Coach of LAUSD’s first state champion football team scores 100% college rate for his players
Mike Szymanski | February 22, 2016
The 6-foot-3, 300-pound student came to the coach because he was struggling with his classes. If he had a 3.0 grade point average, USC might give him a scholarship. Narbonne High School football coach Manuel Douglas spoke with brutal honesty.
“You’re a good talented young man, but you have to want it,” Douglas told him. “I can’t want it more than you do. You need to say, ‘Coach, I want it, and I will make it to class every day and I’ll be on time, and I’m going to work my butt off to be in the position to accept a scholarship.’ I need to hear that, and we will go from there.”
After this exchange in his office last week, Douglas scheduled a meeting with the senior’s parents and school counselor to go over his grades and let them know where he stands and what he can still accomplish. The teen will join the coach’s ongoing “study hall” where instead of lifting weights, the football players sit on the floor of the weight room with their books, sometimes helping each other.
Coach Douglas led his team this season to become the first LA Unified school to win the state football title in the 99-year history of the California Interscholastic Federation. But his winning strategies don’t stop at the field. His laser focus extends to each player’s academics, holding study halls, scheduling their college entrance exams, working with them during summers and after school and even after they graduate to make sure they succeed in the classroom and their college careers.
That has resulted in 11, possibly all 13, seniors getting scholarships to UCLA, Syracuse, Arizona, Hawaii, Colorado State and more. “We have recruiters from Michigan, Northwestern and Ohio State coming down to our school,” said the school’s athletic director, Kyla Berman.
Nathaniel A. Narbonne High School is in Harbor City, near a warehouse district by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The school is 100 years old with about 3,400 students, 64 percent Hispanic and 18 percent black, and a 58 percent expected graduation rate so far this year.
School principal Gerald Kobata beams when talking about the team: “Every single one of our seniors are going to college, and I’m very proud of them. They are truly scholar athletes first, as dedicated to the classroom as on the football field.”
It doesn’t come easy, and it doesn’t come without cooperation. As much as Douglas and his team of coaches are talking about plays in the inner sanctum of his office just off the weight room, they are also talking about the team’s SAT scores. Right next to his white board, across from where he watches football plays on TV, Douglas has a list of his players and the dates they’re supposed to be taking their college-readiness tests, with a place to write in their scores. Sometimes the coach is scheduling these college tests before their parents know about it. He even knows the grades on his players’ report cards better than some of the parents.
“I’m in a unique situation,” Douglas said. “We’re expected to win games, we’re expected to teach them how to be young men, and we’re unfairly and unrealistically expected to get every kid a scholarship. They can’t control how tall or how fast they are, but they can control how they look in the weight room and what grades they can get in the classroom. I can help them on the latter two, and they could have a great shot.”
To get a dozen or more of his players scholarships this year would be unprecedented in the school’s history. “That’s huge for a school,” Douglas said. “If you get three to five, that’s phenomenal.”
In order to participate in athletics, it’s standard that students maintain a C average, or 2.0 grade point average, and not have more than two failing classes. Some of his starting players have come close to that, so the coach will make study plans with teachers and enroll them in tutoring or credit recovery classes after school.
Another big help is former Narbonne student Brandon Manumaleuna, an assistant coach who was the only one from his team to get a scholarship when he graduated in 1997 — to Arizona as a tight end. He went on to play in the NFL for 11 years for the St. Louis Rams, San Diego Chargers and Chicago Bears before retiring. Now, at 36, he volunteers with the team, not only for football, but also to help with studying and handling life issues.
“Because of the neighborhoods where these guys live, sometimes there are home issues outside of school that they need to talk about,” Manumaleuna said. “I’ve been playing football since I was 4, and my mom always stressed education. If the guys put 85 to 90 percent of the effort into the classroom that they do on the football field, they would succeed and be good students. Sometimes they just need encouragement.”
One afternoon, as students flowed in and out of his office, Douglas spotted Manumaleuna on TV on a football special. “Look, there you are,” Douglas pointed to the screen. “Brandon can be an inspiration for them.”
Manumaleuna said, “For some of these guys, it’s the only way they can see getting to college, and getting out of their neighborhoods.”
The football team, the Gauchos, won the CIF Division 1-A title on Dec. 19 in a 28-14 win in Sacramento defeating Clayton Valley of Concord. Narbonne has a long list of distinguished football alumni, including Dashon Goldson, who plays for Washington, and Nnamdi Asomugha, who was considered a shutdown corner during his years in the NFL and is married to “Scandal” star Kerry Washington.
Douglas fell into teaching and coaching quite by accident. After majoring in English literature, he was on his way to becoming a lawyer but instead chose to earn a special ed teaching degree and worked at LAUSD for 23 years, 14 of them at Narbonne. It wasn’t a winning team when he started there, but now it is.
He set goals for the team. Last year, after the team won the city title, Douglas immediately set the team’s sights for state.
“We talked about winning state the minute we won the city championship last year,” Douglas said. “We got off the bus, we went in the weight room, the seniors turned in their gear and I said, ‘Now fellows, your job is we’re going to win state.’ It was the most satisfying thing we did, putting that goal together in their minds, and we worked all year toward that.”
The coaches get progress reports from all the players from school counselor Eric Magee, who checks everyone’s grades both during the season and off season. For players struggling, they develop an academic plan.
“We are also monitoring the fools who have the scholarships so they don’t blow it,” joked Douglas. “They are getting lazy now, and they have a semester to go.”
Being part of the team is meeting the minimum academic standard, Douglas said. “We have kids on the team who have a 3.8 but may not have the ability otherwise to get a scholarship. Those kids help other kids when we have study hall.”
The coaches also work with the players after school and on weekends, helping them with skills such as time management, prioritizing, focusing and minimizing the distractions of social media, video games and the Internet.
“Social media and those kinds of distractions have made this generation a bit too soft, mentally and physically,” Douglas said. “I hate to say that.”
The 70 football players were honored by the LA Unified school board two weeks ago with president Steve Zimmer saying, “What you have accomplished you have done as a team. That ability to rely on your brother, and to also make sure that you are watching out for your brother, your sister, for your community, your elders and also for the others who are coming up after you, that may be more important than any play that you’ve memorized or any other skill. That’s what I know that your coaches have taught you.”
Zimmer added, “In following the lead of your coaches and really absorbing and understanding that message is what has led to your success.”
Board member George McKenna spoke to the team beforehand and discussed being on segregated school teams when he was a youth in New Orleans. He said, “You made a piece of history, enjoy it. Football is probably the toughest game to play.”
Board member Scott Schmerelson, a former teacher and principal, noted that activities like athletics and the arts are critical to students. “Having sports teams motivate kids to stay in school and to study, and some of you do well in school because of your football experience, that’s another reason why sports and arts are so important in our schools,” he said.
Richard Vladovic, the board member who represents Narbonne and presented them with a congratulatory proclamation, told the players, “These coaches have inspired you. You’re all the champs. You proved it collectively, and you can prove it individually.”
Superintendent Michelle King seemed like a proud mom when taking pictures with the team. “You set an example and a model for others to follow in the district. You came together as a team, and you were unstoppable and kept moving forward, went all the way and you took home the big prize. We’re all your LAUSD parents and we are just bursting. Go Gauchos!”
Next year, Coach Douglas has his team set for new sites. “We’ve never had an LA team win three city championships in a row. In 40 years it has never happened, we have the team to do it too.”
Go Gauchos, indeed.