Hallinean Field, the hallowed grounds for Catholic Central High School football, will forever be a special place for coach Steve DeWitt.
Beer and Chili Night film sessions for the football players’ dads started in the garage … the same place a short-lived session was attempted for the moms.
The traditional spaghetti suppers originated in the field house, with the large pots of tomato sauce simmering overnight for the next day’s team meal.
The 50-yard line is where DeWitt dropped to the turf — performing his own version of the victory formation kneel down — to propose to his wife, Kim, at midnight on Christmas.
It’s where DeWitt and assistant coach Bill O’Neill first met, a friendship that’s lasted 40-plus years.
And this fall, it’ll be where DeWitt and O’Neill again watch the Irish. This time from the stands.
O’Neill announced last fall he was retiring after a 40-year career as an assistant coach, all with Catholic Central. DeWitt recently announced his retirement after 37 seasons as head coach and three seasons as an assistant under Mickey Hannon.
“The last couple of years have been pretty rough,” said DeWitt, who compiled a 229-172-4 record and led the Irish to 12 playoff appearances. “There’s an expression on the farm that says when you don’t like the calf it’s time to change the bull. I can’t lay a lack of success the last couple of years on anybody else but myself. I want the best for the kids. We’ve got a good group of kids coming back and it’s my hope the new guy … maybe invigorates them in a way I haven’t been able to the last couple of years.”
Since Catholic Central’s last playoff appearance in 2011, the Irish have gone 6-34 including 0-10 seasons in 2013 and 2014. Central finished 4-6 last season.
Mike McKenna takes over the program after serving the last 24 seasons as DeWitt’s assistant coach.
“I think it’s real important Mike understands he has the space to do what he wants without having anybody looking over his shoulder,” DeWitt said. “I don’t ever want to appear that way, but I don’t have any intentions of not being in the stands on Friday night. It’s just too much a part of me.”
And it almost never was. DeWitt said his career was supposed to last one season as the interim coach. But the Irish had a successful campaign and the interim was removed, not DeWitt.
In between there was a runner-up finish in the Division IV state championship in 1991 and a trip to the D-VI state semifinals in 2007. His career spanned film sessions that progressed from 16mm to VHS to DVD and now online.
And then there was that playoff game against Versailles with bad weather predicted. The school didn’t have coats or ponchos to protect the players. An assistant coach challenged DeWitt to call University of Notre Dame coach Gerry Faust.
“God love Gerry, when I asked if he had any sideline ponchos we could wrap our kids in and, son of a gun, he came through for us,” DeWitt said.
O’Neill and his brothers Tommy and Ed drove to South Bend that day to pick them up.
DeWitt, the second oldest of seven kids, coached four of his younger brothers. He coached both of his sons, Pat and Kyle. This past season he coached his nephew Dominic.
His biggest fan to this day is his wife.
“At midnight on Christmas I walked my girlfriend, Kim, to the 50-yard line and proposed to her there,” DeWitt said. “I asked her if she could take this and everything that goes with it. God love her, what she’s put up with over the years and what she’s allowed me to do, she’s been a big reason for our success because she’s been so supportive.”
Spending more time with his family contributed to the decision, especially with daughters Molly and Caitlin giving him two more grandchildren this month and next month.
As for O’Neill, his biggest supporter, his late mother Mary, never missed a game.
“She would come to the team dinners and eat with the guys. The guys revered her,” DeWitt said. “Billy’s family has been so wonderfully supportive. When he coached his last ball game at Hallinean Field everybody in his family was there to support him.”
DeWitt will have his grandchildren to occupy his new-found time. O’Neill plans to visit family around the country and plans more trips to his favorite destination, Ireland.
“My decision came, quite honestly, pretty easy for me because I’d been thinking about it for several years,” O’Neill said. “I was just waiting for the time to feel it, and this felt like the right time to do it.”
Added DeWitt: “Thirty-seven years ago when I took this job I wasn’t supposed to have it for more than a year. I was only good enough to be an interim coach. God love it, we had some success that season and I’m going to blame most of it on Billy. The kids went to bat for us and here we are all this time later. … How many guys get to share an experience like that with their best friend?”