Monday, March 31, 2008

Amite High in turmoil

All of this legal wrangling regarding Alden Foster and the head football coaching job at Amite High School had its roots in the Jim Crow South and the push for African Americans to have equal access to a system that was supposed to be equal for all citizens from the get-go.

However, Foster’s involvement in the federal case against the Tangipahoa Parish School System and the subsequent ruling in his favor has its beginnings on the sidelines of Russell Memorial Stadium in two totally different time periods — way back in 1983, and weeks before the start of the 2006 season.

It was way back in 1983 when Foster first began developing his love of football, spending his time as a team manager for his beloved Amite Warriors and head coach Gary Hendry. That time shagging balls, carrying water and putting up shoulder pads gave the young Foster a dream — a dream that one day he would be in Hendry’s position, leading the charge of purple and gold to gridiron success.

“We didn’t have biddy leagues, and I just loved football so much,” Foster said.

Foster’s love affair with the game began two years after John Williams finished his tenure as Hammond High’s head football coach. Williams, the only black head football coach in the integration era, led the Tors from 1977 to 1981.

Foster grew up, going from team manager to standout player for the Warriors before playing collegiately at Southern University. He still remembered what Hendry, his old coach, told him — get an education and then become a head coach.

He did just that, taking the reins across the parish line at St. Helena Central and turning the Hawks into a Class 2A power as he went 65-49 in 10 seasons. That run included a trip to the Dome in 2004 before barely missing the playoffs in his last two seasons.

Then came those two weeks before the start of the 2006 season.

Donald Currier abruptly stepped down as Warriors’ head coach. Doug Misita led Amite as interim coach in the ‘06 season, finishing 5-4 in the regular season before losing to Catholic-New Iberia in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs.

Following that season, a vacancy at the helm of one of Louisiana’s top prep football programs in terms of success and talent.

Foster’s dream looked like it was in sight, and who can blame someone from wanting to go back home? He applied for the job, looking to have the opportunity to coach his alma mater. Amite assistant coach Mark Vining, himself a former Warrior, also applied for the job with the hopes of taking the helm of his beloved alma mater.

The two men, bonded together for their love of Amite High football and their mutual desire to lead the Warriors, put themselves through the crucible of an evaluation process mired in the imperfections of post-integration politics — politics resulting in things such as busing, changing schools, retracing attendance zone lines, majority-minority transfers, white flight and something called a “40/60 ratio” being used as a guideline for hiring coaches.

According to reports, U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle cited factors that influenced his decision — including the school system’s history of not hiring black head football coaches, the sometimes subjective nature of the supposedly objective hiring criteria, and a complicated formula for evaluating applicants’ past performance that could produce lower-than-expected scores.

To put Lemelle’s rulings into layman’s teams, Foster got screwed. However, Foster was not the only person to get shafted by the system.

Vining, who coached the Warriors to the Class 3A state semifinals and lost to eventual state champion Parkview Baptist, got the proverbial wood as well. This ruling will probably mean he gets slapped with the “just because he’s white” label by some people.

Although Vining scored highest in the hiring process, who knows how the scores would have turned out if things were done correctly and on a level playing field? Would he have scored lower than Foster or higher?

The same could be said in Foster’s case, in which he will get slapped with the “he got the job because he’s black” label by some people. Would he have scored lower or higher than Vining if the playing field was truly level and things were done correctly?

Let’s not forget the players gearing up for a spring with the possibility of being led through it by the fourth head coach in as many years. No matter how talented the players are, the uncertainty of who will coach them in the upcoming season hangs on their minds constantly.

All of this legal wrangling puts a cloud over Foster, Vining, Amite High School and the Tangipahoa Parish School System. It is a total disservice to Foster, Vining, the players and the Amite community.

The only thing that could lift that cloud hanging over 403 South Laurel Street is the community rallying around the game that Foster fell in love with as a child, a game that identifies Amite as much as anything else.

“You dream of a job like Amite,” Foster said. “You’re going to have talent and you’re going to have kids with the passion for the game. That passion you can’t teach elsewhere is already instilled in these kids at Amite from day one.”

