Hazelwood Patch was one of the first places you heard about who the new head football coach was going to be. Until last week’s formal announcement that former University City High head football coach Duane Hawthorne had been hired as the new head football coach at Hazelwood West High, athletics director Tim Williams had been keeping a secret he wished he could tell everybody.
Williams chaired a committee that interviewed Hawthorne back in December, and immediately following that 45-minute question-and-answer session, the longtime coach and administrator knew Hawthorne was the man he wanted to be the Wildcats next football coach.
“Duane just wowed us,” Williams said. “We talked for 45 minutes that day, and it could’ve gone on for three hours.
"I’ve never been a part of a better interview, in any situation, ever.”
Perhaps it was the ‘right to the point’ answers Hawthorne had for every question he was asked. Or maybe it was Hawthorne’s background as a former NFL player and 2009-10 St. Louis Metro Coach of the Year that impressed everyone in the room so much.
It might have even been the large three-ring binder coaching plan Hawthorne laid out for the committee that did the trick. But whatever it was, Williams was sold. He just wished he didn’t have to wait nearly two months before he could announce it to the world.
“I wanted so bad to just brag on what I knew we had in our new coach,” Williams said. “But I couldn’t say a word.
"It was terrible," he said. "Duane’s personality is very outgoing...I’m really excited to see what he’s going to do.”
The Wildcats went 1-9 in 2010. But if past experience with reclamation projects is any indicator, it won’t take long for Hawthorne to turn Hazelwood West around.
At Hawthorne’s previous gig at University City, the former San Francisco 49er and Dallas Cowboy, took over a program that had endured many years of losing.
The Lions were a dilapidated program that each year had trouble even getting kids to come out for football.
But in fairly short order, Hawthorne turned the downtrodden Lions into two-time district champions and contenders in the very strong Suburban South Football Conference.
In 2009, Hawthorne’s last season at University City, the Lions were 7-6 and came just a couple of bad bounces the other way from upsetting the Hazelwood Central and Webster Groves teams that would go on to win state titles that year.
“It’s obvious, Duane has a plan,” Williams said. “And that plan has been successful.
“I watched him when we met with the kids in the auditorium (last Wednesday). He had full command of the room. The kids were on the edge of their seats. It really was very neat to watch.”
The Hazelwood West head football coach position became available when former coach Cordez Vaughn resigned in late November last year, after one season on the job.
Williams said Vaughn resigned for personal reasons, and that neither he nor anyone else at the school had any problems with the former coach.
“Cordez is one of the finest young men I’ve ever met,” Williams said. “I enjoyed working with him and we had a good relationship.
"But he had a family situation that he wanted to devote more time to, and we completely respect that.”
Hawthorne’s hiring follows a trend for Hazelwood West of hiring energetic, young coaches to lead the school’s athletic programs.
Among them are boys basketball coach Cary Lewis, whose squad is 17-8 this season, heading into this week’s state playoffs. Swim coach Tara Weiss led the her team to a second-place finish in the conference this year. Wrestling coach Mark Fowler has a young squad that also competed very well in the league this year.
New baseball coach Matt McClellan, brother of Cardinals reliever Kyle McClellan, who is also a Hazelwood West graduate, is taking over the Wildcat baseball team that won the Suburban North last year.
“The one thing I look for when I interview coaches is passion,” Williams said. “And each one of them had a clear passion for coaching, and for coaching their sport.
"To me, you have to be passionate about what you’re doing, if you’re going to have any success at it.”