The father's shadow cloaks the son. It envelops him. The son can not escape the father. They are forever intertwined.
The son never wanted to pick up a whistle. Never wanted to teach.
But basketball is his muse. It called to him. Despite his misgivings, he answered the siren's song.
Seven years later, it led him to the place where his father looms largest.
Tony Irons is the new boys basketball coach at Vashon High. His office is the same that his father, Floyd Irons, once called his own. The court appears shiny and new after it was sanded and given a fresh coat of lacquer last month. Yet, it too is the same his father stalked the last five of his 33-year career at Vashon. During his tenure the Wolverines were a powerhouse that won 802 games and 10 state championships.
Floyd's legacy is overpowering and complicated. He was terminated amid a tumultuous stretch in 2006 that included guilty pleas to a federal count of wire fraud and a federal count of mail fraud. Part of his plea bargain was that he admit to numerous violations of the Missouri State High School Activities Association bylaws. Floyd served 12 months in a federal penitentiary and Vashon was stripped of three state championships and five seasons worth of victories.
Two Vashon graduates and former players were entrusted with the St. Louis Public Schools' most prized program. St. Louis University star and one-time NBA regular Anthony Bonner started in 2006. He resigned 13 games into the 2008-09 season. DeAndre Davis, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's resource officer at Vashon and a 1992 graduate, held the position until this summer.
Neither led the Wolverines to the promised land.
Nine years after his father was fired, Tony, 31, is tabbed with reviving the one-time powerhouse.
“It's definitely kind of a strange feeling. It's weird being in the building in general,” Tony said. “Seeing him spend all those years at Vashon, I honestly didn't think I'd be here. I think God has a plan for everybody so this might be the plan.”
Tony's plan did not involve teaching or coaching. A strong, albeit undersized point guard at Lutheran North, Tony played at College of the Ozarks. As a freshman, he took general education classes and kicked around the idea of studying mass communications. It was his mother, Sandra Irons, who suggested he consider a career in education.
“I didn't want to teach because she's a teacher, my dad's a teacher, I tried to stay as far away from it as possible,” Tony said.
But Sandra convinced him he could land a job as a teacher when he graduated. He took her words to heart.
While Tony pursued his degree, a girls intramural team approached him to be their coach. He reluctantly agreed.
“The more I was around it, the more I liked it. The only bad part about it was they were doing it for recreation and I got competitive,” Tony said. “That was my first actual experience coaching. After that I knew that's what I wanted to do.”
Tony spent two years on the College of the Ozarks staff as a graduate assistant. He was hired to teach physical education and coach basketball at Imagine College Prep in 2009. While at Imagine, he won back-to-back district championships and finished fourth in Class 4 in 2012.
Imagine, a network of charter schools, closed in 2012 and as many as 3,800 students in the city were displaced. The bulk of the high school students enrolled at Madison Prep which was opened by the SLPS for those students.
Tony assumed the same duties at Madison Prep and the Bears won the 2013 Class 3 state championship. They finished fourth in 2014 and 2015. The SLPS closed Madison Prep this spring and its students enrolled in other district schools.
Nine of Madison Prep's basketball players went to Vashon. Tony was hired during the summer. There is a part of him that doesn't believe how it came to be.
“I've been in two situations where it didn't work out. Both of them have tremendous places in my heart. They were situations where we came in and we had to build something,” Tony said. “When (Madison) closed, I didn't know where we were going to go or what was going to happen. This ended up happening. Right now, I'm happy to be here even if it's been a rough journey. It's something I may have wanted to dodge, but I'm going to embrace it as best I can.”
Tony has proven a natural. He is 106-43 in five seasons. His teams advanced to four consecutive state semifinals and won five district championships. And did it in the face of adversity.
“At Imagine we had a gym but we didn't have a budget. A lot of people don't know this, I didn't get paid to coach when I was at Imagine,” Tony said. “At Madison, we don't have a gym at all. We have to travel all over the place to practice. We have a budget but you take the gym away. We're in a situation now where there is a budget and we have the facility.”
Even still, challenges remain. Tony and his staff have to blend the players from Madison Prep and Vashon. It's not ideal, but Tony does some of his best work in these circumstances.
“It has been smoother than I thought it would be. It was a weird situation with them having a coach and me having a program. It's going to be difficult for anybody,” Tony said. “Kids are going to go where we lead them. If you're genuine they're going to see you're genuine and respond accordingly. They've embraced me. I've got a chance to work with guys who are good kids and good basketball players.”
Vashon should be among the better teams in the area. Tony's track record says the Wolverines will be at their best when the games matter most.
“I'd be lying if I said the goal isn't to compete for a state championship, but we're going to take it a step at a time,” Tony said. “The goal is always for us to compete for a district championship and whatever happens after that happens.”
But they could get off to a slow start. MSHSAA suspended Tony the first five games of the season. After Madison Prep's 58-50 loss in the Class 3 third-place game, its players walked off the court before MSHSAA completed presenting New Madrid Country Central its medals and trophy. Tony was not with the team immediately after the game. He said he left the court in dire need of a restroom after the final horn.
Because MSHSAA judged Madison Prep violated its sportsmanship code of conduct, Tony was suspended. His appeal was denied and the suspension upheld.
“At the end of the day, I'm the leader of the program,” Tony said. “My kids learned from it. I learned from it.”
Still, there's a part of Tony that wonders if his last name wasn't Irons if the penalty would have been so stiff. Not that there would be anything new about his father's legacy hovering over him. He has and will continue to deal with it his entire life.
“There's been pressure on me since I was a kid playing high school basketball. That's one thing I know I'm never going to be able to shake. It's not a bad thing, necessarily,” Tony said. “When you look at people that have an impact on people's lives and had a lot of success, that's something that just comes with the territory. The only pressure dealing with my dad's last name is from outside people.”
Having grown in the shadow he is accustomed to it. It's all he knows. So Tony will continue to do what he does the way he knows how. In the end, it isn't about him or his father.
“I look at it as an opportunity to help kids and an opportunity to do what I love. That's the most important part of it,” Tony said. “I love the game of basketball. I can't see myself doing anything without it. It's been good to me. It's been good to a lot of my friends. I've been around basketball since I was a baby. The thought of doing anything outside of basketball is crazy. I'm blessed. I get to do what I want to do."