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Steve McHugh

McHugh had a ball

12th of a series...

Staff Writer

One day when he was 5 or 6, Steve McHugh followed his usual Saturday routine and tagged along with his older brother, Mike, to a game at the Geneva Recreation Center gymnasium in the old municipal building at the corner of East Main Street and North Forest Street.

As is the nature of little boys, his attention was not totally focused on his brother's game. Wandering around a bit, Steve suddenly stumbled across a brand new basketball. Being a conscientious young lad, he asked many people at the gym who the ball belonged to, but nobody claimed it. He was allowed to take it home, brought it back the next week and still found no takers, so he was allowed to keep it.

"It was like getting an unexpected Christmas or birthday present," the 58-year-old Memphis resident said.

Young McHugh didn't take that fortuitous gift for granted. He kept dribbling and shooting that ball on courts all over the community until he wore it out, refining his skills all the while, often playing against much older players to test himself.

That little ball helped McHugh develop the skills that made him into a star at Geneva High School for Al Bailey before he graduated in 1967. A strong argument can be made that McHugh eventually achieved status as a player that no other Ashtabula County player had ever reached before or since.

It eventually carried him, along with Bailey, to Duquesne University, where he ended up starting with four players who went on to American professional basketball and played some of the cathedrals of college and professional basketball.

It led him into coaching at the high school level at places like Fairport and several schools throughout the South. He even got the chance to coach at the collegiate level, including a brief stint as a graduate assistant with former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Bill Musselman while he was at the University of Minnesota, and several other lower level programs.

"It helped me through my associations with other athletes," McHugh said. "If not for basketball, I wouldn't have been able to get my college education. My mother (the late Alice Rosenlof) was a housewife and my stepfather (Ted) was a factory worker. I probably would be somewhere working on one of (high school teammate) Larry Cumpston's roofing crews without it."

Now, the start with that basketball more than 50 years ago has led to a whole new distinction, that of induction into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame. He will now be joining his old coach Bailey and his nephew, Jay, who earned induction in 2006, into the hall of fame at ceremonies Sunday.

"I really feel honored to be selected," McHugh said. "Anytime you reach my age and receive more accolades, it's really a pleasant surprise. I feel very lucky and fortunate. Ashtabula County holds many fond memories for me. This is fantastic. It's going to be like a homecoming."

The only negative about it will be that Bailey, who died in 1986, will not be there to share the moment with McHugh.

"Al and his wife, Mary Lou, were like surrogate parents to me," he said. "She was my third-grade teacher. Al was my coach for seven years in high school and college and he followed my career from junior high through college. Many times, I had dinner at their home. I remember Al like it was yesterday. I was so sad when he passed away."

Learning the game

That ball came to good use at the McHugh home, too, especially after Mike and their stepdad put up an outdoor hoop and hung it on a pole in the backyard.

"I was out there after dinner almost every night practicing," Steve said.

The family lived on Third Street, which gave the McHughs and other area kids access to a makeshift playing field for baseball, football and other sports on a vacant lot nearby.

"There was a big field next to a set of woods off Fourth Street," McHugh said. "We used to get out there and play games all the time."

Eventually, he got involved in the Geneva Midget League program.

"My first coach was Gary Strong, who also helped start the midget league football program in Geneva and ran the summer recreation program," McHugh said. "I played for the Hawks and Larry Cumpston played for the Celtics. We played them for the title and won."

He continued to progress through junior high basketball and on into freshman ball.

"My coach in ninth grade was a man named Garrett LeVan," McHugh said. "We called him Mr. Green Jeans because he always wore these silky green warmup pants for practice. We had a pretty good team."

On the varsity

Apparently so, because McHugh stepped right into Bailey's lineup as a sophomore. It was a good team, too.

"We went 17-3 and won the NEC," he said. "We lost in the sectional final to Edgewood and Dan Foster (another ACBF Hall of Famer).

"He transferred there from Jefferson when they dropped athletics. He was an excellent player and was looking at coming to Geneva, but we were asked to vote to invite him and we decided we didn't need him, so he went to Edgewood. I guess we needed him after all."

In the offseason, McHugh spent time on the outdoor court at Geneva that Bailey had built when he came to town after his own career at Duquesne. Young McHugh often played against some of the best young talent from around the area on that court, including a big young guy named Gary Kreilach who would become a key teammate at Geneva.

"Gary and I had grown up together, even though he was a year behind me," McHugh said. "We used to hunt and fish and play all kinds of sports together. I guess I was kind of the toughen-upper for him. Even though I was a guard and he was a center, we had some great one-on-one games on that court."

Kreilach agrees.

"Steve was a great competitor," he said. "We did have some great one-on-one battles on that court, right in the heat of the day. Those games really helped me improve. I think we helped each other's games.

"Coach Bailey brought the philosophy that you play the games during the season, but you learn the game out of season. We really took that seriously."

Bailey also took things seriously.

"Mr. Bailey was the Alpha of Geneva basketball," McHugh said. "He brought a whole new level of intensity. We were well aware he had played at Duquesne. He exposed us to that intensity."

