Sean Hinton‘s mysterious departure from the Thatcher High School football program less than two weeks ago is just the latest in a string of unexpected coaching changes, most within the last few months, that will have significant impact on the 2018 high school football season in Arizona.
Hinton’s move is not only one of the more surprising personnel changes, but also the most disappointing story of the off-season. The Eagles’ head coach, who attended high school at Thatcher, led last year’s team to the 2A state championship as that squad made school history by becoming the first to win back-to-back state titles.
But suddenly he was gone. No explanation to his team, or the community.
It didn’t take long, however, for the local newspaper, the Gila Herald, to flush out the reason. The Herald reported that Hinton had “succumbed to a substance addiction” and was planning to enter drug rehabilitation. His assistant coach, Ramon Morales, was handed the reins to the program.
Another hit-and-run story of sorts is playing out at Casteel High School in Queen Creek where Spencer Stowers led a program in its infancy to an undefeated (14-0) season – and then announced last month he is leaving.
Stowers, who started the Casteel program three years ago when the school opened, is relocating his family to Minnesota where both he and his wife have family, taking a teaching job at Moorhead High School and also joining the football program as an assistant coach.
While it had nothing to do with his decision to leave, it’s probably a good time to quit while he’s ahead. Casteel, which is putting its first senior class on the field next season, has moved up from 3A to 5A and is faced with taking on the defending 5A state champion, Centennial High, in the 2018 opener.
That challenge will fall to the new head coach, former Nebraska quarterback Bobby Newcombe who teaches at Casteel.
But the bigger news in this off-season revolves around some well-known names that have been around for decades and made their mark on the high school game: Larry Fetkenhier, Norris Vaughn, Bernie Busken, Paul Moro, and Rhett Stallworth.
Fetkenhier was one of the first to leave the game, with a December announcement of his departure from Cactus High School in Glendale, where he had been the head football coach for 33 years. He is one of only seven coaches in Arizona to reach the 300-wins plateau and won 76 percent of his games over his career to finish with a 316-96-3 record at Cactus.
His teams made seven state title-game appearances and won two of those championships, along with 14 regional/sectional championships.
Unfortunately, the ‘retirement’ wasn’t Fetkenhier’s idea. The school said it wanted to “go in a different direction” — despite the fact that Fetkenhier’s teams posted a couple of 9-3 records and one 8-3 finish over the last five years.
Vaughn, however, controlled his destiny, also resigning in December at Mountain Pointe High School after building that program into a local and national powerhouse. He won 10 or more games in eight of his nine seasons at the Phoenix school. His teams appeared in three state championship games in the state’s highest conference and won the state title in 2013.
Before that he posted a 47-5 record at Wickenburg High School before taking the Mountain Pointe job.
Vaughn’s plans were to move back to Georgia where he coached high school football for 32 years and still has family residing there. Rich Wellbrock, who won a state title in 2014 at Desert Edge High School in Goodyear, was named to replace him.
Busken and Moro, too, are retiring. Busken is leaving because he decided 42 years of coaching was enough, with the long hours and pressure to win. Moro is ‘retiring’ because his school decided it wanted an on-campus coach next season.
Busken, who plans to move to Texas to be near his daughter and grandchildren, built his reputation at Mountain View High School in Mesa where he dominated big-school football for almost a decade. He won three state titles with the Toros and compiled an 82-9 record, winning 40 straight games along the way to set a 5A state record. He left Mounntain View to take over the Basha High program in Chandler, where he won 31 more games during his four years there, and then four years ago took on a major rebuilding challenge at North High, where that central Phoenix school hadn’t won more than five games in any one season in nearly a decade.
At North, he pulled the program from a 1-9 finish his first season to a 7-3 mark last year.
Moro was a coaching legend in the true sense of the word. During 30 years as the head coach at Blue Ridge High School, a small school located in the White Mountains, the 66-year-old coaching veteran took 16 teams to the state finals and won 13 state championships. He won 319 games against just 52 losses.
His 336 career victories make him the winningest football coach in Arizona high school history.
Then he stunned everyone by unexpectedly leaving Blue Ridge to take a head-coaching job at Poston Butte High School in Florence. He spent two years trying to rebuild that program before moving over to Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe for the last two seasons.
At the start of last season at Marcos, he was diagnosed with cancer right after the season opener and missed a week undergoing tests, but said it is in remission now and he was looking forward to a third season. But he found out in April that the program is going forward without him.
And finally, there’s one other big name in high school coaching circles who is returning instead of leaving. Rhett Stallworth will be back on the sidelines as the new head coach at Yuma Catholic.
Stallworth ran up a 104-14 record in nine seasons as the Shamrocks’ head coach and won three state titles before giving up his whistle before the start of the 2016 season to be able to serve as the school’s principal. Now he will try to keep his office job and juggle the football job on the side.