Elliot Uzelac has held coaching jobs at football powerhouses like the University of Michigan, the U.S. Naval Academy, alma mater Western Michigan University and Ohio State University, but the 74-year-old coach is now being hailed for turning a high school team into playoff contenders.
Uzelac came out of retirement this year to become head coach of Michigan’s Benton Harbor High School Tigers, a football team that had never won a playoff game in school history.
The team had also not had a winning season in 25 years but, under Uzelac’s leadership, they are on the verge of a division championship.
“I’m seeing young men with more confidence,” Uzelac told ABC News. “That’s really rewarding.”
The Tigers scored a 28-7 victory Friday that advanced them into a second playoff round. The town where the school is located is one of Michigan’s poorest and a place where, on or off the football field, hope had been in short supply.
When faced with what Uzelac called a “difficult situation” in which some of his players were the breadwinners in their homes, he provided job alternatives for the players.
He also set academic goals for the whole team and worked to instill respect, discipline, purpose and accountability in his players.
“We need more coaches like him,” Tiger player Percy Brown said. “He cares about you, your family and what you’re going through first.”