Frank Cicarell _ an administrator/football coach from a poor, hard-bitten immigrant factory city of 110,000 in New Jersey _ fervently believes in sports as a pathway to boost school spirit, increase personal fulfillment, and as a ticket to college. If sports is the Way, he says, then coaches are the Guides.
The man called Coach dogtrots down the high school corridors, his 200 pounds balanced lightly on plastic hips, his eyes pecking at teachers, students, janitors, monitors as if they are tacklers to be run over. His voice is smooth, rich, but edged with locker-room authority. ``Hey, my man. You have an eye infection?'
A male student freezes, turns, understands the question and slowly removes his sunglasses. ``No.'``You know who I am?'
``You be the principal.'
``You got it. Have a good day.' He thrusts out his hand, shakes until the student smiles, lets him go.
I say, ``You're sort of a traditionalist.'
He is moving again, eyes pecking, but he is considering the statement. He rejects it. ``I am a benevolent despot.'
The man called Coach, Frank Cicarell, is back in school after 15 years, called off the administrative bench to replace a principal suspended after a teacher charged sexual harassment. Cicarell has been acting executive principal of Elizabeth High School, the largest in New Jersey, for almost a year now, and he seems to be taking enormous pleasure in imposing his kind of jock discipline.
``I believe,' says Cicarell, ``that every high school in the U.S. relates and reacts to the success of its football team, and that goes especially for inner-city schools like this one. If you have a winning season, it will have a salutory effect. It's something to be proud of. Kids feel they are associated with something positive. Losers have more discipline problems.'
``Nothing else in school is as important as football?' I ask.
He considers the question and smiles. ``Basketball.'
But football leads the schedule and Friday night's second game of the season, against Linden, is Homecoming; a queen will be crowned and, more important, perhaps a pigskin prince.
A 14-year-old freshman, Al Hawkins, whose baseball pitches have been clocked at 85 miles an hour, will start for the Minutemen, replacing the injured quarterback. It's a risky move, but Coach Jerry Moore thinks the kid is ready. Hawkins will be bulwarked by the likes of DuLayne Morgan, the 6-foot-5-inch, 225-pound senior tight end and linebacker; LaShon Mitchell, the 6-4, 310-pound tackle, and Shon Hart, whose 65-yard punt return two weeks ago beat Scotch Plains.
Of course, Cicarell will be at the game; he has had a locker in the same spot in the field house for 40 years, since he arrived as an assistant coach and science teacher, fresh out of Springfield College on the GI Bill. There were two high schools then, Thomas Jefferson for boys and Battin for girls, and Cicarell's sensibilities were formed in that segregated era; he is dismissive of Title IX and believes that most female athletes do better under male coaches, who tend, he contends, to be more dedicated and intense than female coaches.
During 11 years as Jeff's head coach, Cicarell won more than twice as many games as he lost and built the school into a powerhouse. He had to give up coaching when he became the principal. When the two high schools were merged and the now 4,300-student Elizabeth High was opened in 1977, Cicarell was shunted to central administration, where he still oversees the entire district's sports, health, security and driver ed programs. He was once considered a candidate for superintendent of schools; the mayor's son got the job.
But Coach, as everyone called him, kept moving, beefing up the sports program, refereeing high school and college basketball games, believing fervently in salvation through sports, a boost to school spirit, a pathway to personal fulfillment, a ticket to college in a poor, hard-bitten immigrant factory city of 110,000. If sports is the Way, then coaches are the Guides.
``Especially with urban kids, you got to make them feel you're one of the boys, there to talk, be a father, buy 'em shoes if need be, you can't be a 9-to-5 guy, back to the suburbs while they go back to the projects.'
Cicarell was born in ``the port,' the toughest section of this city, but moved with his family to then-rural Rahway at 5. He has lived in the same house for the last 60 years, until recently with his mother, now 92, who had to move to a nursing home when Cicarell, who had both arthritic hips replaced, could not care for her. He has no children and has never married.
As are most of the coaches he has hired, Cicarell is white. Elizabeth High is overwhelmingly Hispanic and black. Cicarell says that ethnicity is irrelevant.
``Look, when the word went out in the projects, Cicarell's back, all those fathers and uncles who played for me told the boys: 'He's tough but he's fair.' That's what counts.'
Even as he says this, a sixtyish black man in a delivery uniform blocks his corridor rush to ask, ``You remember me?'
Cicarell peers. ``You play for me?'
``My boy wouldn't stand for the national anthem,' the man said. ``You tore the newspaper out of his hand, made him get up. Now he's a college graduate, owns his own home, good job. Thanks, Coach.'
Cicarell winks at me. ``You can't buy that. But it's not the story. Kid brought the ACLU. We lost the case. He didn't have to stand.' He spots a teacher dreaming in the corridor and lowers his head, moving with the ball to run over a tackler.