By Harold C. Ford
Flintstones (basketball): The name of the Flintstones rose to prominence during the successful run of Michigan State basketball including three consecutive Final Fours and a national championship. The four (Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell, Antonio Smith) made up the core nucleus of the team…played together since elementary school…and made the Spartans team a family off the floor as well. The name has since expanded to become popular to be used to refer to other basketball players, other athletes, and Flint natives.
…From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia
Glory days, well, they’ll pass you by
Glory days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye
Glory days, glory days
…Glory Days, Bruce Springsteen, E Street Band
Decades of Flint high school athletic excellence was branded into the nation’s sports persona when four “Flintstones” led Michigan State University’s basketball program to national prominence culminating in a collegiate championship in 2000. Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell, and Antonio Smith were, among other things, the products of a Flint public school system that embraced its student-athletes, as if family, from elementary to high school. Flint’s glory days in high school sports, however, are clearly in the rearview mirror.
From 1930 to 1995, Flint’s four public high schools—Northern, Central, Southwestern, and Northwestern—produced athletic teams that captured 47 state championships. Northern bested all area schools with 29 state championship teams; Central won 7, Southwestern 6, Northwestern 5.
Sixty-five years; 47 team championships for Flint public high schools. In the past 22 years since 1995 the tally is zero.
The most recent team championships for Flint high schools include the following (coach in parentheses):
- Boys Basketball: 1995; Flint Northern (Tony Holiday)
- Girls Basketball: 1995; Flint Northern (Leteia Hughley)
- Boys Wrestling: 1995; Flint Northern (Al Collins)
- Girls Track & Field: 1993; Flint Northern (George Dedrick)
- Girls Cross Country: 1981; Flint Northern (Norbert Badar)
- Boys Track & Field: 1979; Flint Northern (Norbert Badar)
- Baseball: 1978; Flint Southwestern (Marv Rettenmund)
- Boys Cross Country: 1974; Flint Northern (Norbert Badar)
- Boys Golf: 1960; Flint Southwestern (Tom Potter)
- Boys Tennis: 1930; Flint Northern (Lois Nickels)
There are 18 other high school sports listed at the website of the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA)—including football, boys and girls soccer, softball, and volleyball—sports in which no Flint pubic high school team has ever won a championship.
M-Live Flint’s sports staffer Eric Woodyard recently authored an online poll searching for the “Flint area’s greatest high school sports team”. Thirteen teams were listed for readers to choose from; all but two were teams from Flint public schools, but no Flint teams after 1995 were included in the poll. The only teams from the current century listed in the poll were the 2011-2012 Goodrich girls basketball team and the 2011-2012 Beecher boys basketball team.
More recently, Flint Northwestern’s football team finished the Fall 2016 season winless in the Saginaw Valley Blue Division. Flint Southwestern’s football team achieved one victory in the Saginaw Valley League Red Division.
This steady decline of Flint high school sports may have reached its lowest point when the Northwestern girls basketball team was disbanded this past February partway through their 2016-2017 season. This once-proud program that won three MHSAA championships in 1983, 1984 and 1995, was winless before disbanding. They dropped games by scores of 77-13 to Davison, 70-19 to Bay City Western, and 63-6 to Hamady. The girls basketball team at Flint Southwestern fared little better as it finished with a winless record in the Saginaw Valley League South.
So what’s happened to the glory days of athletic programs in Flint’s public schools? And are there plans under way to restore the viability and competitiveness of the Flint public school athletic programs? East Village Magazine consulted with several Flint-area sports aficionados to explore these questions. They included:
- Bilal Tawwab, Flint Schools Superintendent
- Duncan Beagle, Judge, Genesee County Circuit Court
- Jamie Foster, newly appointed Flint Schools Athletic Director (AD)
- Norm Bryant, principal founder, Greater Flint Afro-American Hall of Fame
- Courtney Hawkins, Beecher Schools Athletic Director
- Mike Maienbrook, Director of Community Athletics, Flint Schools
- Mike Williams, Flint Schools teacher, Beecher boys basketball coach
- John McGarry, Atwood Stadium Director, United Way Youth Recreation Initiative
Locals with an interest or a role in the local high school sports scene, including those listed above, find general agreement about what’s ailing Flint athletics and what might be done to fix it.
