The Best Man For The Job Was A Woman

By Brian S. Yeldell

The Wanda Oates Story

Courtesy of Ebony Magazine


It’s 1985 and Title IX is already 13 years old. There have been close to 20 championships that have been won at Frank W. Ballou High School. The school has a strong Science and Math program. However, the school sits on a hill and acts as a beacon in what could be seen as a neighborhood in a Southeast Washington, DC area that has seen its share of blight, neglect and in some circles being written off. The championships that have been won have been won by the Girls softball team, Girls track team, Girls basketball team and Boy’s soccer team and coached by Coach Wanda Oates and trusted assistant, Brenda Speaks. Ms. Oates was a pioneer on many levels and this is a story as much about breaking and tearing down walls, winning games as it is about a pioneer and a pioneering spirit. Wanda Oates did, was and is all of the immediate aforementioned.
Around this time, the boys football team wants to start winning. What do they do? They do what is natural for kids who are looking for solutions. They look around and see winning programs so they ask, “Can Ms. Oates coach us?” They are told, “maybe” and the proper channels are explored and covered. Ms. Oates is first given the position and subsequently Ms. Oates is denied the position, because of some technicalities. However, a few years later, she becomes the Boys basketball coach and wins the East Championship of the Interhigh (predecessor organization to DCIAA ). It had not been done in over 20 years “up on the hill” by some of the foregone teams and players who had come through Ballou, which included the Campbell brothers, Delano Dunmore, and other Southeast legends. Many of the good teams that were assembled in the late 70s and 80s were not able to accomplish the feat. But it was done with Wanda Oates. In short, the best man for the job was a woman.
Where The Fire Started
Wanda Anita Oates was born and raised in Washington, DC in 1942 in the Northwest section of the city. This will be important later in this story. She graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School just 6 years after the Brown versus Board of Education decision that opened the public schools of Washington, DC to students of all colors. It should be noted also that, though she was a championship coach, she didn’t participate in sports in her youth, because there were no sports programs for girls when she was a student. This is yet another point that will be both important and addressed later in this story. At Roosevelt High School, she participated in few activities, due to the prevailing attitudes of some teachers who followed the decree to teach Black students, in an unenthused manner, at best. In one incident, Ms. Oates, an extremely intelligent person, won a Latin contest, only to have her mastery of the subject questioned by her white teacher. Yet another teacher, a phys ed teacher, told her she was “dumb” which lit a fire in her to become a phys ed teacher so that she could eventually take that teacher’s job. Her intellect would not be truly recognized until later, when she started studying and picking apart more seasoned and heralded coaches.
Upon graduation from a somewhat racist Roosevelt (one has to remember that though B vs. B was decreed, many white teachers taught the Black kids reluctantly), she entered Howard University, a more nurturing environment, some 20 city blocks from her high school. Howard, by most measures is one of the most prestigious institution of higher learning in the African American community and the world, at large. Though Howard is and was in her hometown, Howard attracts students from around the world - the best and the brightest. Some of the people who have matriculated from Howard include Vernon Jordan, P Diddy, Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad , Atlanta’s current mayor Kasim Reed, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, as well as many high ranking people in government, politics, and industry . At Howard, she became a member of this college community and set her sights on doing good, while doing well, and enjoying life as a college student. After graduation, she decided to become a teacher to use some of the skills learned in that great college environment. In addition to her studies, she was the editor of the year book, is initiated into the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and participates in many other social activities of the 1960s.
Career,  Pioneering Spirit & Eventual Controversy  
Ms. Oates career, for all practical purposes, started as a physical education teacher at Ballou High School in Southeast Washington, DC.  It should be known, whether people want to admit it or not, that Ballou and many of the areas “east of the [Anacostia] river” are looked upon as undesirable, unattractive and unsalvageable. This author personally does not agree with that assessment, having spent much of my life there. I truly found it to be a wonderful and magical place to be raised. In addition, the area has been underserved and overlooked for YEARS. Ms. Oates went into this environment and thrived, as mentioned, at first, as a physical education teacher and later as a coach, friend, mentor and for many, a mother figure. She did so with her side kick, assistant coach, and friend for much of her adult life, Brenda Speaks. Ms. Speaks is very much like Coach Oates, but sometimes a little more tender, but no less intelligent, fiery or effective. They probably could have gone into other areas or another school, especially over time, but decided to stay there, where they KNEW they were needed.
As Ms Oates’ career was going along, she noticed something that had been bothering her for years and she decided to do something about it. There were plenty of boys’ teams and programs in DCPS, but none for girls. Sure, there were home economics classes, pom pon (or pom pom) squads, cheerleaders, and even your periodic puff puff games, but there were girls in the school who had athletic ability and skills. It is easy to not understand the climate that existed during this time, the early 1970s, with leagues like the WNBA and attention to and stars in sports like soccer’s Mia Hamm and Hope Solo, swimming with Dana Torres and even tennis with the explosion of women like the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. But in the early 70s, there were no organized teams and leagues for girls in Washington, DC. This was about to change. Ms. Oates went to the governing body of the schools and introduced programs for girls, like basketball, volley-ball, track and field, along with softball.
After successfully starting the girls’   sports programs at Ballou and for DCPS, as mentioned above, Ms. Oates was asked, BY THE KIDS, to coach the football team. She went to the principal and the athletic director and got clearance. It got sticky then! When it got to the DCPS commissioner and the superintendent, all of a sudden, the resistance began. As has been the case with many other situations, with sitting at a lunch counter, drinking out of a water fountain, and blacks playing in Southern colleges and universities in the 40s and 50s, all she wanted to do was coach. Besides, the kids had asked her. She was denied the position, something in which she filed suit. She lost her suit, but not her spirit or determination. During the trying of the suit, numerous things were uncovered. Some of them included who her allies were, as well as adversaries. In addition, long time allies, fellow coaches and colleagues turned their backs and went against her, which proved to strengthen her resolve. This also brought her closer to Ms. Speaks, who had for years been there for each other. Over the years, they have had plenty of articles written and recognition by city and national leaders, including being Coach of the year after winning the Boys championship in 1991, in addition to being named to the Scholastic Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.