Friday, February 08, 2008

SLANT-N-GO: Recruiting's like scenes from "The Mack"

Blaxploitation movies from the 1970s are not exactly great source material to cross-reference to the world of sports. However, one such flick contains scenes that are eerily transferable to sports — namely college football.
That movie is "The Mack," the 1973 blaxploitation masterpiece starring Max Julien, Richard Pryor and Roger E. Mosley — "T.C." from "Magnum, P.I."
At first glance, it seems to be a tad bit contrived that someone can draw parallels between college football and a 35-year-old movie where the protagonist was an ex-con who turned to the world’s oldest profession after he served a 5-year stint in the slammer.
Upon further review, and given the fact that America has reached the climax of the recruiting season, the similarities are striking. The following features scenarios from the actual movie, and a translation as it relates to the world of college football.
For more information on "The Mack," check out the Internet Movie Database web site (, rent/buy a copy, or watch clips of it on YouTube.
Let’s take, for instance, the scene where John "Goldie" Mickens, played by Julien, and his mentor are having a conversation in a pool hall after Mickens returned to his old neighborhood. The mentor told Mickens that he was one of the best people on his staff and he hated to lose him. The mentor goes on to give Mickens some advice about setting out on his own and how to handle recruits.
The conversation Goldie had with his mentor can easily be transposed upon any college football coach, especially in a BCS conference. The mentor told Goldie that he has to go out and recruit the best talent, and if he does it right, the pockets of Mickens’ pants would appear to have the mumps because of the large sums of money he will be earning.
With that in mind, what has been one of the oldest sayings about a college football coach? Well, that would be that a coach is only as good as the talent he recruits. A coach has to recruit the talent that will help him achieve success frequently. The better the talent means the better chances of winning, which increases the chances of making more money in the future.
All coaches have to have a special type of personality that will win over recruits. Mickens possessed that, and a lot of your top recruiters — like the ironically-named Mack Brown, Pete Carroll, Les Miles and others — have that personality as well. Like Goldie, these men have to possess a supreme confidence in their abilities and their systems in order for potential recruits to buy into it.
As Mickens put it, coaches have to feel that they’re going to rewrite the record books and they will be the new kings of the block. They have to believe that they will get the best high school and juco talent available, get the facilities upgrades to entice them to come and mix it all up to produce a winning program.
Goldie tells one recruit that they can go all the way to the top while assuring said recruit that he would be a friend a father figure. Mickens also asks the recruit to believe in him and believe that everything he tells the recruit to do is in their mutual best interests.
Now does that sound like what a coach would tell a recruit, or what?
Mickens also holds a "weekend visit" with potential recruits, selling them on the benefits of joining his teams. One can easily picture a coach standing in front of a group of potential recruits telling them that his team is built like a family with everyone playing a major role in that family’s success. The rewards for helping the family will be great, including conference championships, playoff runs or a bowl game.
However, there’s a serious side to the college football game as well. The folks at the NCAA do not take too kindly to things like "lack of institutional control" and "improper benefits" while shrugging off any notion that student-athletes be paid. Just check out what one of Mickens’ rivals, Pretty Tony, said about his players getting paid.
"Wake up one morning with some money, they’re subject to go crazy," Tony said.
Most coaches feel the exact same way. Tony, and other coaches, understand the headaches a controversy with a player can do to their program — as well as their pay checks. Don’t believe it? Then go ask new Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt about the whole Mitch Mustain saga that hounded him during his last season at Arkansas. He would probably say, like Pretty Tony said in the movie, that he has lawyers and he makes too much money to take such nonsense.
Also, picture how the coaches are all fawning over Pennsylvania quarterback sensation Terrelle Pryor. All of these coaches are doing the best to make Pryor choose one of them — just like Goldie, Pretty Tony and others try to get their recruits to choose.
Whoever gets Pryor, or any other highly-coveted prepster or juco sensation, will probably tell their rival coaches that they understand the rules of the game and their prospect just chose them. Have some class or get into something a little bit messier — like the whole Phil Fulmer/Alabama/Albert Means fiasco.
Not that much difference between 1970s cinema fiction and real life, is there?