Inner city athletics were once a prominent, robust and consistent group of programs that at one time dominated the playoff picture in two of the most popular sports in men’s athletics, basketball and football. Before the 2000’s it wasn’t rare to see a Milwaukee inner city program go on a deep run in the playoffs. In recent years, Rufus King and Riverside have found success with some playoff wins against teams outside of the City Conference. One may ask, how does a school with an enrollment size of over 1000 kids and given some of the best basketball talent in the state of Wisconsin, not make it to the playoffs? Is it the lack of experience in the coaching staff? Is it the support system surrounding the kids? What is the problem?
My article will delve deeper into the struggles of coaching in inner city schools and give the majority of the viewership of this article an open mind on inner city athletics. This is not a complaint towards inner city athletics but more of a reason to why coaching in the inner city is a struggle.
The success of a program relies on a multitude of variables. The Wisconsin Sports Network open forum has had numerous back and forth talks on how to make a program a successful one. Some of the key areas in making a program successful is the experience of a coaching staff, athletes available within the school, administration, funding and having a feeder program (youth football teams). In the inner city, the majority of these variables are either one, non existent or two, just starting the process. The athletes that are available in these school’s possess some impeccable athletic ability but fail to compete in competitive sports.
The majority of the athletes, like most high school-aged players, live with a strong support system. They’re given the resources to make themselves successful within a sport that they’re participating in. During my first player meeting at Milwaukee Career and Tech Ed. I asked, how many of you (football players) live in a broken home? Meaning how many of my athletes didn’t have a mother or a father. I would say that about 80% of my athletes live in a broken home. My comment for these athletes was, “Well I’m Coach Henry and I’ll now be your football Dad.” Meaning I’ll be there for you for moral support and guidance throughout your life as a player and beyond. Out of those eighty percent, fifty percent of them work at local establishments to bring money into the household. Their parents also work second and third shift jobs to help bring in an extra income to their families.
As an offensive coordinator at Milwaukee Hamilton in 2014-2015, I witnessed state of the art facilities at South Stadium and Custer Stadium being built to house inner city athletic games. The stadiums themselves are an amazing piece of real-estate. It’s a job well done by both the city of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Public Schools recreation department. The thing we as coaches don’t understand is why the seats are empty during game day? Go to any Friday night game in the inner city and you’ll see plenty of empty space in the bleachers. These are Division 1 programs with enrollments close to 1000 and some near the 2000’s with little to no attendance at games. Go to a Greendale or Oak Creek game, a couple miles down the road, and it’s the exact opposite. There is pageantry, student bands, student sections, glitz and glam and nonstop action from both the football game and the surrounding environment. It’s what makes high school football great. As a coach, we use “Friday Night Lights” to recruit athletes within the school. You need the support of fans and the school extracurricular actives to help make your team more successful.
It goes without question that some of the state's best athletes competing in basketball reside in inner city schools. Walking down the halls and seeing these athletes in person makes you wonder as coach, how can I influence these athletes to compete in football? In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of athletes competing in one sport. The majority of male athlete’s side between football, basketball, wrestling and soccer. For a football coach, you want to add the basketball and wrestling talent to your team because men’s soccer begins during football season. However, the majority of kids compete in AAU basketball during the off-season and only want to focus on the sport of basketball. This statistic is even more true in the inner city. College coaches have also witnessed this as being an ongoing issue with interscholastic athletics and are trying to find ways to influence athletes to compete in multiple sports. Some of the hidden “gems” reside in other sports and are never found until the athlete competes in college.
Next I’ll talk about funding. Imagine walking into a weight room with equipment dating back to the 1990’s and possibly the 1980’s. This includes equipment such as jerseys and various coaching aides. Working with dated equipment isn’t easy and is usually the first item on the agenda for a coach to buy with their available funds. Another ongoing problem with inner city schools is the lack of booster clubs. Booster clubs are non-existent in most inner city programs. As a coach, we must find ways to increase the available funds to buy equipment for our programs. Booster clubs provide a viable source of income for programs to succeed. Without funding from booster programs, football programs take baby steps to provide proper equipment for their athletes.
Lastly, we’ll go over participation in football. The majority of the coaches who’ve scheduled an inner city school for a football game in weeks 1-3 notice that the sidelines seem a little small for a school with over 1000 kids. I’ve witnessed games where the opposing team had roughly 24 kids on the sidelines. The participation is down across the board in inner city football. Is it due to transportation, where kids take the city bus to and from practice on a daily basis via bus tickets? Is it because kids are losing their interest in football? Or is it because parents are afraid for the safety of their child in a sport that creates contact? Part of me believes it's due to an abundance of variables that were previously talked about in this article. There is no “one” reason.
In conclusion, I want to say that as a football coach in the inner city I truly hope we can make a change within our conference. Head coaches like Tom Wozniak at Rufus King, Pat Wagner at Riverside High School and former Head Coach Jake Haskell at Milwaukee Hamilton, have done some truly inspirational things for inner city athletics. They’ve built programs that represent what every coach in the City Conference should idolize. Their consistency and non-stop nose to the ground attitude, have built some great teams.
I’ve joined the coaching ranks to influence the lives of athletes. It’s a true passion and nothing makes me feel better than talking to an athlete about their life after football. It makes me feel proud to hear back from athletes I’ve personally coached, and hear them say “thanks” and “you’ve influenced my life.” This is the reason why I coach. It’s not the extra income, it’s not “winning the game”, it’s the ability to influence the lives of young individuals who need that role model and mentor in their lives.
Written by Milwaukee Career & Tech. Ed. football coach Kyle Henry, who is in his first year as the head coach for the program.