CHAPEL HILL — Five years ago, Woods Charter gave him his first shot at playing high school basketball.
Now, he’s been given the keys to the program.
On June 15, Woods Charter announced via social media that it was tabbing Leonard McNair, a 2015 graduate and former guard for the Wolves, as the men’s basketball program’s next head coach.
He takes the reins from Taij Cotten, who compiled a 10-57 record in four seasons as the team’s head coach from 2018-22.
“Help us welcome Woods Alumni Leonard McNair to our Athletics staff as the Varsity Men’s Basketball Coach,” the Instagram post read. “Leonard has been coaching at the college level for the past few years, as well. He is bringing lots of experience and passion for the game. #WelcomeBack.”
McNair spent three seasons as a member of the Wolves’ men’s basketball team from 2012-15 before heading to Greensboro to play for the Guilford College Quakers during his sophomore and junior seasons, from 2016-18.
This is a dream homecoming for McNair, a Pittsboro native, who was working as an assistant coach for the Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) Red Hawks in Hickory before getting the call from Woods Charter in April.
“It’s surreal for me because I actually went to Northwood High School my freshman year (in 2011-12) and then ended up transferring to Woods, but I didn’t really get a chance to play basketball at Northwood,” McNair told the News + Record. “Woods kind of gave me a chance to grow and play (basketball), and I ended up going to college to play that sport, so I have always kind of viewed Woods as the place that gave me my first chance.
“To be able to come back and show that this is possible, but also to have a chance to provide that type of opportunity for young men, I was speechless,” he added, referencing his first phone call with Woods Charter athletic director Dena Floyd. “I immediately told her I was interested. I just had to figure out how to make relocation work.”
From competitor to coach
Becoming a basketball coach wasn’t always in the cards for McNair.
Far from it, actually.
When he was a teenager, McNair said he often watched basketball games on TV and was puzzled about why head coaches existed in the first place.
“The funniest part about this whole thing for me is that I used to always say, ‘I don’t even know why the coaches are there,’ especially at the NBA level,” McNair said with a laugh. “I felt like those guys had been playing forever, and they get paid millions, so why do they need a coach?”
That is, until he met John Berry, the head men’s basketball coach at Woods Charter.
Berry coached the Wolves for nine seasons from 2008-17, including McNair’s three-year stint as a player.
McNair said that Berry — along with his college coaches, including Guilford’s longtime head coach Tom Palombo, among others — made him see the position differently, most importantly because of “the way you can really impact young men’s lives.”
At Guilford, McNair spent his freshman season playing on the school’s J.V. team, then started his sophomore year in the same spot, a position he described as “really frustrating.” But during that sophomore season, he said that Marc Slade, one of the Quakers’ assistant coaches, “took me under his wing and showed me little pieces and nuggets that I could do to be called up.”
Not long after, McNair was elevated to the Quakers’ varsity squad, which went on to win the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) title for the third time in program history and make a run to the second round of the NCAA Division III Tournament.
In his junior season, the Quakers fell in the ODAC quarterfinals to Washington and Lee in what would be McNair’s final game as a player. After that, he said lingering ankle and knee injuries forced him to forfeit his role on the team, prompting him to become Guilford’s student coach for his senior year, a pivotal moment for his coaching future.
“First of all, I had just been teammates with these guys (the year before), so even the fact that they trusted me to lead them, I thought that was tremendous. … It was a real natural transition,” McNair said of his time spent student-coaching. “It was a great year because I finally got a chance to sit in coaches meetings, going through film and developing game plans, and I really got to improve my knowledge of the game from that perspective. And I just fell in love with it.”
After graduating from Guilford with a degree in Business Administration in 2019, McNair wasn’t sold on becoming a coach just yet, but instead focused on his own company, Tranquil Ambitions LLC., which is he started in 2018 and is described as “a basketball marketing company aimed at connecting basketball players with opportunities to advance through scholarship or professional opportunities through film sharing and exposure,” according to CVCC’s website.
However, when he was at an event for Tranquil Ambitions in 2019, Evan Fancourt — the then-newly hired head coach at Page High School in Greensboro — introduced himself after the game and almost immediately offered McNair a spot at Page as an assistant coach, which he ultimately accepted.
McNair spent two seasons at Page as not only an assistant to Fancourt, but also the Pirates’ head J.V. men’s basketball coach, an experience that convinced him that coaching was his calling.
“Obviously being on J.V., a lot of guys get discouraged,” McNair said, “so once I told them all of the things that I’d been through with the game, they were just able to gravitate toward the idea of, ‘if we put in the work, we can still achieve our dreams.’ … I’m just very grateful for the work those guys put in.”
Then, this past season, McNair acted as an assistant coach to longtime CVCC head coach Bryan Garmroth, where he helped lead the Red Hawks to a 19-12 record and an appearance in the Region 10 semifinals.
Despite being out of college for just three years, McNair said his experience at both the high school and collegiate levels has helped him develop a coaching style centered around high-intensity defense.
“Thus far, I’ve primarily been a really intense, defensive-minded coach,” McNair said, “just trying to overwhelm you with a lot of bodies and a lot of arms.”
It’s been over a decade since Woods Charter has had a competitive men’s basketball team, with the last season above .500 coming in 2011-12, when the Wolves went 6-6 under Berry.
Since then, the Wolves have posted a combined record of 38-148 (.204) in 10 seasons, never surpassing seven wins in a single season.
But located just outside of Pittsboro, a town rich with basketball talent — as seen by the success of both Northwood and Seaforth, along with Division I scouts eyeing a handful of players in the area — McNair said he’s striving to give a passionate Wolves fan base, and the players themselves, a reason to be hopeful.
“When you’ve had years of not a lot of success, you start to get discouraged and your motivation of what can come from this starts to deteriorate, so I think it’s about rebuilding that belief system within the program,” McNair said. “It all starts in the gym. We’ve just got to put in a lot of time to catch up on that gap that we’re looking to deal with. From there, I want to introduce a lot more film — I know we were watching film a little when I was playing there, I’m not sure how much they have since — so I think that’ll be a big implementation.”
McNair said that forming relationships and bonds with players is one of the most important steps for a new coach to take, which he believes will be aided by him having graduated from Woods less than a decade ago.
“A lot of these players are already telling me that they used to watch me when I was a senior and they were in the elementary school (at Woods),” he said. “I’ve always been big on building relationships and building trust, and I think it’s going to be extremely natural with these guys.”
Having already interacted with the team after a few open gyms he’s been able to attend, McNair sounded thrilled about the potential he sees from the Wolves, including their ability to spread the floor and shoot from the perimeter more than his teams usually can.
With a roster like the Wolves’, and plenty of time to implement his system to play to its strengths, the possibilities are endless.
Over the years, Woods Charter has had a long track record of former players coming back to act as assistants, head coaches or volunteers, regardless of the sport. McNair credited one major reason for that: the community.
“A story that so many people share is about Woods is that it was a place that kind of served as a believer in you. A lot of kids come into Woods, whether they’re having issues fitting in or finding their niche at other schools, and come there and just fall in love with the fact that everybody’s treated well. … The support is tremendous.
“Something that speaks volumes to this is that, recently, Woods has kind of struggled, at least from the basketball perspective, but the gym is always packed,” he added. “It’s just that support. It’s the belief that, regardless of what you do, regardless of what happens, Woods is always going to be there for you.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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