It might be a pretty strange sight this fall when the Belen Jesuit football team takes the field for the first time.
Strange because for the first time since the 1983 season, someone other than Rich Stuart will be pacing the sidelines coaching the Wolverines.
Stuart announced two months ago that he would be stepping down after 34 years running the Belen football program and will settle into his new role as director of athletics for the Belen middle school.
And with that comes the end of an era as the book closes on the longest-tenured coach in Miami-Dade County at the same school. North Miami Beach’s Jeff Bertani, who started in 1997 at NMB, now takes over that title. Stuart’s defensive coordinator Eddie Delgado, who has been on his staff for the past 26 years, will take over as the new coach.
On Tuesday morning, Stuart was recognized and honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Miami Herald’s All-Dade Athletic Awards Banquet at Parrot Jungle.
“I’ve been so blessed for the last 36 years, 34 as head coach and want to thank Carlos Barquin [long-time Belen athletic director] for taking a chance on a 24-year-old kid who clearly was not ready for the job,” said Stuart, laughing. “We certainly took our lumps early on, and it was a real battle getting things off the ground. But he stuck with me, and the rest is history.”
History indeed as Stuart would spend the next 34 seasons not only coaching the Wolverines to success on the field, but off it as well. Many of his players, who are all held to high academic standards at the school, went on to more academic success than athletics, many at Ivy League schools.
Even when Orange Bowl Committee president Jose Romano got up to say a few words Tuesday morning, the long reach of Stuart came out.
“I just want to thank my high school football coach, who is sitting out there this morning, for everything he did for me,” said Romano who played for Stewart in the mid-’80s. “It is only appropriate you be recognized with a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award.”
Stuart steps aside as the coach with the most victories of any coach in Miami-Dade County history with a record of 224-143. Last October, he surpassed the mark previously held by former Miami Beach and Palmetto coach Jim Kroll.
But ask Stuart about his career highlight on the field and he doesn’t hesitate.
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It was eight years ago that his team caught a hot set of dice and rolled to four consecutive wins in the 2009 state playoffs. Suddenly, Stewart and his kids found themselves playing in the 3A state championship game in Orlando and even though it wasn’t quite the storybook ending they wanted as they fell to Pensacola 28-7, Stewart said it was still a thrill he would never trade.
“That was an incredible ride and I wish every coach, especially ones who have been in it for a long time, would get to experience,” Stuart said. “Even if you don’t win it, which we didn’t, just to make it to that kind of a big stage is such a magnificent feeling.”
Even with all of the on-field accomplishments, Stuart said the thing he’s most proud of during his long tenure was his school’s strict admission standards.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that we don’t take any kids after ninth grade here,” Stuart said “If you’re not in here by ninth grade, you’re not coming in. It’s a hard policy that we’ve always stuck to but at least our kids have always known that their competition is coming from the hallway and not somebody transferring in from somewhere else and there’s a lot to be said about that.”