BY JEFF FALK
Things in Chris George’s coaching/teaching career haven’t always unfolded at the times he would have preferred. But to his credit, when opportunities have presented themselves, George has always been ready.
Two weeks ago, George made the most out of his most important opportunity to date, when he accepted the Northern Lebanon boys’ basketball head coaching position he had been offered.
The job allows George to return to his athletic roots in Lebanon County, and provides him a chance to make a preferred switch from coaching girls’ basketball to coaching boys. But it is an opportunity that wouldn’t have come along if it hadn’t been for the Northern Lebanon administration botching the now-infamous Gary Bouchette situation.
“It wasn’t huge, but at the same time I do live here,” said George of the importance of coaching in the county. “I grew up in Myerstown. I’m an Elco kid. I graduated from Lebanon Catholic and I graduated from Lebanon Valley College. Growing up, I never thought I’d stay in the area. In a lot of ways, it’s nice and easy. It’s nice for me because I understand the community and understand the league (Section Three of the Lancaster-Lebanon). It was a hard job to pass up.
“Gary was there when I played,” continued George. “I know some of the parents who played then. Back then, they (the Vikings) weren’t well liked. You didn’t like guys from other schools. Northern Lebanon was a huge rival for Elco. There were some tough, hard-fought games. They (the Vikes) got in your shorts. They were frustrating. I think the approach is to stay true to that hard-nosed mentality.”
George spent the last five seasons coaching girls’ basketball at Pine Grove, thanks in part to a different opportunity that had presented itself. During those five years, the George-led Cardinals went a combined 89-36 and earned two District Eleven Class AA and one Schuylkill County League championships, in three different seasons.
“Girls are probably much more coach-able, in a good way, but in some ways not,” said George. “Girls will do exactly what you ask them to. Boys will go against what you say, or make reads on their own. I was a high school boy at one time, so it’s easy for me to relate. All of our kids seem coach-able and ready to go. Obviously the boys’ game is different in that it’s quicker, it’s faster and it’s played around the rim more.
“Having two sons, I always hoped at some point they’d have a better relationship with a team I coached,” continued George. “If you told me I was going to coach girls the rest of my life, I would’ve been perfectly happy with that. Girls’ basketball in Schuylkill County is followed better, and they have a great tradition in the sport. Up there, girls’ basketball is huge. One of the things that makes it different is that boys and girls don’t play on the same night. I always wished they could do that down here. Up there it was great. The atmosphere was really good.”
The Northern Lebanon boys’ basketball position opened up when the district’s school board and administration fired Bouchette, and then offered the job back to him. Affectionately known as ‘Mr. Viking’ in these parts, Bouchette later turned down the position from which he was dismissed.
“At this point, I am aware of what happened,” said George. “When I first applied, I wasn’t. When things started, I didn’t know about it. I knew at some point that I was going to go back on the boys’ side of coaching. It felt like the opportunity was really good. As I started to go through the process, I talked to Gary, and he’s been amazingly helpful. I was filled in on how things went.
“In an odd way, we’ve got to take two approaches,” George added. “You’ve got to forget about it and move forward. But you’ve also got to live in the realistic world. A lot of kids who played for Gary are still there. They had good relationships with Gary. This is still going to be Gary’s team for a while. But it’s Northern Lebanon. The kids are tough as nails, just like Gary was when he played.”
Five years ago, George took the Pine Grove job after being passed over for the head boys’ basketball position at Elco, where he served under Craig Coletti and Chris Firestine. George grew up a Raider playing basketball and football, before graduating from Lebanon Catholic, and then later LVC.
“I’ve been coaching all kinds of kid stuff for years,” said George, who will continue to teach computer and business at Pine Grove. “I like working with kids. I like teaching the game. As former athletes, we’ve been through the struggles. You just try to pass things on. Helping them in life or in the class room is rewarding. You’ve got to be like a CEO. You’ve got to oversee the youth program and the junior high program. It’s almost like you’re running a little corporation. But I really like the strategy, the coaching, the scouting.
“At the end of the day, I think players will respond if you’re getting excited,” George added. “As a head coach, you’ve got to channel that, and in some ways, keep your emotions in check. A lot of kids feed off that. No one does this for money. It’s the competitive spirit that keeps you going. If you weren’t competitive, it would be hard to do.”
George is walking into a situation that is more promising than last year’s seven-win campaign might suggest. The Northern Lebanon boys’ basketball program has some good people working behind the scenes, and that group will apparently include Bouchette, until – if or when- he chooses to find another coaching job.
“At the younger levels, Gary did some work,” said George. “They have some good things going on. The big challenge is what we can do at the varsity level. We have some guys coming up who want to do well. Last year they lost some games when they played teams tough. I know the kids are excited to increase their roles. But when you get to new roles, it’s not easy. We have to focus on things we can do well right away. I think there’s going to be some struggles with the transition and new roles. But the faster we do that, the sooner we’ll be OK.
“Going into the process, and talking to athletic director Nate Artz, he communicated through the whole thing,” George continued. “We were waiting to see how things would go. The interviews went great, and the interview committee called me and said they were going with me. It’s exciting. But we’re not quite sure what the future holds.”
George may never go back to coaching girls. But if he doesn’t, he’ll never forget his seasons in Pine Grove.
“Basically, I feel like the time at Pine Grove was a great success, for the school and myself,” said George. “When things didn’t work out at Elco, the Pine Grove job opened up. I never thought I’d ever coach girls. We also had some tough challenges. There were a lot of obstacles to overcome. I’ll take a lot of great friendships from that time.
“Pine Grove has a nice history,” he added. “The opportunity popped up and I was teaching there. They had good players, but when I got there they hadn’t won a championship in a while. But that program is looking up.”