Best Man For The Job, A Woman
Ms. Oates, as mentioned, had no problem being a winning girls coach. The trophies, the celebrations and the players who matriculated from her programs all act as testimony. Some that come to mind include Gwen “Ms. J” Jones (a 70s stand out player), Millhouse, an All-met player, who won a scholarship to a Big10 program, Wisconsin, as well as Sanya Tyler, who became a member of the Mid- Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Hall of Fame. The aforementioned are ones who were lauded in the press. There are also lesser known players, who went on to get degrees at great universities and help the neighborhood that could have kept them back. Some of those include a seemingly diminutive (5’9”) Michael Robinson, who led the metropolitan area in scoring at an average of over 27 points, Mo Ware, the first Ballou coach to win a Turkey Bowl, and Noel Cyrus, who took Ballou to several track and field championships. Many of these players credit the lessons learned from Ms. Oates as major contributors to their collective and individual ability to win. Winning is an important by-product to being coached well, which leads to playing all games well, including the game of life.
Speaking of life, sometimes, life is circular and things come back around. After continuing to produce great teams and great players with her girls’ team, the request came again. This time, it was the boy’s basketball team. Neither the boys, nor Ms. Oates, would be denied this time. Upon getting approval from all of the bodies that have approved her to coach the football team, as well as some of the ones who did not want her to coach, in 1988, she began coaching the boys basketball team. The first season saw the team win 17 games after winning only 10 the previous three seasons. As earlier mentioned, in 1991, she won the first championship at Ballou in over 20 years. Some of the guys went on to have productive college careers, as athletes and as students, and later working in productive careers. As is the case with many coaches, Ms. Oates and Brenda Speaks were and are teachers. They taught their boys players how to win on the court and in life. The pair are constantly bombarded with all kinds of calls, letters, and stops in the street, with people telling them both that they did a great job, as coaches, teachers and mentors.
Where is she now. Where is Ballou now?
Never a “shrinking violet”, Ms. Oates is STILL just as fiery as a semi-retired school teacher, educator and coach. You can currently find her working with her mentees, friends and of course, the students. She has had articles and write-ups ALL over the media since her historic run as the first woman to coach a boy’s team, and NOT as a figure head for some other coaches and administrators. One that she is particularly proud of was done by the late George Michael, who Ms. Oates considered a good friend. She lives in Northwest Washington and can be found and seen in her neighborhood or at a local barber shop, talking shop. She also is a strong force and assistant to her former assistant, Brenda Speaks, who is a strong voice for the people of her commission. When Brenda Speaks advocates for her community, the community also gets Wanda Oates, who knows how to fight and WIN for people who are long shots.
Wanda Oates definitely left Ballou a better place. She left it a proud place. Many people want to look on that side of the world and say that there is nothing to be salvaged “there”. Some will say, don’t send resources in that part of the world. Neither this author nor this publication feels that way, but those feelings and sentiments exist and persist. Well, after creating winners and winning attitudes, Ballou has pride. The students know some new winning formulas that may not have been prevalent in another time in that place. They walk to and from school with a feeling that they know how to win. They do so because of a woman, in fact, two women, who did not give up on them, as some others had and have.


What does the future hold.? If you know or have met Wanda Oates, and Brenda Speaks, who are together quite a bit, you know that there is no blue print to what may happen. After all, once a pioneer, always a pioneer. Maybe Ms. Oates will do it herself, or maybe it’ll be Ms. Speaks or maybe one will be behind the scenes showing some future pioneer how to navigate the tricky world of being first and the unfortunate, yet certain scrutiny and unfair and unnecessary treatment that will be encountered. It may for one of the former students who now runs the pioneering Ballou marching band. Maybe it will be her former student and player, who was the first woman to be elected into the MEAC Hall of Fame. Whatever it is, certainly, if there needs to be a job done, many won’t wonder whether it can be done, but when it will be done. They knew and know game plan, how to strategize, how to motivate, what players need to come in and go out. They knew and know basketball, plain and simple. Maybe they will continue
to help shape misguided thinking about the ability of women to do different things and jobs and just perform in previously uncharted waters. And, maybe next time, it won’t be such a big deal when it comes to be that the best man for the job, may just be a woman.


