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Demanding more

Necole Tunsil never again will settle for less at Lakewood. The star-turned-coach expects much on the court and in class.

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published February 9, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - Necole Tunsil wasn't worried about making friends her first day on the job. She just wanted to put the word student back in student-athlete.

As a result, the price to play basketball at Lakewood High, she told eager parents meeting the new coach for the first time, was about to go up.

"She called all the parents in and told us the minimum grade point average to play for her was going to be a 2.5," said Angela Brown, whose daughter, Sade, is a forward. "Now the county only requires you to have a 2.0, so some of the parents, they weren't happy. They looked at her like, whaaaaat?"

The days of skipped homework, sinking grades, missed practices and disruptive hallway antics were over. In their place would be two-hour study halls, longer practices, harder practices. The goal was a restoration of pride in the program.

And yes, that GPA was going up, like it or not.

"Some of the parents, they didn't like that," Tunsil said. "They couldn't get out of there fast enough to run into the principal's office."

Fred Ulrich stood by Tunsil. What the coach says, he told the parents, is what it is.

"I thought it was a great idea," he said.

Tunsil had her first victory. Those who stuck around have helped make Lakewood's team GPA a 3.3.

But it also was depressing.

"Parents went and complained, and about what?" Tunsil said. "They argued that their kids shouldn't have to do better in the classroom. They defended mediocrity.

"Mediocrity ... who settles for that?"

Not Necole Tunsil.

* * *

Tunsil, 34, is considered by many to be Pinellas County's greatest female athlete ever, a 6-foot-1 wonder child with an electric, gap-toothed smile and abundance of skills.

As a track star, she won three state championships in the high jump and another in the shot put, setting state records in both during her senior year.

As a volleyball player, she earned all-state honors and led the Spartans to a district championship.

It was on the basketball court, however, where Tunsil earned her greatest acclaim. She had no peers. As a junior, she was named a Street and Smith All-American. As a senior, she became only the second Floridian ever named to the Parade All-America team.

Her final season, 1988-89, she averaged a triple double, led Lakewood to a 30-1 record and scored a tournament-record 44 points and pulled down 21 rebounds in the state championship victory. "She is definitely someone we look up to," sophomore guard Kquanise Byrd said. "She tells us how it was when she played, some of the things she experienced at Lakewood. It's pretty cool."

But Tunsil's brilliance on the basketball court, and her obsession with the game, hurt her academically. She missed classes because of recruiting trips and chose being a star over being a student.

As a result, she lost her eligibility twice and did not graduate with her class. Given a second chance by the School Board, Tunsil needed only to pass all seven of her final exams to graduate.

She failed two: weight training and accounting.

"I'll never forget. There was a teacher at Lakewood, and he had told her she would never amount to nothing," said Estella Tunsil, Necole's mother. "He said he'd be seeing her in Burger King or McDonald's. When she didn't graduate, we put her on a plane to New York the next day."

Tunsil spent 1989-90 living with relatives and repeating her senior year at Forest Hills High in Queens.

* * *

Now an English teacher, Tunsil is still a basketball junkie but has a clearer vision of the bigger picture.

"I think it's a sign she has learned her lessons very well," said Nickki Mitchell, a teammate at Lakewood and longtime friend. "She is also trying to make a statement. She doesn't want them to experience what she did. She knows they are student-athletes, and she wants them to know that it's student first, athlete second."

It's a pretty simple philosophy.

"She explained to the girls at that first meeting not everyone can go to college to play basketball," Angela Brown said. "But everyone can go to college."

Tunsil feels strongly about the mandate Ulrich gave her to run the program her way and does not hesitate to draw on her experiences, good and bad, to get through to players or their parents.

That is why the GPA minimum was raised, and that is why she organizes a study hall.

And when a player questions her on a drill, she is quick to point to the rafters, to a certain No.21 that she used to wear and a banner hanging next to it recognizing her All-America status.

"Unless your game is getting you a banner in this gym, then you do what I say," she will tell her players.

Lakewood boys coach Dan Wright, the county's all-time winningest coach, believes Tunsil is the perfect fit for the girls program.

"Those are the best individuals you can have coaching your kids, the ones that can teach you a lesson because they went through it," Wright said. "If you can get that through to the kids, then I have to believe you're going to be pretty successful."

Tunsil is a full-time coach and a full-time teacher. Her cell phone is constantly ringing. Estella says no matter how tough her daughter can be on them, the Spartan players never stop calling.

When a player tries to get out of practice by saying her mother has scheduled a doctor's appointment, Tunsil cuts her off.