Loss of population:
At the top of nearly everyone’s list is loss of population. A city that once bustled with a population of 200,000+ has fallen below 100,000. Economic stress, crime, the water crisis, and other forces are likely to extend Flint’s depopulation trend into the future.
Loss of students led to the closures of Flint Central in 2009 and Flint Northern in 2014. Flint school officials plan to consolidate and move all high school students to a single campus at the old Flint Central site by the year 2020. Flint Schools’ student population, which peaked at nearly 47,000 in 1970, has now fallen to about 5,000.
As Flint Schools Superintendent Bilal Tawwab emphasized in a recent EVM interview, only one-third of the school age population in Flint is enrolled in its public schools; 5,000 students attend charter schools; another 5,000 students opt to attend other area schools using the Schools of Choice option. According to an August 2016 MLive article by Julie Mack, “Of Westwood Heights’ 1,344 full-time-equivalent students in fall 2015, 840 were from outside the district, including 699 who lived in the Flint School system.”
“Yes, absolutely,” was the response of Flint AD Jamie Foster to the notion that immeasurable athletic talent was moving to the suburbs. “Right now we just want to work with what we have. It’d be nice not to lose any more. We would like to stop the hemorrhaging…”
Foster’s counterpart at Beecher Schools, AD Courtney Hawkins, agrees. “I’d be lying to say that we haven’t had kids transfer in from as far as Detroit to play in our basketball program,” he confided. “Now, their families have moved, we’ve done things the right way.”
Beecher’s bottom line, however, is that the district is also experiencing a net loss to Schools of Choice. He watches Beecher kids board school buses every school day to attend other districts. Beecher, which enrolled some 900 students at its high school in the 1970s, now has a total K-12 enrollment of about 900. “We just want to get kids who live here to come back to Beecher schools,” said Hawkins.
Norm Bryant, who starred in football and track at Flint Northern in the late-1950s, is concerned about the flight to the suburbs. “A lot of people couldn’t afford to leave the city…and then what’s left?” he mused. “People can’t leave; some of these, not all of them now, but some of the people…they could care (less) whether their kid went to school or not,” he said. “You’ve still got people with interest in their kids but some of them just don’t care.”
Circuit Court Judge Duncan Beagle, who once pitched a no-hitter at Atwood Stadium for Flint Southwestern, agrees with Bryant. “It wasn’t just Flint, it was the flight to the suburbs that was taking place in the 60s and that led to a lot of the solid middle class and upper class families that moved to your Grand Blancs and Davisons,” he recollected.
Writing in the March issue of EVM, Editor Jan Worth-Nelson reported on the findings of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) in response to the Flint water crisis. “The people of Flint, they (MCRC members) wrote, ‘have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it caused by structural and systemic racism that have corroded your city, your institutions, and your water pipes for generations.’”
“Among those conditions were ‘redlining’ practices in real estate and housing over decades that led to spirals of white flight and barriers to black home ownership, employment discrimination against blacks, the loss of revenue sharing, depletion of local resources and a shrinking tax base due to industry departures, the decline of neighborhood schools, and a consequent neglect over time of basic infrastructure.”
Thus, it’s not a stretch to conclude that the same destructive forces that led to Flint’s water crisis have adversely impacted its school system, including its athletic programs.
Writing in the October 13, 2015 issue of CommonWealth magazine, Bruce Mohl and Hari Patel used data provided by the Massachusetts Athletic Association to “…reveal some alarming trends about how athletic participation is distributed town by town and city by city.” They posited, “While youth in high-income school districts are playing as many sports as ever, students in low-income communities are far less likely to participate in school athletics at all.”
