Simpson has positive influence on his players, reaches out to friends in coaching fraternity
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
CRESTWOOD, Ky. — Navigating 2020 has been nothing short of chaotic for anyone, but for high school basketball coaches the stress is just different.
Teams weren’t able to be together for summer basketball. It’s not certain that teams will tip off for the 2020-2021 season. And some coaches, like South Oldham’s Steve Simpson, have been limited to text messaging or calling their players instead of supervising individual or limited-participant workouts because of local decisions made in hope of slowing a virus.
It’s the uncertainty that comes in a world trying to figure out the best way to battle COVID-19.
But as we talked this week, Steve Simpson appeared relaxed. It wasn’t the resignation that comes from knowing that an end to the uncertainty is out of his hands. It was true peace and the highly successful coach at South Oldham wants to share that peace with others in the coaching fraternity.
He’s reaching out to many of the same guys who have battled against Simpson throughout Kentucky’s Eighth Region to join in a Saturday morning Bible Study geared specifically for high school basketball coaches. Instead of devising a game plan to get open 3-pointers or disrupt the opponent, Simpson is reaching out to other coaches about a game plan for life.
It all began soon after COVID-19 practically shut the world as we knew it down. Steve Wigginton, who is the area director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Louisville, reached out to several coaches in Oldham, Bullitt and Jefferson counties about the possibility of using Zoom for an online Bible study designed for coaches.
“He said, ‘What do you think of this idea?’ Several of us said we thought it was good. The first time, there were probably eight coaches in there, but I was the only one from the Eighth Region. All the rest were from schools in Jefferson County,” Simpson remembers.
But since that beginning in late March, the group has been a resource of strength for anyone taking part. “It’s good to hear other coaches talk about what God is doing in their lives,” Simpson says.
The concept is similar to a home Bible study or Life Group, but instead of meeting around a coffee table, the interaction is on a computer screen and sent over the internet. “Each coach brings a Bible verse that has jumped out to him that week or in some of his studies,” Simpson says. “We get on there and talk a little bit. Then each coach shares a Bible verse or two that the Lord has put on his heart that week.”
It’s a camaraderie that fans often don’t see but is typical in a world of highly competitive guys who are trying to make a difference in the lives of teenagers. “That’s one of the great things about the coaching profession,” Simpson says. “For those 32 minutes, it’s a battle. But when it’s over, if anyone needs anything, almost every coach in the Eighth Region will be there to help that coach with whatever he needs.
“One of the great things about this profession is you meet so many nice people. You meet some of the nicest people but some of the most competitive people when you see them during the game.”
Around the Eighth, Simpson’s teams are known for being able to put points on the scoreboard in a hurry. South Oldham seems to have an endless supply of guys who can zero in on the basket from long range and because of that, the Dragons have become perennial contenders for the regional championship. South earned its first Sweet 16 trip in 2013 and has returned twice since then, matching Oldham County and Collins for the most Eighth Region crowns in the last decade.
And his teams are known for a simple gesture of faith following every game. “One thing I am proud of is that after the game, our team always prays with the other team,” he says. “One thing about this platform is that it allows people to see that we go to battle for 32 minutes but when it’s over, it’s over. We want to put the most important things first and that’s why we do that after our basketball games.
“There have been some schools that say, ‘Our administration would not want us to do that,’ so they decline.”
A South Oldham player usually leads the prayer but sometimes an opponent has the honor. And, of course, there have been times when another team is upset about the outcome of the game and refuses, but those instances are few.
Simpson knows that people notice. “One time six or seven years ago, I don’t know if I forgot, but we didn’t pray with the other team,” he remembers. “I got a call the next day from a guy that said, ‘Hey, I guess you only pray after you win.’ That really stuck with me. So no matter what happens, whether it’s a win or a loss, we are going to pray every time because if we don’t, people are going to get the wrong impression and that’s not what I want to do.”
Simpson, who has won nearly 500 games, is also known for his support of the FCA and for being a positive influence on his players. But, he says, that was not always the case.
“When I was at Williamstown (in the 1990s), the kids I had there, if someone said Steve Simpson is a Christian, they would probably laugh or wouldn’t have a clue,” he smiles. “I rededicated my life in the year 2000, about the time I came here. When that happened, the language changed and I know it was real because my behavior changed. I am not perfect, but these kids here, my language and the way I treat them is 100 percent different than the kids at Williamstown or Lincoln County or Augusta. I say that, and it’s not something I am proud of, but I was not walking in the way I was supposed to. I’m not perfect now, but these kids here, if you interviewed them, they would have a different take than those kids when I first started coaching.”
It’s a reflection of Christian growth and the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. It just naturally shows.
Now retired from teaching but still continuing his coaching duties, Simpson knows that he’s in a mission field. “I have never done a mission trip, per se, but have heard many say they were blessed more than the people they served because they were in God’s will.” he says. “I think South Oldham is my mission field.”
Indeed. But working in a public school does carry some restrictions. No public school employee can initiate a discussion about faith during school time. However, Simpson says, it puts him in contact with people searching for answers in their lives. “If a kid knows you are a Christian and comes to you asking a question about it, that opens up a door. But you walk in such a way that everyone knows what you stand for,” he says. “Anytime that we can do anything that shows God’s love to players and has a positive influence on their lives, I feel like we are doing God’s will.”
And there are many opportunities to influence young people as a high school coach. “Oldham County has good kids and most of them are in good situations in their homes,” Simpson explains, “but they still need an opportunity to hear (the biblical message) and that’s why FCA opens the door in the schools. Here, FCA meets before school or after school, which is OK because it is not during the school day.”
Simpson said a transforming moment in his life came when he realized basketball had become his top priority.
“I think first and foremost, anything we put in front of God is considered an idol,” Simpson says. “I love basketball and I have to be careful that it doesn’t consume me so much that it takes away from my Christian life. That’s easy to do. It can absorb everything. Part of my life, I let it become too big and as a result, other areas of my life were neglected.”
It can easily happen in what high school sports have become. Coaches can sometimes try to meet some of the unrealistic expectations fans can demand. And in a year like 2020, they can wonder what is going to happen next. Facing the unique demands of coaching is the main reason for the FCA Bible study and why Simpson wants to reach out to those counterparts he knows best in the Eighth Region.
“It’s good to talk with different people about things that are going on,” he says.
Currently the group meets online on Saturday mornings from 9-9:45 and Simpson hopes to have more Eighth Region coaches involved and could possibly form their own group. If the 2020-21 season tips off, Simpson says that time might change to another day in the week or a different hour since most high school coaches have practice or film sessions on Saturday mornings.
There is also the possibility that the meetings could have to come to a close.
Most of all, Simpson says, it’s a time of fellowship and encouragement with a reminder to keep God at the top of all priorities. “I love basketball so much,” Simpson says, “but I believe if I put the Lord first, he will bless my time in basketball. I have been blessed so much at South Oldham High School and I just can’t begin to tell you how great these 20 years have been.”