Gary Andrews is a championship basketball coach.
While at Bishop Luers, he coached the girls’ program to three straight state championships in Class 2A, with the Knights going 81-2 over that span from 1998-2001.
In 14 years leading the University of Saint Francis women’s hoops team, Andrews led the Cougars to 25-plus wins seven times and coached the program to an NAIA Division II National Championship in 2014 with a 38-0 record.
So for Andrews to say that his “biggest coaching challenge of his career” has been revitalizing a storied area prep program left for dead, it is hard to believe.
When Shabaz Khaliq departed North Side following the 2017-18 season, it was sudden and stunning. Khaliq, off to Richmond of the North Central Conference, had built the program into the most consistent winner in northeast Indiana – with five straight SAC Holiday Tournament championships, three sectional titles in five years and a trip to the Class 4A state title game in 2017.
It was an extended run that those unfamiliar with the workings of Fort Wayne Community Schools are incapable of appreciating.
As Khaliq departed, so did the talent. Players transferred, the young talent pool dried up and North quickly became a hoops ghost town.
Andrews, then living and coaching in New York, didn’t know much about the situation, only that a successful program back home had an opening.
“If I knew how bare the cupboard was and the situation, I never would have applied,” an honest Andrews said. “I always wanted to coach a boys team and this was a way to come back to Fort Wayne, but there was nothing there.”
Andrews was brought in late in the summer of 2018. Following a 21-win campaign, Andrews expected at least some pieces to build with.
There weren’t any.
“That first year we were teaching kids how to dribble, pass and shoot,” Andrews said.
It was back to the basics for Andrews – a trying situation for someone who was so used to recruiting talent at Saint Francis or inheriting players from feeder programs at Bishop Luers.
In the city of Fort Wayne, it is open season every summer. The best eighth graders in the area are coaxed to come to School A or B, with the open enrollment policy of FWCS forcing the hand of coaches to chase talent instead of counting on kids to naturally come in from the feeder schools.
North Side, the sexy place to be for the better part of a decade, lost its luster almost overnight. Talent trended elsewhere, gobbled up by those schools who had played second fiddle to Khaliq and the Legends for so long.
No one felt sorry for Andrews or his program. It was natural selection – and the Legends were now prey instead of predator. That first season, North averaged 33 turnovers PER GAME. It won just twice, setting a single-season mark for worst winning percentage in a single season in program history.
That record was broken in Year 2, with the Legends going 1-21.
But there were signs of progress in Andrews’ second campaign. The turnovers per game were cut in half, freshman Brashawn Bassett gave North a talented youngster to build around. In the sectional opener against Northrop, the Legends led for most of the game before letting it get away late.
Going into this season, uncertainty reigned. Teams were unable to play much over the summer due to Covid. A team that desperately needed court time to grow found itself without much opportunity. Yet Andrews was able to land a couple more impact freshmen – none bigger than Brauntae Johnson, Bassett’s brother.
Together with his sibling and sophomore Jordan Green, North had the beginning of a nucleus for the future.
“I am friends with Brauntae’s dad and his brother (Brandan Johnson) played at North, so we had that connection,” Andrews said. “I remember Tae would watch us play and be like, ‘Woah, there is nothing here.’ But we were able to get him here.”
But Covid prevented the Legends from getting the vital off-season work in that a young squad needs. With a brutal first four games opening up against a Mississinewa team that was bringing back the majority of its team from a 19-win campaign, things could quickly steamroll in the wrong direction right out of the gate.
Instead, North went on the road and earned a 77-73 win.
That victory was followed by three straight losses, but wins over Canterbury and South Side in mid-December showed outwardly that the Legends were making progress. No longer was Andrews counting getting better by losing by less, but rather his team winning games.
It has been the youth movement that has led the charge. The freshman Johnson leads the team in scoring at 17.6 points per game. Overall, five of the top six scorers are underclassmen, including Bassett (11.8 ppg), Green (11.9 ppg) and juniors Rodney Woods (9.5) and Ryan Collins (8.4 ppg).
The return of senior Isaiah Moore this month, a double-digit scorer last year for North before he moved to Alabama, has buoyed the team even more.
This week, North earned its biggest win under Andrews to date. Trailing by 16 against undefeated Leo this past Monday, the Legends fought back in the second half. Helped tremendously by a quartet of threes by Collins, the squad handed the Lions their first loss in a 72-68 decision.
The win got the Legends to 6-8 on the year – with games against Huntington North and Northrop slipping away due to late letdowns or players out of the lineup. Concordia Lutheran makes the trip into By Hey Arena tonight, an improved team in itself. The season has definitely shown that while North Side may be a threat to beat any team in the area outside of Blackhawk Christian and Homestead, it can very well lose to anyone as well.
“I think we have been doing well,” said Andrews about his team’s progress. “We are not even close to where we are going to end up (eventually). Defensively, our press is really good but we continue to struggle in the half-court.
“The biggest challenge here is that you not only teach basketball, but you have to talk to the kids about how to handle adversity, how they are supposed to behave. It is all a process.”
Falling into the SAC cellar is a tremendous hole that can be excruciating to climb out of. The draw to a program can disappear in an instant due to a variety of factors, with open enrollment only making it more difficult for a down program to fight its way up.
Andrews is doing it with North Side. It isn’t an easy climb. There will be setbacks along the way, but Andrews is making the most of his greatest career challenge.
“Our short-term goal is we want to have a winning season,” Andrews said. “I told our team after beating Leo that we can be happy but we can’t be satisfied. We have some seniors who have never had a winning season in any sport they have dressed.
“We are motivated for them, but also motivated knowing that we can be better this year, and looking forward we should keep getting better with the young group we have.”