Kris Stephens has been a part of Belleville Township High School District 201 football for the better part of 22 years, first as a player at East and then as a hard-working defensive assistant for coach Cameron Pettus at West.
So when Tim Funk suddenly resigned as the Lancers’ head coach in March of 2015, Stephens was quickly identified as a likely successor.
But after difficult three seasons competitively, the District 201 Board will have to begin the search again. Stephens, 41, submitted a letter of resignation as head of the Lancers’ football program on Oct. 25.
“Kris is a quality character guy and he was the right choice (for the job),” said East Athletics Director Mark Larsen.
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The Lancers went 9-19 in three seasons under Stephens. They finished 6-3 and qualified for the playoffs his first year, then slumped to 2-7 in 2017 and 1-8 in the most recent season that ended with a 45-3 loss to Belleville West, Oct. 20.
Stephens says he’s already been contacted by other area coaches, though he’s not likely to leave his job teaching math in District 201. For the moment, he says he has no interest in being a head coach again, but may entertain an assistant’s role again when the time is right.
“One thing I knew going in is that head coaches in football don’t coach. They coach coaches and are administrators,” he said. “I would look forward to getting back and working with the kids one on one. But I have no desire to get back into head coaching as it currently sits.”
A bigger frustration, he said, is the growing need for high school coaches to recruit players in order to be competitive.
Several top players who had been at East transferred elsewhere under Stephens’ watch. They include, among others, running back DeMonta Witherspoon, who got 17 carries and caught four passes for the varsity team as a freshman at East, but as a junior is the leading running back at East St. Louis, which plays Saturday in the Class 7A state semifinals.
“The hardest part and the part of the job I didn’t navigate well is recruiting,” Stephens said. “The game at the high school level has changed. Kids are selling themselves to the highest bidder. I had an idea, but was not completely prepared, to be honest.”
Larsen said the job has been posted internally and will be advertised nationally on coaching websites.
After graduating from East in 1995, Stephens went on to play college football for four years at Millikin University in Decatur when Funk was still a coach there. He was the defensive coordinator at West 15 seasons under Pettus, who also played for Funk at Millikin.
At the time Stephens was hired at East in the spring of 2015, District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier said the board had considered numerous other candidates, including three from within the district. Filling the job with an external candidate this time around will depend on what needs the district has for teachers, Dosier said.
The head football coaches in District 201 are paid a stipend equal to 14 percent of their teaching salary.
“My daughter had Kris in math, so I know first hand that he’s a fantastic teacher, which is most important to us,” Dosier said. “I can’t predict how things will work out, but I do hope he’ll coach again in the district when the time is right.”