.C. Williams High School. Through his window, he can see the construction of the new, nearly $100 million school building that is scheduled to open in two years.
"I like to watch the guys as they're building," Sullivan said. "Hot or cold, rain or shine, they're out there making something great for the kids and the city."
The same might be said of Sullivan. As coach of the football team at Alexandria's lone public high school, one of the most famous in the country thanks to the movie "Remember the Titans," Sullivan has erected a solid foundation on which to rebuild a storied program that was a shambles when he took over three seasons ago. And he has had to endure everything the workers outside his window have endured.
Hot or cold? Sullivan's team was the popular preseason favorite to win the Virginia AAA Patriot District title. But after three victories to open the season, the Titans have lost three straight games.
Rain or shine? On Friday, a day when most of the teams in the Washington area opted to avoid the elements, T.C. Williams disintegrated in the mud at Lee High School. With that loss, the Titans need three victories in the season's final four games to have their first winning season since 1995. And like their first six games, none of the remaining four will be played at home, because of the school construction.
Winning seasons and playoff appearances were common for the Titans in the 1970s under Herman Boone and in the '80s under Glenn Furman. The team won three Virginia state titles in those decades, with the first coming in 1971 under Boone, a black coach who was chosen over a white job candidate to run the football team at the then-recently integrated T.C. Williams.
But by the time the story of Boone and his unforgettable Titans hit the big screen in 2000, the current Titans had hit bottom. When Sullivan was hired three years later, T.C. Williams had gone through five head coaches in 10 years -- including a three-time Maryland state champion, a top assistant to Furman and a longtime NFL linebacker. The Titans lost more games in that 10-year span than they had in the previous 26 seasons. Their last playoff appearance came in 1990.
Fans responded in kind, pelting the players with popcorn after one loss and cursing at them. One spectator walked up to Sullivan after a game in his first season and asked whether Sullivan knew who was in charge of hiring and firing coaches: The spectator was sure he could do better than Sullivan. The Titans' first victory of the year, in their season finale, broke a school-record 16-game losing streak.
Less than two years later, the Titans are confident of success.
"Our last winning season was back in the mid-90s," said T.C. Williams Principal John Porter, who has been at the school for 21 years. "I thought back then that it might be a turnaround, if you will, but it ended up being [just one] season. But I'm feeling real good about the long-term effects now, with Greg working this program. You can see it in the kids' faces. It's a mental change, an attitude."
'On the Right Path'
Although he was never a head coach before coming to T.C. Williams, Sullivan, 44, most recently had success as a defensive coordinator at Randolph-Macon Academy in Front Royal, Va., and before that as offensive coordinator at Ottawa (Kan.) College. Earlier, he had assistant coaching stints locally at Stuart, Marshall, Mount Vernon, Chantilly and W.T. Woodson high schools. Growing up in a military family, Sullivan moved around quite a bit before graduating from Marshall High in 1979. He started coaching in college, taking his first high school job while attending George Mason. He graduated from New Mexico Highlands University, which helped Sullivan with his tuition in exchange for his help on the school's coaching staff.
Among Sullivan's peers, there's little doubt that he is the right person for the Titans. West Potomac Coach Eric Henderson, who was coach at T.C. Williams when "Remember the Titans" came out, is a longtime friend. He talks with Sullivan weekly and likes what he sees at his former school.
"Everyone needs to just be patient. Greg's on the right path," Henderson said. "He's no-nonsense and the kids respect that. He's the right type of person for that situation. There's a spot for every football coach with some talent to be successful. He has the right temperament for the job."
After Sullivan was hired, he instituted a three-year plan to overhaul the program. The first year, Sullivan concentrated on discipline, getting the team in shape to play. In year two, Sullivan's goal was to be competitive, and the Titans were, finishing 4-6. This year, Sullivan's focus is winning. To that end, Sullivan has replaced 10 assistants in the past two years. Sullivan's brand of discipline recalls the movie depiction of Boone's summer training camp at Gettysburg College. Each summer, Sullivan takes the team to Randolph-Macon, his former school, and errant players are made to run the 120-yard-long "Hill of Correction," which goes up at a 45-degree angle for the first 80 yards and then to 60 degrees for the last 40 yards. On the first day of practice in 2003, he spent the first 45 minutes setting up the team to do jumping jacks, making his players start all over again when they couldn't toe the line.
"I wanted them to line up under the goal posts, run up, put their toes right at the line," Sullivan said. "Not on the line, not behind the line."
"It was pure comedy," he added with a chuckle. "I wish I had filmed it."
Although the players certainly didn't enjoy the experience, they have grown to understand its importance. And it certainly hasn't hurt turnout; the Titans now carry 165 players in the program -- more than double the number participating in Sullivan's first season.
"We respect him," senior Casey Muhtadi said. "There's no doubt about it. We know that he's here to help us. He's one of us. He's a Titan."
Muhtadi noticed a difference in the football program's attitude from when his brother, Dean, a 2004 graduate now playing at Christopher Newport University, attended the school.
