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New Secretary Has a Playbook For Motivating Students

By Joetta L. Sack — February 14, 2001 4 min read
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To Rod Paige, testing students every year in academics is a lot like coaching football players. “The whole point is receiving results,” the new secretary of education says.

“The ability to see the scoreboard, count the points, see the growth, or lack of it, so you can find out where you need to see more improvement.”

Although Mr. Paige is better known for his work in schools than on the gridiron, he happens to have quite a bit of experience in both arenas.

Rod Paige, left, was the head football coach at Jackson State College in Mississippi from 1964 to 1968. Assistant Coach Walter Reed, second from right, said the future education secretary “expected results.”
—Courtesy of Jackson State University

He coached college football from 1957 to 1975, starting at Utica Junior College in Utica, Miss., now known as Hinds Community College. He then worked as the head coach at Jackson State College (now University) in Mississippi from 1964 to 1968, as an assistant at University of Cincinnati from 1969 to 1970, and, finally, as the head coach at Texas Southern University.

Mr. Paige typically doesn’t make a big deal about his coaching experience in speeches. But in an interview last week, he credited those years with teaching him some important lessons that should come in handy as he tries to rally support for annual testing and the rest of President Bush’s education agenda.

“You learn functioning as a team is much more powerful, to the extent that you get people rallying around a core idea,” said Mr. Paige, who most recently served as the Houston schools superintendent before being tapped by Mr. Bush to lead the Department of Education. “As a football coach, you can’t go out across the white line [of the playing field], so you have to articulate issues clearly, motivate others, and have to achieve through others.”

If there’s such a thing as a scholar in physical education, Mr. Paige would fit the requirements, having received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in the subject. He also taught physical education at various points during his coaching career. For his 1969 Ph.D. dissertation at Indiana University, he used volunteers from the varsity football team to study the reaction times of offensive linemen.

A former college quarterback himself at Jackson State, where he earned his undergraduate degree in 1955, the 67-year-old still has the lean physique of an athlete. As a physical education and health major at Jackson State, Mr. Paige was expected to go into coaching, according to Walter Reed, his former college roommate and a lifelong friend who worked with him as an assistant coach at Jackson State.

Mr. Reed described Mr. Paige’s coaching style as “very, very, very, strict.”

“It had to be done right,” Mr. Reed added. “He was one of those coaches that had one way to do things, and that was the right way. He expected results.”

“He was the epitome of a coach who cared about his players,” said Robert E. Hughes, now the head football coach at Jackson State, who played for Mr. Paige for two years at the university. “His style of coaching was very intense and very strict.”

Winning Record

Mr. Paige compiled a modest record from the two historically black colleges where he served as head coach, racking up records of 24-20-2 at Jackson State and 26-22-3 at Texas Southern.

But he has a lot of fond memories and a love for the game, his friends say, and he still attends games of the two colleges. And Mr. Paige says one of his favorite aspects of coaching was seeing players achieve goals that they once thought were out of reach.

Mr. Paige compiled a 24-20 record at Jackson State.
—Courtesy of Jackson State University

“All of a sudden, you would see a quantum leap in them, in their self- esteem and awareness,” he said last week. “Those are the kinds of moments that every coach would remember.”

For some coaches and school athletic officials, having one of their own in the nation’s top education job stirs excitement.

George Chaump, the head coach of the Central Dauphin High School Rams in Harrisburg, Pa., said the organizational and leadership skills needed for coaching should help Mr. Paige in his new post.

“I don’t think you could be a good coach unless you’re a great teacher first,” Mr. Chaump said. “If he’s been on the football field and in the classroom, he’s well qualified” to be secretary.

In fact, the call to teach was part of what led Mr. Paige to leave football coaching. When he took the job as head coach and athletic director at Texas Southern, he requested and received a fully tenured teaching position in the university’s college of education. Eventually, he said, he realized the glory of coaching had “played out,” and he began teaching full time.

He went on to become the dean of TSU’s college of education from 1984 to 1990 before taking the helm of the Houston district, the seventh largest in the nation, in 1994.

Despite his long career in sports, Mr. Paige doesn’t see himself as a “national coach” or cheerleader for education issues. “Probably the people in this business would not receive well that metaphor,” he said.

Instead, he said, he wants to use his Cabinet post to focus on strategies to improve academic achievement, and a big part of that plan is annual testing of 3rd through 8th graders in Title I schools.

Mr. Reed has no doubt that his friend will soon have many fans on the sidelines in Washington.

“In football, you have to be one heck of an organizer and a salesman,” Mr. Reed said. “He has exemplified those goals to get where he is right now.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as New Secretary Has a Playbook For Motivating Students

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