"You Can't Reform Schools in This City Without Reforming Athletics" Mopping the track with soda, unpaid coaches, and other dysfunctions of DCPS sports

AD Nauseam: As DCPS athletic director, Saah would inherit stomach-turning history.
Darrow Montgomery

This time of year has long been a happy one for Eddie Saah. It’s DCIAA baseball tournament time.

But things are different now. When Wilson Senior High School plays for its 17th straight D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association title this week, it will be playing without Saah, who coached the team to the first 16 championships. The program Saah built at Wilson, his alma mater, is doubtless the greatest dynasty in the city’s schoolboy sports history.

But Saah resigned as Wilson’s athletic director and baseball coach after the last school year. He says the departure came after a deal with new Wilson principal Peter Cahall fell apart.

“I thought we had a deal, and that I was going to stay on [as athletic director], but things changed,” Saah says. (Calls to Cahall were referred to new Wilson athetic director Michael Burnell, who did not return them by press time.)

After the AD job went away, Saah gave up coaching baseball, too. He says he spent his first baseball season off tending to family matters. He also kept his hand in the sporting world by refereeing and umpiring in various youth leagues.

But Saah, 61, got sucked back into the past by the recent resignation of Troy Mathieu, who lasted less than a year running the sports programs for D.C. Public Schools.

Saah had applied for that same citywide athletic director position a year ago, after Chancellor Michelle Rhee dropped the former AD, Allen Chin.

Rhee all but ignored his application, Saah says.

“Rhee didn’t call me. She had an assistant call asking if I would like to talk about the job,” Saah says. “So I say, ‘Sure. Would you like me to come down to hear my ideas?’ And she tells me, ‘No, don’t bother. Let’s just do it on the phone now.’ Then I never heard back from them again. I couldn’t believe it.”

Saah says he isn’t surprised Mathieu bailed so quickly.

And he’s not sure the next guy or gal, whoever that is, will last any longer. Not unless Rhee starts showing more ability or desire to improve the lot of athletes in the city schools.

“You can’t reform schools in this city without reforming athletics,” he says. “Sports are an integral part of growing up, an integral part of high school life. Sports is about socialization with other kids, man! It’s about learning winning and losing and how to accept it! She thinks it’s hard to find a good teacher? Well, it’s 10 times harder to find a good coach. If she doesn’t see that, she’s not an educator.”

Saah grew up near the National Cathedral and played sports at Wilson as a student in the mid-’60s. Before taking over as AD there, Saah served as boys and girls basketball coach. But it’s in baseball where he left records that will never be touched. Wilson lost just one game to a DCIAA opponent since 1992, as his teams won 210 of his last 211 games against league foes. (The lone loss came by a single run to Dunbar in 1999.) Wilson’s 1997 team won every league game by the slaughter rule, meaning the game was called early because Wilson had at least a 10-run lead after four innings. Last year, Wilson outscored DCIAA opponents 146–10.

But Saah’s not dwelling much lately on all the thrills of victory. He’s been harking back instead to the crap he and other DCIAA coaches and their kids had to deal with that their peers in surrounding jurisdictions didn’t. Like when, in the fall of 1996, all DCIAA games were put on hold because no umpires, referees, or game officials had been paid in a year.

And how, for the fall of 1997, DCIAA coaches didn’t receive their stipends and found out months into the school year that their pay had been cut out of the school budget. In a Washington Post story about the nonpayment of coaches, DCPS spokesman Doug Rogers blamed the deadbeat situation on “some slippage.”

Saah saw some actual slippage in his time, too.

He brings up a story of the last indoor track meet he attended in the city, a DCIAA championship meet held at the D.C. Armory. The track there was wooden and ancient, and kids started slipping on the boards.

“Then I see these guys going into the turns with buckets and mops and they start wet-mopping the track,” he says. “They tell me it’s Coca-Cola in the buckets. They thought that would make the track sticky. So the kids are running on Coke! That’s what kids in this city have to put up with! Can you believe that?”

