Smithhart’s departure was end of an era

Published 10:00 pm Friday, December 29, 2017

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series counting down the top five sports stories in Warren County in 2017.

The BJ Smithhart era of St. Aloysius football included some of the most memorable moments of the modern era. In February, it came to an end as the coach stepped down after more than a decade in the job.

The coach who had guided the Flashes to the 2014 MHSAA Class 1A championship game, and then through a successful transition to the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools the following summer, stepped down in February to pursue another opportunity that came quickly.

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Smithhart was hired as the head coach at West Lincoln High School a couple of weeks after his announcement, leaving a legacy of success and good memories in his native Vicksburg.

Smithhart’s departure is the No. 3 sports story in Warren County for 2017.

“This is home. I’ve been here nine years. That sounds crazy to say,” Smithhart said in February, when he announced he was leaving St. Al. “This is something we’ve been planning for the last year and a half. With two kids, we felt it was time to get back in the retirement system. St. Al knew it was coming. I told them back in November (2016) it was likely, and then in January I told them it was for certain.”

Smithhart had just a 54-54 record over nine seasons as St. Al’s coach, but reached the highest of highs. His 2013 team got to the Class 1A semifinals, and the following season the Flashes set school records for wins in a season (14) while reaching the title game for the first time since 1982. They finished 14-2, with both losses coming to archrival Cathedral in the season opener and the state championship game.

Three of Smithhart’s players from those teams — offensive lineman Drake Dorbeck and running back DeMichael Harris (Southern Miss) and offensive lineman Ben Brown (Ole Miss) — signed with Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Before Dorbeck signed with USM in 2015, it had been 14 years since a St. Al player signed with a Division I program.

“It was great. It really started the playoffs before, because we had to win our last regular-season game to get in. Something clicked and the guys played so far up to their potential it was amazing,” Smithhart said in February. “Those two years, we had some great kids. When they come back now it’s still something we talk about.”

In July 2015, those two schools and Greenville-St. Joseph bolted for the MAIS when a number of MHSAA schools successfully lobbied the organization to more strictly enforce recruiting rules that would have affected students at the three schools along the Mississippi River.

St. Al went 8-15 in its first two seasons in the MAIS, but Smithhart’s reason for leaving St. Al was a long-range plan for he and his family. St. Al is a private school, and Smithhart’s years of work there don’t count toward the state retirement plan. The 39-year-old coached in the public school system for five years before coming to St. Al, and he wanted to get back there with enough time to become vested in the retirement system.

Smithhart led West Lincoln to a 5-6 record this season, and a berth in the MHSAA Class 2A playoffs. It was just the second playoff berth in school history.

Smithhart was replaced at St. Al by his friend and former assistant coach Michael Fields.

“It’s going to be weird knowing that I’m not going to be coaching them, but it’s great knowing it’s him taking over,” Smithhart said in February. “I love him to death, and I think it’ll be a good transition.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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