Campbell fighting to coach high school football (cont.)
So Campbell asked to coach linebackers at Central High, which had received an F in the state's school grading system from 2004-08. There, he reunited with former Liberty City Optimist players such as tailback Devonta Freeman. Because Campbell had known Freeman for years, the two had an easy rapport. Freeman was a frequent visitor to Campbell's house, and Campbell made sure Freeman went to class and got the grades he needed to qualify to play in college.
And where did Freeman choose to play in college? Those familiar with Campbell's most famous sports allegiance might be shocked. Freeman signed with Florida State, the bitter rival of Campbell's beloved Miami Hurricanes. Campbell has been accused of being a rogue Miami booster. He has been investigated by the NCAA. But when it comes to his players, Campbell pulls for any school offering tuition, room and board.
"I love Miami," Campbell said. "But I do not get in the way of recruiting. It's up to that kid and his parents." Or, in many cases, Campbell helps a player who has no parental influence. Rakeem Cato, the quarterback for those Miami Central teams, was 10 when he met Campbell through Freeman. When Cato was 12, his mother died. Raised by his sister and grandfather, Cato didn't always know where he would sleep or where he would get his next meal. In high school, he and Freeman spent every other weekend at Campbell's house. While playing at Central, Cato and Campbell communicated every day. Most days, Campbell preached the same message. "There is only one way to get out of that situation," Cato said. "That's to stay in school and get your education."
Cato, now the starting quarterback at Marshall, credits Campbell for "keeping my head on straight." The two still talk routinely, and Campbell breathes easier knowing Cato lives in a safe environment. "I know Cato has a place to stay," Campbell said. "I know he's going to get fed every day. I know he's going to get an education."
Campbell has built a long speed-dial list of college coaches. In May, Campbell pitched players to Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops and his brother, Mike, who runs the defense at Oklahoma. Before Northwestern's spring game against Vero Beach, Campbell chatted with a few of the college coaches who had come to evaluate players. Campbell spent time with Miami assistant Micheal Barrow, but he also made the rounds of coaches from SEC, Big Ten, Big East and MAC schools.
In Campbell's administrative hearing, the judge asked if Campbell gave star recruits preferential treatment. Hearing the question, Miami Northwestern head coach Steven Field had to laugh. Field took over at Northwestern in January. Before that, he coached running backs at Hampton, a Football Championship Subdivision school in Virginia. Field had known Campbell since 2005, when Field was an assistant at Glades Central High in Belle Glade, Fla., and Campbell took advantage of that friendship to barrage Field with texts and calls about players he coached who might fit at Hampton. "He would continuously call me about young men that just passed [the SAT] or might have been passed over by the Florida States or the University of Miamis," Field told the judge.
Campbell called Brian Young routinely when Young was an assistant at Cornell, and Campbell has remained in touch with Young since Young moved to Stetson, a school in DeLand, Fla., that is restarting its football program this year after decades without one. Stetson is a member of the Pioneer League, an FCS conference that doesn't allow schools to offer athletic scholarships. Earlier this year, Campbell turned Young on to Rene Maurice, a Northwestern player with a sparkling academic transcript that would allow Stetson to put together a need-based and merit-based scholarship package that could compete with many athletic scholarships. "They have tons of talent," Young said. "But Coach Campbell understands these high academic kids can fit at a school like Stetson." Maurice signed with the Hatters, but he will not attend. In mid-May, he accepted an athletic scholarship to Florida International.
For Campbell, the decision to focus on scholarships is purely mathematic. Combining tuition, room and board and the amount of football-related money spent, schools can spend between $200,000 and $300,000 on a player over the course of his college career. "I can't give the amount of money that the NCAA [schools] can give these kids," Campbell said. "Nobody can give that kind of money."
If Campbell can't keep coaching at the high school level, he worries some players might fall by the wayside or miss out on a chance to earn a scholarship to a school that might never have known about them if not for a heads-up from Campbell. Meanwhile, his players don't want to lose a coach who understands their day-to-day issues. Northwestern linebacker Jacquintin Victrum has known Campbell since age 10, and he routinely visits Campbell's house to hang out. He treats Campbell's two-year-old son, Blake, like a little brother, and he considers Campbell a family member as well. "He's like a dad," Victrum said. "It's how you'd talk to your dad." Campbell has tried to shield his players from news of his fight to get certified, because he doesn't want to worry them. Victrum, who plans to be the first member of his family to attend college, can't believe the state would even consider denying Campbell the certification. "That would be a tragedy," Victrum said. "Whatever happened, that was a long time ago. You shouldn't judge anybody on what happened in their past. Honestly, everybody can see that he's changed or whatever. He's a good man."