"During basketball season, I'm your mother."

The joke among the players is if you get in trouble, you better hope your parents find out before the coach does.

Earlier this season, a teacher was having a problem with one of Tunsil's players. School work wasn't being done. The teacher fired off an e-mail to Tunsil.

She didn't expect that five minutes later, Tunsil would show up at the classroom to personally deal with the problem.

There is a dress code. The Spartans showed up at Pinellas Park for a game dressed in khaki slacks and Lakewood shirts. They are not allowed to eat candy before a game.

Much of Tunsil's desire to turn out upstanding citizens is rooted in the teachings of C. Vivian Stringer, her coach at Iowa. Stringer waited for Tunsil to get her academic house in order, keeping a scholarship open then cracking down when she arrived.

"She called and told us, "I'm going to be hard on your daughter,"' Estella Tunsil said. "Coach Stringer wouldn't take anything from anybody."

After years of being praised and patted on the back, after a lifetime of acclaim for what she did on the court, the light finally dawned on Tunsil.

"I think Coach Stringer kind of made an impact and drove the point home," Tunsil said. "We were the top recruiting class in the country. And she just sat us down and told us, "Your basketball playing years are not as long as most males, so you better learn something.'

"It's something my parents told me my whole life. I guess you just hear the same thing over and over and (ignore it). But when it came from someone else ... it just hit me."

Tunsil led the Hawkeyes to the Final Four in 1993, but more important she says, she graduated with a degree in mass communications. After a brief professional career overseas, she walked away from basketball and into the real world prepared for anything.

* * *

She got into coaching, as an assistant at Eckerd and during the summer AAU season. But she always kept her eye on Lakewood.

"If you cut me, I bleed black and gold," she said.

It's why she waited for this job despite offers to take over other schools.

Had she jumped at chances to coach at Gibbs and Boca Ciega, she can't imagine having the same passion. The losses would still hurt, sure. But at Lakewood, she takes them personally, sometimes so much so she could cry.

"Necole hates losing," Estella said. "When they lost when she played, oh boy, it was all we heard about all week. She still doesn't like it."

Tunsil, whose team is 17-7 after going 13-13 last season, helped build the program into a state power as a player. But over time, that dominance faded. It hasn't been a state contender since she left. The players aren't as enthusiastic or tough as she was, though she hardly expects them to play on the playground until 2 a.m. or compete with the boys to get stronger and better as she did.

It can be frustrating for a player who packed gyms to coach in front of a smattering of parents.

But she and her staff - former county stars with college experience in Kenitra Anthony (Lakewood) and Erika Davis (Pinellas Park) - plan on changing all of that.

Tunsil believes the Spartans can sell out again. She already has requested the bleachers be let out on both sides of the gym instead of just one side to make room for the crowds she imagines will one day come to see her team play.

"It's going to happen," she says.

* * *

Tunsil is a demanding but fair coach. She can be hard and gentle, harsh and consoling, condemning and full of praise, all during the same game.

At halftime of a recent win, she glared at her players as they walked off the court, the look a perfect blend of contempt and bemusement.

The Spartans were winning, but barely, and played poorly against an inferior team. As the players, eyes smartly averted and looking downward, walked toward the locker room, Tunsil stewed as she studied the stats.

Tunsil readied the riot act. Then her cell phone rang.

"When the pimp's in the crib, ma, drop it like it's hot, drop it like it's hot, drop it like it's hot."

Davis was aghast: "Is that, seriously, your ring tone?"

Tunsil proudly admitted it was.

"Got to be up with the children," she said, smiling but just as quickly wiping it off her face and pushing the door to the locker room open.

Her halftime speech was calmly delivered, but the message stung.

"You guys are just going to go down in history as another mediocre team that came through Pinellas County," she said.

To wear the black and gold and play like that?

"How dare you? How dare you?"

Tunsil wasn't planning on a practice the next day, but she asked her players after the game if they believed they needed it despite pulling out the win. If they didn't believe they needed it, they could have the day off.

It was a trick question, of course, because the team knew what she wanted to hear. Tunsil went down the line, one by one.

Jazmyn? Kquanise? Sade? Morgan? Innekia?

It was grudgingly unanimous.

Practice at 4 p.m.

"Oh, and don't forget, study hall at 2 p.m.," Tunsil said.

A big groan went up. As Tunsil left the locker room, she flashed a wide grin.

Her team could have settled for mediocrity. But who settles for that?

Not Necole Tunsil's team.