Some veteran high school coaches saw this coming a decade ago, but the depths reached by the traditional football powers in the Montgomery Public Schools system is surprising even to them.
Barring an unforeseen upset, Robert E. Lee, Sidney Lanier and Jeff Davis will combine for a 3-24 record against similar (Class 6A) competition, with their only victories coming against each other.
“It’s just like everything else, it starts at the top and runs downhill,” said hall of fame coach Bubba Lewis, who was a defensive coordinator at Jeff Davis when it was one of the state’s top football programs in the late 1970s.
Lewis first made that statement in 2003 when the school system was looking for a new superintendent. Nationwide searches landed Carlinda Purcell, then John Dilworth and finally current superintendent Barbara Thompson. Several current and former coaches in the area said they believe recent administrations don’t fully understand the link between successful athletic programs and successful schools.
“I feel like when you have successful athletic programs, the morale of the school is good,” said Steve Bailey, the last city coach to take a 6A program (Jeff Davis in 2002) to the state finals. “All I can speak from are the times we had success over at Jeff Davis — the school year seemed more spirited, there seemed to be less discipline problems and overall, the school year just went better.”
The problem, coaches say, occurs when the superintendent, and those under her, downplay the role of athletics in the city’s high schools. That agenda is transferred to the principals hired to run those prospective schools and from them to the teachers in the schools.
Repeated efforts by the Advertiser to obtain a comment from Thompson on her philosophy toward the city’s athletic programs was denied. However, Mona Davis, public information manager for the school system, said proration and funding for the schools has been the top priority, and to her knowledge, no meeting has ever been held specifically to address the athletic struggles of the city’s high schools.
By not addressing the situation, administrators have allowed the football programs at Jeff Davis, Lee and Lanier to spiral out of control. All are trapped in a revolving cycle of athletic programs that enjoy little or no success. And, apparently, no recovery.
“They can’t turn it around,” Lewis said. “It’s going to wind up like Birmingham (a much-maligned school system that has consolidated schools but continues to lag behind the rest of the state). It’s unreal.
“It all starts at the top. It’s not going to get any better because people won’t help it. They can build all the new schools they want but Lee, Lanier and Jeff Davis are gone. They can forget about them. They might as well tear them down.”
It’s a story that has been told and retold, first surfacing around the turn of the century when Jeff Davis and Lee struggled to maintain their status as championship contenders. Another chapter surfaced several years later when the programs struggled for a winning record.
Now, a win — any win — would be nice. As G.W. Carver enjoys unprecedented success, the question arises whether the Wolverines are feasting at the expense of the other three schools.
“The other schools have talent,” said former Robert E. Lee and G.W. Carver head coach Larry Ware, who is now an assistant at St. James. “I wouldn’t venture to say one school is stacked more than the other because they all have talent. I can’t put a finger on it. I know those kids are working hard. What’s put one program (at a high level) and the other three schools are at the same level?”
Ware is the architect of the Carver revival, taking a program that had endured years of losing football and putting it on a path to success when he took over in 2002. He was hired at Lee to do the same thing, then fired unceremoniously in June when a new principal — the fourth in Ware’s four-year tenure — arrived.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the number of students that have left the system for whatever reason,” said former Jeff Davis and Prattville head baseball coach and assistant football coach Tommy Goodson. “Once that happens, the coaches leave. Look at the quality of coaches. A high-profile coach doesn’t look at the Montgomery public school system as a place to come and make a name for themselves. And they want to go where they can make money. There are so many factors. It’s one thing on top of another.
“Look at Larry Ware. They hired Larry (at Lee), but he didn’t get any support. You fire every teacher in the school and ask them to all reapply for their jobs? How do you build on that?”
Goodson left the city system for Prattville after the 2002 season.
“Larry Butler was the superintendent,” Goodson said. “He had a young energetic coach (Bill Clark) that wanted to make a name for himself. Everything that Bill wanted to put into the system was OKd. What Prattville had in that time was 100 percent different from the Montgomery school system — the backing of the board of education, the backing of the principal, the backing of the faculty and the education system was good.”
Hall of fame coach Spence McCracken made the same move, leaving one of the most successful football programs in state history at Lee in the mid-1990s after winning three state championships, to take a job at Opelika High.
While McCracken, now a volunteer assistant at St. James, didn’t want to comment on the current problems in Montgomery, he would be the first to point out that a successful school system needs administrators in the main office who fully understand the community in which they work.
“Having to go 7,000 miles to find a superintendent every time we need a superintendent? When we had the best, we could find right here? We didn’t do that,” McCracken said.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the abysmal chaos in local athletics is the reluctance of any current coaches to speak out for fear of reprisal from school system administrators in the main office on Decatur Street. Ware was more vocal the day after he was fired than today, relying on his current teaching position at Capitol Heights Middle School for his income.
