On their now-famous 2015 drive to Alabama when Wendy Uzelac told her husband, Elliot, she thought he should coach again and he said he wanted to do something “better” than that, and she responded that he should coach at Benton Harbor and he nearly drove the car into a ditch … neither saw any of this coming.
In two seasons, Uzelac has transformed Benton Harbor from a program that never had made the state playoffs, was riding a 19-game losing streak and had totaled only four victories in the previous eight seasons combined into a two-time playoff participant and one that this fall posted the school’s first unbeaten regular season in history.
“I hoped for this, and sometimes I would kind of like daydream about it,” Uzelac said, “but I didn’t know if it would be possible.”
Uzelac, 75, has done an amazing job turning Benton Harbor into a team that finished the regular season ranked No. 3 in Division 4. But that is not the only reason Uzelac is the Free Press all-state coach of the year.
The truth is Uzelac, who began his coaching career in 1964 and had been head coach at Navy and Western Michigan and had been an assistant at Michigan (twice), Ohio State and six other colleges, has done “better” than just coach the Benton Harbor players.
In one of the most desolate and underachieving school districts in the state, Uzelac has changed the course of many of his players’ lives.
He has turned into a fund-raiser extraordinaire, raising thousands of dollars, and mobilized volunteers in the St. Joseph/Benton Harbor area to feed and tutor his players.
“I don’t feel we’re succeeding if we don’t do well academically, but win on the field,” he said. “That wasn’t our goal when we did this, Wendy and I. We wanted them to succeed academically and on the field and we are, but we’ve got to get more, and I need the help of our administration and teachers to do that.”
To that end, Uzelac has enlisted the help of Benton Harbor superintendent Shelly Walker and everyone else connected with the school district.
“I’m trying to reach excellence, and I’m trying to demand it on the field,” he said. “I want us to do the same thing academically. However, to do that you have to be vested in the kids. You have to know about them. You have to have feelings about them and understand them. If you do that, then you can do a better job with them academically.”
Before Uzelac could get his players to buy in to what he was selling off the field, he had to prove to them they could be successful on it — which they did a year ago when the Tigers were 6-5 and won the school’s first playoff game. They followed that this season with a 9-0 regular season and another first-round playoff victory.
“The football side of it was more natural to me,” he said. “The academic side and doing everything else was not natural. We never did that before. This was different. This has been more rewarding than anything we’ve ever attempted or anything we’ve ever accomplished. But it’s difficult.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.