Bradley Handwerger / WWLTV.com sportswriter
NEW ORLEANS – Clifford Barthe and Dave Johnson sat in a front conference room at St. Augustine High School and listened to each other’s answers.
Many times they piggybacked on the other's response.
Other times they finished each other’s thoughts.
And that, in one brief 20-minute interview, shows the symbiotic relationship that has helped restore St. Augustine’s Purple Knights to what some would say is its rightful place at or near the top of the city’s high school sports landscape.
Barthe is the school’s basketball coach and athletics director, the man who put St. Aug back on the map fewer than two years after Hurricane Katrina forced the program to shut down for the 2005-06 athletic calendar.
Johnson is the school’s football coach, the man who built on the foundation Wayne Cordova established after the hurricane and brought the program its first No. 1 ranking since before the storm.
But both regard one other factor as being the most important part of bringing the program back to its glory state – the community itself.
“When you start talking about the Purple Nation, it is something that’s very important and something that’s real,” Barthe said. “Our fans take a very heavy interest in what we’re doing.”
Barthe says that it’s what St. Augustine means to the community that may, in the end, be what’s responsible as much as anything.
“I think it goes back to our history and where we came from, what we were,” he said. “We were the first African-American school in the LHSAA. We became the standard bearer for the whole community. Now it’s still that way. It’s like that again.
“Not having us around for that year kind of drove everybody to say, ‘We’ve got to get them back.’ So when we came back, the community supported us.”
Added Johnson, “Although I went to Kennedy, we always looked at this school as the standard.”
That St. Augustine is back, at least for now, among the elite in the city is good for everyone.
“I think St. Augustine has their community and their fans excited about what they’re doing,” Rummel head football coach Jay Roth said. “They’re passionate. You go to a St. Augustine game and you watch them sing the alma mater, their whole stands are filled and singing.”
It started with Barthe, however. He, along with school administrators, started phone banks and contacting alumni after the storm. The football and basketball teams started practicing again in June 2006.
That next basketball season, Barthe guided the Purple Knights into the state quarterfinals. A year later, St. Aug won its district. By this past season, the Purple Knights had attained a No. 1 ranking in the state and the No. 1 overall seed in the Class 5A state tournament.
For Johnson, the task has been a bit tougher. Fielding a football team is a lot harder than finding six to seven basketball players.
After Cordova was let go before the 2009 season, Johnson was hired from Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. After spending three years at Millsaps, the 1989 John F. Kennedy was ready to help St. Augustine take the next step.
He immediately led the Purple Knights to a No. 18 seed in the playoffs a near-upset of powerhouse West Monroe in the second round.
This season, in addition to the No. 1 in-season ranking, St. Augustine earned a No. 10 seed and got a round further.
“The kids, they bought in,” Johnson said. “They wanted to win, they just didn’t know how.”
Yet, St. Augustine’s success is much bigger than just on the football field or on the basketball court. The academic progress brought on by the current coaching staffs also has given the school something to puff their chests out for.
Johnson said more than 40 percent of his football players carry a 3.0 GPA thanks to the focus on academics he has instituted.
“Our teachers understood how serious we were about education and weren’t running to them right before grades came out and different things like that,” Johnson said. “The teachers bought in. That’s what really helped us out.”
For what it’s worth, neither Barthe nor Johnson care that five years after Katrina, the school and the program’s return still fosters stories about “being back” and “returning from the storm.”
As long as the stories about St. Augustine’s success stays out there, they said, they’ll take it, even if they don’t necessarily like talking about it.
“I get choked up sometimes,” Barthe said. “I hate talking about Katrina because of what it did and what it took away from us.”
So he’s alright with the stories. It’s about the community’s survival.
“Yeah, I want people to hear our story,” Barthe said. “I want people to know we still survive and we’re still significant in this community. Regardless of what other people do, we’re going to fight tooth and nail to be the best that we can be.”