The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Sports

June 17, 2011

A Don McCormack column: Taken too soon

Former Geneva star, ACBF Hall of Famer Steve McHugh dies at age 61 in Memphis

We were saddened to learn of the passing of an Ashtabula County Basketball Hall of Famer on Tuesday.

Steve McHugh, who was a member of the Class of 2008 into the ACBF HOF, died at age 61 in Memphis.

A 1967 Geneva High School graduate, Steve was a tremendous basketball player and, more importantly, an all-around great guy. He was known as a wonderful husband and father and his trademark quick wit, athleticism, optimism and fantastic attitude.

He loved all sports, not just basketball, including fishing and golf and enjoyed traveling and any activity being outdoors with his kids, especially in the mountains or on the beach.

Not surprisingly, one of his favorite activities was watching his two children grow up and thrive.

How good was Steve McHugh on the hardwood? Well, after a stellar scholastic career for ACBF HOF coach Al Bailey at Geneva, good enough to go on and attend and play basketball for Duquense University — not coincidentally, the collegiate alma mater of Bailey, his high school coach.

McHugh started for the university’s undefeated freshman team in 1968 (freshmen were not permitted to play at the varsity level at that point in time) that went 14-0.

As a sophomore in 1969, the 6-foot McHugh was the backup point guard on a Duquense team that went 21-5 and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, being eliminated by Dean Smith’s Charlie Scott-led North Carolina squad in a contest that needed overtime to decide. Duquense bounced back to defeat St. John in the consolation game.

McHugh was limited to 12 games as a junior because of a variety of injuries as Duquense made it to the NIT and was eliminated by Georgia Tech.

As the starting point guard in his senior season of 1970-71, bad luck again struck McHugh, who suffered a broken foot in the sixth game of the season against Western Kentucky.

He recovered in time to play in the final seven games as Duquense went 21-2 and made it back to the NCAA Tournament, where it was eliminated by the University of Pennsylvania team that featured the likes of Corky Calhoun, 70-65. That Penn squad won its first 28 games before being crushed in a stunning upset in the East Regional final by Big Five rival Villanova, 90-47.

After graduating from Duquense, McHugh was not really sure what direction he was headed.

In a 2008 story by our Karl Pearson, Steve told a great story about how he began his coaching career, one that would span more than three decades.

“I was lifeguarding at Walnut Beach and two old guys from Fairport came down and offered me the coaching job,” he said. “They said they were coming off an 0-19 season and had been 2-17 the year before.

“I was going to be Bob Walters’ freshman coach at Ashtabula, but I talked to him about it. I said I had a chance to be a head coach at 22 and he said to take it.”

He brought the Skippers back to respectability despite playing against great small school teams like Kirtland and Lutheran East. Fairport went 9-12, which didn’t satisfy McHugh.

“I was miserable because I’d never been part of a losing team before,” he said. “But I decided to try it one more year and we had a winning record. I had great kids like Marty Makela, Norm O’Janpa and Skip Lakia.

“We lost to Kirtland in the sectional finals my second year when they were coached by (future Cavaliers coach) Don Delaney. We lost during the year to Mark Haymore and Lutheran East, 96-36, at their place, so when they came to Fairport, I decided to run the four corners. We went into the last 27 seconds down by one with the ball. I called time and told them to take the last shot with three seconds left. Instead, we got a wide-open layup with 15 seconds left, but missed the shot and we lost by three.”

According to our 2008 story, after McHugh’s second year at Fairport, old Geneva friend Gary Urchek, who had played for Bill Musselman at Ashland College when McHugh was at Duquesne, recommended McHugh to Musselman as a graduate assistant. He was there for two years.

“I got to work with guys like (future NBA No. 1 draft pick) Mychal Thompson and (present Detroit Pistons head coach) Flip Saunders there,” McHugh said. “I was there after the big fight with Ohio State. I also had the opportunity to try out to play professionally in Europe, but Musselman talked me out of it.”

Instead, Musselman headed off to coach the ABA’s San Diego Sails. Before he left, he connected McHugh with Wayne Yates at Memphis State, where he stayed for four years.

“I coached the JVs for two years and went 31-9 with guys like John Gunn and Hank McDowell and we went to one NCAA and one NIT,” McHugh said. “Then I spent two years recruiting.”

After that, McHugh took over the girls basketball program at Overton High School in the Memphis area and spent five years there.

“We got to the top 10 in the state and to the second level of the tournament,” he said.

Then he moved to Orlando and coached for one year. But he soon returned to Memphis.

“I coached at Christian Brothers University, which is an NAIA school, as an assistant for three years,” he said.

Then he returned to high school coaching, taking over at Memphis-area school Bolton High School, where he continued to coach until 1995.

“That was less stress,” McHugh said. “We made it to the state quarterfinals my last year.”

But advancing age, marriage and the decision to start a family and an off-court incident convinced him to leave basketball coaching.

“I was getting too old for that stuff,” McHugh said. “Also in that last year, we went to another school in Memphis for a game. As the bus was leaving, a bunch of kids came out of nowhere and started throwing rocks at the bus.

“They broke a couple windows, a couple kids and I got cut a little and we had to ride back in freezing temperatures. That helped me decide I’d had enough, too.”

Steve also decided to become a family man, marrying Lauren, who he met in Memphis. The couple enjoyed 22 years of marriage, having two children — daughter Katie and son Sloan.

In our 2008 story, Steve counted his blessings.

“I got started with my family at 38, which is pretty late, but it’s been great,” McHugh said. “My son is into all kinds of athletics, and I’ve coached some of first- and second-grade teams, but I’m not going to push him into any specific sport.”

He taught school at Overton High School, Wooddale High School and Bolton High School and he retired from teaching at Arlington High School in 2008.

Steve, whose older brother, Mike, is the father of another ACBF Hall of Famer from Geneva, Jay McHugh (HOF Class of 2006), spent plenty of time working with his nephew.

It helped Jay McHugh to not only a great high school career for ACBF HOF coach Bill Koval, but also to earn a scholarship to Texas A&M; and later to Youngstown State.

“I used to play pickup with Jay,” he said. “I tried to help him learn to be a guard facing the basket, even though he was 6-3. I knew he’d have to be a shooting guard in college.”

Steve, whose full obituary appears on Page A6 in today’s edition, told Pearson in our 2008 story that working with his nephew was kind of a payment of a debt he owed to his brother, Mike.

“Mike was 11 years older than me and he pointed me in the right direction,” Steve said. “He’s my hero. He was a father figure to me.”

McHugh said his thoughts never strayed far from the game that meant so much to him.

“Basketball has meant everything in my life,” McHugh said. “It was my life growing up. I have been blessed.”

As was everyone who had the pleasure of meeting Steve McHugh, who continued to give back as a volunteer for Kairos Prison Ministries and Memphis Athletic Ministries and helped to feed the homeless through the Outpouring of God’s Love Ministry.

Rest in peace, sir.

Dept. of corrections

For the record, the grandfather of Grand Valley multisport star Mitchell Lake is James Chapman.

Some days, Loyal Readers, I just can’t get anything correct.

My apologies, Mr. Chapman.

McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at donmac@suite224.net.

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