E.A. Sports Today

Coaching homecomings

Propst set to coach a game in Calhoun County for the first time in 31 years. Smith set to return to Field of Champions, with Westbrook Christian

Ohatchee native Rush Propst and (from left) Mary Catherine Propst, Stefnie Propst, Leanne Propst Buchan and John David Propst pose for a picture after a game earlier this season. (Submitted photo)

Rush Propst remembers before alma mater Ohatchee High School’s Roy C. Owens Field became a thing. The Indians played at the old city park, along AL-144.

Joe Medley, Editor

High school football players in Calhoun County were kings, he said, and making All-Calhoun County was “the highlight of your career.”

How can it be that 48 years have passed since the 1976 graduate played for the Indians? 

How can it be that 31 years slipped by since a native headliner coach like Propst coached a game in Calhoun County?

On a night of homecomings for headliner coaches in Calhoun County, Propst will look up at native stadium lights Friday. His new team, Pell City, plays a Class 6A, Region 6 game on Oxford’s Lamar Field.

The game will mark Propst’s first as a head coach in Calhoun County since 1992, when Ashville won at Ohatchee and Pleasant Valley.

About 28 miles to the north, via. AL-21, Steve Smith will coach Westbrook Christian at Piedmont, where he won five state titles in a 17-year run that ended after the 2022 season.

Together, Propst and Smith own 10 Alabama state titles, Propst won all five of his at Hoover before adding two Georgia state titles, with Colquitt County.

Westbrook Christian coach Steve Smith talks to Spring Garden coach Barrett Ragsdale after their jamboree in August at Ohatchee. (Photo by Joe Medley)

Smith announced last December that he would take the Westbrook job then finished out the school year in his other role, as Piedmont’s athletics director.

The Smiths still live in Piedmont, and he commutes about 35 minutes each day to work. Wife Rachel remains as Piedmont’s softball coach, and their youngest child, Savannah, is a Piedmont senior and Jacksonville State University softball commit.

Savannah will be crowned as Piedmont’s homecoming queen next week, and her dad moved Westbrook’s home game against Geraldine to Thursday so he could escort her.

Smith has coached in Calhoun County since leaving Piedmont. Westbrook played a jamboree at Ohatchee in August, and he naturally scouted future opponent Piedmont’s 14-9 loss to Anniston on Thursday.

His staff includes James Blanchard, Smith’s defensive coordinator for all 17 seasons there, and former Donoho head coach Mark Sanders.

As Smith brings his new team to play his old team in 3A, Region 6 play, Westbrook stands at 3- overall, 1-2 region. Piedmont, having opened with a brutal schedule and beset by key injuries, is 1-4, 1-2.

The game’s gravity for both teams takes precedence over any other storyline, Smith said.

“I don’t want to make it about me, for sure,” he said. “It’s two teams that are trying to win a football game, that need to win a football game. … 

“I’ve got a ton of respect, obviously, for Piedmont and the years I spent there, and I’m having the time of my life working at Westbrook right now and trying to jumpstart these guys. It really needs to be about the two teams on the field. Both of us need a win to be able to keep our playoff hopes alive.”

Propst spent time around Piedmont the last four years, following son Thomas’ playing career as a wide receiver under Smith. Thomas Propst graduated in May, and his father made two career moves since then, first as an assistant coach and athletics director at Coosa Christian then to Pell City.

He took over a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2017 and hasn’t won a playoff game since reaching the second round in 2012. The Panthers last beat Oxford in the next-to-last regular season game in 2012, 34-28.

That playoff victory over Austin in 2012 is Pell City’s only playoff win since the Panthers made the 2003 quarterfinals.

Pell City went 2-8, 2-8 and 1-9 over the past three seasons. It’s 1-4, 1-1 region headed into Friday’s game at Oxford (5-1, 3-0).

Pell City marks Propst’s first head coaching job in Alabama since 2007, at Hoover. He’s the Panthers’ sixth head coach since 2010, and he foresees a long climb for the Panthers.

“Facilities are in just terrible shape,” said Propst, who came on board after Steve Mask’s one-year stay. “The fieldhouse is the same fieldhouse they built there in 1986. … They did put turf down. As we were negotiating, I said, ‘Look, I’m not coming unless you put turf down, because the field is in horrible shape.’ So they put turf down, but they just haven’t invested money in that program over the years as coaches have come and gone. 

“People have asked me, why did I take the job? I took it because, first of all, St. Clair County is my second home. I started my career at Ashville, and I do love St. Clair County, but I think this will be my greatest challenge.”

Propst said the Pell City rebuild will take “several years,” working from the youth levels up while improving facilities.

He got started June 5 and hired the rest of his staff, including former Alexandria assistant Jake Welch, later that month. The new staff had no offseason with their new team.

Their summer became memorable for a heated moment near the end of a 7-on-7 game against Oxford. A headline highlighted a colorful word Propst shouted across the field.

Oxford coach Sam Adams has called the incident overblown, saying he and Propst shook hands shortly thereafter and talked about tickets and parking for their regular-season matchup.

“That was the heat of the moment,” Propst said. “He was battling for his team. I was battling for my team, but Sam’s a good guy.”

Propst considers his first Pell City team “behind the eight ball” in its matchup with Oxford.

“They’re where we need to be two or three years from now,” he said. “We’re nowhere on their level right now. I’m sorry. We’re just not.”

The game will occur 21 miles southeast from Ohatchee, where Propst’s roots run deep. His grandfather, Clifford Rush Propst, co-owned Propst Lumber Co. in the 1920s-40s.

Propst owns 60 acres of land in the Ohatchee area, including an area across the street from Roy C. Owens Stadium used for parking during the Indians’ home games.

“They park on my property every week, and I’m happy to accommodate,” he said. “Everything you see from that creek bridge back, past the railroad track, follow the railroad track, I guess, the length of the football field and then some, is all my property.”

The 65-year-old Propst said only distant relatives still live in Calhoun County, but memories “will never leave me, ever.”

“Ohatchee was a great place to grow up,” he said. “I tell people all the time, I grew up with some of the best coaches  —- Ragan Clark, Ken Logan, Tim MacTaggart and Jerry Ellard. Coach Clark was like a second dad to me.

“We just had a great niche of guys that we just had a lot of fun. We had a lot of success, and you just couldn’t beat growing up on that creekbank.”

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