During his first year as Belen Jesuit’s coach, Rich Stuart — age 24 at the time — was ejected from a 1983 football game for arguing with the officials.
Undeterred, he continued giving his two assistant coaches instructions while hiding between the mangrove trees that sit behind the visitors’ bench at Ransom Everglades.
In a sense, Stuart, now 56, has been laying in the weeds ever since, helping his Wolverines sneak up on unsuspecting powers.
Over the past several years, Stuart has led Belen to wins over big-name programs such as Northwestern and Booker T. Washington as well as Norland when the Vikings had current NFL running back Duke Johnson on their roster.
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Stuart has beaten the odds so often that his next victory — which could come Friday at home against Varela — will tie Jim Kroll’s record for most wins by a coach of a Miami-Dade County team.
With a 212-138 record in this his 33rd season, Stuart has tied former Carol City coach Walt Frazier for second place. Kroll’s record, which was set when he coached Palmetto, could be gone after Belen plays Varela followed by Braddock one week from Saturday.
At this point, it seems inevitable that the record will soon belong to Stuart, which is ironic because he never even played varsity football and has coached his entire career for a program that has never sent a player to the NFL.
“That goes to show what kind of a coach he is, because we aren’t churning out major Division I prospects,” said former wide receiver Mike Rios, a 2008 graduate who was the first Belen player to sign an NFL contract, although he was cut in training camp by the Arizona Cardinals.
“I was soft before I started playing for Coach Stuart. He instilled discipline and toughness in all of us. He was really hard on me. He made me into a man, and he’s still a good friend and a father figure.”
Stuart, a high jumper at Columbus — he still gets teased about having graduated from Belen’s biggest rival — earned a Bachelor’s degree from Florida State, majoring in physical education. He then got a job as a physical education teacher at Belen, serving as an assistant for two years.
In his second season at Belen, he became the school’s first JV coach, and when the varsity job opened up the next year, he was hired.
He was anything but an overnight success, however, going 3-7 that first season.
“I felt overwhelmed,” Stuart said. “I was outcoached a lot.”
Fortunately for Stuart, the expectations for the football team were low. Belen is a school of high academic achievement, and as long as his players were excelling in the classroom, his supervisors were pleased.
At Belen, the fact that 17 of Stuart’s players have gone on to compete in the Ivy League matters as much if not more than the 212 wins.
Still, it would take 16 years under Stuart before Belen produced its first Division I scholarship player, linebacker Vince Cartaya, Class of 1999, who played for Northwestern University.
Belen didn’t win its first playoff game until 2000 and didn’t produce a 10-win season until 2002.
But the Wolverines — perpetually laying in the weeds — have continued to make incremental improvements and are on a run of 14 playoff appearances in the past 16 years.
No one at Belen will forget the 2009 season, when the Wolverines made their one and only march to a state championship game.
During that Class 3A run, Belen earned regional wins over Jackson (17-13), Booker T. Washington (19-17) and Fort Pierce Westwood (27-20). The Wolverines then traveled to Lake Wales for the state semifinal game, winning 21-14 as Stuart was carried off the field by his triumphant and euphoric players.
“That year was surreal,” said Sergio Fernandez Soto, the MVP of the team. “When we walked into the Citrus Bowl, everyone was astounded to be on the field. The coaches were as excited as the players.”
Belen came up short, losing 28-7 to Pensacola in the state final. But that loss hardly defines a program that annually does more with less, mastering the run-heavy Wing T offense for the past two decades.
Fernandez Soto said Stuart “has built this program on family,” a statement that sounds like a cliché except that it’s true. For Stuart, who is divorced with no children, the Belen boys are, in essence, his sons. Most of his coaches are his former players, and his offensive and defensive coordinators are actual brothers.
Offensive coordinator German Delgado, who played quarterback for Stuart from 1987 to 1989, said one of the things Stuart enjoys most about coaching the team is the pizza party following games.
The coaches-only get-together features about 15 pizzas, film of the game Belen just played and lots of laughs.
But, make no mistake, Stuart has the ability to get mad when he thinks he needs to get his players’ attention.
Some of his temper tantrums are legendary.
“Against Southwest last year, we were down at the half, 17-7,” said Ariel Jimenez, a senior safety and running back. “One of our players was injured and using crutches. [In his halftime speech], Coach Stuart took his crutch and broke it against the wall.”
Stuart apologized to the player and told him he’d get him a new crutch, but the message was well received.
Belen came back to win that game 24-17.
Jimenez affectionately called Stuart “an old-timer” and said the entire team lost it laughing when the coach tried doing “The Whip” dance in the locker room earlier this season.
“He’s old school, really strict,” Jimenez said. “But he’s playful, too.”
Belen senior running back Giancarlo Pinto said the team badly wants to get the record for Stuart.
“It would be awesome to be the team to help get him to that record,” Pinto said. “We all have it in the back of our heads.”
Jimenez said that once the record is attained, the celebration will be wild.
“We’re going to rush Coach Stuart,” Jimenez said. “We’re going to tackle him, dog-pile him. Every Gatorade [bucket] we have, we are going to pour it over him, shower him.”