East St. Louis High School graduate Fernando Stevenson had all but given up on ever being the Flyers’ boys basketball coach.
But a unique set of circumstances has led to the hiring of Stevenson as the interim coach for the 2017-18 season, which begins Wednesday.
Stevenson, 44, replaces Belleville East graduate Stetson Hairston, who was suspended in November by District 189 after an audio recording surfaced in which Hairston could be heard using profanity to berate his players during a practice. Hairston is on administrative leave.
Hairston, among other things, called his players “losers.” The recording was provided to the News-Democrat by an anonymous source.
Hairston had replaced Phillip Gilbert as the Flyers’ coach after Gilbert was fired despite leading East Side to an 18-8 record last season.
Gilbert had taken over for Tony Young, who in January 2015 was fired under circumstances similar to Hairston’s. Young was secretly recorded using profanity to his players during a halftime rant.
Stevenson, a guidance counselor at East St. Louis High, was an assistant for eight seasons under late Flyers coach Dennis Brooks (2001-09). Stevenson also was an assistant for two seasons under legendary McKendree University coach Harry Statham.
“I got a phone call from the AD and he asked whether I would be interested in being the interim coach,” Stevenson said, referring to East St. Louis Athletics Director Leonard Manley. “They didn’t give me any details on what happened, but of course, I accepted the position. I thought it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, even though I wasn’t expecting the opportunity to come.
“I figure with the relationship I have already built with the students here by being an educator and now a guidance counselor, the transition would be a smooth one. And so far, it has been. It’s been great. The kids have bought into my philosophy on coaching and teaching. The kids have been through a lot, but these are some really resilient kids in this building.”
Stevenson, who graduated from East Side in 1992, said he will bring integrity and stability to the position.
“This community is ready for a good product to be put on the court, as well as having an individual in control of that product who is an upstanding person,” Stevenson said. “From what I hear, I fit that bill. The plan is to make a good enough impression to be offered the job on a full-time basis.”
Stevenson called the job “a prize possession for a lot of coaches,” one he worked hard to secure when Brooks left as coach after the 2008-09 season. Instead, the job went to Ray Coleman, and Stevenson decided at that juncture to “stay out of sight, out of mind.”
Stevenson acknowledged the disappointment he felt when he was passed over for a position he felt he had earned in his years under Brooks.
“In my mind, since I never received any real consideration, I no longer had the type of interest I once had in the position,” Stevenson said. “That left a little bit of a sour taste in my mouth because I thought having spent eight years under Dennis Brooks as the JV coach, I was next.
“I had won a lot of games (on the JV level) and I thought I had put myself in position to translate right into that job.”
Stevenson coached two years at McKendree, from 2012 to 2014. He also played for the Bearcats and was their Defensive Player of the Year in 1995-96. He averaged just under 10 points per game at McKendree.
Stevenson, who also has been a language arts teacher at East Side, said playing and coaching at McKendree was a rewarding and educational experience.
“I sponged everything I could from Harry Statham,” Stevenson said. “He was an excellent mentor for me. He taught me a lot as a player and taught me a lot as a coach – how to coach. He demonstrated what humility is, and I brought that back here. Once my stint at McKendree was over, my passion was still there to coach, but my bigger passion was making sure I was able to be in position to service the kids of East St. Louis.”
The Flyers’ first game will be against North Chicago in the Adam Lopez Thanksgiving Tournament at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Lanphier High School in Springfield. The tournament continues Friday and Saturday.