NAPLES — You’ve heard of tough acts to follow?
I wouldn’t necessarily want to be the person who next takes the reins of Lely High School’s boys basketball program.
Don Stewart on Monday made it official. The icon of Trojans basketball and a devoted champion for the Lely community is hanging up his whistle after 26 seasons as the team’s head coach.
The 60-year-old leaves behind a trail of stirring victories and hard-fought championships, yes, but more importantly, a legacy of caring about people like few others in his position have.
“To be honest, I’ve always put family first. Sometimes, though, basketball made doing that pretty tough,” he said late Monday afternoon in a cramped classroom adjacent to the gymnasium.
Oh yeah, they’ll eventually hire someone to occupy Stewart’s seat on the bench — the seat he rarely sat in as the drama and energy of a game unfolded.
That doesn’t mean, however, they’re ever going to be able replace him. To one-up Stewart, the “next guy” will have to win 457 games. He’ll also have Stewart’s eight district titles and 10 20-win seasons at which to shoot.
Big sneakers to fill, indeed.
Stewart, wanting to spend more time with his family and sensing his timing was right in stepping down, departs the sidelines having been named Southwest Florida’s Coach of the Year 10 times.
Not bad for an admittedly superstitious man who carries a security towel instead of a security blanket. Some 14 years ago, assistant coach Greg Peppera gave Stewart a small piece of orange terry cloth, and every game since, Stewart has clutched that towel in his right hand.
When Stewart retrieved the cherished keepsake from his office Monday, its color appeared faded, as did the black letters that spelled out COACH. There were significantly fewer threads left, too.
Stewart always made sure his players had their personal orange towels for each contest as well, and it was his routine to carefully place one on each Trojans’ chair during the pre-game warm-up.
“I guess I was superstitious, but I kind of got away from that a little bit toward the end. I still did the little thing with the towels. I don’t know, I guess it just became a habit more than anything else,” he said.
The trademark of a Don Stewart-coached team?
One simple motto: “Working hard to be champions.”
He wrote it on the whiteboard as often as possible. He even made sure those five words were placed at the end of a prepared statement put out by Stewart and Lely High midday Monday.
“Working hard to be champions — on and off the court,” Stewart, the school’s physical education department head and Fellowship of Christian Athletes sponsor, emphasized.
One has to think Stewart will keep his popular FCA “Movie Night’” tradition going. The students meet at the school to share snacks, watch flicks and enjoy a treasured togetherness.
Steering clear of naming a best team or best player ever, Stewart even had trouble singling out one day to savor as his best day ever at Lely High.
After a long, thoughtful pause, he said, “I was really proud and happy to see my three sons graduate from Lely,” he said of Stacey, Scott and Jared.
Those who attended the Lely High games saw only one side of Stewart — a fiercely intense competitor who sometimes stomped up and down the sidelines, raised his voice (on many occasions) and made facial contortions newspaper photographers loved to get into print whenever possible.
“Whenever they took my picture, it always looked like I was a raving maniac or something,” he joked. “Couldn’t they have taken a good picture of me?”
Despite his sideline antics, Stewart said he was on good terms with local referees, and in his 26 seasons, earned only a handful of technical fouls.
“It was four or five,” he said. “I know I can count them on one hand, that’s for sure. I always had the utmost respect for the officials. They’ve got a tough job to do. Those who listened to what I was saying understood what I was trying to get at.”
As for grudges, Stewart, declined prolonged ill feelings — even toward a Daily News that sometimes didn’t deliver the level of coverage he thought his teams — and his rivals, too — warranted.
Recent times — and the passing of some of his closest friends and contemporaries — have caused Stewart to focus more “on what really matters in life.” The death of Trojans football coach Merv Ward saddened Stewart, who enjoyed eight years as an assistant on the gridiron at Lely.
Longtime supporter Ron Haar — he and Ward faithfully manned the scoring table at Lely games — passed away as well.
And of course, there was the loss of former Trojan football standout Ereck Plancher at the University of Central Florida.
Stewart’s coaching endeavors ended on a high note, as his Trojans this spring won the district title over rival Golden Gate High, and made a run that ended in the regional final — one victory away from the Florida Finals.
He downplayed that success in his decision to step away.
“I love to win championships, don’t get me wrong,” he said, looking over at a stack of congratulatory e-mails he’d received Monday once the news of his retirement got out. “But there’s so much more to coaching. I don’t think our run at the end this year affected my thinking one way or the other. My family and I had been talking and planning for some time.”
That having been said, all’s well that ends well.
Goodness knows, Stewart worked hard enough — and long enough.
Now, if future Trojans want to be champions, they’ll have to do the same.
E-mail correspondent Tom Rife at email@example.com.