“In the state’s 10 poorest communities, the data show sports participation is 43 percent below the statewide average. By contrast, sports participation in the 10 wealthiest communities is 32 percent above the average. The rich-poor divide is troubling because many educators and analysts believe that participation in extracurricular activities such as sports plays a key role in academic success.”
“Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam, in his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, says extracurricular activities teach students valuable soft skills such as strong work habits, self-discipline, teamwork, leadership, and a sense of civic engagement. Students engaged in sports tend to have higher grade-point averages, better work habits, and lower dropout rates, he says.
Flint’s Foster plans to ramp up academic assistance for his Flint athletes with tutoring and study tables. Beecher’s Hawkins agrees with the interconnectedness of athletics and academics. “I view sports as the biggest carrot in Beecher to get them to graduate,” he said. “I know it should be academics first…(but) if getting you to play on our team will get you to do better in school, which gets you to walk across that stage, and take pictures with your mom and dad after graduation, then so be it. Who cares the order? Let’s get it done.”
Beecher boys basketball coach Mike Williams agrees with Harvard Professor Putnam’s assertion about athletics teaching “valuable soft skills”. “Kids want to be successful, they want to be disciplined, they want to be taught the right things,” he asserted. “We want to send them out as better, not just as players, but young men. My philosophy is the basketball court is no different than life; you got your boundaries; you get outside of your boundaries there’s a penalty; you can get knocked down and you gotta get up. Ultimately, you’re going to be judged not by…all the wins and losses, you’re going to be judged by how you play the game.”
That discrimination in real estate practices, loss of population, loss of business and industry, a declining tax base, joblessness, and other factors have led to searing poverty rates in both the Flint and Beecher communities is virtually inarguable. A report titled “Sports Participation in Secondary Schools: Resources Available and Inequalities in Participation” published in Bridging the Gap, a funded research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, confirms the basic findings by Mohl and Patel. Further, a key finding of the Bridging the Gap report found that, “The percentage of students participating in interscholastic sports varies with the number of sports facilities at a school” and that, “appropriate facilities are an essential element for many sports.”
Williams agrees. “Probably for Beecher and Flint, the biggest thing I see that’s the difference in the decline are facilities,” he told EVM. “We have a lot of people migrating to Grand Blanc because they have the best facilities, or Flushing, or Davison, or Hamady; Hamady just built a gym.”
Hawkins is hoping for an enrollment spike from students who might be drawn to the newest track in Genesee County and the most recently upgraded football field. In 2013 Beecher voters approved a $2.2 million bond proposal that funneled about half that amount for the new track and football field upgrade. Hawkins is still waiting for that spike.
Flint officials have already announced that the athletic programs at Northwestern and Southwestern will be combined for the 2017-2018 school year. Foster told EVM, “Now we’re working our way down to one high school. We’re two high schools right now with one athletic program.” As a result, Flint Schools will have a pick of the best facilities at their two campuses, plus Atwood Stadium. Varsity track and field and football contests are likely to be held at the “North Campus” (Northwestern) while softball and baseball are likely to be held at the “South Campus” (Southwestern). The baseball field has already been renovated according to Foster.
It going to be “the Jaguars” in teal and black
Flint Schools, with substantial input from students, have already chosen their new mascot (Jaguars) and school colors (teal and black). Those choices are to be announced to the public at the June 7 meeting of the Flint Board of Education.
Where are the modern-day versions of Bill Frieder, Dorothy Kukulka, Leteia Hughley, Norbert Badar, Stan Gooch, and Grover Kirkland who coached Flint high school athletes to dozens of state championships? Most fingers point in the direction of Beecher’s Hawkins and Williams when those in the know now look for the gold standard in Flint area coaches. Hawkins has led his Beecher football team to the MHSAA playoffs ten of twelve years. Williams has guided the Beecher boys basketball team to the MHSAA Class C state championship five of the last six years. In the Flint area, Beecher’s 23 state championships is second only to Flint Northern.
