Before he’d even conducted his first practice – he and his family hadn’t even finished unpacking from their move – first-year head coach Kyle Manary was planting footprints in the community.
For several weeks, he offered free clinics and camps for area youngsters. The Roadrunner basketball team, along with the coaching staff, gave up big chunks of their summers in order to teach kids the fundamentals of basketball.
When the school year arrived, Manary and his ‘Runners devoted time to elementary schools. In fact, on the first day of school, the AC guys were in full force at Kurth Elementary, lining the entryway to high five the little ones as they entered the building. Manary even announced each child’s name as part of the Roadrunners’ “starting lineup.”
Then, nearly every Friday, Manary and the ‘Runners conducted a “Read-a-Thon” in various schools, with the players describing and reading some of their favorite books.
All this way before the season’s opening tip-off to the best first-year performance by a head coach in Angelina College men’s basketball history. The Roadrunners went on to post a 22-win season, upsetting several nationally ranked teams along the way and falling just 20 minutes short of an appearance in the national tournament in Hutchinson.
Just as impressive, Manary became the winningest first-year coach in Angelina College history.
What did all the summer work in the community have to do with the team’s eventual success?
According to Manary, everything.
“For one thing, I’ve got a lot of pride in this community and all of East Texas because I grew up in Livingston,” Manary said. “I thought it was very important to bring the community to the college. Angelina College is our community’s college. What we want to do from a staff standpoint is get everyone involved in the games.
“When I came here to AC as a kid to watch basketball games, the gym was always packed, rocking and rolling. This is a basketball community. I wanted to put us out there; it’s like anything else, in that input equals output. What you invest is going to grow. We want every kid to be thinking of Angelina College first and foremost. Not other colleges or universities first, but Angelina College. We are this area’s college, and we want everyone to take pride in the college, in the Lufkin and surrounding school districts and their teams. We want them to take ownership and pride in what we do.”
Manary said the entire mindset revolved around getting the players invested in the area’s youth. In turn, the team created a fan base, one that helped drive the team through the rigors of playing in one of the nation’s toughest junior-college conferences.
“At first, we didn’t have a ton of people coming to the games, but as the season progressed, there were more and more people showing up,” Manary said. “For the players, and even the coaches, too, a full crowd just livens up the arena. The energy level the kids brought is not a distraction; it’s a blessing. There were some times we got down big in games, then we hit a couple of shots or made a couple of big plays, and the next thing you know, the crowd’s roaring, and it added fuel to our fire. It helps push our players to another level.
“The players love that atmosphere, and atmosphere is what you want for a college program. I think getting the kids on the floor high fiving players means there’s more of a connection with everyone involved. They were able to take ownership of their Roadrunners, and we want them to see that and think, ‘Maybe I should practice more. Maybe I should make the right choices so I can do that one day.’”
Getting those youngsters involved included having them on the floor to form a tunnel through which the players entered during pre-game ceremonies. Naturally, some of those kids formed attachments to their favorite players. If the NJCAA allowed jersey sales for individual players, some of those kids would have been wearing replicas of “their” guys.
“When we went out to all the schools, certain kids just gravitated toward certain players,” Manary said. “Each player on different nights would have his fan club from different schools. It was awesome to see because it reminds the guys why they do what they do. It’s something bigger than themselves. Sometimes at the collegiate and pro levels, athletes tend to think everything is about them. The earlier we can instill in them it’s about serving others and being part of something bigger than yourself, that’s the game of life. Those kids showing up with their support drives the guys to be better players and better people, so it’s a great combination.”
Manary said his mindset from the beginning was finding ways to get the community involved with his Roadrunner basketball team. To him, the time spent with area kids was an investment.
“How important is it for all the parents and educators in our area to see our players invested in their kids,” Manary asked. “There are so many options for families looking for things to do. They can take their kids to the malls in Houston or in Tyler; whatever they’re doing, they have a million options.
“Our goal is be the number one option for as many of those families as we can. How do we do that? By connecting and investing with the kids and their futures. Let’s create AC fans for life. Let’s reach out to them early and get them thinking about Angelina College. That’s what happened to me when I was a kid.”
