Steven Fitzhugh would prefer to remain under the radar, but it just wasn’t meant for Ouachita Christian’s veteran head coach to escape the spotlight in 2019.
From having the school’s new turf field named in his honor, to winning his 200th game, to guiding the Eagles to their seventh state championship, to being named head coach of the East squad for the I-20 Bowl, it was probably the most eventful year during his 22-year stint as head coach at OCS. Coach Fitzhugh is on center stage, once again, as The Ouachita Citizen’s Coach of the Year.
Of course, no story on coach Fitzhugh would be complete without mentioning the way he successfully lobbied to have the Division IV state championship game played in the Mercedez-Benz Superdome alongside the non-select schools.
When the select schools voted to withdraw from the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Classic, coach Fitzhugh made his opposition to the move clear. As the higher seed, OCS had the right to choose to play the state championship game on campus or at a neutral site. Without going too deeply into the repetitive specifics, the LHSAA granted coach Fitzhugh’s request and allowed the Eagles and Catholic-Pointe Coupee to play in the Superdome Classic.
“In September, the LHSAA said, ‘We’ll let you re-vote.’ Out of the 39 schools that voted no, 25 have never been to the Dome before, so they don’t have a clue about the excitement and morale it brings to the school,” coach Fitzhugh said, the emotion still evident in his voice nearly a week after the championship game. “Once the LHSAA said, yes, it was a dream come true just to be playing for the state championship in the Dome.”
Apparently, coach Fitzhugh’s efforts to have the game played in the Dome were appreciated in the LHSAA central office as well. When he thanked the governing body for allowing the Eagles to play in the Dome during the postgame press conference, an LHSAA employee replied, “Thank you for wanting to be here.”
OCS’ current crop of seniors were in the seventh grade when the Eagles won their sixth state title in 2014.
“None of these guys had ever played in the Dome,” coach Fitzhugh said. “I took 10 or 12 guys down there last year so they could soak up the sights and sounds of the Dome.”
Once cleared to play in the Dome, the Eagles delivered with a 67-22 victory.
“I told our guys before we left, ‘You are going to be wooed by the Dome, but the field is still the same,’” coach Fitzhugh said.
OCS began and ended its state championship season in style as the installation of a new turf field was completed just days before the season opener vs. Arcadia. Rather than joining the team in the locker room, coach Fitzhugh and his son, senior Will Fitzhugh were called to midfield. They were soon joined by coach Fitzhugh’s wife Janna, sons Grant and Maddox and daughter Ellie Kate. Unbeknownst to the coach, he had been retained at halftime for the dedication of Steven Fitzhugh Field.
“It was humbling when they pulled that surprise on me in Week 1. On top of that, Grant got to come home that weekend,” said coach Fitzhugh, referring to his son, who is a defensive back for Harding University. “Just getting the turf field had been a dream for 10 years. A lot of these guys that are seniors were in the third grade when we started raising funds for turf. Some of their parents were on board with it when we started. We were hoping to get it done in the 5-7 year range, but it turned into 10. It’s sure been a blessing to have. Walking out on this field never gets old.”
In a unique moment that created considerably less fanfare, coach Fitzhugh was on the field at halftime again several weeks later. Shedding his rain gear and slipping into dress shoes, coach Fitzhugh was properly attired in suit and tie as he and Janna escorted Ellie Kate, a freshman maid, during the homecoming ceremony.
“It was pouring down rain, but we were walking on turf and nobody’s shoes got wet,” coach Fitzhugh laughed. “That was one of the fun memories of the year.”
Coach Fitzhugh was recognized again in Week 9, this time for a postseason ceremony. OCS blanked St. Frederick 42-0 on Senior Night for his 200th career coaching victory.
“Will Ellender hit the game-winning field goal on us with about a minute and a half left (in 2018). St. Frederick finished stronger than us last year,” coach Fitzhugh said. “To be able to shutout one of our biggest rivals in our senior’s last regular season home game made it a special night.”
Looking back on the state championship run, the Eagles’ most dramatic victory came in the quarterfinals against Calvary Baptist. Down 20-0 in the first quarter and 33-13 at halftime on the road, the Eagles rallied for a 49-47 victory.
Will Fitzhugh’s 2-point conversion run gave OCS its first lead, 49-47, with 2:42 remaining.
As with any state championship team, the Eagles had their share of unsung heroes, one of which emerged on the ensuing kickoff.
“Julian Stephenson rotated early in the year in a starting position on defense. Later in the year his playing time went down, but he was still playing special teams. He kept going full speed every play, and didn’t pout about anything,” coach Fitzhugh said. “He had been playing corner most of the year. But, against Calvary, he played a lot in the second half at strong safety, even though he hadn’t had a ton of reps there.”
Stephenson, listed at 5-foot-6, 135 pounds, made his biggest impact on special teams as he stripped the ball away on the final kickoff against Calvary. Teammate Walker Morris retrieved the loose ball, and the Eagles ran out the clock.
“Julian squared up with a 240-pound running back. As he is getting run over, he got his hand on the ball, caused a fumble, and they never got it back,” coach Fitzhugh said. “That may have been our play of the year. I think Julian’s attitude and courage epitomized what this team was all about. They played with passion, and they played for each other.”
OCS won its first state championship on Friday the 13th in December of 1985. The Eagles (13-1) won their most recent state title 34 years to the day later, once again on Friday the 13th.
A poster in the OCS weight room proclaims that the Eagles are carrying the torch passed down by previous teams, and setting the standard for those who follow.
Through the years, Coach Fitzhugh has made a conscious effort to keep the alumni involved in the program.
“I told the seniors from last year that they are part of this victory because of what they passed on to this year’s team,” coach Fitzhugh said. “They loved and cared for each other just like this year’s team.”
Chanting parts of a Bible chapter has become a ritual for the OCS football team.
One player will recite a line, and the entire team will pick up the next line. This year’s chant was based on Psalms 18:37-46. Team chaplain Will Fitzhugh led the readings this year, Gavin Shepherd led the year prior. Henry Messinger will continue the tradition next year.
“That’s something Abilene Christian’s football team did years ago, and coach (Daniel) Bristo brought it here,” coach Fitzhugh said. “It’s not an intimidation chant, it’s an empowerment chant for ourselves.”
Something about the way the Eagles recited the lines after Thursday’s walk-through in the Dome relieved any anxiety coach Fitzhugh had regarding the championship game.
“Once we broke it down after the walk-through and did our chant, it all clicked,” coach Fitzhugh said. “The way it echoed through that big, empty building, I could tell our guys were here on a business trip. I didn’t even have to tell them it was time to put their game faces on. We played our best football Friday. The chant served its purpose, and got us in game mode.”
One of the keys to being a successful head coach is putting together a quality staff.
There has been minimal turnover among the OCS assistant coaches over the years. Tim Mosher leads the way with 20-plus years of experience. Drew Vidrine and Randall Bentley are both into their second decade with the program. Cleo Head and Robby Devinney, the most recent additions to the staff, have both been on board for over five years. Mosher, Vidrine and Devinney are OCS alumni.
“I bet those five guys have over 60 years of experience as OCS coaches,” coach Fitzhugh said. “They all sacrifice big-time for this program. I can’t say enough about what they do.”
Former head coach Micah Harper, who continues to join the staff in the press box on game nights, just completed his 40th year with the Eagles.
Needless to say, it always helps to have good players.
“We had great senior leadership all year,” coach Fitzhugh said. “This is a bunch of great kids who love each other. They have great, great attitudes. They did things the right way.
“It was a blessed, blessed year.”