As a former high school official who was awarded the Jim Massar Service Award in 1996 for “strong dedication”, Beagle knows a good coach when he sees one. “Courtney Hawkins knows what’s going on,” he asserted. “Beecher, until Courtney Hawkins arrived, was not exactly a football power. When Courtney Hawkins arrived with his background—NFL, Beecher guy—it was almost like he was ‘god’ coming into this community and he didn’t do that overnight but so many people believed in (him).”
“It starts with me as athletic director and head football coach,” Hawkins conceded. “I lead by example. Being in the building, holding my coaches accountable. I’ve hired a lot of good people, not so much good coaches—prison lieutenant of 27 years, a Flint police officer of 18 years—I went out and got the right people that I felt like this community and these young men needed. Once they (students) figured out that there are people here that genuinely cared about them and wanted what was best for them, they’ll run through a brick wall for us.”
Bryant agrees that coaching is critical. “Coaching means a lot,” he said. “Back at the time that Guy Houston coached at Northern, he had blacks, he had Polish, he had Romanians, Hungarians, but he put them all on the team. He was the type of coach that if he went up to you and if he thought hittin’ you up aside the head would get the most out of you, he’d do it. But if he thought doing that to you would turn you off, he wouldn’t do it. He knew how to get to each one of his players.”
Hawkins and Williams are cut from similar passionate cloth and work well together. In his first year at Beecher, Williams put three starters off the team for disciplinary reasons. “We had to set some type of standard…this will be accepted, this won’t be accepted,” he told EVM. According to Williams, hard work and spending time with his players off the court have been keys to his success. “We won our fifth state championship March 25th; I was at a coaching clinic April 9th (with his players) and for me developing the kids and teaching the kids, not just basketball, but life skills, making it a family environment, that came up.”
Flint’s Foster clearly understands the importance of good coaching in building a successful athletic program and is thereupon making plans. Flint’s newly-combined athletic program means that all coaching positions will be open to new hires from those already within, and without, the Flint coaching community. And Foster has already made his first important hire. Flint Northern graduate Chris Wilson is Flint’s new head football coach. Wilson played in the Canadian Football League and the National Football League. His first contest will be August 24th against, Guess who?, Hawkins and his Beecher Buccaneers in the annual Rutherford Bowl to kick off the new 2017 season.
John McGarry, a member of the Atwood Stadium Authority that spearheaded its renovation, generally agrees with the Wilson hire and others like him. “I think its helpful for these athletes to come back and start working with the kids,” he said. “The idea of these athletes like Chris Wilson coming back to town, I think that’s a hopeful sign.”
Judge Beagle believes “the breakdown of the family unit” causes lower rates of participation in athletics. Beagle has served on the bench for 25 years. He is currently one of five Family Court judges in Genesee County. He also presides over three specialty courts—a Drug Court for neglectful parents, an Attendance Court for severely truant students, and ADAPT Court to improve efficiency of increased number of paternity cases.
“I think the reason you’re more effective out in Beecher (despite poverty and single-parent households) is you’re all in it together and you’re all family,” he observed. “In many urban communities there’s been such a breakdown in the family unit and I see it.” He is frustrated by the parade of absentee fathers and overburdened single-parent mothers in his courtroom. “Some of them are outstanding mothers, but they’ve got so much on their plate…that sometimes getting their kids to practice or to sports is not a top priority.”
“Eighty percent of the kids born in Flint are born out of wedlock, ones that are born at Hurley Hospital,” Beagle confided to EVM. “So that certainly contributes to it (decline of school sports) . You don’t have that well-disciplined kid that, maybe back in your day, had that work ethic established.”
