'No longer the cool story:' 106-0 win has obscured Inglewood High football's incredible rise

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Inglewood High School football team is a true underdog story that has become a soap opera.

Three years ago, Inglewood finished the season 0-10 and all but mirrored the aging public school, which is beset by outdated facilities, declining enrollment and subpar test scores.

Now the team is 11-0 and two victories from winning the school’s first California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section football championship in almost 90 years.

The excitement is palpable in the so-called “City of Champions." But outside of Inglewood, most people familiar with the football team probably associate it with what took place three weeks ago.

Inglewood beat its crosstown rival, Morningside, 106-0.

By halftime, the score was 86-0.

Leading 104-0, Inglewood went for a two-point conversion rather than the one-point kick attempt and succeeded.

“That was a classless move,’’ Morningside coach Brian Collins told the Los Angeles Times.

As details of the game spread across the internet, Inglewood’s team and its head coach, Mil’Von James, became poster boys for poor sportsmanship. Dick Vitale, the famous basketball commentator, joined the chorus of critics on Twitter and wrote that James should be fired.

“Let’s be honest,’’ said Kenneth Miller, publisher of Inglewood Today and a longtime journalist in Los Angeles. “The only reason why this is such an enormous story is because we’re talking about Black kids and Black coaches, and we’re talking about a public school.’’

A week after the blowout victory, Inglewood pulled off a 26-10 upset of St. Bonaventure, a private Catholic school, in the first round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 2 playoffs. As James walked off the field toward the locker room, he was greeted by his two young daughters wearing sweatshirts that read, "MY DAD HAS CLASS.''

“It’s been a rough week for my family," James said as he followed his players into the locker room at Ventura College.

Mil'Von James' daughters support their dad and the Inglewood High football team during a recent playoff game.
Mil'Von James' daughters support their dad and the Inglewood High football team during a recent playoff game.

Inglewood’s roster of 37 players was less than half the size of St. Bonaventure's roster and the team continues to be outnumbered. Last Friday, Inglewood faced Edison, a public school with a student enrollment of about 2,400 – roughly three times the size of Inglewood High.

In front of a home crowd, Inglewood’s last-second goal-line stand preserved a 22-16 victory and set off a delightful celebration.

The school’s marching band, which consists of eight drummers and three cymbal players, paraded raucously down the street alongside the cheerleaders, dance team and other students on a half-mile procession from school’s home stadium to its campus.

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On Friday, Inglewood continues its pursuit of an unlikely championship when it plays Bishop Alemany, a private school, at home. James has said he will not grant an interview until the season ends.

“We’re at a pivotal point with everything that’s happened,’’ he said.

Outside the city limits, Inglewood is not cast as the lovable long shot after the 106-0 beatdown.

“They’re no longer the cool story,’’ said Scott Altenberg, head football coach at Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, about a 10-mile drive from Inglewood. “They’re the bad guys.

“It’s too bad because it really is a cool story of how well they’ve done."

'How they're doing it'

James, the 36-year-old coach who took over Inglewood’s football program after the 0-10 season, is 27-1 at the school. In 2003, he signed with UCLA out of Fremont High in Los Angeles, and played there as a defensive back for two seasons before transferring to UNLV.

Now eight of his seniors at Inglewood have committed to play at Division I colleges after securing scholarship offers, and three of those players are headed for UCLA.

Inglewood's weight room is substandard. The practice field at times is overrun with uncut grass and pockmarked with holes. Otherwise, there are no vestiges of the program that failed to post a winning record for six straight seasons before James arrived.

“I don’t know what they’re doing or how they’re doing it," said Gary Bass, head coach at Inglewood in 2017, when the team went 4-5. “I definitely root for them. I definitely want to see them do good. But I want to see it done the right way."

The week after Inglewood’s blowout victory over Morningside, the Inglewood Unified School District (IUSD) announced it would conduct an investigation and “take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that similar outcome never happens again under an IUSD athletic program."

Erika Torres, the county administrator for the school district, did not respond to requests for an update on the investigation. But public scrutiny has put Inglewood's surging program in the spotlight.

James, who built a football juggernaut at Augustus Hawkins High School in Los Angeles between 2013 to 2016, was fired after an investigation uncovered the use of multiple ineligible players. The team was placed on probation for two years.

