- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Natalie Randolph had seen enough. On a frigid recent evening, the varsity football coach at Coolidge High School in Northwest Washington was directing a small group of players in a skeleton drill when something went awry: a missed block, a lackadaisical effort, maybe someone using a curse word.

Up came Ms. Randolph’s whistle. Down came her scowl.

“That was horrible!” she barked.

Without additional prompting, the Coolidge players dropped to the artificial turf, counting off pushups under the klieg lights.

Fifteen … sixteen … seventeen …

“Don’t stop!” Ms. Randolph said.

A year and a half after garnering national attention by becoming one of a handful of women to ever work as a high school football head coach, Ms. Randolph hardly has stopped herself: Now in her second season, she has guided the Coolidge Colts to an 8-2 record and a berth in today’s D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championship game at Eastern Senior High School, a contest of rich local tradition and interest colloquially known as the “Turkey Bowl.”

Coolidge faces rival Dunbar High in a rematch of a thrilling regular season finale between the schools, won by Dunbar 43-42 on a two-point conversion in overtime.

“I tell her all the time, she’s over the hump now,” said Coolidge assistant coach Bob Headen. “She can’t do anything more but win a championship.”

(EDITORS’ NOTE: Coolidge lost Thursday’s championship game to Dunbar 33-21)

Mr. Headen, a local legend who led H.D. Woodson High to multiple city football championships and coached eventual National Football League players such as Orlando Brown and Byron Leftwich, laughed. “It took me almost five years to win one,” he said.

When Coolidge hired Ms. Randolph in March of last year, the question for many wasn’t if she could quickly build a championship team, or even if she could produce a winning season. Rather, it was if Ms. Randolph should be coaching football in the first place.

A graduate of the prestigious District private school Sidwell Friends and a former sprinter at the University of Virginia, the 31-year-old Randolph played five seasons as a wide receiver for the D.C. Divas, a women’s professional tackle football team. She also spent two years as an assistant varsity football coach at H.D. Woodson.

Still, the appointment of a female science teacher — Ms. Randolph is also a full-time instructor at Coolidge — to a traditionally male position in a sport steeped in macho culture and played almost exclusively by boys raised eyebrows. Sports talk radio callers expressed skepticism. Internet users posted sexist, derogatory rants. A prominent, otherwise sympathetic local sportswriter wondered if Ms. Randolph’s hiring was a publicity stunt, intended to divert attention from the DCIAA’s historically dysfunctional bureaucracy and failure to provide more athletic opportunities for high school girls.

Mr. Headen, who met Ms. Randolph while working as the athletic director at H.D. Woodson, recalled receiving a phone call from former professional football player and District native Tim Baylor.

“He said, ‘I hear you have a girl coach. What is D.C. turning into?’ ” said Mr. Headen, who came out of retirement specifically to assist Ms. Randolph. “I said, ‘She has a lot of football knowledge. She also has a good assistant coach.’ He said, ‘Who’s that?’ I said, ‘Me.’

Natalie is an athlete herself. She’s competitive. She’s in a sport with a whole lot of men, but she ain’t going to let nobody buffalo her. We have our arguments on [the coaching staff], too. But she wants to prove that a woman can do it. That’s why we have her back.”

At a makeshift press conference announcing Ms. Randolph’s hiring, former District mayor Adrian Fenty presented her with a certificate declaring it “Natalie Randolph Day.” The news was featured on CNN. Hollywood producers wanted the rights to her life story. Parade magazine put her on its cover. An ESPN camera crew was on hand for her first game, along with 3,500 spectators and two dozen reporters from various media outlets.

When the Colts lost five consecutive contests to open last season, however, outside interest waned. Ms. Randolph was relieved. Uncomfortable with the spotlight, she was too busy teaching five classes and managing everything from her team’s game-planning to its fundraising to worry about interview and speaking engagement requests.

Besides, the Colts were decidedly a work-in-progress: new coaching staff, new playbook and new, stricter athletic and academic demands, including mandatory study hall. Most of the players were inexperienced — when Ms. Randolph was hired, nine players left the team or transferred to other schools, including a probable starting quarterback who departed just days before the start of the season.

“It was hard,” said Daniel West, a Morehouse College freshman who played for Coolidge last season. “Real hard. But I always say we started out 0-5 for a reason. The people who came out to be on TV for a female coach but not to play football, we rooted them out. The people who stayed believed.”

