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Looking back at Alonzo Carter's early dancing days, it's clear to see he was already honing the skills that he now passes on to Oakland's young athletes: discipline, perseverance, and an appreciation for college culture. Very early in his coaching career, he realized that young players needed to have other skills to fall back on if their athletic careers fizzle out — which most do.
A few months after starting as a volunteer coach at McClymonds High School, Carter was offered an additional paid position as the track coach. A year later, by 1994, the school offered to pay him as football coach, too. He fully threw himself into coaching; his track team went from last to first in their league, and his football team went to the championships. But even as his kids excelled athletically, Carter felt like it wasn't enough. "Nobody had signed scholarships, and it bothered me," he said.
Although other schools' runners and players were getting signed to university teams, his equally talented kids weren't being recruited. When he'd ask other coaches why, he just got the same answer: "Well, you're McClymonds."
"And I was like, 'What the hell does that mean?'"
McClymonds deserved its reputation as a tough school. During and after games, players would pick fights against competing teams. "The theory was, we might lose the game, but we're gonna win the fight," Carter recalled. But it was also an athletic school. Its official motto is "School of Champions," and indeed, among McClymonds' alumni are professional basketball players Bill Russell and Paul Silas of the Boston Celtics, professional baseball player Frank Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles, and Olympic runner and gold medalist Jim Hines. When Carter started coaching he told his players, "Let's win the game; forget the fight."
More important, Carter was beginning to realize that as much as his kids needed athletic training, they also needed him to get involved in their lives off the field. While working in the music industry, Carter had made plenty of contacts, many of whom were also involved in sports because those two industries often intersect. One of those connections was Kelly Skipper, then a new football coach at Fresno State and now the running backs coach for the Oakland Raiders. Skipper told Carter that if he wanted to get kids into college, their academic records needed to be on point.
Carter took his advice and began focusing on his students' academic performance in 1995. He started by creating "course sheets" listing the players' grades for each class every semester. He laid out the numbers in a grid format so they could visually track their progress. "When you put it in black and white like that, the kids understand," he said. "Kids latch onto visuals."
The coach constantly monitored his player's grades and met with teachers and parents, all the while holding what he calls the "athletic carrot" over their heads. Under school district standards, kids who score below a 2.0 grade point average are no longer eligible to play. But Carter requires a 2.5. If players drop below that level, they have to give him daily progress reports on their grades. His mantra has become "If you can't give me the academics, we've got nothing to discuss athletically."
The first kid Carter helped win a full scholarship to play football graduated in 1996 and went to the University of Pennsylvania. "I was getting kids from West Oakland going to the Ivy League," he crowed. In 2000, Carter became head football coach, and by 2001, his football team had won its first league championship. But even more astonishing, seven of his players signed Division I scholarships that year — more than from any other school in Northern California. "That 2001 team put us on the map," he said. "And I became known as the guy who was selling hope."
Between 2000 and 2005, Carter had more than forty kids sign Division I scholarships. Just a few years earlier, college coaches wouldn't set foot in West Oakland because of their negative perceptions of the school. Now, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Miami, and other premier football schools began sending recruiters to McClymonds. This was unprecedented for a school with just 600 students.
It was the increase in his players' grades that brought in the university coaches. Over and over, Carter has seen kids with GPAs below 2.0 bring them up enough to get onto the honor roll. Sometimes it can be a tug-of-war between him and his players, but when teammates see each other excelling, it usually creates competition among them to get good grades. Carter calls this "positive peer pressure."
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