Luther Campbell in fight for right to coach high school football in Miami
Miami Northwestern High's defensive coordinator stood before his players last month with a marker in his hand and a board full of plays at his back. "Any time in this game we're going to check goal line, I'm going to go Eagle," he yelled, referring to a blitz call. "We're going to hit the quarterback all night." The players nodded. Some smiled. Some scowled.
His pregame chalk talk concluded, the coordinator bounded over to the offense. He told those players to score so often that the host, Vero Beach High, would be forced to use a running clock in the second half. As he returned to the defensive side of the locker room, the coordinator noticed a young defensive tackle with his jersey hanging down to his hips. "Shirts in," he yelled, staring at the sophomore playing his first spring game with the varsity. Then the coordinator smirked. "We kick asses," he said, "with class."
The coordinator knows more about moving posteriors than he does about kicking them. Long before he became the coordinator -- before his players were even born -- he was known by several names. To his family and before the U.S. Supreme Court, he was Luther Campbell. To the fans who bought the raunchy albums he produced as a solo artist and as a member of 2 Live Crew, he was known as Luke Skyywalker (until George Lucas sued him), Uncle Luke or just plain Luke. To Tipper Gore and the others who called his music obscene, he was Public Enemy No. 1.
Now, Campbell wants to be known by one phrase: Coach Luke. In August, he'll enter his fourth season as a high school assistant coach -- if Florida's Education Practices Commission will let him. For the past three seasons (two at Miami Central and one at Northwestern), Campbell has coached using a temporary certification. That certification expires at the end of the 2012-13 school year. To continue coaching in Miami-Dade County after that, Campbell will need a permanent certificate.
An administrative judge has recommended that Campbell be allowed to coach, but last week the Florida Department of Education appealed that recommendation. In the appeal, the department's attorney, Charles Whitelock, wrote that "the Petitioner lacks the required good moral character" to coach students. The state has investigated Campbell's past and present, and the Education Practices Commission will have to decide sometime this summer whether it should allow one of the men behind
On May 15, Judge Robert Meale recommended that the Education Practices Commission approve Campbell's certificate. Shocked? Not half as shocked as the inner-city coaches and community leaders who can't believe this process has taken so long. To the nation, Campbell may be a symbol of when hip-hop went naughty. In Miami's Liberty City neighborhood, he is the man who started a youth football program and has kept it running strong for more than 20 years. He is the taskmaster who tracks down absent mothers to sign insurance forms. He is the coach who lets players stay at his house when they need a momentary escape from one of Miami's most dangerous areas. He is the man who encourages his players to get out of their troubled situations by going to college and graduating. He would love if they all made it to the NFL, but he knows that won't happen. He wants only for them to earn degrees so they can have what he has: a house in a safe neighborhood with a wife, a toddler and a Cocker Spaniel.
"You might not play a day in the NFL, but you can get an education," Campbell said. "That's your whole, primary goal. You can get your education and live a productive life and do something with yourself other than standing on the corner."
But Campbell is also the man who executive produced an album (
Campbell's case brings up several fascinating societal questions. Among them:
• How long should a man's past be held against him?
• In a community that needs as much help as it can get, can the government afford to turn away a man who has demonstrated himself capable of creating positive change in the lives of young people because the way that man earns a living, while legal, is considered morally questionable by some?
An attorney named Kristin has asked that second question to herself a lot these past few months. "It's not a school that people are running in to help," she said of Miami Northwestern. "How are you preventing someone who is running in and helping as many people as he can?" Kristin isn't Campbell's attorney. She is his wife. They met at a deli during her second year of law school at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. Campbell, a diehard Miami fan, married Kristin in 2008 despite the fact that she earned a bachelor's degree at Florida State.
Kristin, an Army brat who went to high school in the Dallas area, didn't comprehend the kind of poverty that afflicts her husband's old neighborhood until they began dating. Campbell brought Kristin to visit his youth football program, the Liberty City Optimist Club Warriors, and work with the cheerleaders. Since Campbell began coaching at the high school level in 2009, Kristin has learned even more. Once, she didn't understand why a player had spent an entire weekend at the Campbells' house. Days later, the player told her he had seen a dead body near his home and fled to the place he considered the safest.
