Photo: David McGregor Shiloh High School girls baskeball coach John April is in his first season at the school.
John April, 39, is the new head girls basketball coach at Shiloh. April began his coaching career as a football assistant in Mississippi before adding basketball to his duties, eventually becoming the head coach at two Jackson, Miss., area high schools.
The economics teacher who played college football in junior college, at Ole Miss and at Miles College in Alabama, came to Shiloh from McNair High School in DeKalb County. In this installment of "Getting to Know..." staff writer Ben Beitzel talks with April about getting into coaching basketball, how to build a successful program and the perils of an aging athlete.
BB: After growing up in Jackson, Miss., why leave for Georgia?
JA: My wife. I met her. I was coaching over there and I was ready to make a move. I met her through a friend who was coaching, they were coaching volleyball together. We met over the phone and dated for a year and we decided to get married and she would rather me move here than her move to Mississippi. I had been home for about 11 years, I was ready to move on.
BB: What were you coaching?
JA: I coached three. Football, girls basketball and track.
BB: That's a busy schedule.
JA: (laughs) I had pretty much been doing that for a long time.
BB: What's the transition from football to girls basketball like?
JA: Tiring (laughing). It's tough, man. Going from coaching football with boys to basketball with girls it's a pretty tough transition. After a while you get used to it, but for the first couple of years it's different. It's different.
BB: Football makes sense since you played in college, but how does someone who didn't play basketball start coaching?
JA: I was coaching football at a middle school. I had coached at the high school and was asked to take over at the middle school as football coach and athletic director. Our basketball coach retired right before the season started. The principal said, 'Coach, I need a basketball coach, will you do it just to finish out the year?' I had never played basketball before or anything like that. We had two really, really good players on the team and they made me look good. They were seventh graders that year and the next year we pretty much ran the table and we didn't have a city championship but we were the best team in the city. The school, the feeder school for the junior high, was Lanier High School, where (NBA basketball player) Monta Ellis and our coach at the time (Thomas Billups) had won four or five state championships and he came to me and was looking for an assistant. I talked to a guy, a former coach at Jackson State named W.C. Gorden and was my mentor. He said, 'Well coach, this guy has won championships, the worst thing that will happen is that you'll learn how to win.' It made sense and I went ahead and joined the staff. ... And the girls program came up open. I had no interest whatsoever. Billups said, 'You may want to look at getting that program.' I said no. ... The girls probably had won about three games in two or three years. It was the worst. I thought about it for a little while, but he went ahead and submitted my name, told the principal to give it to me. He gave me the job.
BB: That had to be tough. The boys teams is ranked in the state with an NBA player and you are now coaching a girls team with none of that.
JA: We had a group of girls that had been there and a young group coming in. A really athletic group, they were the most talented. I worked with them. Myself and a couple of assistants, we worked with them, worked with them, worked with them. And eventually turned the program around. Our best year, I stayed there four years, we ended up beating the No. 3 team in the state. The No. 25 team in the nation, we played them and lost to them by one in double overtime. You could see the program had come around. My fourth year there, I was offered a job at a Class AAAAA school. A big-time school. Good football program, good basketball program. The girls program was good, but hadn't quite gotten over the hump. We had played each other a number of times and we had beaten them. ... It was an inner-city school were the facilities weren't that good to a place like where you have two gyms and everything you need to be successful. So I got the program (at Northwest Rankin). That second year is where I met my wife and I probably would still be working there now, but I moved out here.
BB: High school is weird, you only have the players that come through your door. How do you build a program at this level?
JA: What I have learned is first you have to start off with good kids. You come in and you set the standards. This is what we expect. At most programs that are down, the expectation is low. That is the tough part -- changing the mentality of the kids. Changing the mentality of the parents. Changing the mentality of the fans. Just expectations across the board. This is the expectation and we can't expect anything less. Winning is not my end all. My big thing is to get the kids to play at their highest level. Discipline is first. Everybody has to be disciplined. Then hard work. Everybody has to work hard. Everybody has to lift weight. Everybody has to be strong. Everybody has to be in the best shape. If we are in the best shape, if we are working the hardest, something positive is going to happen. Then as the program starts turing around, you get in games and you get close and the kids will start to believe. And once the kids start to believe things will start to turnover. In the end, my goal is simply getting the most that I possibly can out of the kids that are there. That in itself turns the program around.
BB: That's when it's fun.
JA: Once they start having fun, then it is fun. It's stressful getting to that point. But once the kids have given their very, very best, you can't ask for anything else.
I think one of the reasons that I got this job is because I have taken programs and built them. Programs that were kind of down and turned them around. I am not bragging, but that is what I have done.
BB: What position did you play in football?
JA: Quarterback. (laughs) I am a little fat now, but I played quarterback. I started off as a quarterback and was eventually switched to defensive back.
BB: You played at three different programs in college at all different levels, is it hard to switch that many programs and places?
JA: I looked at it a little bit different. I looked at it as I was able to be exposed to a lot of different things. That is the way I looked at it. I was chasing a dream of playing big-time football. But when Ole Miss (under Billy Brewer) got put on probation, I could have easily said, I am going to go to Jackson State and just sit around. But I got a call (from Miles). What it did was expose me to different levels of not just football, but different levels of people's cultures. I have friends from everywhere I went that I am still in contact with today. I believe it made me a better person because I was exposed to so much stuff. Just everything. Even in my teaching and coaching, I have worked at a bunch of different types of schools. I have worked at inner-city schools, I worked at Northwest Rankin where you have kids of doctors and lawyers and senators. It helps, it makes me, I feel like, I am able to see things a lot different than just a one-track mind person.BB: You tore your patella, I hope it was doing something cool, not changing a DVD or walking down some stairs.
JA: (laughs) I had my son, who is 12, we were outside in the yard playing ball. I did a layup and tore my knee up.
BB: That's how that works.
JA: I played all that college football and had been playing basketball all over the place now and we were just outside messing around in the yard and I do a basic layup and I heard it snap and I was in surgery two days later. All summer long I am limping around on crutches in pain all summer.
BB: You know you're getting older when you start tearing things up doing what used to be everyday stuff.
JA: I know, how old are you?
JA: You'll feel a little when you hit 30, just a little. But the doctor said, that is when most people do that when you are playing around almost 40, you tear up your ACL. They had to cut me and open me up. That was crazy.
BB: Now you have cut out all your activities.
JA: I used to run. I love running. At one point I was at seven, eight miles a day. But that's done.