Penny Green, Wanda Oates, John Ershek, Brenda Speaks, Rahmeek Rasul


3000 Points Club: Archie Talley, Salem 3720 2000 Points Club: Jack Sullivan, Mount Saint Mary 2672, Dave Robinson, Navy 2669, Austin Carr, Notre Dame 2560, Johnny Dawkins, Duke 2556, Jeff Covington, Youngstown State 2424, Carlos Yates, George Mason 2420, Gene Littles,High Point College 2398, Lawrence Moten, Syracuse 2334, Chris McGuthrie. Mount Saint Mary 2297, Greg Saunders, St Bonnies 2238, Louis Bullock, Michigan 2224, Adrian Dantley, Notre Dame 2223, Kenny Saunders, George Mason 2177, Randolph Childress, Wake Forest 2208, Keith Herron, Villanova 2170, Danny Ferry, Duke 2156, Len Bias, Maryland, 2149, Dennis Scott, Georgia Tech 2115, David Hawkins, Temple 2077, Sherman Douglas, Syrcuse 2060, Fred Hentzel, Davidson 2032, Adrian Branch, Maryland 2017 50 Points Club: Archie Talley / Salem College / 11 times / 4 TIMES IN ONE WEEK, Austin Carr/ Notre Dame / 9 times, Elgin Baylor / Seattle / 2 times, Danny Ferry / Duke / 58/ 1time, Will Jones / American University 54 / 1 time, Fred Hetzel / Davidson / 53/ 1 time, Dave Robinson / Navy/ 50 /1time, Jack Sullivan / Mount St.Marys / 50 / 2 times, Jack Sullivan / Mount St.Marys / 40 / 6 times 40 Points Club: Austin Carr / Notre Dame / 23 times, Archie Talley / Salem College / 20 times, Elgin Baylor / Seattle College / 4 times, John Austin / Boston College / 4 times, Fred Hetzel / Davidson College / 4 times, Dave Robinson / Navy / 4 times, Dave Bing / Syracuse / 3 times, Michael Beasley / Kansas State / 3 times, Adrian Dantley / Notre Dame / 3 times, Kenny Carr / Nc State / 3times, Jerry Chambers / Utah / 3 times, Will Jones / American U./ 2 times, Greg Sanders / St Bonnies / 2 times, Bob Lewis / North Carolina /2 times, Scottie Reynolds / Villanova / 2 times, Danny Ferry / Duke / 1 time, Bob Whitmore / Notre Dame / 1 time, Collis Jones / Notre Dame / 1 time, Jeff Covington / Youngstown State / 1 time, Randolph Childress / Wake Forest / 1 time, Ronnie Hogue / Georgia / 1 time, Eugene Oliver / South Alabama / 1 time, Carlos Yates / George Mason / 1 time, Monte Williams / Norte Dame / 1 time, Hawkeye Whitney / Nc. State / 1 time, Lenny Bias / Maryland U / 1 time, David Hawkins / Temple / 1 time, Kermit Washington / American / 1 time, Skeeter Swift / East Tenn.State / 1 time NBA Rookie of Year: Elgin Baylor- Spingarn, Dave Bing- Spingarn, Adrian Dantley- DeMatha, Dave Robinson- Woodbridge, Grant Hill- South Lake, Steve Francis-, Kevin Durant- Montrose Christian NBA Hall Of Fame: Earl Lloyd, Dallas Shirley, Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing, Morgan Wooten, John Thompson Sr., Adrian Dantley Assist Club: Sherman Douglas - Syracuse U. / 22 assist, Kelvin Scarborough - New Mexico / 21 assists, Grayson Marshall - Clemson U. / 20 assists, Jan Panell - Oklahoma U. / 18 assists, Sidney Lowe - N.C. State / 18 assists, Brian Ellerbe - Rutgers U. / 16 assists, Charlie Smith - Georgetown U. / 16 assists, Jay Gallagher - Mount St. Mary’s / 15 assists, Penny Greene - U. of South Florida / 15 assists, Moochie Norris - West Florida / 15 assists, Harold Fox - Jacksonville U. / 14 assists, Stan Washington - San Diego / 14 assists, Toney Ellis - Colorado / 13 assists, Cricket Williams - Jacksonville U. / 13 assists, Michael Jackson - Georgetown / 13 assists, John Duren - Georgetown / 13 assists, Steve Francis - Maryland / 13 assists, Eddie Jordan - Rutgers / 13 assists, Tom Amaker - Duke / 13 assists
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