VHS coach can enter retirement with his head held high

Published 12:29 am Sunday, November 6, 2011

Alonzo Stevens stood in the frigid Columbus night 11 long years ago. The then-first year Vicksburg High head football coach had the best team the school had fielded in years, but they were coming off a loss to Warren Central, not a surprise back when Stevens became head coach. Warren Central, it seemed, always beat Vicksburg back in those days.

So there was Stevens coaching his first playoff game as the Gators’ head coach against a talented Columbus team and a hostile crowd. The Gators were not ranked and were underdogs, but clawed to a one-point victory. The road test meant Vicksburg would play at home for the next playoff game against longtime nemesis Madison Central.

A victory there would put the Gators into the North State championship game, a win away from playing for it all. A heartbreaking 38-31 loss to Starkville ended the run. It would be the last time the Gators would get so close to playing for a state championship.

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The team began the 2002 year ranked No. 1 in the state, but a terrible loss to Wayne County in the Red Carpet Bowl sullied the promise of another record-setting season. They finished it with a first-round playoff loss to Horn Lake.

Since the magic of the first season, the Gators have won seven games twice and nine in 2008. With Friday night’s loss against Clinton, Stevens’ tenure as head coach has ended after 11 seasons. He ends wraps up his career with 63 wins and 65 losses.

He announced his retirement before the season started, although the whispers of getting a new coach had become more than whispers, especially after his last two seasons resulting in three wins and 19 losses.

The 59-year-old Stevens is content. He has given his life to Vicksburg. He was a star player at Rosa A. Temple High School and Alcorn State before returning to the sidelines as an assistant coach, head coach, mentor and teacher. He coached the offensive line at Alcorn when a slinger named Steve McNair made the tiny Lorman school a household name. He drove around Houston, Texas, trying to recruit a wide receiver prospect by the name of Donald Driver. Stevens found Driver living in the back of a truck. Driver landed at Alcorn and, later, into National Football League stardom.

As McNair and Driver left Alcorn, though, the success of the era could not be maintained. The university’s brass sacked the entire coaching staff. Stevens landed back at Vicksburg as an assistant.

When the Gators’ job came open, he was not the first choice — or the second — but he was tapped as the man anyway. His unwritten, unspoken charge was to return the Gators to winning ways, and finally find out a way to beat Warren Central. In the 19 years before Stevens’ ascension to head coach, the Gators beat Warren Central once — by one point — a 10-9 decision in 1990.

In 11 tries, Stevens has guided the Gators to seven wins over their archrival, including the last five in a row. That’s something the previous three VHS head coaches — all with winning records — could not do.

His career record is sub-.500 and football junkies love to judge the quality of a coach by wins and losses alone. Numbers do play a part in crafting his influence over a football team. But so does his insistence on the team attending church together, and grieving together.

He steadfastly stands by his assistant coaches, and provided this old sports writer the greatest quote ever. When the losses were mounting and Internet chat boards were gaining popularity, the faceless, nameless wonders who gravitate to those sites were berating VHS assistant coaches.

Stevens went bonkers. His tirade lasted minutes, and included, “they get on there with these fake names — the Phantom and John Wilkes Booth — and they can say anything.”

He doesn’t say many “bad” words, but in defense of his team and his coaches, a few flew that day.

Beyond the wins and losses is an honorable man — a good man. He should be remembered as someone who gave his heart and soul to Vicksburg High School. He hurt more after losses than anyone, and he hurt on Friday night’s season — make that career — coaching finale.

The pain won’t last for long, though. His future is wide open. After almost 60 years of playing, coaching and living in this community, Stevens deserves a chance to be a just another fan, dressed in green and white, cheering on the team he loves.