Al Pellegrino knew he had a tough job ahead of him when he took on the Shaw football head coaching duties back in December 2016.
Pellegrino replaced Chuck Stamey, who resigned one month prior, after the Raiders went 6-14 in his two seasons. The Raiders were 1-9 in Stamey’s final season, during which the team averaged a bit more than 14 points per game.
The Raiders have not finished with a winning record since 2012 — a far cry from the prestige the football program once had.
Shaw is trying to return the program to a level of excellence the Raiders haven’t experienced since Charles Flowers led them to a 124-45 record from 1992-2005, including a state championship in 2000.
But Pellegrino knew this would not be a one-year, or even a two-year, fix. There were some serious cultural issues to weed out before the Raiders could seriously think about contending for a region title.
“Taking over, I knew it was going to be a challenge because of the people that were in the program,” Pellegrino said. “They were not good people.”
Fighting amongst teammates was commonplace. Individuals played around during practice and did not take it seriously, according to running back Amir Harper. Players also didn’t take school seriously “at all.”
The seniors, who were supposed to be the team’s leaders, had little influence on the younger players. Inside a dysfunctional and divided locker room, players split themselves into “factions,” linebacker Laikyn Perry said.
These issues only worsened the already-rotten culture inside Shaw’s football program. The seniors, the supposed leaders of the team, had little authority.
“The seniors are supposed to run the team, you know?” Harper said.
A change had to happen. Tough decisions were necessary.
There were “immediate staff changes” when Pellegrino took over, followed by more team bonding time and an enhanced structure of accountability. “About 30 people” were dismissed from the team, Pellegrino said, due to factors ranging from grades to poor attitude.
Pellegrino also wanted to change the relationship between the team’s coaches and players, as the dynamic was not to his expectations.
Once that happened, those within the program could notice the culture improving.
The team might take an outing to Stars and Strikes, a bowling alley and arcade center in north Columbus. Another weekend, players might go see a movie together, or hold an optional player-led workout.
Pellegrino knew it would take time to improve the program to one day compete with the region’s best. He said he saw potential in the younger group, players like Harper, a junior, and seniors Perry and linebacker, punter and receiver Moussa Nabe.
Pellegrino knew there would be rough times. The Raiders won just four games in his first two seasons at the helm. He told the underclassmen, “I’ll stick it out if you’ll stick it out.”
“Its builds more than just a bond with a coach,” Harper said. “It’s to the point to where, say a player doesn’t have a father in his life, but he knows the coach. Me, I don’t have a father in my life, and I depend on (Pellegrino) for a lot. It goes a little further than just bonding with a coach.”
Pellegrino also keeps tabs on all of his players’ grades. If a player’s grades start slipping, he brings the jersey of the player in question to his teacher.
Once the player’s grades improve, he can have the jersey back.
“Not a lot gets past me,” Pellegrino said with a grin. “If it does, I get it within a couple of days. That’s one of those things where, you hold them accountable for everything they do, and they start understanding, that’s called responsibility.”
There’s still a ways to go before Shaw can compete with powers Cairo and Carver. The Raiders sit fifth in Region 1-AAAA heading into Saturday’s game against Columbus (11 a.m., Kinnett Stadium).
The Raiders are 4-2 on the season, and the four wins serve as the most games the Raiders have won in a season since 2015. They’ve won more region games (three), than the previous three years combined (two).
The Raiders average around 21 points per game, but average around 402 all-purpose yards each week.
Shaw is tired of being the “joke of the city,” Perry said. They still have the bulk of their back-loaded schedule left. After the Columbus game, the Raiders play Carver, the top team in the region, and travel to Cairo, the No. 2 team in the region.
“The city needs to stop sleeping on us,” Nabe said. “We gon’ wake them up.”