Anyone looking through the fence as the season's first football practice was about to get underway Wednesday at Dunbar's East Baltimore field saw a bunch of guys in helmets and shorts and T-shirts tossing footballs, stretching or just talking.
Everything appeared the same as any other year and that's exactly what Dunbar athletic director Dana Johnson wanted as preseason practice began for the Poets and all other fall sports team at Maryland public schools.
Despite being without coach Lawrence Smith, who is appealing a one-year suspension for his handling of an alleged locker-room hazing incident last fall, the Poets are moving on with business as usual under interim coach Michael Carter, the Poets' defensive coordinator for the past few years.
Johnson said she has complete confidence in Carter to take over the most successful public school football program in Maryland. Since making their first appearance in the state final in 1993, the Poets have won nine state championships and missed the playoffs only three times. No team has won more state playoff games.
"Coach C's been part of the last three state championships," Johnson said. "His credentials speak for themselves. It's not like he's somebody you just threw in there. He's somebody who knows what they're doing and has a rapport and a relationship with the kids."
That's especially important with 29 seniors gone from last year's 45-man roster and many players moving up from the city championship JV. The young players want to put their own stamp on the Dunbar legacy and get back to the state tournament after the team fell in the regional final last season to Baltimore City rival Patterson.
Johnson wants to minimize distractions as Carter begins to mold this year's team and that includes shielding him and the players from the media until a decision has been made in Smith's appeal.
She and Bob Wade, coordinator of athletics for the Baltimore City Public Schools, said they did not know when a decision might be made.
In the meantime, Johnson said the players know what's going on and they haven't asked many questions other than when will there be a decision on Smith's fate. She said they're comfortable with Carter.
Over the summer, Dunbar officials posted a job opening for a head football coach on the school's web site, but Johnson said no one from outside the program applied. The posting has since been taken down.
Carter did apply for the job, Johnson said, and she was happy to keep the job in house. All of the other paid assistant coaches also return to the program.
"It's very important [to keep that consistency]," Johnson said. "These kids have been working with Coach C since I've been here and I've been here four years, so I think he's been here about five years. It's not a new vision. It's not new leadership. It's just a new voice."
In June, Smith was suspended from coaching football for one year after a city schools investigation into the alleged hazing incident. A city schools police officer, he was reassigned from Dunbar. The coach said in June he would appeal the suspension, but declined to speak further.
Details of the incident, which allegedly involved junior varsity football players in the Dunbar locker room in November, were not made public. Edie House-Foster, spokeswoman for the city schools, has said she cannot comment on the situation because it is a personnel issue.
Smith coached the Poets to five state championships after taking over when previous coach Ben Eaton died suddenly just before the 2007 began The Poets have never missed the playoffs under Smith, making it to the state semifinals every year but last year.
Dunbar kicks off its season at home on Sept. 5 against Friendship Collegiate Academy from Washington, D.C.