Basketball stars like Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, Dwyane Wade, Benji Wilson, and Kevin Garnett have turned Chicago into a “hoops town,” but the Wendell Phillips Academy Wildcats football team is making history and changing the culture of the city.
This winter, the Wildcats became the first public league football team to win an Illinois state title. Phillips would dominate the championship game 51-7 after failing in the title game the previous year.
The title win broke a championship-drought in Chicago that existed since the Illinois High School Association playoffs began in 1974.
It was such an accomplishment even the mayor of Chicago offered his words of support for Phillips.
“Before today, no Chicago Public Schools football team had ever won a state title,” Mayor Rahm Emmanuel said via WGN following the title victory. “Tonight, the Phillips Academy Wildcats ended that drought. They have proven to be the true definition of perseverance and determination. More importantly, they are the definition of ‘team.’ Tonight, we celebrate them as the pride of Bronzeville and all of Chicago. Congratulations to Coach Troy McAllister and his team on not only a perfect season, but on securing a spot in Illinois’ sports history.”
McAllister had received a call from the mayor after the team’s championship loss in 2014, but it was to remind McAllister that the Wildcats could return and win the next year — which they did.
But it wasn’t always playoff victories and historical runs for McAllister and the Wildcats. When he first took over the program in 2010, Phillips was ranked as one of the worst schools in the state — academically and athletically.
In his first season, McAllister started with 12 players and finished with a 2-7 record. It was one of the worst seasons he’s had statistically as a coach but he said it was a necessary stepping stone to change the culture of Phillips.
“I honestly can say that we were a terrible, terrible football team but we were trying to change the culture,” McAllister said. “It’s not just about wins and losses. In football, it may be, but what are doing for the young men to make them better husbands, dads and members of society?”
The Wildcats coach said he wasn’t deterred from his mission of turning the program around after his first year, instead he was motivated by it.
“Anytime you are turning around a program, you are looking at a five-year deal. We were able to do that and a lot of it is trial and error. Some things are going to work, somethings aren’t. You have to be willing to take chances and have things potentially blow up in your face. If you are trying to change a mindset, some of these risks are needed.”
Through persistence and consistency, McAllister and his staff developed the football program at Phillips into a standout among others in the city. By his fourth year with the team, Phillips was a state quarter finalist. At the end of his fifth year, the program would ascend to state runner-up.
McAllister and the Wildcats put it all together in his sixth year, while adding an undefeated “14-0” mark as well.
The coach, a native of Canada, said his background as a multisport athlete has helped him relate to the young men going through the same issues he did as a youngster. He also said his staff’s dedication to the boys has been a major part of the success of the team.
“Ultimately, we love each other here. I think they are starting to recognize that and when they feel that love amongst each other, I really think it has a huge value for what a meaningful relationship is. It also teaches them what they need to do to hold up their end in a relationship.”
According to McAllister, assistant coaches on the team are responsible for mentoring eight to 10 players on the team — none of which are allowed to be a position player of the coach. McAllister’s staff has remained the same for five of the six years he’s been at Phillips, which has helped everyone build a sense of camaraderie.
As a culmination of their efforts, six members of the Wildcats team have signed Letter of Intents to to play collegiate football on scholarship just this year. Although the team made history by winning games, McAllister believes the strides they are taking as men will outweigh what they’ve done on the gridiron.
“That is the biggest reward. They are going to go off to college, they are going to have a chance to get an education, they are going to get to see some things they wouldn’t have otherwise had a chance to see,” he said. “We are turning the corner now to where our young men are going to try. They may fail, but they are going to bust their tails off trying.”