By the time he was 17 years old, Willie Wise knew he was born to be a teacher and a coach.
For 36 years, Wise fulfilled that vision in St. Charles Parish, more than a decade of that span serving as the public school system’s athletic director.
“If someone handed me a blank book and said you can draw out a 36-year career of what you want, I still couldn’t have envisioned this,” Wise said. “It was such a positive experience, through and through.”
Wise has overseen a prep sports landscape that’s yielded multiple state champions, runner-ups and finalists and across a variety of sports. Through it all, he’s done it while following a phrase that serves as something as a guiding light for him.
“To all my friends and former players, our roots run deep,” Wise said. “That’s something I’ve always lived by.”
On his watch, both Hahnville and Destrehan football stadiums were renovated and artificial turf installed. The field houses were also renovated and state-of-the-art equipment brought in to each. Batting cages have been upgraded at the baseball and softball fields. Non-cover play areas were added to elementary schools and the equipment at middle schools were upgraded.
“That 10-year span of bringing our athletic facilities up to par is something I’m proud of, and it’s something that all of us at the central office and both high schools can put a feather in our cap about,” said Wise. “It took everybody.”
As a teen, Wise worked at a YMCA and began working toward his certification along the way. Part of that journey saw stops at Nicholls State and Tulane and he went on to become an earth and science teacher.
That experience was something he took with him in his early years as a coach.
“I’ve always believed if you can teach, you can coach,” Wise said. “Coaching’s teaching.”
Originally from Michigan, Wise headed down South where he was hired in 1982 at Lakewood Junior High School in Luling where he coached P.E. He went on to Destrehan High School from there.
Wise coached football and baseball as an assistant at DHS and was the head soccer coach. He made the jump to Landry Middle School eventually, then to Hahnville, where he also was an assistant baseball and softball coach and the head golf coach — that tenure including a state golf championship — and the school’s athletic director.
“There was never a day where I woke up and didn’t want to coach or teach today,” Wise said. “A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to work in a field you’re passionate about, but I’ve been fortunate enough to do just that.”
That said, as Wise got a little older, he cast an eye to working in administration.
“I love teaching, but I did have to consider whether I was gonna maintain the same drive I had as an older coach,” Wise said.
He landed a position in the central office and went on to become the district’s athletic director.
The turf installed at the two high school football stadiums became something of a trendsetter in the River Parishes, as schools in St. James and St. John parishes eventually followed suit.
“One of the big selling points I approached the board with is that you hate it when you see a student not in the classroom learning. Well, as a coach, you don’t like not being able to practice. With the turf, besides lightning and thunder, you’re always out there. You don’t have to cancel JV or freshmen games in the middle of the week to save the field for Friday night. Maintenance takes an awful lot of time. The board had a great understanding and supported it.”
Something else Wise is quite proud of is the annual joint signing day ceremonies held for Hahnville and Destrehan athletes, an event that grew so popular that it necessitated moving to larger venues to accommodate the crowd that would arrive. The parish now holds signing days for winter and spring sports, and it’s populated with athletes who have earned scholarships to continue their athletic and academic careers at the collegiate level.
“I always felt (signing day) was such a significant day in the lives of these student athletes, and they needed to be recognized more,” Wise said. “Because it’s a rare thing. Most high school athletes don’t get to go on to the next level. We used to do it at central office and it outgrew it. We purchased and revamped the old K-Mart building and made it to where we could host something like that.”
The largest group of signees celebrated is also a stout mark of 17.
Wise emphasized finding the right group of coaches to oversee the district’s athletic programs, something he said is vital to the eventual success each team and its athletes find, both on and off the field, court or track.
“The toughest thing for a coach is to reach those kids in their heart and in their mind, to believe they are even better than what they are,” Wise said. “And if they can teach, and if they know the Xs and Os … when you have all that, you have a special person and you want to hang on to them.”
He said any movement forward is only possible with the help of strong athletic directors at each school, and he credited Hahnville’s Mendi LeBoeuf and Shawn Crochet and Destrehan’s Clarence Dupepe for making his job much easier and consistently striving to learn new and different approaches.
Wise’s tenure was also special for another reason: it coincided with his children’s respective runs at Hahnville. His son Blaise is a swimmer for Loyola University-New Orleans after his Hahnville tenure ended, while his son Dane just wrapped up his senior year with HHS, where he was a key contributor to the Tigers’ baseball squad. Wise added he waited a bit longer to retire so he and Dane could move on together.
The ceremonial first pitch of each of the Destrehan/Hahnville rivalry games this year was thrown out by the retiring AD, with Dane — who was a catcher to begin his career at HHS — behind the plate to bring it in.
“I cherished the opportunity to be here as my sons went through high school and I appreciate how rare an opportunity that is,” Wise said. “I was in position to not only be able to serve the district, but I was also able to serve my kids.”