There is no longer any indoor track for DCIAA athletes to run on in D.C., so city championship meets are held in Maryland.

And Saah likes to tell the tale of one of the baseball championship games Wilson played at Banneker. “We show up there and see this huge puddle on the field. It’s not raining, there’s just a huge puddle,” he says, with a disgusted chuckle. “I couldn’t believe it. I mean, this is the championship game! And nobody even got the field ready at all? Can you believe that?”

And the one about how visiting Wilson won a game because the whole Bell team couldn’t find a ball hit into the three-foot-high outfield grass of its home field.

Saah didn’t have to leave the Wilson campus to find rough diamonds. His teams played home games on a converted football field that had a set of ground rules more bush-league than those from a typical backyard wiffle ball game.

The right-field fence at Wilson was only 200 feet from the plate, so any ball that cleared that barrier was just a ground rule single. A shot over the fence in right center was an automatic double.

Saah says Rhee’s next AD has to do more to increase opportunities in “non-premier” sports. “Downtown, they think there’s only football and basketball,” he says.

Saah also says Mathieu’s replacement should increase participation in public–private competitions. As Wilson’s baseball coach, Saah always scheduled baseball games against the area’s toughest private programs. As Wilson’s AD, he founded the John W. Warring Jr. Invitational Soccer Tournament in 2003, inviting top private school programs to his school.

Most of all, Saah wants to see the restoration of the city championship football game, in which the public schools’ champ plays the Catholic schools’ champ. The game used to be held every Thanksgiving and was once the biggest sporting event on D.C.’s sporting calendar but went away after a race riot at D.C. Stadium in 1963.

“If it were up to me, the first thing I’d do is tell everybody we’re getting the city title game back,” he says.

If it were up to him?

Hmm. Does that mean Saah’s interested in coming out of retirement and getting another job interview from Rhee’s office? Or maybe even Rhee this time?

“A lot of people are asking me that. But I already wanted the job once,” he says. “They didn’t want me. They don’t know what they want.”

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Our Readers Say

As a former athlete at Wilson I can admit that his record in DCIAA Baseball was hall of fame worthy. However, he had many advantages other schools did not (which I will not get into). As for him being AD, every other Wilson sport besides possibly soccer had struggled to even be in contention for post seaso play. The only other dominate sport was Wrestling (which he cannibalized) and the city paper did a story about. If he were ever AD of the entire DCIAA it would be more of the same. DC had the guy for the job, and they did not allow him to be successful.
Mr. Saah is absolutely right. High School sports plays an integral role in shaping the lives of young people. When done the right way, it (high school sports) promotes healthy competition and offers valuable life lessons to those involved either as participants and/or as fans.

The current administration (Fenty/Rhee) has no clue as to what needs to be done nor the commitment to the student/athletes of the DCIAA to provide the resources necessary to operate a quality and effective sports program. For that matter they have neither for operating an effective and quality education program. But I digress.

Eddie Saah built his baseball program primarily by networking with the youth baseball programs in the Wilson community and on occasion by getting talented students from across the city. So he basically understands how to build a sports program.

Unfortunately, he (Saah) is not from outside of the city, thus, in the eyes of Rhee and Fenty, is not considered to be a qualified candidate for any leadership position in the city. So, as usual, the city loses and most of all the young people of the District suffer the consequences.
Unless it is an obvious money-maker or high-profile, then politicians don't care. But as soon as you start using words like 'revenue stream', then people get interested. Look at successful athletic programs. They host events, get corporate money, attract scouts, deliver scholarships to needy/deserving students, etc. This IS the nation's capital. We should be hosting regional and/or national championships and reaping the benefits that these events produce! Sports (successful ones) = media/national attention. If public/private partnerships are need to yank DC out of the bush leagues, I say go for it!
Eddie Saah is the ONLY candidate who should be considered for the AD post of the USPS/ DCIAA.....

During his successful tenure at WW, he not only maintained and managed more male/female sports teams than any other schools could even field......HE also successfully coach the high;y talented baseball team to 16 consecutive DCIAA championships.....in an era of DCIAA forfeits for lack of player interest.

