Benton Harbor — Elliot Uzelac was taking congratulations from countless people at the South Shores Health and Racquet Club in St. Joseph in late July after accepting the head football job at Benton Harbor High School.
Now, longtime Benton Harbor resident Harold Hampton is calling the job Uzelac and his staff have done as “The Miracle on Colfax.”
That’s how quickly the 74-year-old Uzelac is changing the culture at Benton Harbor. The Tigers are 2-1 following last week’s 35-13 rout of Niles. Their lone loss came against Gull Lake, 20-13, in the season opener.
Benton Harbor defeated MSU-bound linebacker Brandon Randle and Battle Creek Central 14-9 in Week No. 2. The same three opponents defeated the Tigers by a combined 114-9 margin during the first three games last season.
“I’m super proud of them,” said Uzelac of his 32 players, which includes several sophomores. Benton Harbor doesn’t field a JV team. “I truly love the kids. I love the community, the people have been great.
“Anything we can do to get Benton Harbor High School, the community and, most importantly, the student-athletes to be relevant again. I want it to be relevant in their lives again.”
Uzelac has taken Benton Harbor’s program a long way in a short time.
The Tigers are coming off consecutive 0-9 seasons and four winless seasons in an eight-year span. The other four seasons were 1-8 (2009-12), leaving their eight-year run at 4-68.
The Tigers have won 35 games in the last 21 years heading into this season.
Benton Harbor’s last winning season was in 1989 when the team finished 6-3. The Tigers failed to earn a winning season even when Wayne State and Detroit Lions’ Joique Bell was a running back on the team a decade ago.
“(Uzelac is) a blessing to this community,” said Hampton, 62. “They’ve come a long way and that’s important. We really appreciate him. These guys aren’t the same guys. There’s been something that’s been missing the last generation, definitely for more than a decade. They’ve been working hard on the field and making wise choices in school. It’s all about discipline. I work in the lunchroom and can see the difference in them.”
Uzelac — who earned MAC Coach of the Year honors at Western Michigan in 1976 at age 35 and was an assistant at Michigan (1973-74, 1982-86) — last coached at nearby St. Joseph High from 2006-10, taking over a team that was 0-9 in ’05 and turning it into a playoff team at 6-5 the first year, then to 12-1 and a Division 3 state semifinal appearance in Year 2.
“I missed (coaching) a lot,” Uzelac said. “The two things I love is being around young kids and the competition. My wife (Wendy) said, ‘You look a little bored, why don’t you think about coaching, and I just want to say this, if you do want to coach go to Benton Harbor.
“We’ve lived here for eight years and we know how bad it’s been for those kids. Why don’t you go and see if you can help them, both on and off the field. You know it will be a cultural change.’ We made some calls and eventually it worked out.”
Still, the 2-1 start helps players buy into what Uzelac preaches, which is hard work and execution.
“Now, we know what we’re doing, we stick together and pay attention,” said junior linebacker/running back Percy Brown, who scored three TDs in the win over Niles. “We changed everything from the first day he got here
The commitment is there, too, quarterback Tim Bell said.
“Our players are willing to work hard and our coaches are willing to make us work hard,” Bell said.
“Our linemen weren’t willing to work hard last year. They’re working a lot harder this season.”
And, those linemen have to be focused, listening and learning the college-type plays called by Uzelac, who is also the offensive coordinator. Former Michigan offensive lineman Jerry Diorio is the defensive coordinator.
“I didn’t know anything about Coach Uzelac before he got here,” junior receiver/linebacker George Walker said. “He said he was a college coach, but I didn’t know he was this good of a coach.
“It’s the play schemes. He makes us work hard. The blocking schemes are excellent. They all come from different colleges. We have a college-set practice every day. We trust the coaches.”
Uzelac is impressed with how far the players have come in such a short time.
“There light years from where they were on the first day of practice, but they still fall back into some of their old habits,” Uzelac said. “It’s hard because they’ve lived this way their whole lives. We’re demanding more from them.
“There are times they reach it, but then they fall back and that’s because they’ve never done it. It’s not like they don’t want to do it. They don’t even know how hard to push themselves yet, but we’re trying to get there.”
Uzelac is coaching Benton Harbor like it’s an elite college program.
“I’m coaching them just like I coached when I was at the University of Michigan and University of Colorado,” said Uzelac, who was the offensive line coach under Bo Schembechler when Jim Harbaugh was the Wolverines’ quarterback nearly 30 years ago. “All I want to do is improve every single game. I don’t even worry about our opponent.
“All I worry about is us. I can’t control what our opponents do, but I can control what we do. If we get better each and every game, it gives us a better chance for the next one.”
And, Friday’s game at Portage Central poses Benton Harbor’s biggest challenge.
“Portage Central is the most physical team we’ll play all year,” Uzelac said. “They come off the ball well and we have to match them physically.”