That faith was rewarded by Ms. Randolph’s first victory, a 48-12 victory over Anacostia High School that ended with the coach receiving a Gatorade bath from her players. From there, the Colts rallied to finish the regular season 4-6 before losing in the city playoffs to two-time defending champion H.D. Woodson.

The current season began inauspiciously, when an earthquake centered in Mineral, Va. and an unrelated transportation mix-up forced Coolidge to cancel its first two games. During a September loss to Calvert Hall High School in Towson, Md., delayed DCIAA paperwork processing left the Colts without their defensive coordinator, Shedrick Young.

A notoriously hard hitter with the Divas despite her diminutive 5-foot-5-inch frame, Ms. Randolph responded by calling defensive plays herself — a job she has retained all season, as Mr. Young’s paperwork remains in bureaucratic limbo.

“She’s aggressive,” said Mr. Young, who still watches Coolidge games from the stands. “I remember one game where she ran the same blitz, ‘thunder,’ like five times in a row. I told her, ‘You have to relax once in a while.’ But she’s doing good. It might be hard for me to get my job back.”

Behind a high-scoring offense led by speedy senior receivers Dayon Pratt and Fellonte Misher and a quick, opportunistic defense, Coolidge won five straight games during the regular season and defeated H.D. Woodson in the city playoffs to reach the DCIAA title game.

Though students and faculty regularly congratulate Ms. Randolph at school, she largely downplays her success, brushing off talk of being a female pioneer. “I guess it’s great to win,” she said. “I feel like I owe it to the kids a lot more than paying attention to what other people are thinking [about me]. I want to make sure that they come out of here with the best experience they can have in high school, something that can benefit them in the future and in college.”

In 2009, controversial former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee placed Coolidge under the control of Friends of Bedford, a New York City-based educational consulting firm. The firm tapped Ms. Randolph — a popular, no-nonsense science teacher who earned the trust and admiration of her students — to coach football largely in an effort to improve the team’s lagging classroom performance.

While Ms. Rhee and Friends of Bedford have since departed, the emphasis on schoolwork remains. Before football practice, Ms. Randolph holds 60-minute study halls for her players, four times a week. Team grade-point average has improved from 2.75 last season to 3.0 this season.

Last summer, Ms. Randolph spent much of her free time shuttling players to college campuses up and down the East Coast, the better to meet coaches and recruiters. Seniors Pratt and Misher respectively have committed to play college football next season at East Carolina and Old Dominion.

According to Mr. Headen, nine of the 10 seniors on the Coolidge football team who graduated last season went to college.

“We have 20 seniors this year,” Ms. Randolph said. “All of them will apply to college. I want all of them to go. They’re getting used to it, going to study hall, what’s expected of them. Also, our senior class is good. They’re like wannabe nerds.”

Ms. Randolph playfully rolled her eyes.

“I say ‘wannabe,’ because they get one new vocabulary word and they’re like, ‘I’m smart. I’m the smartest.’ And I’m like, ‘O.K., congratulations.’ “

If Ms. Randolph sounds less like an archetypically macho football coach — think Mike Ditka — than a demanding-but-affectionate parent, well, that’s no accident. According to Coolidge running backs coach Torrance Dawkins, her relationship with her players goes well beyond football.

Case in point: Mr. West and fellow former Coolidge player Raynard Ware currently play football at Morehouse. Both remain in regular contact with Ms. Randolph, seeking advice and counsel via phone calls and text messages.

“All of Natalie’s success is team camaraderie,” Mr. Ware said. “Her team is like a family. And she prepared me for school. Football’s good, but she made me think about football not being everything. She’s made a big difference in my life.”

Following a recent practice, Ms. Randolph slouched in a locker room chair, cold and exhausted. Stifling yawns, she conducted a short, on-camera interview in advance of the Turkey Bowl, pausing to make sure one of her players didn’t forget his jacket.

Following the interview, Ms. Randolph was asked how much sleep she was getting. Three or four hours a night, she said. She then produced her phone, which showed a text message from Mr. Ware.

“Coach,” read the message. “I received a math award today. I had the highest grade in class. Since I matured I see everything you were trying to tell me last year.”

For the first time all evening, Ms. Randolph smiled.

“[My players] are my babies,” she said. “They tend to not let me forget that. I don’t mind the nagging, the irritating phone calls, text messages late at night. I’d rather them be doing that than doing something else. They’re my children.”