He has been the only DCIAA source of pride and accomplishment for years now.....
The facilities of DCPS schools are doing a great job of bringing modernization tothe sports facilities that were neglected for so long. The new turf fields at high schools and middle schools are making soccer / football games a pleasure to participate in and watch. The new tracks that go with them are a huge benefit.

Even the playground areas that are getting renovated are including to the degree possible sports-related space - see the just completed mini-soccer turf field at Oyster / Adams school (with a track wrap around). There has been 50 years of neglect for the buildings / sports facilities at schools and finally that is being addressed.

We need to get even more sports offerings such as lacrosse at the schools.

The Mayor absolutely gets the role sports plays in education, as he exemplifies with his own sports participation.
Lots of places to take this story. One of course is the dominance of the Wilson team in DCIAA, which is definitely due to Saah, and his instillation of pride and professionalism amidst an environment of absolute neglect and other teams cast aside by their own public school athletic systems. And of course, all the other teams sucked, save for a few, Bell, Eastern I think and Dunbar being one's I can remember. Two, what is up with high school baseball now that the Nationals are in town. I know that Little League baseball is booming, with at least three leagues in northwest, and countless new ones throughout other parts of the city. Most of those shitty fields we played on could have been great, they had towering lights. I played in that lost in the grass game. So many fields throughout DC could be easily brought back to the original glory that their designers imagined, but i imagine they are still hard, rocky, dusty, or overgrown infields, and bottle-strewn outfields, shells of the past.
About Saah...the deal fell apart because of the mere reason it was shady. He has been pulling the wool over people eyes for years and it took an outsider to say that it doesn't smell right...moreso the principal smelled a rat.
Black Power.... your incredible lack of knowledge about the effort to keep Mr. Saah at Wilson is laughable. You are ignorant. Mr. Saah did more for Wilson than any other teacher or administrator. I was involved in the process to try to keep Mr. Saah at Wilson, and we were very sad that HE decided not to stay on. I think you are jealous of his success and accomplishments at Wilson. A disgruntled former Wilson employee, perhaps?
Black power, you have no clue what you are talking about. You have no idea how much the staff and parents wanted Saah to stay with Wilson. It does sound like you are very jealous at how successful Saah is. Saah was the best AD you could ever get for Wilson!
What about the hours Eddie Saah spent as a coach making sure his players did homework & kept up with school work so they could play? What about the hours he spent at yard sales looking for any good deals that could/would help out the athletic programs at Wilson? What about the efforts he made to have people donate items to the school? & moving the equipment to Wilson (many times in his family's van)? What about the hours he spent preparing Wilson's field for games? (cutting grass, lining, etc.) All on his own time!

What about the hours he put in as Wilson's athletic director attending other school sports as Wilson's representative? more time away from his own family ... and what about the new Wilson AD who leaves school promptly at 3 pm.

Just a few behind the scene items to consider when talking about Eddie Saah!
Some of these comments about Eddie Saah are simply unfair. No, Saah wasn't perfect. Nobody is. Yes, some people justifiably found him abrasive. But in the hurricane of chaos that was (and maybe still is) Wilson, Saah was a model of organization and efficiency. The inept, apathetic administrators of Wilson have frustrated thousands of students over the years. Saah, if nothing else, cared about the students and the school. He was the only person in the school who actually got things done. Additionally, as other commentators have stated, Eddie spent countless hours of his own time making improvements to the school's athletic and other facilities, getting to know students, and attending sporting events of teams he didn't coach. This is not to mention that was also an excellent gym teacher--people pay personal trainers hundreds of dollars to have Saah-like workouts.

It is also just incorrect to say that Wilson only had good baseball, soccer and wrestling teams. Our girls sports were undeniably the best in the city--soccer, cross country, volleyball, softball, track and others. The boys track and cross country teams won city titles when I was at Wilson. Wilson's football and boy's basketball teams were not great (Dunbar poached some good football players who attended Alice Deal), but that's it.

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