Retired coach returns to restore Benton Harbor’s hope

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WOOD) – A football coach is out of retirement and restoring hope both on and off the field in Benton Harbor.

Since the mid-60s, Elliot Uzelac has lived football. He coached at Western Michigan University and Navy, alongside Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan and Bill Belichick in the NFL.

It probably comes as no surprise that retirement didn’t work out for him.

“I said, go to Benton Harbor. They need somebody. And that’s how it all started,” said Wendy Uzelac.

Filstrup Field in Benton Harbor.
Filstrup Field in Benton Harbor.

“Every day he started asking me, ‘What are we going to do today?’ And I said, ‘Elliot, I am not your social director,’” said his wife, Wendy Uzelac with a laugh.

On a family trip to Alabama, Wendy planted the seed to coach again.

“I said, go to Benton Harbor. They need somebody. And that’s how it all started,” she said.

After four years of retirement, Uzelac was back on the field. But nothing in his pedigree of coaching could ever have prepared this 74-year-old for Day One at Benton Harbor.

“It’s night and day. I tell people the first day of practice looked like the movie, “The Longest Yard.” It was unbelievable – balls were going into the woods, I don’t know how many footballs I lost the first day. And then kids were running into each other. And then some kid ran into a fence, and I don’t know how he did that, because the fence was far away,” said Uzelac.

Coach Uzelac had just inherited a team that lost 68 of its last 72 games, two weeks before the season’s start.

“We didn’t really care if we won or lost. We wanted to win but if we [were] losing, we didn’t really care,” said junior runningback and linebacker Percy Brown. “We used to fight each other- locker rooms, games, halftime- it didn’t really matter.

Uzelac and the players didn’t know what they were in for just yet. During two-a-days, it was clear some of the players had no food to eat in between practices.

That’s when the “Tiger moms” stepped in.

“We feed them every Friday,” said Wendy Uzelac. “ We make sure they have meat, chicken usually, pasta, a vegetable, sometimes a salad, fresh fruit, cut up and great desserts.”

With bread on the table, it was time to worry about bread winning. Uzelac said many of the football players were supplementing their family’s income. Those football families also had difficulties negotiating practice around work. Before focusing on the fundamentals, Coach Uzelac worked with the school board, finding supplemental jobs that wouldn’t interfere with practice.

Coach Uzelac also worked to get the players a weight room, meeting room, new equipment and a trainer.

“We didn’t have anything,” Coach Uzelac said. “I remember, I taped one kid’s ankle and I looked at him and I said, ‘Good luck.'”

“[Coach Uzelac] was a nobody to us at first,” Brown said. “[Now he’s] everything.”

Coach Elliot Uzelac Benton Harbor Tigers 110515
Coach Elliot Uzelac on the field in Benton Harbor.

With that, the Tigers’ transformation had begun and the team celebrated its first win in 21 games.

The team that every other team had scheduled for homecoming, expecting an easy win, finished 5-4.

“I didn’t know this- they did not have a winning season since ’89 and have never in the history of the school, been to the playoffs,” said Coach Uzelac.

And then, history was made. On Oct. 30, 2015, the Tigers won their first playoff game against Dowagiac, 28-7.

What started as a story about football is ultimately a lesson about life.

“Without self-esteem, without any hope as you say, you can’t succeed in life. You’re going to make bad mistakes,” said Coach Uzelac.

“[Coach Uzelac] was a nobody to us at first,” Brown said. “[Now he’s] everything.”

“I see a lot of smiles in the hallway. I love to see our kids smile. In my heart, I think they’re starting to believe that they are important,” Coach Uzelac said.

“I know this was a gift from God,” said Wendy Uzelac. “He gifted us. Every day, we’re grateful and thankful.”

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