Loss of Feeder Programs:
Probably, the most critical loss of programs that provided early childhood experiences for later success in high school was caused by the end of Community School Directors (CSDs) in Flint schools. CSDs, funded wholly or in part by the Mott Foundation, were established in Flint schools starting in the mid-1900s. CSDs worked with kids in athletics and other after-school programs like chess.
“Back then they had programs in elementary school, they had everything…track and field, basketball, field hockey, chess club…all types of activities,” Foster recalled. “ A (CSD) was an administrator who came in at noon, worked in the evenings…until 7, 8, 9:00. He ran intramural programs, worked summer, all year round.”
The championship teams (remember the Flintstones) “were all products of the community school programs when they were coming up through school—elementary, junior high, and high school,” said Foster. “They were kind of the tail end of the community school directors, that whole program.”
“That’s where the Greater Flint Olympian and CANUSA Games came from,” added Mike Maienbrook, Flint’s director of community athletics.
By the end of the century CSDs morphed into Youth Development Specialists and then largely disappeared from Flint schools. “They took away the whole concept of community school directors,” Foster recalled.
This year, with C.S. Mott Foundation funds channeled through the Crim Fitness Foundation, community school directors have been installed in each Flint public school — for the first time in decades. For sports boosters and coaches, the idea is a long-term strategy that begins with younger students. Foster’s point man in resuscitating the community schools approach is Maienbrook. Maienbrook cited two recent, hopeful events that may pay dividends in the future: a track meet for elementary students, the first of its kind since CSDs disappeared from the scene; and a soccer meeting at Southwestern that drew hundreds of students and their parents.
In the short-term, Foster is hoping to restore some viability to the junior varsity and freshman programs that are languishing and oft absent. “We have a hard time fielding JV teams and freshman teams,” he admitted. Consolidation of the athletic program may help. “We’re not Northwestern or Southwestern anymore…We’re one program where kids are going to play together.”
Finally, a potpourri of factors that distract or inhibit youth participation in high school athletics resulted from EVM’s conversations with local sports aficionados. They include competition for students’ time including jobs, scholarship program commitments, family obligations, and church activities. Beyond that, many students are not inclined to devote the necessary time and resources to being an athlete even if they can.
Some talented student-athletes are siphoned away by the lure of playing for preparatory academies. The best known recent example is Miles Bridges who did not attend Flint schools. His father, Ray Bridges, was a member of the Flint Northern basketball team that won back-to-back state championships that was chosen as the “best Flint area sports team ever” in a poll of M-Live readers. The younger Bridges recently turned down the possibility of going into the NBA and will return to play for Tom Izzo’s MSU Spartans. Though Bridges hails from Flint, purists hardly consider him a “Flintstone”.
Hawkins is particularly concerned about the basketball lure of AAU programs, what he calls the “AAU basketball monster.” Hawkins calls it “specialization” in referring to student-athletes that are so drawn to basketball it’s at the exclusion of all other sports. “I think that’s another thing that’s killing Flint sports,” he said. “You’ve got kids playing AAU that can’t even make the high school basketball team…They’ve (AAU) figured out how to maximize getting all the cash they can get at the expense of these young athletes.”
Some, like McGarry—as suggested by his psychologist wife, Rachelle McGarry, are concerned about the distraction of electronics that are so very pervasive in the lives of our children. A May 2017 article in Huffington Post, titled “10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children…” includes “delayed development”, “sleep deprivations”, and “epidemic obesity.”
The glory years of Flint’s yesteryear and its attendant Flintstones sports persona are not likely to return. Restoration of respectability , though, is a realistic possibility given sufficient resources, effective planning, and capable leadership. “We’re not going to be some powerhouse,” cautions Foster. “We should be a little more competitive.”
Flint Schools Superintendent Bilal Tawwab told EVM: “We’re paying close attention to…the quality of our athletics program. We’re going to be very strategic and really pull together our talent. Athletics are important to providing a quality education to kids so we’re going to make the changes we need to make now. Stay tuned.”
EVM staff writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com.