Ben Torres/Special Contributor
For Dallas ISD coaches, coming home is about more than returning to their roots. It’s about revitalizing them and changing kids’ lives
by Alexa Philippou, Sports intern | September 21, 2018
On Herman Johnson’s graduation day from Skyline, the last place he envisioned his life taking him was right back to his alma mater.
That day in 1987, which also happened to be the same day he was drafted by the Atlanta Braves, Johnson’s sights were set on a career in professional baseball and all the places it could take him.
Fast-forward three decades, and Johnson is back strolling through the same hallways that he did as a student at Skyline. But this time, it’s as Skyline’s athletic coordinator and head football coach.
“For me to come back here, it’s special,” Johnson said. “It really is.”
Johnson, who was hired by Skyline in spring 2018, is one of six Dallas Independent School District coaches who have returned to lead the football programs at their alma maters. Another six coaches in the district went to one of the 22 football-playing DISD schools, but aren’t coaching for their former teams.
It’s not unheard of for coaches to return to where they got their starts. Similarly to DISD, six of Houston ISD’s 23 varsity football coaches are currently coaching their alma maters. In Fort Worth ISD, only one head football coach is coaching at his alma mater, and no others graduated from FWISD. Riley Dodge made statewide headlines when he returned to Southlake Carroll this spring to lead the program he once led to a state championship.
But for DISD coaches, coming home is about more than returning to their roots. It’s about revitalizing them.
DISD football programs often have lower participation numbers compared with their suburban rivals. And for DISD alumni, the district’s winning ways of the ’80s and ’90s have in many cases been replaced by losing seasons, lengthy playoff droughts or shorter postseason runs.
But more importantly, in a district where the majority of students are economically disadvantaged or at-risk, DISD alums come back because they realize that they can be beacons of stability who propel kids to futures they never realized they could have, just as their coaches did for them.
Playing for Skyline in the mid-’80s, Johnson remembers every game being a battle against fierce district competitors.
“Everyone talked about East Texas football, but back in the ’80s, Dallas Independent School District was really loaded with talent,” Johnson said.
Carter, whose 1988 team won a now vacated state title and is considered one of the best teams in Texas history, may be the most legendary DISD program, and is the only one that could have been once classified as a state power. But back in the ’80s and ’90s, many other Dallas schools were making statements on the field too.
Roosevelt, currently coached by 1985 alum Aaron Wallace, frequently made the postseason and advanced to the third round of the playoffs three times in the ’90s. Wallace estimates that more than half of the players he played with earned college scholarships.
Marcus Gates, head coach and a 1991 alum of Madison, remembers winning district three times. Johnson said Skyline went 7-3 during his senior year and still missed the playoffs when it lost to Bryan Adams at the end of the season.
By the time Wallace, Gates and Johnson returned to Dallas following their careers in pro football or baseball, the landscape had changed dramatically. Urban flight and the rise of suburban football programs led families, and many of Dallas’ top athletes, to move away from the DISD, affecting not only school enrollment but also football participation and quality of play.
Gone were the days of Carter’s dominance — the Cowboys have advanced past the second round of the playoffs only three times since 1991. From 1997-98, DISD schools had an 18-game losing streak in the playoffs.
Playoff appearances for Spruce and Roosevelt became more sporadic in the early 2000s. Madison went 13 seasons (1991-2003) without a playoff berth.
Lincoln made it to the 2004 state finals, and more recently Skyline and South Oak Cliff have had some lengthy playoff runs. But since 2010, no other DISD school has made it past the second round of the playoffs since Madison in 2010.
In returning to their alma maters, DISD coaches are looking to revamp their programs into winning teams that can once more make a name for Dallas football.
“Anytime you get a chance to coach at your alma mater and put your alma mater back on top, you get to stick your chest out a little bit and feel good that you came back here and put your school on the map,” Johnson said.
DISD athletic director Troy Mathieu, whose first stint as the district’s AD lasted from 1997-2006, couldn’t recall how many DISD alum were coaching in the district back then. Gates’ high school coach, Curtis Cobb, attended Madison, while the current coaches at Kimball and Spruce said their high school coaches weren’t alumni.
Wallace, who said he applied for the head coaching job at Roosevelt four or five times before eventually getting it this spring, finds it imperative to educate his team about the program’s tradition of excellence.
There’s a picture outside of the Roosevelt locker room with Wallace, who had a nine-year stint in the NFL, and other classmates of his who had professional athletics careers, including fellow Pro Bowler Richmond Webb and Olympic sprinter Roy Martin.
“Every opportunity I get, I talk about these guys,” Wallace said. “I want these kids to know the history of the school and let them know that they’re not out here alone.”
But different coaches handle the past in different ways. Head coach and 1992 alum Henry Cofer loved his time at Kimball and still looks back fondly on the times he and his teammates would hop the fence at different schools to play pickup 7-on-7 games.
While Cofer sometimes speaks to his team about those glory days, he recognizes that it’s not his moment anymore. It’s his team’s.
Though last year was an off year for Madison and recent powerhouse Skyline, whose respective streaks of 13- and 23-straight playoff appearances were snapped, six DISD teams advanced past the first round after only two advanced in 2015 and four did so in 2016.
The progress at the team level is even more promising. Madison has had two eight-win seasons in the last three years. Spruce won at least eight games in two of the last four seasons. Kimball upset Woodrow Wilson in the first round of the playoffs in 2017, beat area-ranked Carter two weeks ago and is 4-0 after beating Thomas Jefferson on Thursday night.
“We want to leave a really different imprint but never forget about the past,” Cofer said. “It’s time to move on and time to deal with the new age young men and young women that we have right now. But DISD is not dead. I think it’s only going to get better.”
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