By Jeremy Balan
There’s a line that some around the City say with a snicker about the Thurgood Marshall High School athletic programs.
There’s more untapped talent walking around the hallways at Marshall than on the field — at any school in San Francisco.
Whether that’s true is almost impossible to determine, but it speaks to the problem at the school in the southeast corner of the City, or at the very least the perceived problem.
Eligibility issues, stunningly poor management, low enrollment and a bevy of other issues have plagued many of Marshall’s athletic programs in the past and the football program has been one of the casualties.
The Phoenix have a 5-48 record in Academic Athletic Association play since 2002 and have won just one non-league game. That record includes a stretch of 24 straight losses from 2004-2010 (Marshall also failed to field a football team in 2007 and 2008). The last two years, in which Marshall has won three games combined, have been the most successful back-to-back seasons in the school’s history.
But that’s not how new head coach Nicholas Wilson defines success.
“There were a lot of coaches here in the past that didn’t understand what it took to run a winning football program, and those guys are gone,” Wilson said. “I don’t want them here.”
Wilson is a 23-year-old former quarterback, who won a Central Coast Section title at Half Moon Bay in 2005 and went on to play college football at Lewis and Clark in Portland, Ore. He then joined the coaching staff at the college when a hip injury ended his playing career during his freshman season.
As Lewis and Clark’s quarterbacks coach, Wilson recruited the Bay Area and even courted Mission standout lineman Darius Grays, who is now playing at the college.
Now Wilson is focusing his attention on the AAA, and what he lacks in high school coaching experience, he makes up with brazen confidence.
“We’re going to win league this year,” Wilson said. “It may sound funny now, but this is the best group of guys in the league and we’re going to win a league championship. I want everyone in this league to know that we’re the team that should have the target on our back.”
Wilson and his father Ken, who took over as interim athletic director after his son’s hiring, are the architects of a grand undertaking at Marshall.
The simple things afforded to a normal high school football program haven’t come easy to the Wilsons.
They are struggling find enough safe and usable helmets, and have already fashioned their own PVC shoulder pad holders. They still haven’t found keys to all of the doors in the locker room under the gym, rooms that may contain more equipment, jerseys or workout gear.
Many of the cupboards are literally bare — or locked. But that isn’t the biggest problem hampering Marshall.
“We had four teams that had to forfeit games due to eligibility issues [last season],” Ken said. “With all due respect, that’s not a very high bar for a new athletic director. I’m determined that’s not going to happen.”
As with fellow small-school football program Burton, which canceled its varsity season earlier in the summer, student turnout is an ongoing problem for the Phoenix.
Only four players showed up to their first summer workout, but the numbers have been growing ever since. The Wilsons even have 42 interested players on a Facebook page for the team.
The Phoenix have had 25 players participate in early summer practice (although approximately 19 appear to be varsity-ready), and that may seem small, until you learn that they didn’t even have summer practice last season.
“We really didn’t have anybody last year and had to cancel our summer practice until school started,” said junior Quintrell Anderson, a running back who was named second-team All-AAA last season. “I guess we’re tired of losing. People get tired of getting beat up on. After a while, they fight back.”
That attitude appears to be inspired by their new head coach, who is openly disinterested in making friends among AAA coaches that he feels have tried to take players away from Marshall via the new 30-day transfer rule.
“I’m not going to name names, but I know specifics of other coaches that have been trying to poach our kids, telling kids we’re not even going to have a football team this year,” Nicholas said. “I’ve had five guys who were trying to transfer and I’ve tried to convince them to stay. Those schools need to know that we’re coming for them. We’re not going to be the school, anymore, that gets run over and everyone takes kids from. We’re going to be the school that beats you down.”
The younger Wilson knows he will take criticism for his comments and because of his age, but the confidence with which he speaks could be just what Marshall needs. A fresh face, a new attitude and a stark contrast from the previous coaching staff. You could even call it swagger.
That swagger will be tested immediately, with Washington, Lowell, Mission and Lincoln kicking off Marshall’s AAA schedule. All four were playoff teams last season.
“There’s going to be a lot of people who think I’m this 23-year-old kid who doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Nicholas said. “I’ve coached college football. I know what goes into it. I’ve coached a team that has broken a bunch of records. I’m not here to win five games and make playoffs. I’m here to win championships and it’s going to start this year, and I hope that everyone is ready for us, because I don’t want to be winning 70-0 every week. I hope that there’s a couple of teams in this league that can get ready enough to give us a game.”
Nicholas has every intention of bucking Marshall’s dismal football tradition. Whether he can do that, however, will rest in the hands of the players on the field, and he does have some players.
It doesn’t take long to notice Marshall’s talent, even on the practice field. Some players look like full-grown men, including Anderson, who has the body of a Division I fullback.
There have also been positive steps on the field, albeit baby steps.
It started with a seven-on-seven, passing-league matchup with Half Moon Bay, a CCS playoff team last season.
With no substitutes and an assistant coach playing wide receiver and linebacker (“He wasn’t very good either,” Ken said.), the Phoenix made a second-half comeback to beat the Cougars.
“Halfway through, we were getting killed,” Nicholas said. “We came back and that was the first step. Leading up to that, I didn’t know if I could do this, and after that, I realized we have a special group.”
With that group, and a newly-installed spread offense modeled after Urban Meyer’s scheme employed at Utah and Florida, Nicholas feels comfortable making claims that border on prep sports heresy.
“In two years, I want to schedule Serra and [St. Ignatius] and Riordan, and I don’t think they should be able to beat us,” Nicholas said. “I’ve watched them all play, but there’s no school on the entire Peninsula that has better athletes than we do.”
If Marshall were to win a AAA football championship on Thanksgiving, it would not only be a first for the football program. It would also be the school’s first AAA title in any boys sport (Marshall’s girls basketball program has the school’s only AAA title, which came in 2005).
For the players, their motivation is a desire for respect. They don’t want to be the doormat of the AAA any longer.
“People talk all the time, every year. Sometimes the talk gets to us, but this year I’m not letting it happen,” said senior wide receiver Drakari Donaldson. “I want to leave a legacy. I want to start something at Thurgood.”
2012 Schedule – AAA games in bold
Week 0: Fri. 8/31 – @ San Rafael, 7 p.m.
Week 1: Fri. 9/7 – @ Oakland Tech, 7 p.m.
Week 2: Sat. 9/15 – @ Mission San Jose (Fremont) @ Tak Fudenna Stadium (Fremont), 7 p.m.
Week 3: Fri. 9/21 – @ Gonzales, 7 p.m.
Week 4: Fri. 9/28 – @ Washington, 3 p.m.
Week 5: Fri. 10/5 – @ Lowell, 3 p.m.
Week 6: Sat. 10/13 – vs. Mission @ SOTA, 2 p.m.
Week 7: Fri. 10/19 – vs. Lincoln @ SOTA, 3 p.m.
Week 8: Thu. 10/25 – vs. Galileo @ SOTA, 2 p.m.
Week 9: Sat. 11/3 – @ Balboa, 2 p.m.
Week 10: (Bye)