By Patrice Nkrumah, Chicago Crusader
Troy McAllister said he was stunned upon hearing the news he was about to receive a prestigious honor. On Tuesday, he was named one of two football coaches in the country to be honored with the 2018 Gatorade Coaching Excellence Award for his success on and off the field.
McAllister, a native of Canada, came to Wendell Phillips Academy High School in 2010 and took over a football program that had only 10 players. Five years later, Phillips made history by becoming the first Chicago Public League team to win a state title. They repeated the feat again in November of 2017.
The success of Phillips, located at 244 East Pershing Road in Bronzeville, has invigorated an alumni base that is loaded with a virtual who’s who of Black history. Gwendolyn Brooks, Nat “King” Cole, Sam Cooke, Marla Gibbs, Herbie Hancock are all alums.
Now, McAllister said, when people speak about Phillips, they are talking about the football team too.
“If you look at Phillips there has been a gap. We have a large and proud elderly alumni base. Well, now that younger generation of alums, that might not have been proud of the Phillips they went to, they’re now able to embrace it. So even people who came here during the tough times, they’re now saying ‘yeah I went to Phillips,’ he explained.
“There is a sense of pride and swagger that is back here. We spent years trying to knock those old barriers down. You can walk through here now and see it’s different; it feels different. It’s still a neighborhood school and we have our issues, but we handle them the right way and at the end of the day, the young men and women in this school have the opportunity to get an education.”
Phillips has overcome many obstacles in recent years. The school was on the verge of closing in 2010 for poor academic performance, and a litany of other issues, before CPS officials made radical changes. Bringing in an entirely new staff, with a new philosophy and investing financial resources in the school has paid off big time.
McAllister recalled how eight years ago, every day before practice he would have to go to the empty lot they used as a practice field and remove broken bottles, condoms, trash and even drug needles from the various activities of the night before. The lot didn’t even have football markings on it. The team had little to nothing in terms of football equipment and if he could get 20 people to come to a game it was good attendance.
Now the Wildcats practice on a turf field with lights at Mandrake Park, located a few blocks away from the school.
“Mariano’s used to be our practice field,” he said with a boisterous laugh. “Having a real football field to practice on was a game changer. We slowly have built up our equipment and last year Riddell really came through for us with some new equipment. It’s hard to prep when you get a big explosion in numbers but now we’ve stabilized and are able to suit up all of our players in high-end equipment.”
McAllister said he thinks it is great to see Phillips becoming known for academics and football in a prep-basketball-crazy town. He credits the success to the administration at Phillips, the coaching staff and players.
“When you get quality kids like Joe Thompson, a neighborhood kid who wanted to stay in his community and play football…that type of young man is why we are successful,” McAllister said. “There are a lot of young men like him who are just willing to overcome any obstacle put in front of them. We’ve been blessed here to have several young men like him along with a great coaching staff.”
The Gatorade Coaching Excellence Award was established in 2016 to honor the best and most dedicated high school coaches across the country. Based on the belief that every athlete, professional or amateur, has had a coach inspire them along the way, Gatorade’s aim is to celebrate the truly remarkable impact that coaches have on high school athletes.
Each year, Gatorade honors two coaches who have made a particularly impressive positive impact on the lives of their student-athletes and whose commitment to the coaching profession goes far beyond the game.