Fresh off a 17-5 season and equipped with a roster of returning players that many believed could make a serious run at a state title in 2015, Lawrence High boys basketball coach Mike Lewis learned earlier this week that he would not be leading the Lions next season.
Lewis, who spent the past five years as the LHS head coach after four seasons as an assistant before that, learned the news Monday night.
It came three weeks after a season-ending evaluation, which people close to the situation said went well, and caught Lewis, his family and just about everyone associated with the LHS program off guard.
“I was surprised,” Lewis said during an interview Wednesday afternoon. “Lawrence High School wanted to go in a different direction, and I’m not going to be the basketball coach anymore. They made that decision.”
First-year athletic director Bill DeWitt said the school had no comment on the move because it was “a personnel matter involving a coach.”
“It’s a change,” DeWitt said. “And change is hard. We’ve just gotta move forward.”
Lewis told his players he would no longer be their coach Tuesday evening. Many of the Lions, who just a couple of months ago were rocked by the death of assistant coach Kermit Aldridge, emerged from the meeting with tears in their eyes.
“Anthony’s hurt,” said Sebastian Bonner, father of Lawrence’s top returning senior, Anthony Bonner. “He loves coach Lewis like a father, and he has tremendous respect for him. I don’t think the feelings of the kids were adequately taken into account here.”
Bonner, whose children have played sports in Lawrence for the past 15 years, said Lewis would be missed tremendously because he was rare in the coaching profession.
“My son has played competitive sports since kindergarten, and he has not played for a better man, a coach who cares more about the kids and goes so far beyond the call of duty,” Bonner said. “Coach Lewis always went way beyond what a regular high school coach does.”
Lewis said his disappointment over the LHS administration’s decision could not take away any of the great memories he had from the past decade.
“That’s what I’m gonna take away from this,” Lewis said, “just the pure enjoyment I had with all of our teams and our players. We always had three things that we emphasized in our program: family first, school second and basketball third. Those were always our priorities going into each basketball season, and I think that was what led to a lot of our success on and off the floor.”
Asked if he had done anything that could warrant such action from the LHS administration, Lewis denied any wrongdoing and said that was the part that surprised him.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “We always ran a clean program and a respected program.”
Asked if anything changed between the time of Lewis’ evaluation and this week, DeWitt declined to comment and simply said, “You can take his word.”
What comes next for both Lewis and the LHS program is up in the air. The former LHS coach who has taught at Southwest Middle School for the past 15 years said he still had a passion to work with young people as a coach and educator.
“Whatever path I’m led down from here on out, I’m just really trying to stick with that old saying that when one door closes, another one opens,” Lewis said. “I’m not ready to hang up my whistle just yet.”
DeWitt said LHS officials would move quickly to replace Lewis.
“We can’t drag our feet,” said DeWitt, who also noted that LHS was looking for a varsity girls basketball coach after the recent resignation of Nick Wood, who is moving overseas with his family. “There isn’t an official timetable, but we’ve gotta get going.”