Brought on as the interim coach 11 days before the start of the season, Fernando Stevenson has so far led the East St. Louis Flyers to four wins in six games.
He’ll get the chance to build on that record once the District 189 School Board officially upgrades his status at its meeting Tuesday. In the meantime, Stevenson says he’s looking forward to re-establishing some stability to a program that has rifled through four coaches since 2015.
The board last went though this exercise in April, hiring former Belleville East and Southern Illinois University Carbondale standout Stetson Hairston to coach the Flyers. But a profanity-laced rant during a preseason practice was caught on an audio recording and shared with school administration, which led to his suspension.
The same thing happened to Tony Young, whose halftime tirade got him fired midway through the 2015 season. Interim coach Hank Harris made way for Phillip Gilbert, who was 32-22 in two seasons before being replaced by Hairston.
But recent history doesn’t reflect the experience Stevenson has had with the program, he said. When he recalls the years past, he references more stabilizing East St. Louis coaching figures such as James Moton, Dennis Brooks, Dwight Howard, Nino Fennoy and Bob Shannon.
“These are the guys that have helped shape the coach and the man that I am today. Being around (longtime McKenree coach) Harry Statham didn’t hurt either,” said Stevenson, a 1992 graduate of East Side and the McKendree Defensive Player of the Year in 1996. “East St. Louis is a coaches factory. There are a lot of people you learn from both directly and vicariously ...
“They taught me how to be a coach, practice humility and how to take care of kids.”
Stevenson didn’t come into the job cold. He works as a guidance counselor at East St. Louis and was an assistant under Brooks for eight seasons — he knows the program and already had comfortable relationships with most of his players.
But the quick turnaround from Hairston’s dismissal to the start of the season, Stevenson says, is a credit to the players’ “resilience.”
Junior forward Terrence Hargrove Jr. and senior Joe Reece lead the Flyers on the court. Hargrove averages a team-high 20.7 points and 10.3 rebounds. Reece is right behind him at 16.5 points and 9.2 boards.
The pair also have been galvanizing through the tight transition, Stevenson said.
“There’s a camaraderie between those two and continues to build,” he said. “Those two took it upon themselves to be the leaders of this thing. I’ve tried to take a back seat and let that take place. I try to nurture that leadership between the two of them and coach it up.
“They are both special players, but more than that, they are two great kids.”
The Flyers won three games in a row before taking a 75-71 Southwestern Conference loss to 5-1 Alton on Friday. They face another key game this week when they take on 6-1 Belleville West.
“One of our Achilles heels so far is we get a slow start. We seem to spot teams a few baskets before we decide to start playing,” Stevenson said. “I tell my guys against good teams that’s going to get you beat.
“But this is not a rebuild. We’ve got some quality pieces in place and I’m just thrilled to be in this opportunity and watch these kids continue to grow as players, as a team and as young men.”