Editor’s note — This is the second in a series of three stories featuring the 2019 inductees into The Times-Gazette Highland County Athletic Hall of Fame. They will be honored at dinner/banquet, along with 56 Highland County senior student-athletes, on June 13 at the Ponderosa Banquet Center in Hillsboro. Tickets can be reserved by the public by calling 937-402-2522.
It was the sound of bouncing basketball when he was just 4, Joe B. Stewart says, that ended up setting him on his life’s course.
“My dad was the PTA president and we went over to the school one evening when I was just 4,” Stewart said. “I heard a ball bouncing in the Buckskin gym and that kind of snapped my head around. My dad said, “I think you’re OK to go see what’s going on,’ and something immediately clicked in my mind.”
That very week his two sisters took him to a high school game at Buckskin.
“They sat me on the corner of the stage and it was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. It’s still exciting,” said Stewart, now 62.
Not long thereafter Stewart found himself playing hoops in the backyard with his brother Bruce, who he still calls his favorite player, and in the upstairs of the old Moomaw Building in Lyndon with Bruce’s best friend, Bob Bristley, McClain High School’s all-time leading scorer until Dante Jackson came along. From those experiences, Stewart said, he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
In the years between then and now he has coached basketball at seven different high schools, amassing 338 wins, Southern State Community College, and in seven different African countries and Guatemala with Athletes in Action.
Still, at one point, Stewart said, some family members doubted that there was much future for him in athletics.
“But my mom said, ‘I think Joe should just keep chasing that ball and see where it takes him,’ and it has taken me all over the world… It’s been a dream,” Stewart said.
There were several others, Stewart said, that helped him along the way. He said his earliest coaches — Joe Current, Shorty Shuster and Jim Hatfield — taught him the game and kept it fun. He said his jayvee coach at McClain, Bob Patton, saved him after a miserable freshman year, and that Patton’s influence is the only reason he made it to the varsity team. He said his junior high coach, Ron Bash, introduced him to scouting and was a great influence.
There were more influences as time went along.
In basketball, Stewart was a two-year starter and an All-South Central Ohio League point guard his senior year, when the Tigers advanced to the regional tournament championship game before losing to the eventual state champions.
In baseball, he was a four-year varsity letterman, an All-SCOL honorable mention shortstop as a junior, and first-team All-SCOL selection as a senior. He also played American Legion baseball for coach Dick Shaffer in Hillsboro.
Stewart joked that while his plan “A” was to be a shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, it did not take him long to figure out his offense on a ball diamond was not going to allow that.
So, he said, it was that magical run in basketball as a senior, and sharing those experiences with his teammates, that left a lasting impression.
“They remain friends of mine and at a moment’s notice they’d be here by my side, and I’ve been there for them, at times, too,” Stewart said.
Stewart did not play sports after high school. He said he went to Wilmington College with the thought of possibly playing, and even went to some open gyms. But then his high school coach, Sam Snyder, asked him what his heart was set on.
“He said he’d have a position and I could coach if I wanted, and that was an easy yes,” Stewart said.
Snyder started taking him to coaching clinics when he was 19 and that first year out of high school Stewart began helping Snyder coach.
But there is another side to the story.
During his senior year in high school, after a baseball game, Stewart and some friends were on the way to a Cincinnati Reds game. They were in an accident and the manager of the basketball team was killed. Stewart said that just that morning he and the manager had talked about their great basketball tournament run, and how there was not going to be a speaker at their upcoming winter sports banquet.
As things turned out, though, longtime University of Dayton basketball coach Don Donoher was invited and stayed for the entire banquet. Stewart said Snyder said some words about each of his players as the program played out, then after the banquet he went up to shake hands with Donoher.
“He said, ‘Young man, it seems to me you ought be thinking about coaching,’ Stewart said. “When he said that, it really sealed it.”
It was 1982 when Stewart landed his first coaching job at Piketon. His first year they did not win a game. But then they had consecutive seasons with 11, 15 and 22 wins, respectively. From there Stewart coached at Miami Trace for three years, then landed at Hillsboro where his teams had consecutive seasons of 19-4, 20-1 and 19-2. He coached at Chillicothe, helped revive the basketball program at Southern State, then came back to Hillsboro for four more years before temporarily retiring. He re-entered the coaching ranks at Edgewood, was at Madison-Plains for three years, then last year came full circle when he returned to McClain.
“I had a lifetime of coaching some really good teams, really good players and really good people,” Stewart said. “But I would have really missed something to not have had the opportunity to come back (to Greenfield). It’s the place my coaching ideas came from, my teaching models, and it was really, really special for me knowing what it meant to the people here.”
McClain had not had a winning boys basketball season since Rick Van Matre took his 472-170 all-time record into retirement with him following the 2008-09 season. And the Tigers went just 3-20 the year before Stewart arrived. But they came storming out of the gates a year ago and finished 15-8.
“Coaching should be about the opportunity to make really good memories with young men and for them to feel what it feels like to have success was really, really rewarding,” Stewart said.
After an early season win over a good Jackson team, Stewart said he was going through postgame handshakes when two of his players grabbed him. They wanted him to come and sing the McClain alma mater with them to their fans.
“That really became the cement for our community to come together and celebrate what happens when people do the right things,” Stewart said. “…We play basketball to accomplish things an individual can’t do on their own, work together, and essentially play with one heart. I people want to succeed … and I’ve come to believe that the power of positive thoughts and actions lead to positive outcomes.”
Likely because of all those positive influences from long ago, Stewart said every coach needs to be cognizant that the things they say matter to young people.
“I feel rewarded every day to be a part of kids’ lives,” he said. “I’ve heard it said that if you remember your why, you don’t burn out, and my why has always been really fresh on my mind. I’ve come to believe that the one standard for a coach is would you want your son to play for him? You can be demanding without being demeaning.
“My dad always said, ‘Good people doing things right makes success just a matter of time,’ and that’s why things have always worked out for me. You give up the we for me, and that’s a powerful thing to see happen. That’s my why, and it was important in 1982 when I became a coach and it’s important now. I feel no rush to put a period on this sentence.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522.