Emmitt Williams’ voice was fiery when he talked about his coach, Dawn McNew. The Lehigh High (Lehigh Acres, Fla.) freshman described her as “the real deal”. Demanding, no-nonsense yet empathetic. And the reason the Lightning are 16-0.
During McNew’s four years as head coach, she has led the team to a 62-30 record and to the Elite 8 last season. Now, she and her players have their eyes set on winning a state championship this year.
Williams and his teammates say McNew is like family. They all are. In fact, they repeat the word “family” in unison during huddles. McNew wants each player to feel like they have a support system. The team mutually provides as much to her.
When McNew’s late husband Dean passed away in July 2012, she considered not coaching anymore. The two coached together for several years, including before they moved to Florida in 2004.
Dean coached at Lehigh for nine years, including for the girls and boys basketball teams and was McNew’s volunteer assistant coach. He was also her assistant coach when McNew led the Beech Grove High (Ind.) girls basketball team to the 2003 state championship.
The idea of coaching a boys team wasn’t on her radar until Lehigh’s athletic director asked McNew, and she mulled over the idea with her husband.
“He felt like I would be a positive influence and that if I didn’t at least give it a shot, I might be doing the kids an injustice,” McNew said. “He felt like I truly had something to offer.”
And now, she is proving him to be right.
Williams, 6-foot-7 center and forward, said he doesn’t dare disobey McNew. She did, after all, boot seven players from the varsity team when she accepted the head coach position four years ago. McNew said they “tested the waters” by showing up late to practices – or not showing up at all – and didn’t support teammates.
She made her team aware that irresponsible behavior wouldn’t be tolerated under her direction — nor toward anyone they encountered off the court.
“I want them to know that no one else wants them to succeed more than I do,” McNew said.
Williams believes it. He said his attitude transformed from bad to grateful since the beginning of the season.
“I respect everything about her,” he said. “When I need somebody to be there, someone to talk to, she’s there.”
And Dean was the same way.
Former Lehigh basketball player BJ Edwards, a freshman guard at Jacksonville University (Fla.), described Dean as a true supporter who was often emotional for his players. McNew described Dean as vivacious — a guy who lit up a room and befriended everyone in his presence.
Edwards said after Dean passed away during his junior year, his teammates grew closer and rallied about McNew.
“Everyone just started taking it more seriously. We spent a lot of extra time with her in the gym and more time together in general,” Edwards said. “She’s a very strong individual to handle something like that as well as she did. I think it motivated her even more.”
Lehigh established the Dean McNew Athletic Scholarship Fund, $2000 each awarded to four senior student-athletes that embody Dean’s spirit and influence.
McNew said after Dean’s passing, she realized she had to stay in the game for him and for her players.
“What better way to make him proud than to continue to do what he wanted me to do and give my best to make Lehigh a well-respected program,” McNew said. “My boys were right there to let me know that I still had my extended family.”
McNew attributes the team’s brother-like bonds for their continued success and the high expectations they’ve learned to set for themselves.
“It isn’t a big deal that the head of our basketball program is a woman, but more so what our boys have done to build this program into what it is,” McNew said. “If you’re a great coach, you’re doing this for your kids in hopes of molding them into young men who can in turn be a positive impact.”
Added Williams, “She lives the way she wants us to be all the time. She respects everyone and helps anyone who needs it. She treats players with kindness, but with an iron fist when we need it. She tells us to live by two simple words: ‘do right’.
“She’s getting us ready for life.”