(Note: My fourth book, "Dusty, Deek, and Mr. Do-Right: High School Football In Illinois," published by University of Illinois Press, is currently available online through University of Illinois Press, Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon and at your local bookstore. To my knowledge, it is the first book ever written on the subject. So I wanted to cover everything. I wrote 150,000 words. The publisher wanted closer to 100,000. So, regrettably, I had to delete several stories from the final product. Beginning two weeks ago and continuing in the next several weeks, I will print those stories. I hope you enjoy them---and the book, too.)
Kelvin Hayden was playing in a junior college championship game in Georgia and someone asked him where he was from. Chicago, he said. "Chicago?" Do they play football in Chicago?" the inquisitive person responded. Hayden wasn't surprised. After all, Chicago is supposed to be a basketball town. Elton Harris wants to change that image.
Harris is the football coach at Hubbard, on Chicago's South Side. In the last 12 years, he has never failed to win at least nine games or more. In the last 11 years, his teams have won 10 or more eight times. In 14 years, he has won 76 percent (137-44) of his games. But the job is far from complete.
But there is that little problem about becoming the first Public League school to win a state championship. Hubbard got to the semifinals in 2000 and 2005. But most of the time the Greyhounds have to settle for the Prep Bowl playoff. The Public League has sent a representative to the state final only once--Robeson lost in 1982.
"Harris taught me not to fear anyone," said Hayden, now a cornerback for the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL. "Football was year-round at Hubbard. When the season was over, we were still working out at 6 in the morning and lifting weights, running track or wrestling. His mindset was to win the state title, not just the city title.
"I'm driven and he drove me. He put the pieces together and I believed in him. If you keep your head on straight, you can be one of those guys who can play in the NFL. I never lost my focus, even in junior college. He was like a father to me. I learned never to be satisfied, that I can always get better. He always tried to get an extra yard out of me."
Harris drove himself to succeed. Born in South Bend, Indiana, his family moved to Chicago when he was in fifth grade. He got his itch for football when he attended Stagg elementary school at 74th and Morgan, next to Stagg Stadium. He saw a lot of games, befriended veteran official Will Bonner and helped on the chains.
Later, he enrolled at Parker, now Robeson. His cousins went to Vocational, Calumet, Lindblom and South Shore. But Harris saw coach Roy Curry working his team in Hamilton Park one day and was impressed by Curry's command of his squad. He decided he wanted to be part of Curry's program.
After graduation in 1979, Harris played for Prentis Rhodes and Gloster Richardson at Kennedy-King College, then went to Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, then to Langston University in Oklahoma. He had a tryout with the Tulsa Outlaws in the USFL, then went to Canada and finally played with the semipro DuPage Eagles. Then he got into coaching at the urging of his old high school coach.
He worked with Curry and Harper coach Terry Lewis. he also coached girls basketball at Robeson. In 1995, he and Lexie Spurlock interviewed for the coaching vacancy at Morgan Park. But they also were looking for a track coach. Spurlock was qualified, Harris wasn't. He went to Hubbard and got the job.
"All I knew about Hubbard was Andy Gallagher and Burt Levinthal had coached there and had good teams but not great teams," Harris said. "I knew I had to start somewhere. I wasn't going to get a job at Simeon or Julian or Lane Tech."
He started from the basement and started working his way to the penthouse. When he arrived, the team didn't have winter conditioning or summer camps. Parents took their kids out of town on vacation during the football season.
"They weren't used to what I was doing," Harris said. "I had to change attitudes. I got rid of guys. I brought up freshmen and sophomores to play varsity. They didn't realize what it took to have a winning program. I brought up Robeson and 1982 all the time but they didn't take football seriously. It was tough to get any message across."
Harris admitted Hubbard was culture shock to him. It was a multi-racial school--black, Hispanic, Muslim, Polish, Jewish. He couldn't do certain things. His wife advised him: "Treat everyone the same. Don't try to be different." He said no one is better than anyone else, not even Kelvin Hayden and Chuck Frazier.
Alumni asked: "Can you beat Bogan and Gage Park and Curie?" He won the conference in his first year. When he lost to Kennedy, some players argued and got into a fight. Harris kicked six of them off the team. He played younger kids. He wouldn't let anyone dictate who started or got playing time. And they started winning after he got rid of the bad apples.
"Kids have changed today," Harris said. "I feared coach Curry. If he said to do this, you did it. Today, kids have other things to do. You must find kids who are mentally tough. It is harder today. You have to play mind games with them. But you still don't compromise your principles. You must find ways to get kids on the field, to make them feel they are part of the team, or you will lose them."
Harris hasn't lost many. But even the best ones--Hayden, Frazier, Reggie Cribbs, Ben Henderson, Chris Patterson, Fred Bateman, Sean Cattouse, Robert Hughes and Darius Moffett--had to play by the coach's rules. He won't tolerate kids who don' go to class. And they must respect their elders, from their parents to teachers to policemen to janitors.
"He wants 110 percent from you because he puts in 120 percent every day," Henderson said. "I've seen him write to every university to try to help a player. I never heard a player badmouth him. I grew up without a father. He was like my father for four years. He stayed on my case. He gave me bus fare when I needed it. He went over the line to help a kid."
Hughes, now playing at Notre Dame, said Harris had a strange way of dealing with players. But it was effective. "He likes to jump on you and ride you and ride you to the point where you don't think you can do anything right. He would ride me and say I had to be a leader and play better, that I had to bring my A game all the time," Hughes said.
"He makes you become a man. I'd go home and wonder what I had to do to please him. He wants to break you down and mold you into the player he wants you to be. He treats everyone on the roster, the first guy or the last guy, like dirt. But he only wants to help you. I wouldn't be where I am today without him."
Harris proved his program was ready for prime time in 1998 when Frazier, Hayden, Henderson & Co. went 13-1. They lost to Providence in the second round of the state playoff, then came bak to beat Simeon, Morgan Park and Joliet Catholic to win the Prep Bowl. "We proved we can play with the best teams in the suburbs," he said.
But the 2000 squad was his best. It had only 27 players and nine played both ways. Led by Hayden, Cribbs and Juan Dominquez, the Greyhounds started 0-3 but rallied to win the conference to qualify for the state playoff, then crushed Thornton Fractional South and Pierre Thomas 46-0, Oswego 25-14 and Bolingbrook 33-24 before losing to Mount Carmel 42-8 in the semifinals.
"There are a lot of kids playing basketball in the city who could be playing football. If more basketball players were playing football, it would make a difference. The game would be better," Harris said. "We would have won a state title by now if some kids like (all-city basketball star) Othyus Jeffers had played tight end.
"The programs are getting better. The elementary school program (begun in 1995) is a big thing that has helped programs. Now kids know how to play when they get to high school. When I came to high school, I didn't know how to put on a helmet or how to run a trap. We'll have successful programs in the Public League if we keep kids in the system."