It was a situation that no school district or athletic director wants to face. And it is also a case of being “victimized” by your own success. When you hire good people, other people want them too.
Thus is the case with the Paris Lady Eagles basketball program. Earlier this month, it was announced that head coach Dustin Williams had been named as the head senior high coach for the eStem High School Lady Mets, a Class 4A high school basketball program. Not only was the announcement a surprise to the Paris administration, players, and fans, it was sad to see him go, although everyone appreciates the great job he did and is happy to see his career advance. But nevertheless, life goes on, and the district had no choice but to move quickly in naming Williams’s successor.
It is a difficult proposition to replace school personnel in June. Coaches are typically on 10-11 month contracts that begin around July 1. In school terms, that means that districts usually send contract to renewed personnel in May and they are signed and returned to the district no later than late June. An unexpected departure of any school employee places the district in the position of finding a replacement with approximately six weeks to go before staff returns to open the new school year. And for coaches, now that sports are literally a year-around thing, the absence of a coach to develop his or her players during the summer becomes a big issue for the schools, their players, and their parents.
The danger in searching for a good candidate in June rests in the timing of the vacancy. Desired candidates with good employment histories and successful coaching records are usually in place and have signed contracts in June. That does not mean that good candidates cannot be found, but it does mean that a district is more at-risk of hiring a candidate that has had work-related issues, or is young and has little experience and is looking for their first break in the coaching field. Programs such as Paris that have enjoyed a history of great success in their programs are looking for successful candidates that have a track record of previous success on their resumes.
So, this is the position that Paris found themselves in just a few weeks ago. The pressure was on, and the Paris administration had less than 30 days to find a viable candidate. The longer the search prolonged, the less the chances were of finding a quality replacement. Paris had just made a home run hire for the boys program in Blain Brewington, but, it did not expect to have to hit another home run in the girls program. After all, Dustin Williams had done a remarkable job the season before with a very inexperienced Lady Eagles team that eventually finished third in the conference and earned the number three seed in the district tournament. Dustin was well liked by his players and parents, so, this was going to be a late, critical hire for the district. Could Paris hit another home run; this time for the girls basketball program?
The answer to that question is a resounding “YES!!” Donald Hart, who was currently on staff as Dustin Williams’s assistant, and who had been highly successful with the same core group of players as the head softball coach, decided to put his application in late in the hiring process for the new girls’ basketball coach position. Yesterday, I visited with Coach Hart about how exciting the past few weeks have been for him leading up to his naming last Thursday evening by the Paris school board as the Lady Eagles’ new head basketball coach.
In our interview, I asked Coach Hart how he became a candidate for the position. Coach Hart explained, “Well, actually, I had to think on it a little while. I was a late applicant. When it all came about (the announced vacancy) I didn’t put much consideration into putting in for it. But, I got to thinking about it. I have always liked basketball. My first love in high school was just baseball. But to have the opportunity to lead a high school team is appealing to me. Some of our kids (players on the team) have had a change in coaching through their junior and senior high careers at least twice. Always when you have change the kids are a little reluctant to get to know them. So, I felt like that if I was able to get the job they will have at least been around me and would know what my expectations are and might make the transition a bit smoother for them.”
At the time of Coach Hart’s application, the district was involved in a search of outside candidates that it had been working from a list of possible coaches. “I called them a couple of weeks ago and asked if they would still accept an application. When they said yes, I told them I was going to put my resume in. So, I submitted my resume and they called me and I ended up interviewing on a Monday. I knew they were in the middle of interviewing other candidates and I was just fortunate that I got an interview.”
Coach Hart loves sports, loves his players, and is very intense in both his preparation and his game demeanor. He will give the Lady Eagles basketball program 150%. I asked Coach Hart how he will balance his time and intensity between basketball and softball where he now finds himself as the head coach for both sports. “From an intensity standpoint, I am going to have the same intensity in both sports. I will bring the intensity (for basketball) for sure. As far as hours wise (divided between the two sports) it is not going to be any different with practice times or the time I am putting in now. There will be some extra hours for me now that will involve planning for basketball. I will be going from one season to the next, but I am already doing that now (previously as assistant basketball coach into softball season as head coach). I feel like I can handle the transition, and I am expecting not to have any problems from going from one sport to another.”
Hart has not had a chance to meet with his team as their new head coach. “I have practiced them the last two weeks (as the interim head coach) and they have been asking. I didn’t even tell them I was a candidate or that I had put in for it. I didn’t want to say anything and then if I didn’t get an interview or not get the job, you know, so I just kept my mouth shut. But I am excited to get to talk with them.”
The job was not just given to Coach Hart because he was already there and it was getting late in the hiring timeline. Coach Hart went through the same application and interview steps that any candidate was expected to do who was receiving serious consideration by the district. “I did have an inside foot from already being in the program, but I went through the same process.”
I asked Coach Hart about what he thought his approach would be with the players as a head coach compared to when he was an assistant. “I worked in a factory for over 19 years, so promptness is very important to me and is something I am going to be stressing. For kids to get on the same page with my expectations, its not a total restructure or rebuild thing. Its just that I may do a few things differently, but I think….I started a few weeks ago implementing a few things not knowing whether I was going to be the coach. I tried to implement things that would be in line with my expectations if I were to get the job.”