Reaching out the community was an excellent gesture, but Manary still had to put together a basketball team worthy of the attention. For a first-year head coach, that was no easy feat, especially considering he’d be melding some players returning from the previous season with those he and his staff would be assimilating for the new year.
“Any time you take a new job at a college, there’s a meshing of the old with the new, of how things were done before as opposed to a new culture,” Manary said. “I’m a very demanding coach, and I demand a lot from the guys both on and off the court. I felt with the mixture we had this year, I thought the guys came together very well. We beat several nationally ranked teams, we finished with 22 wins and were 20 minutes away from a trip to the national tournament. It speaks volumes to the type of kids we have, and how far they progressed in buying into what we were trying to do. We had Corinthian Ramsey, who’s one of the most talented guys in the entire conference, accept a role off the bench.
“Looking back, I think we had a super-successful year, and definitely something for us to grow on. Most importantly, we’re going to have these kids graduate and move on to a higher level, which is always our goal. Our entire staff and faculty chipped in to help in so many ways. I thought it was a great year. Next season we want to stay in the top 25 consistently and make that trip to Hutchinson.”
Manary also credits his assistants, Eric Colbert and Nick Wade, for making the transition far easier than it would have been had Manary tried to go it all alone.
“Within this staff, we have a great dynamic,” Manary said. “Both of those guys have very good people skills, and they relate well to players, fans and everyone else. They’re very connected all over the country, all the way to the grass-roots level, so they’re a huge help with recruiting.
“Then in the house, they were both involved in staying on top of the academics for our players, getting the kids on track to graduate. On the floor, Eric did a lot with our bigs, while Nick developed our guards and wings. Each guy has different qualities that fit with me well. That’ the key to a good staff: Their strengths have to support your weaknesses. They have a lot of freedom; I wanted guys who would challenge me, present me with new ideas. Eric and Nick are extremely intelligent, and we’re blessed to have two guys like that on the same staff. They’ve both got rings from winning at this level, and they know how to help us get there.”
When the season ended, the Roadrunner landed several players on the post-season superlatives list. Isaiah Bailey earned 1st Team All-Region honors; Gary Blackston earned 2nd Team honors; and Robert Lewis and Ramsey earned Honorable Mention.
So how does Manary and his crew hope to build on this past season’s successes?
“That’s part of the never-satisfied culture we want to create,” Manary said. “We always want to one-up whatever we did before. We had our exit meetings, and all the players and coaches know we have to get better at certain things. Over the next month we’ll evaluate every aspect of the program and look for ways to improve. Winning more games next year would be a plus. We’ll be able to get a good jump on the season with this new recruiting class we’ve got coming in. We’ll be able to start a lot earlier. We know the school and the area, the whole layout, so we’ll have a couple of months’ head start on all of it.
“We thank the community, the fans, everybody who had a part in it this year. We’re going to keep working hard to be everyone’s first option.”
The e-mail address for AC’s Sports Information Director is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sports Information Director Gary Stallard, who also serves as a Liberal Arts Instructor, begins his eleventh season with Angelina College. Following a career as a U.S. Marine, Stallard completed his bachelor’s degree at Stephen F. Austin University, where he majored in English and Journalism. For more than 16 years, he has worked as a sports writer/columnist/photographer for the Lufkin Daily News; he continues to contribute free-lance articles on occasion. Stallard has won several awards for writing, including the Golden Hoops Award for basketball writing in 2003, Regional Sports Writer of the Year in 2004, and the Texas Press Association’s first-place award for column writing in 2007 and in 2014. He has also done basketball, football and baseball radio and live streaming play-by- play and color commentary for an ESPN affiliate. Currently Stallard serves as play-by-play broadcaster for AC basketball, baseball and softball games.
Prior to arriving at Angelina College, Stallard taught English at Lufkin High School for four years. He currently teaches Developmental Writing classes at AC. He and his wife Susan live in Lufkin.