A visitor to Liberty City turns off Interstate 95 at exit 6B. Behind the wall that hides the neighborhood from tourists bound for Miami Beach, Coconut Grove and the Keys is a scarred landscape of sagging buildings. Northwestern High stands on Northwest 71st Street behind an iron fence. While the neighborhood has been depressed for years, the school and its football program have always provided a source of pride. In 2007, Northwestern's football team won the state title in Florida's largest division, and
Campbell, 51, understands the neighborhood. He grew up in Liberty City. He was lucky. He had two parents who taught him to work hard. His Bahamian mother was a beautician, and his Jamaican father was a custodian. Campbell's four older brothers all graduated from college. But he still saw the drug dealing and violence that plagued the neighborhood, still had to hit the ground when he heard the gunshots.
The Miami-area travel brochures never mention Liberty City. Most of them focus on the glitz of Miami Beach. Every school day, a bus took a young Campbell across a causeway to that Miami. Beginning in junior high, Campbell attended school and played football in Miami Beach. At 10 or 11 every school night, that bus dropped Campbell back into the reality of Liberty City. He swore that if he ever made money, he would start a youth football league so elementary and junior high boys in Liberty City wouldn't have to board a bus to play.
After high school, Campbell elected not to follow his older brothers to Florida A&M. He had heard too many poor-college-student protests from his brothers, so he went to work. He washed dishes and cooked at a hospital. He worked at a radio station. From there, he started a mobile DJ business that morphed into event promotion. Later, when he wanted to start his own record label, those former poor-college-student brothers lent Campbell money to get his business off the ground. Campbell teamed with 2 Live Crew, one of the acts he had brought in, to produce the first album on the Luke Records label. Campbell also joined the group, playing the hype man and leading call-and-response interludes between verses during live shows. The group's bawdy rhymes inspired booty-shaking throughout South Florida, but 2 Live Crew didn't gain national traction until it released
At the time, no hip-hop act from the South had earned any level of national fame. Run DMC, Eric B. and Rakim, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys had shot to stardom from New York, while NWA -- featuring a young Dr. Dre and Ice Cube -- began reinventing the genre in Los Angeles in the late '80s. Around this time, the music took a sharp turn toward the raunchy. While NWA disguised social commentary with stark tales of guns and drugs, 2 Live Crew sold sex and comedy. That was clear from the first few bars of
After a Coral Gables, Fla., attorney named Jack Thompson sent copies of the album's lyrics to sheriffs across the state, federal judge Jose Gonzalez declared the album obscene and banned its sale. On June 8, 1990, two days after Gonzalez ruled, police in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., arrested record store owner Charles Freeman for selling the album to an undercover officer. Campbell was arrested for performing songs from the album a few days after Freeman's arrest. The Parents Music Resource Center, led by a group of senators' wives that included Al Gore's wife, Tipper, also pushed to limit the album's sale. The fight sparked a massive First Amendment controversy that inspired 2 Live Crew's next album,
In 1992, an appeals court lifted the ban on
Campbell parted ways with 2 Live Crew in the early '90s and focused on developing new artists. Among the artists he nurtured were TrickDaddy and Trina, who provided the soundtrack for the turn of the century in South Florida. Later, Campbell helped cultivate the career of a Cuban-American rapper named Armando Perez. Perez is better known as Pitbull, and even those who don't know his music have probably seen him on television hawking Dr Pepper, Kodak and Bud Light.
If Campbell wanted to cross the Broward County line and coach at a disadvantaged high school, he wouldn't have to fight for his certification. All the other counties in Florida allow volunteer football coaches. Miami-Dade does not, because officials want coaches to receive a background check before they work with students. So Northwestern must have Campbell on its payroll of supplemented coaches if he wants to help. (Essentially, Campbell must pass through the same process as a classroom teacher, but Campbell has expressed no desire to teach in the classroom.) For his services, Campbell receives about $1,200 for the year. Needless to say, he doesn't coach for the money. He could live a comfortable life with the royalties from the artists he produced. "I get checks every quarter," Campbell said. But he wants to coach at the high school level, and he doesn't want to coach in Broward or any other county. Campbell grew up in Miami, and he wants to coach in Miami.
Campbell decided to enter high school coaching in 2009 because he noticed that boys who came through his youth program were losing their way after entering high school. One got shot. Others went to jail. Others fathered children they had no hope of supporting. "So many other kids were getting lost in the shuffle," Campbell said.
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.:
Then, at about 3 a.m., their phones pinged with another message.
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
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
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.