When Otis Washington graduated from Xavier University in 1961, he was your typical college graduate.
He had no idea what he would do next.
He did have three options: head west to California, become involved in the Civil Rights Movement or accept a job as a coach.
With the paltry sum of $16.82 in his pocket, California was out of the question.
The Civil Rights Movement was probably too serious for many in his age group.
He’s not sure why, but he took the least appealing road at the time and accepted a coaching position, even though he wasn’t interested in a coaching career.
“I figured I’d stay at St. Augustine for a year and then get the heck out of there,” he said.
One year turned into 18 and produced one of the state’s most successful high school coaching tenures, and the coach who wasn’t interested in coaching will be enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches on Saturday.
When your 11-year head coaching résumé includes three state championships and a runner-up trophy, seven district titles in the ultra-competitive Catholic League, an 80 percent winning rate and more than 120 players sent to colleges around the country, it’s difficult to believe coaching really wasn’t on his radar.
The Selma, Alabama, native later became the first black football coach at LSU and was head coach at Southern for six years.
Washington was captain of the last football team at Xavier in 1959 and was good enough to garner all-conference accolades in football and baseball.
He went to see Father Robert Grant, principal at St. Aug.
“Father Grant told me they were going to do great things at St. Aug, and he wanted me to be a part of it,” Washington said. “Actually, I was just there the first year. I didn’t coach anything; I was one of those young ‘gofer’ coaches.”
After one year, he told Grant he didn’t think coaching was his thing.
Grant didn’t listen. Instead, he told the young “gofer” he would pay his way to a coaching clinic at Kansas State. Obviously, Grant saw something in the coach who didn’t want to be a coach.
“I went to clinics the next three or four years,” Washington said. “All the great college coaches at the time were there — Bear Bryant of Alabama, Jake Gaither of Florida A&M, John McKay of USC, Bill Yeoman of Houston. After rubbing shoulders with and learning from the best, I was hooked.”
St. Aug was in the midst of the school’s first amazing athletic run in the mid-1960s, winning three state football crowns in four years in the Louisiana Interscholastic Athletic and Literary Organization, the black prep athletic governing body during segregation. Washington was the school’s junior-varsity coach.
A historic and successful 1967 lawsuit allowed St. Aug to compete in the Louisiana High School Athletic Association. After two subpar seasons, Grant handed the reins to a 26-year-old who had never been a head coach. It was one of the most significant coaching decisions in New Orleans and Louisiana prep football history.
The 1969 Purple Knights went 6-4 in Washington’s first season, and 1970 was a breakout year as St. Aug shared the Catholic League title with Holy Cross and Jesuit when all three finished 9-1.
But only two teams from each district were allowed to compete in the postseason. A coin toss decided which teams would move on — and St. Aug was the odd team out.
“It was really, really hard to take,” Washington said. “That was a really good football team, and you should never think negative, but I just knew we were not going to win that coin toss.”
Anthony Biagas was a member of that hard-luck 1970 squad. He went on to become an All-Ivy League player at Princeton and a member of Washington’s staffs at St. Aug and Southern.
“We had good players, but that team was good because Otis was always consistent and a no-nonsense guy who preached fundamentals,” said Biagas, who later had 16 successful years as St. Aug’s head coach, from 1986 to 2002. “Basically, we all worshipped the ground he walked on.”
Washington rebounded from that heartache and went on to win state titles in 1975, ’78 and ’79 in Class 4A — the state’s highest classification at the time. The Purple Knights were a perfect 15-0 in ’75.
In 1978, they defeated Catholic League rival Jesuit 13-7 before a record crowd of 44,000 in the Superdome. That game is credited with starting the idea of playing all of the state championships in the Superdome over two days; three years later, the LHSAA Prep Classic was born.
With a sparkling 106-25-1 record, Washington’s quest for excellence was unyielding, his motivation simple.
“I was determined not to be a coach whose team would get beat 77-0, or my kids wouldn’t know how to get into a three-point stance,” he said. “I didn’t want them to not have a system to fall back on when they got in trouble.
“I wanted to make sure our kids knew what they were doing, perform and be proud of their performances. I wanted their families to be proud of them, and the people who followed St. Aug to be proud of them.”