Prep basketball: Lankford to coach East boys

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 1, 2009

By Mike London
Jim Lankford comes across as a guy who genuinely cares about his adopted community, and he’s as qualified as anyone East Rowan could have found to serve as its short-term boys basketball coach.
A successful former coach now involved in health-care sales, the 39-year-old Lankford has accepted the East job on an interim basis.
The Granite Quarry resident is enthusiastic, but he stated that it’s strictly a one-year arrangement to help the Mustangs get through a rough patch and buy them enough time to find a long-term solution.
Lankford replaces Greg McKenzie, who orchestrated the best run in East history (88-25) his first four seasons at the school.
The Mustangs finally ran out of male Vanderfords and went 7-16 last season. Still, McKenzie exited with a stellar record of 95-41 at a school that enjoyed just three winning seasons from 1977-2003.
McKenzie’s trademark was guard-oriented, value-each-possession basketball, and his 41-14 mark during two seasons in the 4A ranks speaks volumes.
The timing of the “reassignment” of McKenzie, combined with the current economic crunch, placed East’s administration and athletics deparment in a difficult position this summer.
“With the state budget cuts, East wasn’t in a position to bring a new coach on to the staff,” Lankford said. “The school had a need, they were in a bit of a pickle and, after talking to (principal) Kelly Sparger and (assistant principal) Rick Vanhoy, I agreed to coach for one year. I have no designs beyond that one year. Schools need their basketball coaches to be a teacher on campus. With me coaching for a year, it will give them a chance to bring someone in.”
Lankford brings a solid grasp of Xs and Os to the table, and he’s proven he can relate to teenagers. His résumé includes winning the 4A girls basketball state championship when he coached at Asheville A.C. Reynolds in 2000.
“I do know a little bit about what I’m doing,” Lankford said with a chuckle. “I’ve also been a public school teacher, so I think maybe I can help.”
Lankford is the son of a minister. Growing up, he lived more places than he can count.
“When you’re a preacher’s kid, you sort of live everywhere and nowhere,” he said. “Pennsylvania, Tennessee, western North Carolina.”
Lankford finished high school at A.L. Brown, arriving as a junior in the middle of the 1986-87 school year. Basketball coach Lex Graham added him to the hoops roster, a decision that altered the course of his life.
“Lex was a great guy, I looked up to him and he was a big influence on me,” Lankford said. “He let me come in and play even though, as far as a player, I’ve described myself as always a pretender, never a contender.”
Lankford graduated from Appalachian State in 1992 and plunged into the coaching ranks at A.C. Reynolds.
He was a math and physics teacher, coached some track and freshmen boys basketball and served as the school’s volleyball and head girls basketball coach for five seasons.
He compiled a record of 87-47 on the basketball court, including a 64-47 victory against South Rowan in a sectional game during the 1998 state playoffs. He still remembers Janetta Heggins. She scored half of South’s points in that game.
Lankford later coached against Heggins three years in the Southern Conference during his stints as an assistant coach at East Tennessee State and Appalachian State.
Lankford eventually swapped coaching for a sales career, relocated to Granite Quarry six years ago to be closer to family, and started putting down roots. His wife teaches at Shive Elementary. They have a 2-year-old daughter.
He has never seen East play basketball, but he’s kept up with Mustang athletics through the newspaper and through his wife, who is in touch with things happening in the school system.
“We found a church (Neel Road Baptist) we could really get plugged into in Rowan County, and the other great way to connect with people is through the high school,” Lankford said. “I’ve always loved coaching, I think I can help East short-term, and this is something I want to get involved with. The program has had a strong run. I want to keep it moving forward and help settle things down.
Seniors Brian Grohman, Phillip Ajayi and Riley Weber figure to be the top returners for East. Lankford hasn’t met with the entire squad yet, but he has talked to the seniors. They’ve been through unexpected trauma, but they’re determined to end their high school careers on a positive note.
Lankford has worked mostly with female athletes, but he doesn’t anticipate the gender switch being an issue.
“The ball’s a little bigger,” he said, “but that goal is still 10 feet tall.”