Coach's Corner

Everybody hates a winner.

Two stories about two extraordinarily successful high school football programs. One, the cover story by Michael Hall in the current Texas Monthly about Westlake High. The other in Sunday's Dallas Morning News by Bill Cambell about the top-rated high school team in the country, the Evangel Eagles, a small, private religious school in Shreveport, La. The TM piece is titled, "We Love the Westlake Chaps ... No Not Really." The DMN headline gets directly to the point, "Private Enemy No.1." The message is clear: Everybody hates a winner. The similarities between the two programs are numerous. Both are coached by driven men, who both claim winning isn't what it's all about. "I'm not here to win state championships," says Westlake's head coach Ron Schroeder, "I'm here to run a program that provides a positive part of a student's life." Evangel's Dennis Dunn says almost the exact same thing. Be that as it may, players at both schools attend grueling, organized workouts year round. "We were up at 6:30 every morning and in the weight room," says one former player. "We never stopped running and lifting weights." The coaches talk of priorities more important than football and winning. God, family, and grades are usually right up there. The players know -- and accept -- a different reality. "That's not realistic at all," says a Westlake player told of Schroeder's comments. "Westlake football is a 24-hour deal."

Both schools enjoy an unremitting source of kids willing to happily dedicate themselves to a disciplined, punishing 365-day commitment, creating a crucial by-product: The Program. The Program ingests a complex system of feeder schools supplying freshmen already intimate with the varsity playbook and culture, thus providing a steady, reliable continuity. It's the reason they win, regardless of ebbs in the talent level.

Mainly because they're so successful, both schools are savagely attacked. In Louisiana, private schools can compete with public schools. Opponents of Evangel cry, "not fair." The tiny Christian school (enrollment 465) can recruit like a college, critics say, the best players in the state. This is, to some extent, correct. But the same can be said for any of the thousands of private schools across the country. Generally speaking, private schools don't play in public leagues for their own protection. When the minnow bites back, the shark cries foul, no matter how self-serving it sounds. Campbell points to a '97 game with perennial Texas power Dallas Carter. Evangel won by 39 points. Later the Carter coach said he'd never schedule them again. "They're like a college," he said. Yet that year his Carter team had 17 players sign college scholarships. Evangel had none. Different sets of arrows are used to attack Westlake. The most common is the "spoiled-rich-white-kids-get-whatever-they-want" theory. This is truly dumb. Rich, white kids aren't supposed to win at football. Tennis, maybe. Golf, sure. But not football. Westlake kids might be pampered at home, but nobody gives anybody anything on a football field.

No, the most underrated, under-emphasized element in the winning schoolboy equation is a highly organized, methodically built football culture where the tail can wag the dog. It's commonly accepted dogma that most Westlake adults are rabid supporters of the football team and will do anything -- such as voting against a needed second high school last year because it might damage the football program -- to keep the Chaps #1. As in all effective propaganda, this is partly truth, partly fiction. I've lived in the same neighborhood in Westlake for 20 years. It's typically Westlake in every way. One neighbor has two sons, both Westlake jocks, one a starting linebacker on the State Championship team. Their parents supported the kids, but I doubt they've been to a game since the oldest graduated. Across the street, a couple of kids who hung out with my son wouldn't be caught dead at a Westlake game of any kind. I'd safely say the vast majority of Eanes residents have never been and will never go to a Westlake football game. They don't know the name of the quarterback or the record of the team. However, as in any political process, a small, rabid and vocal minority does indeed know the record, the quarterback, and the third string tight end. They don't miss games. It's these people (like 'em or not) who are the heart and soul of any successful youth athletic program.

Without long-term participation of this highly motivated segment of the community, high school athletic powers, wherever they are, can't exist. These parents, lurking innocently at brownie bakes, supply the athletes, a large degree of the kids' motivation, and the political clout to make sure the teams have everything they need to succeed. This is true grassroots participation. It begins the day your six-year-old goes to his first soccer practice; 12 years later a small cadre of parents, who began as coaches and soccer moms, will be heavily involved in high school sports. This is a bad thing if you believe sports are overemphasized, creating more exclusion than inclusion. It's a good thing if you enjoy the sense of community a successful athletic program can instill. For good or ill, it's the heart of the beast.

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