Coach Hart played high school basketball at Magazine High School from the seventh grade through the twelfth. “I played for Randy Bryan and we were a man-to-man team (on defense). We played a little bit of zone. Coach Bryan instilled some things in me that I still believe to this day. Intensity, effort: that’s one thing that…we are going to have the numbers this year to play some man-to-man, and this is something that I am going to place some emphasis on.”
Coach Hart will have the opportunity to coach his daughters, Jadyn and Jacee, this upcoming season. When I asked him how his daughters are receiving the idea of playing basketball for their dad, Coach Hart said, “I asked them before I ever put in for it, and my oldest daughter, Jadyn, said, yeah, that’s cool. The only one I’m concerned about (in a kidding fashion) is Jacee, the junior. My wife says she is a “mini me” and we are both cut from the same rock. So, the other day I told her that I was going to put the assistant coach to working with her because we both knew we would butt heads (also kidding). Jacee said, “Oh yeah; you know we are going to butt heads!”
In the case of Jadyn, it is with mixed emotions that Coach Hart enters into her senior year as coach; he looks forward to it, but he also knows it is Jadyn’s last year. “I have tried not to think about it. It’s inevitable that it is coming to an end, and it has been a great ride, and I am sure there will be a lot of emotions. I am going to be emotional leading the program, so, my emotions may be high for the entire season.”
The Lady Eagles have both talent and numbers returning for next season, and Paris fans are looking forward to the 2020-21 season with great anticipation. I asked Coach Hart about his game philosophy and the basis of his strategy and he replied, “I am going to focus on man-to-man, intensity, and pressure, and if we are in a zone we are still going to be very intense and active on defense. We are going to have the manpower to be able to do that. We are going to be fairly deep, so, defensively, that is one of the things that we are really going to work on. Offensively, we have good guards and tall kids that can play inside as well as outside. I am kind of old school; I played back in the time when you looked for your post players, your “bigs”, before you went to your guard play. I am going to use our size to our advantage. I am going to use it to break down other teams’ defenses. We have speed; if we can get out in front we can run with people. We’re not going to be run and gun for 32 minutes; we will have some set plays. I am going to put some focus on just playing basketball where I don’t have to call a set play every time down the floor. I want them to get to where they can drive the gaps and make things happen without a play being called from the bench. I want to develop our inside play physicality a little more and try to work through them which will allow our guards to get some open looks.”
As much as things will be staying the same, there will be some changes within the girls basketball program. One such change has been the hiring of new assistant coach, Kaleb McAnally.
McAnally is a native of Ozark and graduated from Arkansas Tech University. As part of his degree program at ATU, McAnally served an internship under coach Joe Brunson at County Line High School. McAnally comes from a family coaching tree that includes current Ozark football defensive coordinator, Cliff McAnally. In addition to his internship at County Line, McAnally coached travel basketball in Ozark.
Coach Hart was involved in the selection of McAnally as his new assistant coach. “I did get the opportunity to interview Kaleb. He interned, in my opinion, with one of the best high school coaches around in Joe Brunson at County Line. Coach Brunson runs a very good program there at County Line, and so, he has been exposed to things on how to run a program and that was one of the things that attracted me to his application. I know Kaleb’s dad and his mom both. His mom went to Magazine with me, and his dad and I went to college at Tech together, and I have kind of watched him grow up through sports and on Facebook, so he wasn’t a total stranger to me. He’s young, he brings some experience that is going to help our program in areas where I may be lacking. Such as running HUDL (a coaches’ software program used for analyzing game videos and searching for opponents’ tendencies). He spoke in his interview about breaking down game film and I think he will be able to help me in that aspect. So, I think it is going to be a good fit.”
McAnally will serve as a junior and senior high basketball assistant, as well as coaching the seventh grade girls basketball team. “I’m going to let him coach seventh grade; we will both do it, but I am going to let him take the lead with the seventh grade team. He is going to be fully involved in practices, game planning, and all aspects of the program. He is going to be a head coach someday, and I don’t want him to have a bad experience at Paris.”
McAnally is very excited to be coming to Paris for his first coaching assignment. In an interview with the new Lady Eagles assistant basketball coach, McAnally said, “I come from kind of a coaching background (father coaches football at Ozark high school). I have been in Ozark since the fourth grade. After I graduated from Tech, I got to help Coach Brunson at County Line. I have coached travel ball in Ozark for four years now. At County Line, Coach Brunson gave me the opportunity to help during practices, and learn how he breaks down drills. He helped me run and coach some seventh grade practices, taught me how to make a practice plan, and how to analyze what worked and what did not work. We would discuss at half time what needed to be changed and how we could change it or make adjustments to what we were doing.”
I asked Coach McAnally what are the one or two things he learned from Coach Brunson that he would like to bring to Paris. He responded by saying, “He had great attention to detail; with everything that he did. From small drills to strategy, and he wrote everything down I hope to bring that with me.”
So, Paris fans, it is definitely a new day in Paris High School basketball, both in the boys and girls programs. After having interviewed boys coach Blain Brewington, and now, Donald Hart in the girls program, it appears that both programs will emphasize pressure defense and fast-paced offense that will not only play fast, but smart, as both coaches have a commitment as well to the half court game and getting the ball inside, while also taking advantage of every opportunity that the defenses will present.
I can see it now. It’s a cold, Friday night of basketball this winter. And inside Paris gymnasium will be capacity crowds going crazy for the hot brand of intense basketball all night!
Wow! Paris fans…does that sound great? See you at next year’s barn burners for the boys and the girls Paris basketball games!