When Elliot Uzelac says coaching the Benton Harbor High football team has been the most rewarding thing he has ever done, that’s saying a lot. In fact, it’s more than a lot. It’s monumental.
Uzelac, 75, has been coaching for nearly 50 years. He has been the head coach at Navy and Western Michigan, an assistant at Michigan and Ohio State among other big schools.
But this? Turning around a moribund program in a depressed part of the state? Giving young people a reason to be proud, a reason to hope and a reason to believe? A foundation to succeed?
How could this not be Uzelac’s most rewarding endeavor?
“It’s a very humbling experience,” Uzelac said Wednesday night while being honored as the coach of the year at the Free Press 2016 All-State Dream Team at the Dearborn Inn. “I kind of laugh, though, because to get honored like this, to get honored for something that you love to do, doesn’t quite make sense.
“And I really do love coaching the kids in Benton Harbor. So, it’s just something that took place, and it’s really special to me.”
Two years ago, Uzelac inherited a program that had never made the playoffs and had won only four games total in previous eight seasons. This season, he led the Tigers to their first unbeaten regular season and second straight playoff appearance.
After more than a lifetime of coaching, Uzelac chose to return to coaching at its most basic level at a program with little going for it. It’s the stuff of Hollywood movies. Of course, Uzelac refused to tout his own success and deflected all praise.
“I look back and I marvel at what the young men did,” he said. “And I’m so proud of our coaches because the vision I had was the same vision they had, and we worked so hard to do this. But the players did a great job. They embraced us, they trusted us, we trusted them, and then it started to roll.”
Uzelac and his coaches took on the Herculean task of changing the culture on the team from the bottom up, from the most basic components.
“We’ve got to change everything,” he said. “We feed them, we hire tutors. We have to raise money for the tutoring, the food, the things we want to do for them. We feed them all year long.”
Many of the Benton Harbor players, Uzelac said, struggle to get proper nourishment, so fund-raisers provide money to feed players three times a day all year. With Uzelac’s help, players received nourishment of the body and of the mind. Soon, football followed.
“I always tell our people, ‘Football is a vehicle to success. But the door that opens up success is education,’ ” he said. “But if you can do it on the football field, then you can do it in the classroom. That’s what we’re trying to say in Benton Harbor.
“And we’re getting there. We’re just starting to believe because they had no confidence. They really didn’t. And they had no knowledge of what was going on. We’re trying to give them a better opportunity in those areas so they have a better life. That’s really what it’s all about.”