Phillip Steward is chiseled out of stone and is all the more imposing with the polo shirt that he apparently has painted on before each game. The Marana football coach patrols the sidelines from start to finish of the game—exhorting, cheering, teaching—as his surprising Tigers display, week in and week out, that they are one of the top two or three teams in Southern Arizona.
He is originally from Missouri City, Texas, a Houston suburb. An all-around athlete, football came first, but he was also an accomplished basketball player. During the spring, he competed in track AND field, participating in the strange combination of the 100 meters, 200 meters and the shot put.
Most sprinters who do field events will do the long jump, triple jump, and/or high jump. Meanwhile, throwers are usually built like…well, throwers. Steward must not have gotten that message because he enjoyed throwing the shot and was good at it. “The one thing I couldn’t do was throw the discus. I wanted to throw it like a Frisbee and it wobbled all over the place.”
His high school team, the Hightower Hurricanes, had a monster season his junior year, making it all the way to the state championship game. He was named All-District and All-State.
He attended the University of Houston, where he was a four-year starter at linebacker for the hometown Cougars. He earned a degree in kinesiology and then it was on to pro football. He was with the St. Louis Rams organization for a time and then moved on to the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.
His high-school teammate, Alonzo Highsmith, Jr., had played a year at Phoenix College before moving on to the University of Arkansas. After college, he went three straight years of making it to the final cuts before being released by the Dolphins, the Chiefs, and the Washington Football Team, respectively. He then decided to try something else and ended up the football coach at Willcox High School.
Highsmith asked Steward to join him in the truck-stop town that straddles I-10 in eastern Cochise County. Steward helped coach the football team and then was hired to coach the girls basketball team.
“That was an experience,” says Steward. He doesn’t elaborate.
When Steward’s fiancée was admitted to the University of Arizona Pharmacy School, they decided to move into Tucson. Steward got a gig teaching at Marana and volunteered to help with the Tiger football program. Marana struggled through a COVID-shortened, three-game season. With its star player, Isaiah Roebuck, heading off to play college football and baseball in North Dakota, the future looked anything but bright.
But then, Marana’s head coach left to take a job in Scottsdale and the position was open.
“I was working out in the weight room and a bunch of the guys came in and said that they thought I should apply,” Steward remembers.
He got the job and then got to work immediately. “We had to start by changing the culture,” he explains. “Change expectations and change the way we do things.”
The summer was crucial. After losing most of the previous year to COVID lockdowns, the kids were antsy to get out and do something…anything. The entire month of June, they gathered by the dozens at the Marana football field. Beginning at 6 p.m. due to heat restrictions (and even then with the temperature still in the triple digits), they ran sprints, worked on technique, and began to raise the level of Tiger football.
That work has carried over into the regular season, as Marana is one of the top-scoring teams in Southern Arizona, averaging more than 40 points a game.
Steward is cautiously excited about his team that stands at 6-1 and ranked in the Top 10 in the state in 5A. He wants more. If the Tigers can reach the eighth spot (or higher) in the AIA Power Points rankings, they will have a home game in the first round of State. (The AIA runs an open division tournament for the state’s top eight teams, regardless of classification. Right now, the top 5A team, Horizon, would be in that tournament, meaning that the Tigers would only have to reach the ninth spot.)
The focus is clearly on running the table and finishing the regular season with a 9-1 mark. The Tigers travel to 3-4 Nogales this week, followed by home games with 4-3 Cienega and 2-5 Ironwood Ridge. Marana should be favored (even heavily so) in all three games.
Also heavily favored is Phillip Steward to be named Southern Arizona Coach of the Year when the season is over. And with his star quarterback, Elijah Joplin, only a junior and his top offensive player, Dezman Roebuck, only a freshman(!), Steward knows that the future is bright.
“Hey, we’re just getting started,” he says.