Basketball was Tony Young’s opportunity to better himself and go to college, and now he’ll get the chance to help high school kids reach the same plateau in one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the country.
Young, who played basketball at SIU from 2002 to 2007, was hired in June to become the new basketball coach at East St. Louis High School.
“I’m from the west side of Chicago, so I understand growing up in the hood; growing up in an area where you don’t have the best opportunity,” Young said. “It’s an opportunity for me to help kids. That’s the thing that really gets me the most, its being able to give back and being able to talk to these kids … and let them know that regardless of where you come from, you could always make something better of yourself.”
Young served in different capacities on coaching staffs of two Division I programs, but he said it didn’t give him the opportunity to help kids who truly needed it.
“Being a Division I coach, it showed me that you can only recruit who your head coach allows you to recruit,” Young said. “You can’t save everybody.”
Young is taking over the boy’s basketball program at a school with many recent academic issues. The Illinois State Board of Education removed the entire East St. Louis School Board June 21 by a 8-0 vote after nine years of falling below standards of the No Child Left Behind act.
Five members of the school board sued the state because they said it failed to allow for sufficient due process. St. Clair County Associate Judge Stephen Rice granted a temporary injunction stopping the removal.
The district also faces a $12 million deficit after having a surplus of $40 million in 2004, when a financial oversight panel that was in place for a decade dissolved, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“Anytime you have a large number of students living in poverty, you have special challenges,” said Beth Shepperd, assistant superintendent for East St. Louis High School. “There’s a need to change some of those practices, and we’re doing those things. The high school will not look, next year, the way it did last year.”
Shepperd said there will be major overhauls in the way staff is assigned, services are delivered and how they work with parents.
Young’s hire is a part of those changes, she said, along with the hire of Superintendent Arthur Culver Oct. 1.
Shepperd said she was hired in November 2011 after 20 years of work in Texas high schools, where she said she hired several high-profile coaches for an area that puts a strong emphasis on high school athletics. She said Young was the most qualified of any coach she interviewed.
Young replaced former coach Ray Coleman, who coached at East St. Louis for two seasons. Coleman led East St. Louis to the Class 3A super-sectional with a 24-9 record, but was not recommended for rehire by Athletic Director Leonard Manley and Principal Jethro Brown.
Manley said Coleman wanted to move the program in a direction the school didn’t agree with. He said he wishes no ill will toward Coleman and had no further comment on the situation.
According to an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, several members of the East St. Louis community were vocal about not wanting Coleman back. He disciplined star player DeShawn Munson several times last season, and Coleman said in a April 23 article in USA Today that it was his discipline of players that led to his dismissal.
Young said he was aware of the situation with Coleman, but didn’t ask any questions about it. He said he also had an idea of the academic climate at East St. Louis High School, and although he said he wasn’t sure just how bad it was, it wasn’t going to deter him from coaching there.
When Manley searched for coaches, he said he looked through several possible candidates before Young contacted him about the position. He said after a 45-minute discussion over the phone and a few rounds of interviews, Young was the most qualified for the job out of the four finalists Manley selected.
“He was a God-send, he is a very energetic young man, and he’s very sincere about wanting to help kids,” Manley said.
Manley said before Young contacted him, he didn’t know anything about Young’s athletic or coaching career, but Manley said Young had some of the best credentials out of the four finalists for the job.
Young came to SIU in 2002, the season after SIU made its’ first trip to the Sweet 16 former then-coach Bruce Weber. Young committed to SIU before the Sweet 16 run because he said he liked the coaching staff’s commitment to building the team like a family and man-to-man defense. The success in the tournament was just a bonus, he said.
“It was a good time because that was right when everything was just starting to get built up,” Young said. “It was one of those things where it felt good when I came down, and everything that they talked about was what I was interested in.”
Young played in a few games his first season before he redshirted because of a wrist injury. Weber left to become the head coach at Illinois after Young’s first season, and then Weber’s replacement, Matt Painter, left after only a year with SIU.
By Young’s third year, the team was on its’ third coach in three seasons. Young said the turnover in coaches wasn’t a big deal because each coach — Weber, Painter and Chris Lowery — were all on the staff that initially recruited Young, and their philosophies towards basketball were all similar.
Young averaged more than 30 minutes per game with Lowery as his head coach, and SIU went to the NCAA tournament each of the three years Young and Lowery were together. Young’s career ended in 2007 when the Salukis made the Sweet 16.
“We knew everybody, the community knew us. We did everything together from community service to just hanging out,” Young said. “They knew that we played hard and we took pride in being a Saluki.”
Young said his initial plan out of college was to play in Europe, but he broke the same wrist that he injured his first year with SIU. He came back to SIU in fall 2007, as a grad student, and Lowery told him there would be an opening on the Saluki coaching staff for a graduate assistant in a year. Young then became the graduate assistant for the 2008-09 season.
He was nine credit hours away from graduating with a master’s degree from SIU, but he transferred to Saint Louis University to be on Rick Majerus’ staff. Saint Louis assistant coach Porter Moser, who was the coach at Illinois State when Young was a player, was calling around to see who was available for the position, and former SIU assistants Paul Lusk and Jack Owens put in a word for Young.
Young said Majerus was looking for a defensive-minded coach, and Majerus was familiar with Young because Majerus called some of Young’s games as a commentator for ESPN. Majerus said Young was one of the best defensive players he’s ever seen.
Young said it the opportunity at SLU let him step out of his comfort zone and coach in a new system. Plus, he said he couldn’t pass up the chance to work with Majerus.
“He’s a half of fame coach … and he’ll make you better, whether you like it or not,” Young said. “Everybody I talked to encouraged (the transfer), including coach Lowery.”
Young served in a variety of roles, including senior graduate assistant and director of basketball operations. While Young was at SLU, the Salukis took a downturn into the bottom of the Missouri Valley Conference, and Lowery was fired after the team lost the most games in school history.
Young reached out to new coach Barry Hinson after he was hired March 28, but Young said Hinson already had an idea of who he wanted in regards to assistant coaches went. Young heard there was interest from Kent State, Wichita State and Eastern Illinois to hire him as an assistant coach. Young said the East St. Louis job stood out because it was an opportunity to be a head coach and help high school kids make the most of their lives.