Since James was hired as Inglewood’s coach before the 2019 season, the football program has attracted more than two dozen transfer students, according to information USA TODAY Sports gathered from high school coaches, published news reports and Hudl, a service that produces video highlights of athletes, including high school football players.

But enrollment has steadily declined at the school, which now serves an estimated 830 students, about two-thirds of whom are Hispanic and one-third who are Black.

Inglewood High is No. 1,206 among the 1,675 public high schools in California that made the academic rankings published by U.S. News & World Report. The graduation rate is 92% but the reading proficiency is 29% and mathematics proficiency is 5%, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Fletcher Ramsey, a former assistant football coach at Inglewood, said a "high percentage" of the transfers attend City Honors, a charter high school in Inglewood that is affiliated with Inglewood High.

City Honors is No. 517 among the California public schools ranked by U.S. News & World Report, and its reading proficiency is 40% higher and its mathematics proficiency three times higher than Inglewood's scores, according to U.S. News & World Report.

James Sims, who served as head football coach at Inglewood in 2015 and 2016 during which the team went 6-14, said Inglewood is now an attractive destination for kids wanting to play football.

He noted that when he took over the Inglewood program, two players from the school district attended Mater Dei and two players attended St. John Bosco – private schools in Southern California with football powerhouses.

“How in the world do poor kids in Inglewood all of the sudden come up with the finances to go Mater Dei or St. John Bosco or for the transportation to get back and forth every day?’’ Sims said. “People don’t talk about that because those programs have been doing it for years and it’s accepted. And now here comes Inglewood doing some of the same stuff and it’s going to be broadcast because Inglewood’s not allowed to do that."

Coaches behind the success

Michael Grimble, the athletic director at Inglewood High, has had a unique perspective of the football program’s turnaround. He was coach of the 0-10 team in 2018.

“The program needed new energy,’’ he said. That happened with the arrival of James and his staff of more than six assistants, according to Grimble, who said he was not involved in the hiring of James.

“Besides good players, we’ve got an awesome coaching staff,’’ said Bridgette Bender, mother of defensive lineman Charles Deloach III. “I feel good about them. I feel good about the program. I feel good about Inglewood High School in general."

Bender’s son is coached by Rayvionne Mouton, who in 2008 was a junior linebacker at Los Angeles High who told the Los Angeles Times that one of his teammates and Mouton’s older brother were murdered three months apart.

“It tears my heart apart,’’ Mouton told the newspaper.

Court records show Mouton, now 30, was convicted in 2018 of robbery and carrying a loaded firearm in a prohibited area in Los Angeles County. The conviction stemmed from a felony complaint in 2013, according to court records.

Mouton was sentenced to five years in prison and, as part of a plea deal, placed on three years’ probation, court records show. In November 2019, Mouton’s probation was terminated early, according to court records.

"It was terminated early because of the work that I do directly with the kids at Inglewood," said Mouton, who added that James and James' brother Malik "are my mentors and two guys that I look up to that helped me overcome some of my shortcomings in life."

Records from the Iowa Department of Corrections show Mouton was charged in 2012 with two drug-related felony offenses in Fayette, where he played football for Upper Iowa University, a Division II school. Mouton was granted pretrial release with supervision, according to the Department of Corrections records, which indicate the charges were dismissed.

These days, Mouton said, he provides gang and drug intervention when working with football players at Inglewood and other schools. He also said he is a longshoreman and the job contributed to probation being terminated early.

“Things happen,'' Mouton said of his criminal history. "But now, everything’s much different and I'm walking a completely different path."

Debbie Tate, the principal at Inglewood High, did not return requests for comment about Mouton’s background or about the school's football program.

Mouton is listed as one of three Inglewood football coaches to be honored in April by the Unsung Heroes Leadership Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to empower inner city youth.

The other Inglewood coaches to be honored are James and his younger brother Malik James, 33, who served as offensive coordinator when Mil’Von coached at Hawkins and followed him to Inglewood.

Better known as “Fig,’’ Malik James started his college football career at Cincinnati before transferring to Nevada and then to Langston University, a historically Black university in Oklahoma. He signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in May 2013 but was released the next month.

Soon he embarked on a coaching career that intertwined with his brother’s.

