By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Managing Editor
Third-and-10 doesn’t seem so daunting to Wendell Phillips Academy coach Troy McAllister – not when his job description includes keeping his players safe from gang violence in one of the most dangerous parts of Chicago.
McAllister, a white native of Kingston, Ontario in Canada, accepted the position at the first all-black school in Chicago in July of 2010. A former assistant coach at Dunbar Academy just up the road from Phillips, McAllister had a good idea of what he was getting into when he accepted the position.
“There’s no question, I got the job because nobody else wanted it,” McAllister said. “It was one of those deals. We started with 12 players at the first practice. Phillips was the second worst school in Illinois.”
Due to its low academic ranking, Phillips had been designated as a turn-around school. Every employee in the building had been terminated, including the principal.
Perhaps even more challenging than the academic environment was the outside influences his prospective players would face in the Bronzeville neighborhood, an inner-city neighborhood with heavy crime in Chicago’s South Side.
“One of the toughest challenges we faced on a daily basis was the gang situation in Chicago,” McAllister said. “I tried to provide a sense of belonging and accomplishment.”
McAllister’s methods worked, and the program made steady progress. Last season, Phillips made history by becoming the first team from the Chicago public school system to advance to the state finals in 32 years. The Wildcats (12-2) fell just short of becoming the first Chicago public school ever to lift the state-championship trophy with a state finals loss to Rochester.
“How far we made it is something to be proud of,” McAllister said. “We had our ups and downs, but we stuck together. A lot of young men realized this is their opportunity to achieve success and accomplish great things. It also keeps them off the streets and out of gang situations.”
Phillips will never be confused with the nearby private schools like Mount Carmel or De La Salle – schools brimming with large athletic budgets and resources. McAllister’s players have to walk a quarter-mile to practice at a park district field with no bleachers. Phillips strong safety Jamal Brown was on the brink of dropping out of school during his sophomore year after getting involved with a gang. Seven of Phillips’ players last season qualified as homeless because they didn’t live with either of their respective parents.
Those circumstances did not define Phillips, and six of the players signed National Letters of Intent on National Signing Day.
“What we say is, we might not have the resources, but we will overcome regardless,” McAllister said. “Young men make mistakes, but we don’t turn our backs on them.”
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Dan Guttenplan is FNF Coaches senior managing editor. Do you have a thought about this article you would like to share? Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet us @fnfcoaches or share it on the Coaches Chat Board.