Schmitt Happily Home as St Johns Coach

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

August 13, 2019

ST. JOHNS – The 50 or so students chanting “Schmitt! Schmitt! Schmitt!” during the earliest minutes of Monday morning know him mostly as a high school math teacher.

Which makes sense – the oldest probably had just turned 3 when Andy Schmitt was locking down his local legend status as St. Johns’ history-making quarterback.

What they probably don’t remember, they’ve surely heard about – how he led unheralded St. Johns to the 2004 Division 3 championship game, its only appearance in an MHSAA Football Final, on the way to starring at Eastern Michigan University and earning a tryout from the Detroit Lions.

That fame he earned more than a decade ago still stands tall, just as the Redwings' first-year varsity head coach did by a few inches over the rest of his coaching staff and possibly all of his players as the team kicked off the 2019 season with a midnight practice on its home field. 

While Schmitt’s experiences and successes surely could have led him down a variety of football coaching roads, he always was circling to come back home – with the hope of giving today's players opportunities to make memories like those that continue to resonate within him.

“It never mattered on opportunities. It was always a matter of trying to come back home,” said Schmitt late Sunday night, as St. Johns’ game clock behind him ticked down the seconds until football teams statewide were allowed to practice for the first time this fall. “My wife’s from here. I’m from here. I grew up with a lot of pride in this community. I saw myself, once I decided to get into education and coaching, I saw myself coming back to St. Johns.

"We had such a good experience playing here, made a couple of nice runs, and I just want to help this program do the same thing." 

He began a busy journey as a mostly-unheralded high school junior in 2003. Unheralded, that is, until he led St. Johns to its first District football title that fall.

Schmitt then emerged the next season as the best from a historically-deep group of standout mid-Michigan quarterbacks, leading St. Johns to the Pontiac Silverdome. Although the Redwings lost that championship game to Lowell 38-17, Schmitt made a pair of long scrambling passes that helped St. Johns stay tied with the Red Arrows until the final minutes of the third quarter. And regardless of the defeat, the playoff run spoke volumes – Schmitt eventually was named Lansing State Journal All-Decade quarterback for the mid-Michigan area in 2010, prestige that lives on even for players who have seen him play only on YouTube.

“It’s all over the school. He’s got a banner in there, a picture in the weight room,” Redwings senior lineman Sam Hallead said. “It’s always there to motivate us.”

Schmitt went on to Eastern Michigan University, where after redshirting his first year he played 34 games with 30 starts before a knee injury ended his college career after the team’s third game of the 2009 season. All told, he threw for 5,867 yards and 33 touchdowns at EMU and holds four school passing records while ranking near the top in a number of other categories. He still shares the NCAA Division I record for single-game completions with 58 against Central Michigan in their 2008 meeting.

Schmitt came back from his injury to try out for the Lions in 2010, and then he turned toward his next career. He student taught at Williamston, then as a long-term substitute at Bay City John Glenn before taking his first fulltime teaching job at New Buffalo. Then it was on to Fowlerville and Ovid-Elsie Middle School before arriving back at St. Johns in 2015. Schmitt coached at all of the schools where he taught, and was a freshman coach the last three seasons under his former coach Dave Mariage, who retired from the head varsity job after last season. A week after Mariage resigned, Schmitt was promoted, and he’ll be surrounded this fall by all of the same staff – and with Mariage as his freshman coach. 

It's where Schmitt always was meant to be, with qualities he began showing 20 years ago shining through.

“The same love of the game. The same enthusiasm. He loves the game, he knows the game, and he’s excited every day he comes out here,” Mariage said. “I didn’t know that’s what he was going to do (become a teacher and coach), but he’s a natural leader. He checks all the boxes. He’s going to do great.”

Schmitt takes over a program that remains one of the most consistently successful in the Lansing area.

Mariage stepped away with a 124-72 record over his 19 seasons, and the Redwings haven’t finished below .500 for a season since 2005. They’ve won two more District titles since Schmitt graduated and are a regular league title contender.

St. Johns will begin its seventh season since building a football stadium after Schmitt starred on a field that certainly could be referred to as yesteryear. And Hallead said the varsity has 35 players out, with his class plenty familiar with the new coach after Schmitt coached them as freshmen.

Schmitt laughed when asked if his players know of his legendary status in town – “They don’t need to know” – but he admits there’s substantial buzz heading into this season. He’ll never forget how the community came out to support the team when he played, and that support was perhaps the heaviest  driving force that brought he and his wife Teisha (Thelen), also a 2005 grad and three-sport standout, home again and home to stay.

“The amount of pride that I experienced going through the runs that we had junior and senior year, and again, watching this town come together and how supportive the town was, made football mean so much to me,” Schmitt said. “How a group of people can bring a lot of people together, seeing the support, seeing the pride made me want to come right back to St. Johns.

“This is home. There’s not going to be anywhere else. This is where we’re going to raise our kids. There’s no going anywhere from here.”

Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in Jan. 2012. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) St. Johns first-year head varsity coach Andy Schmitt works with his defensive backs during Monday morning’s “midnight madness” practice. (Middle) Schmitt formerly starred at quarterback for the Redwings, leading the program to its first District and Regional titles.