But area basketball in that area was all about intensity. Even though the Eagles had a fine team, they settled for second in the NEC. But they caught fire at tournament time with people like future Ohio State football star Mark Debevc and sophomore Kreilach on the squad.

"We won the sectional that year," McHugh said. "We lost to North in the district."

McHugh's senior year was even more competitive than usual. The Eagles tied Andy Garcia's Conneaut team for the NEC title in a season where St. John and Ashtabula also put fine teams on the floor.

"Ron Richards (of Conneaut, who will join McHugh in this year's ACBF Hall of Fame class) tore us up at Conneaut," McHugh said. "We came back from eight points down with two minutes to go to beat them at our place.

"Then we beat them for the sectional championship. We took a big early lead and held on to win. Al liked to change defenses a lot, and I think we threw them off early with the press. We lost in the district to Shaw."

Richards had great respect for McHugh.

"He was probably one of the best guards as a penetrator and a shooter we faced," he said. "He made a great combination with Larry Cumpston. Steve was so quick. He was a top-shelf guy. And Geneva was always so well-coached."

Berrier shared similar thoughts.

"Al Bailey's offense was a lot about big guys setting screens and the guards coming off them for open shots," he said. "Steve seemed to always get wide open, and he could really hit that 10-15-foot shot. He was also a tenacious defender. He was Player of the Year our senior year."

McHugh respected the opponent, too.

"You went to war every Friday and Saturday night in the NEC," he said. "That was the best time of my life. You had great players like (Richards) and Andy Raevouri at Conneaut, (Berrier) at St. John and Jim Gilbert at Ashtabula."

But Bailey had his Eagles up to the task.

"He emphasized a deliberate offense and tough defense," McHugh said. "We ran the UCLA high-low post offense. We were very disciplined. He could always recognize the weak spots, and we'd attack it. If you did something wrong, he'd get in your face. He was a lot like Bobby Knight. He never hit or grabbed me, though.

"My sophomore year I split time at point guard. My junior year, I alternated between point and shooting guard. My senior year, I ran a two-guard offense with (Cumpston), who was a left-hander."

On to Duquesne

McHugh couldn't have been on Bailey's bad side too much, though, since he convinced Duquesne coach Red Manning to recruit the player when Manning offered the coach an assistant's job.

"I had interest from Miami of Ohio, Kent State, most of the other MAC schools and Davidson," he said. "But I went to Duquesne for a scrimmage and liked it. The fact Mr. Bailey was there helped, too.

"We had some good players. We had seven players on the freshmen team, which we called the Magnificent Seven. We had two 6-foot-10 twins, Barry and Garry Nelson, and Jarret Durham, who's now the assistant athletic director at Duquesne. Mr. Bailey coached us and we went 14-0 when freshmen couldn't play varsity. We were considered one of the top five freshmen teams in the country along with UCLA and Duke."

In his sophomore year, the 6-foot McHugh played a backup point guard spot.

"We went 21-5, went to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament and lost to Charlie Scott, Dean Smith and North Carolina team in overtime," he said. "We beat St. John's in the consolation game."

Injuries limited McHugh to 12 games his junior year and Duquesne ended up in the NIT.

"We lost in the first round to Georgia Tech," he said.

McHugh was the starting point guard his senior year until he broke his foot in a loss in the sixth game to Western Kentucky and Jim McDaniel.

"I got back in time to play the last six or seven games," he said. "I played in the last game (Boston Celtics Hall of Famer) Bob Cousy coached at Boston College when (future Ohio State coach) Jim O'Brien was playing.

"We ended up 21-2 and got into the NCAA Tournament. We lost to Corky Calhoun and Penn in the first round."

McHugh has no regrets about his college career, which ended in 1971.

"I can say I played at Madison Square Garden and hit both ends of a one-and-one to win the game," he said. "Then I got to watch Austin Carr play for Notre Dame in the second game against Fordham, that was coached by Digger Phelps.

"I played with guys like the Nelsons. Barry sent to the Milwaukee Bucks and Garry played with the Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA. I played with Mickey Davis that played with Oscar (Robertson) and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) with the Bucks. And (Durham) played with the New York Nets. The fact I got to play Division I ball as a 6-foot guard was really something."

He wasn't sure how to handle Manning.

"He was very softspoken and I didn't have any problem with him, but I never felt like I knew where I stood with him," McHugh said. "He liked the media and interviews. With Mr. Bailey, I always knew where I stood. He was a player's coach and was always in the gym."

After college

Coming back to Ashtabula County, McHugh wasn't sure what he was going to do, but the answer came during the summer.

"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."

Back to school

After his second year, old Geneva friend Gary Urchek, who had played for 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."

He also decided to become a family man. He has been married for 20 years to Lauren, who he met in Memphis. They have two children — daughter Katie, 10, and son Sloan, 7.

"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."

McHugh is in his 29th year of teaching. He's still coaching, but a far less stressful sport.

"I've got one more year of teaching to go," he said. "I coach boys and girls golf at Arlington High School (in the Memphis area) in the fall."

He has had other coaching assignments of the year, like working with Jay McHugh on his game. Those lessons were good enough to help the youngster 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."

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's thoughts never stray far from the game that has meant so much to him.

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

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