Saying Goodbye To A True Legend: Otis Washington

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Story By Ron Brocato, Clarion Herald Sports
Photo Clarion Herald File Archives

The finality of the word “goodbye” has always saddened me. I’ve said it too many times in my life. I did it again last week, with a tear in my eye, when I looked down on the body of the great Otis Washington as it lay in state in St. Augustine High School’s chapel. I knew I would never see the coach again.

Although it has been decades since I watched him transform a football team from an unwanted entity in the storied Catholic League to a three-time state football champion, and four years since I celebrated his 2015 induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, I was reminded of the love that many of his former players had for him as I saw them file into the school to pay their last respects.

The coach sent upwards of 100 of his players to college as disciplined young men who were prepared to perform at the most difficult “next level.”

Born into segregation in Selma, Alabama, he spent his formative years during an era in which white and African Americans stayed an arm’s length apart. But his teams helped bridge the gap that has guided them toward transcending their differences.

Otis Washington died on May 24 at age 80 at his home in Baton Rouge, where he has lived since ending his prep coaching career in 1979.

His tenure at the 7th Ward school lasted a short 11 years. But in that time, his staff led the Purple Knights to state championships in 1975, 1978 and 1979. His teams won 106 games, lost just 26 and had one tie. But they should have won more, he told me in an interview for the WLAE documentary, “Glory Days: The Catholic League of New Orleans.”

“We did great things at St. Augustine. But it could have been better. I think we could have won state championships in 1970, 1971, 1972 and the three we did win in ’75, ’78 and ’79.”

Luck of the flip

His 1970 team shared the league title with Jesuit and Holy Cross, all finishing with 7-1 records in the Class 4A district. Louisiana High School Athletic Association rules called for just two teams representing each district in the playoffs. St. Augustine lost the three-way coin toss and stayed home, while its two Catholic League rivals played on.

The 1971 squad remained unbeaten through nine games until it faced Brother Martin on the 10th and final week of the season. That year, Brother Martin lost the second game of the season to Jesuit, 16-0, before changing its offense. The Crusaders would not lose again.

“We were successful because I opened the offense. The other Catholic League teams rarely threw the ball,” Washington said. “We did, and we had a lot of speed to the outside. I put in the veer-option, an offense no one else used. So we caught other teams by surprise.”

Every team except for Martin, whose defensive coordinator, Emile “Chubby,” Marks, found the solution.

“They played an eight-man front that got penetration on us and made it hard to get outside,” Otis said. “They shut us down.” Martin won the game, 7-0, and shared the district title with Washington’s Purple Knights.

There was little difference in the level of talent each team possessed. St. Augustine’s defense allowed just 34 points in the first 13 games, with seven shutout wins. Martin held its 13 foes to 48 points and blanked seven opponents entering the state championship game.

And the two Gentilly neighbors met again at Tad Gormley Stadium for the Class 4A title, a game the Crusaders dominated from the start to the 23-0 finish.

“I take full responsibility for that loss,” Washington told me in later years. “There’s such a thing as getting a team too high for a game. During warm-ups we were fine. But when we hit the field, we were flat, and there was nothing we could do about it. The players wanted to do it, but they couldn’t.”

Of all the outstanding teams to play under his staff, Washington claimed the 1972 team was his finest. 

A bitter disappointment

The Purple Knights were indeed formidable that year. Their defense did not allow a point to their opponents until the fifth game, when Clark scored in a 28-6 St. Aug victory. 

“I had no doubt that team would win the state championship had someone in our administration not dropped the ball,” the legendary coach told me. 

He was referring to a claim by John F. Kennedy coach Jim Lavin that one St. Aug player repeated a grade in junior high school, which made him ineligible for his senior season. That player was a starting end.

The LHSAA investigated and found the charge to be true. St. Augustine was stripped of wins over Booker T. Washington (27-0), Shaw (20-0), Redemptorist (20-0), Jesuit (17-0), Clark (28-6), Rummel (16-10), De La Salle (27-7) and Chalmette (27-0). With the player removed from the roster, St. Aug won its final two games over Holy Cross, 33-13, and Brother Martin, 17-7.

Martin, which still counts the loss as a victory in its record book, went on to win 11 games before losing to Neville in the semifinal round.

Not one St. Aug player was named to the All-State team, but the voting sportswriters made Washington the Class 4A Coach of the Year.

 Nevertheless, the coach remained haunted by the clerical error committed in the front office through the rest of his life.

“I don’t feel badly about the personal record being tarnished. I feel sorry for the kids that they did not have the opportunity to prove that they were the best. Record wise, what does it mean? Nothing. We knew we were good, and the people we beat knew we were the best,” he said.

The year the Knights did gain their first of three titles, the captains instilled confidence in what was another talented group of players.

“That 1975 team that went 15-0 believed in themselves and each other,” Washington related. “After our spring game ended in a 0-0 tie with dozens of college coaches looking at our kids, our captains, Oyd Craddock and Byron Honore, announced, ‘That’s the way our game should have ended, because we’re not losing to anybody!’ A scout from Oklahoma told me, ‘This is going to be a great team.’” No other Catholic school in the district has since posted a perfect season.

He won two more state titles in 1978 and 1979 before accepting an assistant coaching position at LSU. Since he left, there have been nine head coaching changes at the school. One of Washington’s protégés, Tony Biagas, was the most successful of the group. His teams won 131 games and tied or shared four district crowns. But they never won a state championship, and Biagas’ accomplishments were discounted by many of the alumni.

“I don’t think anyone will ever accomplish what Otis did,” Tony told me. “We were very successful, but the people still wanted Otis back. I still agonize that I had four teams that could have won it all in 1987, 1994, 1995 and 2000, but didn’t.

“But what St. Aug fans are looking for, they will never find – a repeat of what Otis did. That was a different era and time that’s gone.”

Although Washington’s teams would finish his tenure with a Catholic League record of 59-20-1, his coaching counterparts built a friendship that lasted through their lifetimes.

 “John Kalbacher (Holy Cross) drove me to my first LHSAA meeting in Baton Rouge and told me what to expect,” Otis said. “Bob Conlin and I both had great teams and respected each other, but his brother, Danny, and I became closer friends.”

As he continued to call the roll – Joe Zimmerman of Shaw, Billy Murphy of Jesuit, Don Perret of Rummel – the smile on his face widened.

He’s now with Kalbacher, Conlin and Perret, resting in the loving arms of God. After one long, last look and a silent prayer, I said goodbye to a friend as I have done to so many great molders of character over the years.

 

Records of St. Aug coaches who followed Washington:

Jay Cunningham (1980-81): 11-10; Charles Ross (1982-85): 30-14; Tony Biagas (1986-2002): 131-57; Tyrone Payne (2003-04): 8-11; Wayne Cordova (2006-07): 9-20; David Johnson (2009-11): 23-10; Cyril Crutchfield (2012-14): 22-12; Al Jones Sr. (2015-17): 16-18; Nathanial Jones (2018): 6-6.

All-State Purple Knights under Washington: Cameron Gaston (C), Gerald Davis (LB), 1971; Robert Griffin (WR), Terry Sherman (DE), 1973; Byron Honore (OG), Percy Gibson (DT), 1975; Marcus Quinn (TE), 1976; Darrell Songy (DB), 1978; Troy Ancar (DB), James Wagner (K), 1979.

Ron Brocato can be reached at rbrocato@clarionherald.org.