Earlier this week, Paul Neal saw his tenure as head basketball coach at Lawrence High come to an end, after leading the Lancers through some of their most successful years in program history over the last decade and half. Neal has been promoted from assistant principal to principal.
Neal coached the Lancers to their first-ever Division 1 North title in 2005, and led them to another final in 2011 as a No. 15 seed. He was also named USA Today's Coach of the Year for his efforts in the community following the tragic shooting and paralysis of star point guard Hector Paniagua just two weeks after winning the North title in 2005.
A successor was quickly named in assistant coach Raymond Nunez, and the energetic new head coach has a lot on his mind. Nunez spoke to ESPNBoston.com tonight about the new job and his plans for the program going forward.
How it went down: "Coach Neal had been talking for the last couple years about moving on. He had always mentioned that he'd like me to move into his position and continue the job he's done at lawrence. But I guess I was somewhat surprised that it all happened so quickly."
Reaction to being named head coach: "I was kind of surprised that I received the call from Mr. Riley, the overseer of the Lawrence school system. My reaction is that I'm gonna go ahead and try to fulfill the shoes of a person who dedicated 14-15 years of his life to helping so many kids in the city of Lawrence -- not just basketball wise, but as people, as students, and then thirdly as athletes. That's gonna require a lot of energy, time, pasison, hard work and commitment on my part."
What he's learned from Paul Neal: "If there's anything I've learned from Coach Neal, it's that passion he had for the youth of Lawrence. I learned a great deal from him regarding the ability to communnicate with kids when it came to being student-athletes with character, challenging them both as a student and on the basketball court. In every way possible he tried to give it the best, to bring out the best of the players, and I want to replicate that again. He gave so much of what he had to the kids."
What Neal meant to him as a mentor: "Definitely a lot. I learned so much from him as a mentor, and not just basketball wise. What I've learned from him, mostly helping out kids by looking for the solution, not just the problems. Players for whatever situation they may be in, there's always a solution for everyhting, whether on the basketball court, in the classroom, or in life. I'm just trying to enhance what he's brought to the city of Lawrence."
On how much of the Lawrence job involves being an ambassador:
"I think about 95 percent, that was his role. He's put the basketball progam on map for the city of Lawrence, and you don't need to be a fan of basketball to understand the work he's done for the youth of Lawrence. It trickles down to everyone in city. If you see kids coming on to the basketball court, that's gonna bring pride to the community.
"The other thing he brought in that I feel is important to me a coach as well, he put emphasis as well on taking the next step -- building more character players, as people basically. Having the student-athlete understand that being a great person should be their goal, not just in school or on the basketball court, but in general. Then once you do that, I feel that piece of the student in the classroom understands that part of the student is gonna be important helping them get to the next level -- college. I'd like to see more kids go on to college, and Coach Neal has had tutoring, study hours, he constantly communicated with teachers and assisted students. My goal is to take it to the next level. That'll be high expectations on my part.
"Lastly, the basketball piece. When you have great character, and you have the academics in your mind, it will translate on to the court. Again, most of the youth in Lawrence want to play basketball, utilize that as chance to understand being a good person and great student means everything.
"Coach Neal already said this, but for the next coming years to have success this whole thing isn't gonna be an 'I' thin. Not a 'We' thing. It's not gonna be just me, it's gonna be with great assistance from the community, and then also the student-athlete themself, then the community within the Lawrence Public Schools system. It's going to be a team effort from everyone. That's my vision going into this."
Coaching style: "I have a similar philosophy to what he [Neal] as taught me on basketball sense. We need to be workers, we need to have commitment, work ethic and determination. We have athletes, but not always basketball players, and I'm commited to improving our skill as basketball players. I'm not trying to change much of our style that Coach Neal has implemented on offense. Most of us have athletic ability, so we're looking for an up-and-down tempo offensively.
"I'm a defensive-minded person as well, I would say that's my coaching mentality, so we're looking to put pressure on the ball and go into a fast-paced offense from there. We're mostly man, again with the trap that Coach Neal has utilized over the years as well. And it's going to be a marathon playing our style, so we need to be well-conditioned."
On the talent coming back: "There was about 11 or 12 guys that are gonna be moving on this year, and about three returning players, so again we'll be inexperienced just as the past few years, so we'll def need to commit ourselves and have devoted work ethic, just be determined to improve.
"[Sophomore forward] Roberto [Speing], he's got big shoes to fil. We're not gonna have Tre'Von [Farley] or Franklin [Martinez], so offensively he's gonna have to take on a bigger role. It'll all depend on what he does in the offseason. We need him to go ahead and be able to knock down 15-footers, get to the free throw line and knock them down, get off the dribble, get offensive rebounds, and be a great defensive player. He has the potential to develop on the offensive end, but it's gonna be up to his commitment and work ethic on his part."
What the Lawrence program means to the city: "It just means...It brings great pride to the city of Lawrence when they see a successful group of guys on the basketball court. But again, what we hope to see as well is that they the see assets of their work ethic in the classrooom and their development as young gentlemen. Any positive story in the city of Lawrence means a great deal to the youth and to the general community. I give all the thanks in the world to to Coach Neal. He's been in it for the last 13-14 years, he's set that bar high. It'll be tough to match.