Malik James oversees Premium Sports, a highly successful program of 7-on-7 teams that have included dozens of players who have signed to play with notable college football programs. Some of those players also have suited up for Inglewood High.

Brandon Manumaleuna, a retired NFL tight end who has coached high school football in Southern California for the past decade, said Premium Sports has generated exposure for Inglewood High's football team.

“It’s your brand, and these coaches are associated with a brand that helps a lot of kids," Manumaleuna said. “They play a good brand of football that appeals to a lot of kids."

Anthony Jefferson, the head football coach at Cathedral – a private high school in Los Angeles – said Premium Sports “absolutely’’ provides an advantage for Inglewood. In fact, one of Jefferson’s former players was part of allegations that transfer rules were violated at Inglewood.

Before the 2019 season, quarterback Jared Heywood transferred to Inglewood from Cathedral and helped lead Inglewood to a 12-1 record during James’ first year at the school.

The week Inglewood was scheduled to play Esperanza High in the semifinals of the Division 13 playoffs, Esperanza’s athletic director submitted information to the CIF he said suggested Heywood was ineligible, according to emails obtained by USA TODAY Sports.

Specifically, Esperanza’s athletic director provided video evidence he said raised the possibility of improper contact with Inglewood’s coaches, according to the emails.

Grimble, Inglewood’s athletic director, said the CIF contacted him about the allegations and reviewed the paperwork on Heywood's transfer.

He played.

Heywood threw five touchdown passes against Esperanza, which prevailed 44-41 and handed Inglewood its only loss under James, whose ardent supporters include one of his former high school coaches, Curtis Johnson. Johnson, head coach at Fremont High, said recruiting is rampant among private schools.

“We all know that kids get picked up in vans and go to Bosco and Mater Dei,’’ Johnson said. “So what did (James) do that Mater Dei doesn’t do?

“His track record speaks for itself. He’s put more kids in college than coaches that have been coaching 20 years."

'They're all about the kids'

Montana Lemonious-Craig, a wide receiver who was entering his senior year at Inglewood in 2019, said he had no scholarship offers when James arrived. The coach promptly anointed Lemonious-Craig the team’s leader. Not only did Lemonious-Craig help spur the team’s stunning turnaround after its 0-10 season, but he also earned a scholarship to Colorado.

He credits James and the rest of the coaching staff.

“They’re all about the kids," Lemonious-Craig said. “They really care. I can say that from experience."

After a recent practice at Inglewood, players milled about while eating food piled on paper plates. James said he tries to make sure the players are fed after practice three times a week, but he declined to say much more.

“People want to play for him,’’ Lemonious-Craig said. “People want to play for Inglewood. So now all the talent that’s in the city can come back home.

“The talent’s always been there and he’s a great coach. Like, he’s literally built that program from the ground up.’’

Recently, James was seen sporting a Hawkins High sweatshirt and the benefits from his success at that school -- the football team went 21-1-1 in 2015 and 2016 and had two players participate in the 2016 U.S. Army All-American Bowl -- are still visible.

In 2016, Adidas awarded a contract to the Hawkins football program and in 2017 it awarded a contract to Premium Sports, said Zach Soskin, who at the time worked for Adidas in grassroots football sports marketing.

Inglewood now has an Adidas deal, said Soskin, and the perks go beyond apparel and other support.

In November 2020, James was holding a Zoom meeting for Inglewood players when he welcomed a surprise guest: Jalen Ramsey, the Los Angeles Rams’ All-Pro defensive back who is sponsored by Adidas.

“Through some of my connections over at Adidas, I hear you’re working on something special,’’ James said.

With that, Ramsey began talking about his new custom Adidas shoe with the animal prints on each side.

“At the end of the day,’’ Ramsey said, “I’m excited to give you all these shoes. Man, the whole team.’’

It’s part of the Premium Sports brand and reinforced at Inglewood by the eight seniors committing to Division I schools this year and about half a dozen juniors expected to earn college Division I scholarships next year.

Johnson, the Fremont coach who said he talks regularly to James, said James has “the apple.’’

“When I say he has the apple, he has something to offer,’’ Johnson said. “I can get you to college; I’m going to get you to look good.

“The only thing he did wrong was draw attention by scoring 106 points to nothing. If they had stopped at 50, nobody would have noticed."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Inglewood High football team's incredible rise obscured by 106-0 win