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It's More Than a Game : Faced With Underfunded Programs and Urban Strife, Inner-City Coaches Play All the Positions--From Mr. Fix-It to Dad


When Randy Rodriguez began as Lincoln High varsity football coach in 1984, he had to fill the gaping holes in the city's eighth-oldest program, which has had more losing seasons than winning ones.

Although the Tigers have blossomed into one of the new powers in the City Section 4-A Division, Rodriguez still fills holes--the gopher holes that pockmark Lincoln's field.

"I'm the gardener, water man, plumber, custodian," Rodriguez said. "You would be surprised how much time I spend fixing that field."

And that's not to mention the time Rodriguez and his colleagues spend patching equipment, worrying about security and being surrogate fathers.

Welcome to the world of inner-city football.

That world takes in the traditional side of the sport, such as pep rallies, halftime bands, raucous fans and screaming coaches. But at schools, football also means dealing with recycled equipment and substandard playing conditions such as poor stadium lighting and fields with barely a blade of grass. And it means managing problems stemming from economically struggling communities in which gangs and drugs too often destroy the lives of young men.

At the center of the maelstrom is the football coach, who is expected to grapple with all this while creating a successful program. Yet the coaches persevere, knowing that their successes represent more than just winning records.

"We have many youngsters from single-family homes who have no male role model," said Jefferson Coach Hank Johnson. "We have many youngsters on probation that we are constantly trying to counsel. When they beat the odds, especially the kids who grow up without much money or family support, it's gratifying because you've done your job and given something back to the community."

In recent years, the budget ax has fallen hard on high school football programs throughout metropolitan Los Angeles. But unlike many suburban schools where coaches can rely on booster clubs to pick up the slack for budget shortfalls, coaches in the Los Angeles Unified School District must make do with what little they have.

"I think budget cuts are the single biggest problems coaches have to deal with," Johnson said.

Annual football budgets are determined by how much each program can come up with through ticket and concession sales, student activity fees, contributions and fund-raisers. Jordan, for example, operates on a budget of $3,600 a year; Crenshaw raises about $8,500 for its program. Loyola, a Catholic high school whose football team is ranked No. 1 in the state and fifth in the nation, has a $30,000-a-year program funded largely by donations. In comparison, Mater Dei, a football power in Orange County, budgeted $50,000 for equipment and transportation last year.

The paltry public school budgets create a variety of problems. Among them:

* At Lincoln, Rodriguez and his players spend several hours each week patching the field. For a while, they were only able to use it for practice. Home games were suspended after the rotted wooden stands were condemned Sept. 18 by school officials. The district has since earmarked enough money to rent portable bleachers, but whether the school can come up with about $80,000 to repair the permanent stands is in doubt.

* At Crenshaw, all 50 uniforms for the B-team were stolen from the school's equipment room during the April-May riots. Coach Robert Garrett had to order new uniforms at a cost of $4,500. "I don't know how I'm going to pay for them," he said. "I may have to sell the uniforms to the kids to pay the bill."

* At Jordan, coach David Richardson had to solicit donations from local colleges to get enough practice uniforms and weights for his team. "I had 14 players in the program (this summer) and 150 pounds of weights to work with," he said. "By the start of the season, I had 73 players. I was short on helmets, practice pants, shoulder and thigh pads."

"I think the general public's perception is that coaches use their time to design great plays and draw Xs and O's on a chalkboard," said Tom Lunetta, 54, a Wilson coach for 13 years, including the last three as head coach. "The hardest thing about coaching is getting a team on the field and to overcome budget and legal constraints."

The legal requirements include making sure players remain academically eligible to stay on the team. Many coaches say they have to monitor their players' classroom attendance and make sure they get their homework done.

Often, that means 12- to 14-hour days, sometimes six days a week. For that service, coaches are paid their regular teaching salaries plus a stipend of $1,202 to $1,785 per season.

Johnson, 51, a high school head coach for 21 years who has been at Jefferson for the last seven, devotes his Saturday mornings to helping one of his players learn how to read. He also has given a former player money to purchase used books so he could attend East Los Angeles College.

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