In general, athletic personnel feel they don’t have the support of school system administrators and not nearly enough is being done to promote athletics today when compared to the past.
In addition, those personnel who had an opinion on the subject, felt school system administrators have an agenda to promote the success of G.W. Carver High over the other three Class 6A high schools in the system.
“They want it to succeed,” Goodson said. “Of course they want that because if it doesn’t, they’re admitting they’re failures.”
Neither Thompson nor anyone else at the school system office would return repeated calls by the Advertiser seeking a comment on the accusations that Carver receives favorable treatment, nor would they answer an emailed set of questions regarding that topic.
“If you think there’s a conspiracy, thinking Carver will come out smelling like a rose, think back to the 1980s when (former Robert E. Lee principal and school superintendent) Clinton Carter made sure that Lee always came out looking good,” said Wetumpka High defensive coordinator Duane McWhorter, a Lee alumnus.
McWhorter knows all about the micromanaging of school administrators, stepping down after four seasons as the Jeff Davis coach in 2008 after getting interference from Dilworth during the summer preceding his final season.
“For me personally, when it all started going south, I wasn’t getting backed up with some disciplinary things I was doing,” McWhorter said. “I was disciplining a kid, and his father called the superintendent and the superintendent called the principal and got him reinstated to the team.
“I had 24 years in the system. What was I going to do? Walk away from it? Looking back on it, I should have resigned my job that day, but I enjoyed feeding my family.”
Faced with a double standard of which players knew the superintendent and which ones had to go through offseason workouts sealed McWhorter’s fate as the dissension led to an 0-10 season.
Perhaps a stronger, more secure principal could withstand the interference. Carver principal Gary Hall, the dean of high school principals now in his seventh year, has been praised by every coach with an opinion on administration and the way a school should be a reflection of its community.
“We’re all a family,” Lanier coach Angelo Wheeler said. “You’re going to have some schools struggling. If Carver is doing good and representing the school system, we’re all doing well. I’m proud of Carver.
“I wish them all the great luck. I think (football) coach (Billy) Gresham is going a great job, and Mr. Gary Hall is a great administrator. We just have to copy that format and do what we need to do at that school to make our school competitive.”
Of course, the coaches would also point out that Carver has an unfair advantage over the other three 6A programs because the school met its Adequate Yearly Program standards and none of the other three schools did, allowing any student-athlete in the other three schools to transfer to Carver with immediate eligibility.
Area coaches have indicated the AYP standards are tougher at Jeff Davis and Lee than at Carver. MPS administrators refused repeated requests by the Advertiser on the subject as well as an emailed set of questions dealing with that subject.
That, too, filters down to other areas such as coaching.
“Look at the coaching staff at Jeff Davis in 1995 and 1996 when we played for the state championship and look at the coaching staff now,” Goodson said. “Lanier has a head coach and three paid assistants, and they don’t have any volunteers to speak of. The coaching staffs aren’t comparable. Then, you don’t have the athletes. They jump ship.”
Richard Moncrief, a former Jeff Davis quarterback and head football coach at Lanier who is now the quarterbacks coach at Alabama State, stops short of saying administrators don’t care about the other three schools, a claim made privately by many of those employed at Lee, Lanier and Jeff Davis.
“I don’t know if it’s a lack of caring, but there has to be standards in place that if you aren’t aware, you can be developed and taught,” Moncrief said. “I don’t think anybody doesn’t care about their children or people in that profession that don’t care about the well-being of the children. I just think sometimes when there’s a lack of knowledge, then the people suffer.
“It’s disheartening, being a Montgomery guy. You can contribute it to the community, what’s important now. You can contribute it to extracurricular activities that are not related to the school. There are so many other things like socio-economic factors which weren’t a problem before. You have great athletes who have to work and support their families now. And you’ve got strict requirements about who can coach.”
Most of the coaches are full-time teachers, which wasn’t the case in the Montgomery County school system 20 years ago and isn’t the case in other school systems in the state.
Ware said the situation has become so dire at Lee, Lanier and Jeff Davis that student-athletes have a low morale that can only be solved by playing less successful programs — if they can be found — to build confidence.
“It’s tough to get those types of games,” Ware said “As of right now, those schools are probably calling (Lee, Lanier and Jeff Davis) and asking them to play. When I was at Lee, I had plenty of calls to play. That’s just the way it was. They treated us like a doormat. But I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
That’s because Ware, a former “Mr. Football” in 1986 on a nationally recognized team, wasn’t willing to admit his program had become a doormat. And current and former coaches offer no solutions to turning around the evil cycle under the current format.
“I’d rather see (Lanier) closed than go beyond what it is now,” said Goodson, a standout with the Poets in the early 1980s. “I don’t see anything positive coming out of the Montgomery public school system until they change things.”