"There was no winning attitude," Casey said. "They would go into games just knowing they were going to lose. They just wanted to play football and were fine with just that. But now we go into every game with the expectation to win. That's something Coach Sullivan brought here."
The respect goes both ways. In T.C. Williams's homecoming game Oct. 1 against Lake Braddock, the Titans scored a potential game-tying touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. On the extra-point attempt, freshman backup quarterback Jamal Ford noticed that the Bruins had only 10 players on the field. Ford called an audible, opting to forgo the kick and run the ball instead. He didn't reach the end zone, and the Titans eventually lost the game, 7-6. Afterward, Sullivan said that Ford made the right call and that he would want him to do the same again if the situation arose.
It's no surprise that a freshman would feel comfortable in Sullivan's system. All three high school teams -- freshman, junior varsity and varsity -- work together during practice in individual position drills. Part of Sullivan's rebuilding involved focusing on the team's lower levels to create a culture of winning that in time would bubble up to the varsity. Sullivan is fond of pointing out that the freshman team went 8-0 last season and that the junior varsity also had a winning record.
"You want to get into the other team's head that we're used to winning," Sullivan said. "You want them to ask, 'When was the last time you beat T.C.?' You didn't beat them as freshmen, didn't beat them as sophomores. Now you think you're going to step up to the plate and beat them as juniors? Good luck. . . . We're going to put it on you one more time just for general purposes here. It's just part of the psychological game that we didn't have before."
The emphasis on youth also has allowed Sullivan to hold on to some players who might not otherwise have stayed. Standout freshman fullback Dominique Copeland, who played on the Titans' freshman team as an eighth-grader and this season is among the Patriot District rushing leaders, said that part of the reason he decided to play at T.C. Williams instead of at a private school was that he was impressed with the program's winning attitude.
And Sullivan's involvement is not limited to high school players. He embraced a decision made just before he arrived to change the name of the teams in the city's recreational leagues to the Titans and their colors to the blue and red of T.C. Williams. When the rec leagues had a fundraiser selling hats that said "One City, One Team," Sullivan bought a set for his coaching staff. This year, he gave out blue "Titans For Life" bracelets after the high school training camp but ordered enough for the rec leagues to give to their players.
"He's raised the coach's involvement with the rec leagues to a higher level," said Jim Gibson, the commissioner of Alexandria Titans Youth Football and a 15-year coach. "He's taken a deeper plunge. . . . He gets involved in the philosophy and development where other coaches haven't. Those unifying efforts have rekindled interest and excitement about T.C. Williams football that I haven't seen in a long while."
Seeing the Light
With the ongoing construction, T.C. Williams has no home field, is unlikely to have one for the next two seasons and is practicing on a makeshift, dirt-filled field at nearby Chinquapin Park. That field is six yards too narrow. The Titans' "home" games this season are at Edison, Episcopal and West Potomac. Still, players and coaches refuse to blame the field situation for any problems during games.
"If we can do good on [the practice field], we can do good on any other field," Copeland said.
T.C. Williams plans to rebuild an on-site facility after the new school opens. That field will be similar to the one it is to replace and should be available by September 2008, said T.C. Williams Athletic Director Kerry Donley, who was mayor of Alexandria from 1996 to 2003.
The on-site stadium, however, pales in comparison with the benefits of a proposed All-City Sports Facility planned for Joseph Hensley Park on Eisenhower Avenue. The facility would include two ball fields and a lighted, multipurpose, artificial-turf field, which would be home to T.C. Williams football, other sports at the school and to local recreation leagues.
The All-City facility would cost $11.7 million, a figure revised downward after planners eliminated a proposed track, said Donley and Mark Jinks, assistant city manager for finance. If the initial plan is approved at a City Council meeting scheduled for Oct. 25, the city will begin private fundraising to raise half the cost of construction. The goal is to open that facility by September 2008, as well.
If the All-City facility is built -- Donley says its chances are "50-50" -- it also would mean the introduction of Friday-night football at T.C. Williams. The field at the school, which opened in 1965, has no lights, in accordance with an agreement made with nearby residents when the field was built.
The school is the only one of 31 in the AAA Northern Region that does not play Friday-night home games, a fact that Sullivan is reminded of when he looks around his classroom: On the wall are promotional posters from yet another high school football move, "Friday Night Lights."
"It's a bit discouraging to look at them all the time," Sullivan said with a smile. "But we're going to have it in '08."
But the difference between night and day is not just a stadium question -- it's how others see T.C. Williams football of today versus the program of a few years ago.
"I'm just so proud to see them back on the winning track," said Boone, the former coach. "Coach Sullivan is doing one heck of a job. He has allowed those kids to take their knocks but kept their pride up, and now look at them. They're Titans again."
T.C. Williams carries 165 players in its football program, more than double the number participating just two years ago.
Coach Greg Sullivan is in his third year at the helm of Titans football.