More important, Victrum said, Campbell can coach. "He pushes you to the limit. ... He pushes you because he wants you to succeed and have a future," Victrum said. "He knows the struggles that people like us go through." Playing for Coach Luke can be a struggle in itself. He demands perfection on the field, and he isn't shy about showing his disappointment to the player who blows an assignment or commits a stupid penalty. In the spring game at Vero Beach, Campbell didn't get his wish of a running clock. Northwestern's offense struggled. The Bulls won because of Campbell's defense, which intercepted four passes and recovered three fumbles.
Campbell said he learned the Xs and Os of football from former Miami coach Randy Shannon, who began teaching him the finer points of the game years before Campbell started coaching at the high school level. Like most coaches, Campbell loves to study strategy. Because he spends his days managing his business interests and his evenings coaching football or supervising offseason workouts, Campbell does most of his film study in the wee hours. During the season, Northwestern coaches grew accustomed to receiving the following text message at about 1 a.m.:
The lab is open.
Then, at about 3 a.m., their phones pinged with another message.
The lab is closed.
Whether the lab remains operational depends on the state. In filings, the Department of Education argued that Campbell was not forthcoming in his application about his past criminal record, which includes a guilty plea in 1987 on a charge of improper exhibition of a firearm, a 2002 arrest in South Carolina on a charge of assisting in a lewd performance during a club appearance and a 2009 arrest for failure to pay child support. Campbell blamed confusion while filling out the application, but he argued that he willingly provided the required fingerprints knowing his entire rap sheet would come up during a search. He wasn't trying to hide anything, he said. Besides, most of his past foibles show up using a simple Google search.
In his cross-examination of Campbell during a February hearing, Whitelock, the Department of Education attorney, seemed as concerned about Campbell's song lyrics as his club appearances. Whitelock peppered Campbell with questions about song titles and lyrics. Campbell answered that Whitelock wasn't referring to lyrics specifically written by Campbell. Campbell's defense to those questions relied on pure semantics. Campbell became famous because of songs with raunchy lyrics. This is not in dispute. Whitelock also asked Campbell about club appearances, which occasionally are attached to wet T-shirt or booty-shaking contests. Campbell countered that his role during appearances is typically limited to autograph sessions and meet-and-greets. What the promoters choose to do on stage is not part of his agreement, he said.
Judge Meale sided with Campbell and his attorney, Mike Carney. "Petitioner does not pose a risk to the safety of the students entrusted to him," Meale wrote in a 52-page order. "For the past seven years, Petitioner has had significant direct contact with vulnerable youth without any reported problems." But after Meale issued the order, an old nemesis of Campbell's began sending letters to the judge. Thompson, the retired Coral Gables attorney who once helped get Nasty As They Wanna Be banned, sent letters advising Meale that Campbell's club appearances suggest he hasn't entirely left the adult entertainment industry. Thompson also sent the judge a copy of a story in which Campbell discusses an upcoming tour with 2 Live Crew. (Campbell told SI.com that if he does tour, it will only be as a solo act.)
Thompson said if Campbell can prove he has divested himself of that industry, then he would have no problem with Campbell coaching. "I commend him for wanting to do this, but who is Luther Campbell right now?" Thompson said. "Is he new and improved and had a Road To Damascus epiphany, or does he still have his hand in this?"
Campbell believes the state would set a dangerous precedent if it denies him a chance to coach. "It's bigger than me," he said. "It would be sad in more ways than one. They would be sending a message that you can't change your life. ... So why would I want to change my life?"
Here's another question: Does it even matter if Campbell has changed? He has helped at-risk teens from one of Miami's poorest neighborhoods to better themselves. He understands them, and he can reach them in a way other adults can't. Can the state afford to keep a man who gets results from helping? "Nobody lives a perfect life," said Field, the Northwestern head coach. "What they do know about him is that he picks them up. He takes them home. He feeds them. He takes care of whatever he can do for them. And that's what's important."
As a test to see how much Campbell's past seeps into his coaching life, SI.com asked several of his players to name their favorite 2 Live Crew song. None could recall a single title. "I listen mostly to Lil' Wayne and Drake," Victrum said.
Informed of this indignity, Campbell laughed. "They don't listen to Luke," he said.
They do -- just not to his music.