Two men cautiously approached Capitol Charter School coach Cleotha Johnigan Jr. near the end of football practice Wednesday.
Soon it was obvious this wasn’t a parent with a complaint It was one Capitol High alumnus introducing another to the school’s first-year head coach.
“I did know what to expect when I got here,” Johnigan said later. “This is a school with a tradition, and you’re combining it with another school with one a rich tradition. “From the first day I stepped on the campus and went to the library, people have welcomed me with open arms.”
There’s no playbook and only a limited scouting report for what the Lions are doing. Last spring Louisiana’s Recovery School District decided to turn Capitol over to the Friendship Public Charter School group.
It is the latest change for the downtown school, which was known as College Pre-College Academy for boys and girls during its final years in the East Baton Rouge Parish School system and also was managed by another charter group before the RSD assumed control.
This time the plan also included merging students from Istrouma High, another RSD school that is closed for 2014-15, into the Capitol student body and athletic teams.
Johnigan is qualified to handle the task. He coached at Pointe Coupee Central for several years and helped transition his players to Livonia after it was announced PCC was closing.
“Before PCC moved down to 1A, we were in the district with Capitol, so I knew about them,” Johnigan said. “We knew Capitol was traditionally a great team. Back when I was in high school, I played at Rosenwald and we played Capitol. We got to play the likes of Chad Germany (also a former Capitol coach) and a lot of other talented guys.
“Istrouma won state titles back in the 1930s to 1960s. We’re getting the kids to understand that and reminding them that they’re representing both schools. Now we’re all red and gold.”
The roster of 40-plus players also is getting tired and bruised, but not from the school transition. Like most teams in preseason the Lions are tired of hitting each other in practice. Saturday’s scrimmage with New Orleans-based Sophie B. Wright couldn’t come fast enough.
Senior linebacker-running back Kelvin Robinson has a bag of ice on one shoulder as he watches the final stages of practice.
“It really wasn’t that hard coming to a new school,” said Robinson, a former Istrouma player. “It was a matter of putting everybody together and then acting like a family. We don’t think of it like it’s Istrouma and Capitol anymore. We’re just one group.
“I was upset about coming here at first. But then I understood that a school is a school and for me to get through high school I have to do what I’ve got to do. Playing football is just part of it.”
The most recent example of a school merger happened last year when two New Orleans schools, O. Perry Walker and L.B. Landry, formed Landry-Walker, which won a Class 4A basketball title.
Instead of calling it rebuilding or a merger, Johnigan refers to the process as a “rebranding.”
“If you let the kids know and show them you have their best interest at heart, they generally respond,” Johnigan said. “I get the chance to put my stamp on this program and so does this team. I have no complaints at all when it comes to the transition. The kids have been great.”
At least initially, it was a different matter. The 41-year-old Johnigan spent the spring as an assistant at Livonia after leading PCC to an 8-2 record last fall, his first as head coach. The previous Capitol coach, Claude Coleman, resigned in May, and Johnigan wasn’t hired until the first week of June.
“I was a little worried at first,” Johnigan said. “We only had about seven guys who came to those first workouts. Once coach Coleman resigned, there wasn’t a structure in place for the kids.
“We had to knock on doors and make some phone calls to let people know what we were doing. As I talked to parents and Capitol alumni, they assured me their children would be coming. And they did.”
Selling the former Istrouma players was not as tough as Johnigan expected. Soon the number of ex-Indians, like Robinson, reached double digits. There was no animosity between the players who competed for District 6-2A rivals just a year ago. Instead, the players laughed and talked about playing against each other.
“I felt good about it (merging schools),” linebacker Chris Duhon said. “I knew it would help us out on our depth chart. I knew we wouldn’t have to have as many people go both ways. I remember a lot of the Istrouma guys from last year.
“What most people don’t understand is that most of us grew up playing youth football together. We either played on the same teams or played against each other. It’s like bringing a new family together and mixing the chemistry. It’s been good.”
The addition of more players did bring an unexpected side effect — the need to purchase more equipment.
“There were probably 30 or 32 uniforms, Johnigan said. “When more kids came out we had to buy helmets, uniforms and some practice gear. The administration didn’t flinch when I said we needed money — they were happy about it.”
Johnigan said the roster might soon feature 50 players, which exceeds cautious expectations from just a few weeks ago.
Forget about being cautious. The players want to throw caution to the wind.
“We’re definitely going to try and shock the city,” Duhon said.