November 23, 2011
The doubts could have doubled as a riddle.
When Natalie Randolph first took the head football coaching job at Washington (D.C.) Coolidge High, those in the community who doubted whether she could succeed asked when she would be able to win at a struggling program in an inner-city Washington school.
Now they have an answer, and it's an awfully impressive one: Two years.
In only her second year at the helm, Randolph has led Coolidge to an 8-2 record and a spot in the annual D.C. Turkey Bowl, a city-wide championship game that engenders more pride than any other sporting event among public schools in the district across the year.
As reported by the Associated Press, at 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, Randolph will lead the Coolidge Colts onto the field to face off against an 8-3 Washington (D.C.) Dunbar High squad which edged Coolidge in overtime earlier in November. The setback kept the Colts from a shot at an ever-rare 10-win season, but it didn't keep them from a Turkey Bowl rematch which will give the program a chance to prove it deserves to be considered alongside the best public and private programs in the greater D.C. area.
More strikingly, it will serve as a chance for Randolph to prove once and for all that she deserves to be considered as more than just any other coach, and that such a distinction has nothing to do with her gender, as she made clear to the Washington Post earlier this month.
That Coolidge could have improved this much, this quickly is almost beyond belief. Randolph lost her first five games in charge in 2010, a spell which served as the continuation of a long run of bad luck which truly began during summer training, when the program's most notable returning player suspiciously defected to Dunbar.
Yet Coolidge never folded, despite the losses and near ever-present media spotlight.
"I'm not one to be all out in the open," Randolph told the AP. "I'm not a person that really enjoys being out in the public eye, and when I have something to do, I want to do that. I don't want to be bothered."
After a crushing play led to the team's fifth loss, Coolidge allegedly delivered a scathing speech to her team, a moment which defined her team's first season -- the Colts would respond by winning their final four games and earn a spot in the playoffs -- and set the stage for the dominant season which has come in 2011.
"The kids kind of realized they don't want that feeling anymore," Shedrick Young, Coolidge's defensive coordinator in 2010 told the AP. "After that, they believed in what we were doing. Instead of individual accolades, they played for each other. ... We didn't baby 'em anymore. She's probably got the worst mouth on the field sometimes. She'll let 'em know."
Those results are even more impressive when you consider that Randolph has been coaching with even more limitations in her second season. Because of problems with getting official approval for paperwork renewing Young as the team's defensive coordinator for the 2011 season, Randolph has been forced to call all of the team's defensive plays herself, a responsibility which has become a shared duty between the coach, other assistants and Young, who watches the games from the stands and passes down advice to the bench.
Yet none of those potential pitfalls have slowed the Colts, or Randolph, from reaching what was their goal all along: Improved results in the classroom -- the team's collective GPA is up to 3.1 from the 2.65 it earned in 2010 -- and on the field, with a Turkey Bowl berth in just the coach's second season in charge to show for it.
"Everybody had that demeanor of 'She's a girl coach, she's a female,'" said senior receiver Dayon Pratt, an East Carolina recruit. "Now this year, it's a 'dedicated coach' -- and we're going to the Turkey Bowl."
Randolph would be proud of that assessment herself, particularly with how her squad's improved academic standing fits in to the overall mix of the program's progress.
"I think people are starting to realize that it's more than just football here," Randolph told the Post. "I really want that to be known. That it's more than just whether or not the kid can run 400 yards. Are you going to class?"