Natalie Randolph, a 29-year-old biology and environmental sciences teacher, was introduced Friday as the coach of Washington, D.C.'s Coolidge Colts. She's believed to be the nation's only female head coach of a high school varsity football team.
The announcement came at a news conference held by Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, who proclaimed "Natalie Randolph Day" in the city. The hoopla underscored what the coach already knows is her "biggest challenge" — making sure her football players are the focus.
"I don't want this to overshadow their glory and their goals and them making it on to the next level," she told NPR's Robert Siegel on All Things Considered. "I want to make sure that they just get the best out of their high school experience."
At the news conference earlier, she had spelled out her feelings about being a pioneer.
"While I'm proud to be part of what this all means," she said, "being female has nothing to do with it. I love football. I love football, I love teaching, I love these kids. My being female has nothing to do with my support and respect for my players on the field and in the classroom."
She told NPR she understands that publicity focused on her "comes with the territory," but she reasserted her goal going in.
"I want these kids to be prepared for everything," she said. "Athletics is a means to an end. I want them to be complete young men."
Randolph was chosen from about 15 candidates after the previous coach resigned. The Washington native and University of Virginia track star played six seasons as a receiver for the D.C. Divas of the National Women's Football Association, helping the team win the title in 2006.
She also was an assistant coach from 2006 to '08 at another D.C. high school, H.D. Woodson, where opposing coaches would throw funny looks her way when told she was on the staff.
Now she's a head coach, ready to dispel naysayers. And she doesn't plan to do it by screaming in the kids' faces.
"I'm probably more Tony Dungy-esque," said Randolph, who has a copy of the Super Bowl-winning coach's book. "I'm soft-spoken, so me yelling is not me. I'm going to be me. That's what I do in the classroom. When I get observed, the observers say, 'I didn't expect you to be able to handle this class,' but I do what I have to do to get it done."
Randolph's fiance, Thomas Byrd, warned that her polite demeanor could be misleading — "She packs a mean punch," he said — and her Divas teammates were on hand to describe the grit that kept her playing on a severely injured ankle several years ago.
As to the possibility that success at the high school level could lead to more — like a college coaching job — Randolph told NPR's Siegel: "I don't know. I didn't really anticipate this, either. It's not something I'm focusing on right now."
Randolph might have to work a bit harder than the average coach to win the respect of players, opposing coaches and the football community at large.
Keith Bulluck, a 10-year NFL veteran, posted on Twitter that he's "not saying it can't be done or shouldn't be done. Football is clearly a mans sport & it's 2 be seen how young men take to their coach being a woman."
Some of her players already know and respect her — she's been a teacher at the school for two years. They also know players on other teams will have a field day talking trash.
"I need trash talk as my ammunition to do better," junior defensive tackle Daniel West said. "There's nothing like proving somebody wrong. And I think that's what we're going to have to do this season — because a lot of people have something to say about her being our coach, and I feel like it's my duty and it's the team's duty to prove everybody wrong, to show that it doesn't matter. As soon as we start winning, everybody will want to be on the bandwagon."
Coolidge went 6-4 last season under coach Jason Lane and has a state-of-the art field, so it's not necessarily a school that needs to draw attention. Principal Thelma Jarrett insisted that in "no way" was this a publicity stunt.
"On the field, in the classroom — we'll prove 'em wrong," Jarrett said.
Added Randolph: "People are always going to think negative things. I know what the deal is. My administration supports me, the kids support me. So that's all that really matters."
The schedule, however, poses an unusual challenge. Her fiance is the offensive coordinator at Woodson. That should make for an interesting week when the rivals play.
"Good competition, good fun," she said with a smile. "I love you all over there, but we're going to beat you on the field and go hang out later."
From The Associated Press and NPR reports
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