Familiar face to replace Alfred at MHS

Posted Monday, Jul. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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For the first time in more than a decade, the Mansfield Tigers boys basketball team will have a new leader this fall. Head coach Richie Alfred, who actually served two different stints as Tigers coach, announced toward the end of the school year that he was leaving. The district recently announced his replacement, and that person – Jason Speakes – will look very familiar to Mansfield High players and parents.

Alfred first took the reins of the Mansfield program back in 1991. He left in 1994 before returning in 2003. Over the course of his tenure at the school, he guided the Tigers to a dozen playoff appearances, more than 400 victories, and earned seven coach-of-the-year awards. He was asked to coach the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches All-Star game in 2011. Alfred will move on to take over the basketball program at Arlington Grace Prep, a nearby private school.

“I wasn’t really surprised by [his departure],” Mansfield High co-athletic coordinator Natasha Stewart said. “The last couple of years, he and I have spent a lot of time talking to one another, and I knew it was getting close for him to make a change. What that change was going to be was the unknown. Then, an opportunity was presented to him that would allow him to do what he wants to do for the next phase of his life as he prepares for ultimate retirement.”

The Tigers new head coach, Jason Speakes, served on Alfred’s staff for the past nine years, including three seasons as the JV coach and six as varsity assistant. He also sensed Alfred’s move was coming.

“I knew Coach Alfred was getting toward the end of his public school career,” Speakes said. “I knew it was a matter of time before he decided to move on, so it didn’t catch me that off-guard. I was somewhat prepared for it. What the district decided to do after he left, that was more of an unknown. But obviously, it’s played out in my favor.”

As soon as Alfred made his departure official, Stewart, along with fellow MHS co-athletic coordinator Jeff Hulme and MISD Athletic Director Debbie Weems, started the search for a replacement.

“When the job was posted we had the idea as to what we were looking for as far as characteristics,” Stewart said. “When the process was over, and it was a long, tedious process, but at the end of it [Speakes] was the individual who fit that criteria. That was not the plan going in. We set the criteria that we were looking for and went through the process and allowed everyone who applied for that position fair and equal opportunity. But when the process was completed, Speakes ended up being the guy.”

For some, the announcement may have come as a slight surprise, considering that Speakes has previously served in only supporting roles at the varsity level.

“By all accounts I’ve heard, there were a lot of qualified candidates that came and interviewed for this position, so I knew coming in it was going to be tough,” Speakes admitted. “The strike against me is that I don’t have the head coaching experience. That’s the one thing I didn’t have going into the process. I knew I had to overcome that weakness in my resume, that I’d never been a head coach. That was a hurdle I had to clear and try to make clear to the committee and the decision-makers that my basketball experience and my basketball IQ working for [Alfred] all those years was high enough, and that I’m a competent coach; that I know the game and I know how to communicate it to the kids.”

After a few weeks of interviews and contemplation, the search committee did look past Speakes’ lack of previous head coaching experience.

“It was a stressful couple of weeks, I’ve got to say,” Speakes added. “I felt like I deserved to have a shot at the job, but that being said, I just didn’t know. There’s a lot of unknowns going into an interview process. I was confident, but it was nerve-wracking because you just don’t know what kind of decision they’re going to make.”

For what Speakes lacked in previous varsity head coaching experience, he feels he had a clear advantage with the familiarity he has with the program and the district. He has 11 total years with the MISD, including two at the middle school level prior to joining Mansfield High.

“I had a lot of internal support,” he said. “The players were backing me. I had a lot of parental support from our current parents and a lot of staff members there at the school. I do think the familiarity played in my favor. They know the kind of high-character person I am and the way I conduct my business. I do think that played out in my favor, certainly.”

It probably also helped Speakes’ cause that he was eager to take the job.

“I’m thrilled; this is the job of a lifetime,” he said. “I’m a relatively young coach, but I’ve been in the business a long time and this has been my goal for a long time. I told them in the interview process that this is my New York Yankees job. I mean, this is the one I’ve wanted for a long time.

“I maybe had some opportunities to leave in recent years and go to a different program and get a head coaching position earlier than I did now, but I knew that this was a job and a school and a community that I cared deeply about and I’m just very excited about the opportunity. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be very difficult with the competitive nature of this district, but I’m very optimistic. I’m very confident in my abilities as a coach and my abilities to relate to my players and get them to go put some W’s in the win column.”

One of the stamps Speakes hopes to put on the program early in his tenure is a shift in attitude.

“There needs to be a bit of a culture change,” he said. “What I mean by that is that our approach, our confidence level needs to be higher. As you know, we play in a very difficult district with some legendary basketball programs, and I think our players the last several years have lost some confidence and didn’t have that kind of swagger on the floor that we need to have. I’ve been talking a lot about this spring about playing with confidence and breaking some bad habits and trying to be more optimistic and forward-thinking than maybe we’ve been in the past.”

Senior guard Zach Johnson is among the players who are pleased to see Speakes get his opportunity to steer the Tigers program, and feels like that culture change is already under way.

“Coach Speakes is always there for us,” Johnson said. “I was very happy, so happy, they named him the head coach. He’s the one that always makes us go 100 percent at practice and he has the fundamental skills that he teaches us, so I think that will make him a good head coach. He makes us feel comfortable and our confidence is real high around him.”

Fellow teammate Micah Littlejohn, a second-team all-district performer last season, also feels like Speakes is a good fit.

“I feel like he’s the right guy,” Littlejohn said. “I was a bit surprised when I heard who all applied for the job, but I wanted him as the coach and I’m happy he got the job.”

But simply stepping in as a fresh face won’t guarantee that Mansfield gets back to its winning ways, and Speakes is aware of that.

“There are some highly successful coaches in this district … so matching wits with them and going up against guys I’ve seen coach for many years is going to be a challenge in its own right,” he said.

There’s also the matter of his expanded duties as the head coach and the question of whether he’ll be able to handle everything his first time out as the guy in the big office. But he feels like Alfred put him in position to succeed at that as well.

“As far as the daily operation of the program, over the years, Coach Alfred has really given me a lot of freedom and leeway to run practices, to help facilitate things in the office, so it’s been a pretty smooth transition as far as that goes” Speakes pointed out. “He’s delegated quite a bit to me throughout the years and he got to where he trusted me quite a bit.”

And so begins a new era at Mansfield. And that’s exactly how Speakes is pushing it.

“Coach Alfred did great things for our program and Mansfield is much better off now than it was before he arrived,” Speakes said. “But the last couple of years have been a struggle. I’m trying to wipe away some of the negativity and the lack of success from the last couple of years and turn the page. I keep talking to our players about how it’s a new era of Tiger basketball, and that mentality of a new, fresh start. That’s what I’ve been trying to reiterate to them.”

Stewart is convinced they got the right person to lead the Tigers forward.

“I think that we ultimately came up with best fit; the best choice for the Tigers program,” she said.

And Johnson is ready to get the Tigers back to the postseason under its new leader.

“Definitely playoffs,” he said. “Coach is going to have us working hard. I expect playoffs and a winning season.”

Alfred was on vacation and couldn’t be reached for comment.

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