A lot of football coaches have come to losing programs and turned them around, but few have done it the way Harold Strauss did: by turning his players into community helpers.
Strauss, head coach at Colton High in Colton, Calif., has his players participate in civic improvement programs, a process he instituted at his previous coaching position in, coincidentally, Colton, Ore. When he moved back to California in 2000 (Strauss grew up in the Colton, Calif., area), he used the same approach.
First, Strauss contacted Colton police officer Lt. Frank Coe, who quickly found a job for the team. An elderly woman cited by the city for the rundown condition of her home became the first beneficiary of Strauss’ program.
“We went over just to re-paint her living room,” says the coach with a laugh. “So many players turned up, we looked for other things to do. We started cleaning up her back yard, and the kids unearthed and restored a 12-by-12-foot brick patio that she had forgotten existed.”
That burst of volunteerism led to more projects. The team marched first in the town’s Christmas Parade and then in the Veteran’s Day parade, delighting town residents. They cleaned up more homes belonging to elderly citizens. Now they’re on call whenever Coe needs workers.
Strauss also has his players run a football camp in the summer for younger kids. It has become so popular—doubling in size since its inception two years ago—that neighboring towns are calling the coach and asking for spots in the program.
“Our players teach the little kids, from ages 7 to 14, and local restaurants donate meals,” says Strauss. “It turns out to be a week of fun for everybody.”
And, in the midst of all this civic service, the Colton team started winning football games.
“When I got here, people warned me that we might lose all our games,” Strauss says. “I told the kids that if we just set out to be the best people we can be, then winning will take care of itself.”
The team went 4-6 its first season, losing four games in overtime. Last season they posted an 8-2 regular-season mark and made the California Southern Section Division V playoffs.
Strauss emphasizes, though, that winning isn’t the real objective. “Get your ducks in order, be a good student and family member, and the wins will come,” he says.
The coach insists on academic excellence, so practice begins with an hour-and-a-half study hall. The team then hits the weight room, where Strauss believes players gain strength and quickness—vital elements for football success. Finally, the team goes out onto the practice field.
“Last year we only lost one player for academic reasons,” the coach says. “Previously, in a typical season, 16 to 18 kids would have left the team because of bad grades. Putting studies first is better for the kids and for the team.”
Now the team is winning, and the stands are full for the first time in years. Teachers see that the coach’s players have become role models for other students, so they wholeheartedly support the team. Likewise, townspeople have noticed that the players are role models for the other residents—all thanks to the leadership Coach Strauss provides.
“Harold has taught the boys that it’s not about what people can do for you,” says Coe. “It’s about what you can do for other people.”
That lesson resonates with the boys’ families. After a tough loss last season, a parent approached Strauss. “Coach, I don’t care if you win another game,” the parent said. “What you’re doing for these kids is what matters.”