If Schmidt had his way, he would have returned for a 14th year.
But after he met with Festus activities director Eric Allen on Nov. 13, Schmidt said he was told he wouldn’t be recommended for rehire next year. On Nov. 20, Schmidt submitted his resignation. Last Friday, he was still trying to process what led to that decision.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Schmidt said from the school’s football office he’s occupied for more than a decade. “He (Allen) said, ‘It’s my opinion that after 13 years, it’s time to go in a different direction and (he’s) got the support of Central Office.’
“He said out of respect for me, you can resign or take this to the board. I didn’t know what to think. I asked if I could give it some thought and we decided to wait until Friday (Nov. 15).”
The two agreed to move the day of decision to Nov. 18, giving Schmidt the weekend to consider his options.
“On Saturday and Sunday night I was trying to figure out what was missing,” Schmidt said. “I thought my body of work spoke for itself. I shared that with him on Monday, and he said, ‘You’re right.’ I said, ‘Is this about our schedule, because I’ve often been criticized about it being too hard?’ I’ve never been a coach who schedules wins to build my resume.”
Allen said the bottom line is Schmidt resigned. Allen, who is in his seventh year as AD at Festus, said numerous factors go into assessing a coach’s performance, but he doesn’t let one season dictate his decisions.
“I did tell him that the football team needed to go in a different direction, but at no point was he forced to resign,” Allen said.
Schmidt will continue teaching industrial arts at the high school.
Allen said he already is receiving applications and that he hopes to give the Board of Education a recommendation for a new coach by its meeting in February.
Schmidt was selected as the Coach of the Year in the Mississippi Area Football Conference Red Division in 2018. He’s won seven conference championships. Senior two-way starter Jack Robinson, a model student-athlete if there ever was one, was named the division’s most valuable player this season, when the Tigers finished 5-6.
Schmidt’s overall record at Festus was 81-59 (.578). He won the most games (10) in his first season in 2007.
But Schmidt’s record the last five years is 25-28, as pointed out in an email from the district announcing the move on Dec. 3.
“I brought up the schedule in terms of wins and losses,” Schmidt said. “I told (Allen) that if I needed to water down the schedule, someone should have told me that. The athletic director confirms the opponents we want to play.”
Schmidt said Valle Catholic approached him about playing the Tigers, although the Warriors are Class 1 and Festus is Class 4. Valle won its 15th state championship on Saturday.
“But what do we gain out of that? If we beat them, we’re supposed to. If we lost to them, all of a sudden, I don’t know what I’m doing,” Schmidt said. “So you pass on those and play schools like Troy (Buchanan in Class 6) and Borgia?”
Festus Superintendent Link Luttrell said he gives Allen full rein to make decisions when it comes to hiring and firing coaches.
Luttrell said Schmidt has been a good leader for the program and understands that Schmidt’s commitment to his players goes well beyond the playing field.
“He has been a strong positive mentor to those athletes beyond football, like service to others,” Luttrell said. “That’s what we want all of our coaches to do for our students.
“You can’t put any degree of wins or losses into the decision. There were many factors that go into a decision of this nature. We ask our activities director to assess all of our programs. At the end of the day, there are many variables. Wins and losses, along with a host of other factors, are considered. No coach will stay with a program for 13 years if they haven’t done things correctly. My son played for Russ and he has respect for him. We’re going to continue to have a strong football program and the next coach coming in is going to have positive momentum.”
I wondered if this could be as simple as the Tigers’ inability to beat archrival Hillsboro. The Hawks have beaten Festus seven straight times, dating back to 2014. But this isn’t Division I college football where coaches definitely are canned for not beating their biggest rivals: Michigan and Ohio State come to mind.
Luttrell said that’s oversimplifying the matter.
“I’ve been around Festus football for 12 years,” Luttrell said. “When I first came here, for the first four years we had wins over Hillsboro. Those things ebb and flow. Everybody has certain teams that it feels better to beat. But it doesn’t mean if you can’t beat a particular team, you’re not worthy of being our coach. Rivalries are fun, but it wouldn’t be fair to quantify that as a reason to keep a coach.”
From outward appearances, Schmidt and Allen seemed to have had a solid working relationship. The two worked together and sought each other’s counsel when the district spent roughly $5 million to upgrade its stadium in 2018.
Why did Allen feel like Schmidt was no longer the person to lead the football program?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Schmidt said. “We have had a tremendous relationship. He’s mentored me as a coach and a teacher. He’s taught me an awful lot. I want to make that clear. I didn’t see this coming.”
After resigning, Schmidt could have disconnected himself from the team and not taken care of the end-of-season work that needs to be “buttoned down,” like dealing with equipment and inventory, but he didn’t. He said he plans to attend the team banquet next month.
“I have an obligation to represent the school district and its kids,” he said.
Luttrell said he expected nothing less from Schmidt.
“Coach Schmidt is an outstanding industrial arts teacher,” Luttrell said. “He makes a positive impact with his students who don’t play football. Russ has always been a professional and I know he’ll continue that. He’s already going through the equipment and resources so when the new person comes in, they won’t be months behind in these areas.”
Schmidt’s responsibilities as a head coach go far beyond the playing field. He’s helped players without shoes, food and clothing. He told me a story about a player who could barely stay awake because the bed he shared with his brothers was broken. Always the shop teacher, Schmidt built him a new bed frame. He paid for repairs of the same player’s car.
“I did stuff like that all the time,” Schmidt said. “When you sign up to be the coach, that’s what you sign up for. That’s the kind of stuff I brought home to my wife.
“It’s a powerful job in the sense that if you’re looking at the kids who support you 365 days so we can be competitive on Friday night, they need some love and respect in return.”