Nightingale Embarking on 1st Season as College Football Head Coach

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

July 10, 2024

CJ Nightingale's family values, small-town upbringing and Christian faith steered the Mendon native into a career coaching college football.

Made In Michigan and Michigan Army National Guard logosNightingale, a 2010 Mendon High School graduate, is busily preparing for his first season as Belhaven University's eighth football coach. He was officially named the Blazers' head coach seven months ago, on Jan. 1.

Belhaven, a Division III school located in Jackson, Mississippi, competes in the USA South Athletic Conference.

Nightingale credits his love of coaching to his father Chris Nightingale and grandfather Charles Nightingale.

"It all started with my dad and grandfather. At one time they were both involved in coaching, and their general love for sports wore off on me," CJ Nightingale said.

Once CJ reached high school, his interest in athletics only intensified thanks to several people who made a big impact on him.

"I had the most wonderful experience attending school and participating in Mendon athletics,” Nightingale said. “We didn't always have the better athletes, but we were successful because of all the time and commitment put in by our coaches, teachers, administration along with parental and community support. Success is the result of many people who focus on the same cause."

Nightingale lettered in football, basketball and baseball at Mendon, earning four varsity letters in all three sports. He was named the St. Joseph Valley League's MVP in all three sports his senior year, and Mendon earned league titles in all three during Nightingale's senior year as well.

As a starting quarterback and defensive back his sophomore year, Nightingale led Mendon to the 2007 Division 7 football championship with the Hornets' 20-0 win over Traverse City St. Francis. Nightingale still holds the state record for career interceptions with 27.

Mendon had finished the 2006 season 3-6. A losing season remains rare in Mendon, and Nightingale stated it fueled the Hornets' title run the following season.

"I think losing is more difficult in football than in any other sport because of how much work goes into preparing for a season,” Nightingale recalled. “We were a very young team in 2006 and got punched in the mouth. It wasn't the best feeling, but it was a real learning experience and served as a big driving force that next season.

"All the hard times we endured the previous year served as a byproduct for our success in 2007. That team was unselfish, and not one player on the team cared who got the stats or accolades."

At Mendon, Nightingale played for legendary coach John Schwartz in football, David Swanwick in basketball and Glen Samson in baseball.

Lessons from Schwartz – a member of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's Hall of Fame – and Samson have especially stuck with Nightingale into adult life and his own coaching career.

"Coach Schwartz had a way of getting everyone on the same page not just on the field, but he taught you how to be the best version of yourself off the field in every-day life. Coach Samson knew how to get his players in the right positions on the diamond to make us successful," Nightingale said.

"The environment at Mendon solidified my desire to become a coach and teacher. The best leaders are also the best teachers, and when you are surrounded by people like that it makes a big difference."

Nightingale attended Wheaton College in Illinois, where he lettered in football four years as a defensive back and return specialist. During Nightingale's career, the Thunder posted a combined record of 34-8 and qualified for the NCAA Division III playoffs when he was a freshman.

After graduating college, Nightingale taught history and spent two years as the varsity football coach at Richmond High School in Indiana. In 2016 he secured his first collegiate coaching job at Greenville University (Ill.) as a defensive backs coach, where he spent one season. He then served as special teams coordinator and linebackers coach at Indiana Wesleyan University beginning in 2017 before returning to his alma mater Wheaton in 2019 as the Thunder's defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.

Nightingale makes an open-field tackle against the Gladiators in the 2007 Division 7 Final. Nightingale coached 24 all-conference players, 10 all-region performers and seven All-Americans over his four seasons at Wheaton, and the Thunder made the Division III playoffs all four years.

The head football coaching position at Belhaven became available in December 2023 when previous coach Blaine McCorkle moved on to Division 1 Northwestern State (La.). Nightingale applied and went through a three-week interview process before being selected as the program’s next head coach.

"I truly feel like God has called my wife Shanel and I and our family here for a reason. We are going to pour into Belhaven as deeply as we can and see what life brings us,” CJ Nightingale said. “As a college football coach, you have the unique chance to pour into your players spiritually, academically, athletically and socially. That's what is really special about this profession."

Belhaven's program has enjoyed a lot of success, especially the past three seasons with a combined 24-7 record, including a 9-2 finish last fall.

"I am very fortunate to be taking over a strong program here at Belhaven. You don't sustain success, but rather you must be able to build on it," Nightingale said. "We are excited about this season after a great spring. This group of coaches and players got a lot done these past six months. We have had a lot of guys here on campus all summer working to get better. There are lot of goals in front of us that haven't been achieved yet. Two of those goals are to go undefeated in conference play and host a playoff game.”

CJ and Shanel have three children, including 5-year old daughter Charlotte, 3-year old son Trey and 14-month old daughter Coco. They are expecting a fourth child in mid-September.

2024 Made In Michigan

June 28: E-TC's Witt Bulldozing Path from Small Town to Football's Biggest Stage - Read

PHOTOS (Top) At left, Mendon’s CJ Nightingale (2) celebrates during his team’s 2007 championship win over Traverse City St. Francis at Ford Field; at right Nightingale is pictured with his wife Shanel and children Charlotte, Trey and Coco. (Middle) Nightingale makes an open-field tackle against the Gladiators in the 2007 Division 7 Final. (Family photo courtesy of CJ Nightingale.)