Danny Bakewell Jr.
Treasured School Legacy is in a Box
Verbum Dei Alumni and school administrators at crossroads
By Kenneth Miller
Sentinel Managing Editor
The once powerful and rich athletic tradition of one of Southern California’s most treasured institutions made a historical hire of a varsity football coach that has school administrators and its influential alumni at a critical crossroads.
Verbum Dei High School, an all male private Catholic school located in Watts, has for decades been a symbol of success churning our star athletes and transforming troubled youth into scholars and stars throughout its illustrious history.
However, the cornerstone for the foundation of much of that success has been its committed alumni which beyond the years of their graduation and success in sports and business feels that it is being forced out.
Last week the tiny school in Watts with roughly 314 students split almost evenly between Hispanics and African Americans selected former Compton and Gardena Serra assistant coach James Durk as it’s new football coach.
The decision to hire Durk over former legendary Verbum Dei coach Lalo Mendoza was perhaps the final wedge between the administration and the Verbum Dei Alumni Association.
The alumni recommended Mendoza, the first non Verbum Dei alumni to be hired as coach, but Principal Dr. Daniel O’Connell selected Durk.
O’Connell, in his first year at the school, and President Rev. William Muller, SJ were not available for comment.
However, another alumni Sean McCormick criticized Muller for being a dictator and not welcoming any suggestions from the parents.
McCormick is the president of the Verbum Dei Parents and Faculty Association and is miffed that Muller has suggested that if parents could afford to send their students to other schools they would and encouraged high achieving students to attend Loyola.
“On more than one occasion he has said to us that it doesn’t matter what you think that he will run the school whichever way he so decides,” McCormick told the Sentinel.
“Coach Mendoza represented a tradition and legacy that is necessary for out students-athletes. He has experience with helping young men over come enormous odds and grooms them to become positive citizens in the community,” said Teddy McMillan president of the alumni and a former player under Mendoza.
A graduate of 1987 and co-Valedictorian, McMillan went on to earn a scholarship at Cal State Fullerton and currently works in the education field.
He is among an illustrious list of former Verbum Dei alums such as the late Raymond Lewis, UCLA assistant basketball coach Donny Daniels, successful businessman and developer Danny Bakewell Jr., acclaimed actor Danny Glover, former NBA players David Greenwood and Kenny Fields, former NFL stars Hardy Nickerson, Vernon Maxwell, current NBA star Andre Miller and current NFL player Kenechi Udeze.
It’s a legacy that the alumni contends is not welcome and appreciated by the current administration, and they cite proof of the countless awards and trophies that the athletic programs have won being locked award in a bend instead of being on display.
McMillan says that alumni have offered to even build a trophy case to display the items that reflect the school’s glorious history, but has been ignored.
Since the school opened in 1962, it has been its storied athletic tradition that has brought heightened attention and resources to the school.
In the past Rev. Fisher Robinson embraced it, but apparently the current administration is destined to move forward into an element of the unknown.
The hiring of a new football coach was more than about one single sporting event, especially since Mendoza has captured championships and developed athletes in other sports and beyond the playing surface.
According to the alumni it was about the future direction of the school and embracing the legacy that was established during some of the most turbulent times in the history of our nation, particularly the Watts Riots of 1965.
“As members of the alumni, we have a vested responsibly to Verbum Dei and our opinions are based on living experience through our relationship with the school and it should be respected and welcomed,” said Bakewell Jr.
The school is operated by the Roman catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and is governed by the Cristo Rey model which indicates that Verbum Dei would only accept economically disadvantaged students or whose parents cannot earn more than $75,000.
“That would mean that individuals such as myself and many other successful alumni could not send their sons to a school they adore and love,” added McMillan.