Lumpkin basketball coach announces retirement

  • Former Johnson High School and Lumpkin basketball players celebrate the career of LCHS head boys basketball coach Jeff Steele after he announced his retirement.
    Former Johnson High School and Lumpkin basketball players celebrate the career of LCHS head boys basketball coach Jeff Steele after he announced his retirement.

In five seasons as the head coach of the LCHS boys basketball team Jeff Steele emphasized the importance of his players developing nerves of steel; the ability to stay calm at all times, even during pressure-filled situations; protected his players by steeling them against the adversity they would face on the court and later in life; shared the boundless knowledge of the game he loves through a mind as sharp as a steel trap and win or lose always stayed true as steel to the Indian Nation.
So, when Steele announced at the beginning of last week that he would be retiring from coaching at the end of the season, it came as no surprise when his career was celebrated by the Lumpkin faithful before the Indians’ conference game versus Fannin County at the Longhouse on Friday, Jan. 17.
“I can’t express how much this means to me,” said Steele during the ceremony. “It’s overwhelming to have all these guys [Steele’s former players] here. It’s about the relationships, for sure. I hope that all those that I’ve coached know how much they mean to me and that I consider them family.”
Steele’s coaching journey began modestly.
“Jeff’s career started off a little rocky,” said his wife Donna Steele. “He now laughs at his first year coaching and his record of one win and 20-something losses. He was young and tried to emulate other coaches.”
However, when Steele developed his own coaching style, his teams’ records began to skyrocket much like his career.
“Once he found his own style, and did things his way, improvement came,” Donna said. “Jeff also learned early on that it’s not all about the Xs and Os of the game, but the Jimmys and Joes. You have to understand the young men you are coaching, help them reach their full potential and fulfill the role they can play best. I have watched my husband pull things from players that they didn't even know they had in themselves. When thinking about Jeff's career I am of course proud of his accomplishments. Looking back at his championships and awards is pretty impressive.  But, what tops the trophies and banners is the relationships with our boys. These are priceless. To have former players message us, come to our games and visit us at home, that is the biggest reward of my husband's career.”
Over the course of his coaching career, Steele accumulated the kind of resume that many in his shoes dream about.
Steele led his teams at Johnson High School and Lumpkin County High School, the only two teams he coached in his career, to 324 wins and counting. During that time, Steele led his teams to four region championships (2005, 2013, 2014 and 2015), five Sweet 16 appearances (2005, 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2016), one Elite Eight appearance (2015), 14 State Playoff appearances, two Lanier Land Championships (2013 and 2014), two Battle of the States championships (2015 and 2016) and was voted All-Area Coach of the Year twice (2005 and 2014) and North Georgia All Star Coach twice (2014 and 2015).
Steele set the record for most wins by a basketball coach at Johnson in 2009 and also set the record for most wins in a season in his first year with the Indians when he led Lumpkin to 20 wins.
Over his 21-year career, Steele stressed building relationships with his players.
“To be honest, the most important thing to me in my coaching career isn’t the wins or losses, it was the relationships I built with my players,” said Steele. “Even when I had players that didn’t get a lot of playing time, I always made sure that each and every one of my players received instruction and that I coached them to become better individuals, better teammates and just better people.”
The impact that Steele has had on his players over the years was apparent by the number of former players from both Johnson and Lumpkin that attended the celebration of Steele’s career.
“Coach Steele pushed me,” said former Lumpkin star Zach Pulley. “He pushed me every day at practice and I couldn’t be more thankful. It wasn’t easy, but he knew how to get the most out of everyone. I loved every second playing under Steele.”
Former Lumpkin standout Jack Howard concurred with Pulley’s sentiment.
“It was the best experience I could ask for,” said Howard. “I only had him for my senior year and I’d do anything to go back and play for him for four years. He pushed me individually and our team to be the best that we could be. He brought 100 percent every day and expected nothing less of us. Individually and as a team, we wanted to win for him. I, personally, wanted him feel that joy of winning more than I wanted to feel it for myself.”
Both Pulley and Howard are proud of what they accomplished under Steele’s guidance and hold dear what they learned from him.
“He taught me that basketball is just as much a mental game as it is physical,” Howard said. “You have to be mentally tough to play at a high level and Coach Steele did and still does an excellent job of getting players mentally tough and ready to compete. I always struggled with confidence and he made me believe I was the best guard in the state from the amount of confidence he had in me and that’s something I will never forget. He’s impacted my life in so many ways. He made my dream of playing college basketball a reality, he was a father figure when I didn’t have one, he made me believe in myself more on and off the court and, most importantly, he loved me. He loved me unconditionally whether I was playing well or not. I know at the end of the day he would move mountains for me and I would do the same for him.”
For Pulley, Steele made the former Indian realize his desire to become a coach himself.
“Coach Steele taught us a good work ethic and how to be a better man,” Pulley said. “We faced adversity and he showed us how we could overcome it. He helped me realize what I want to do with my life. He helped me realize that I want to coach. I want to have the same effect on kids as he did on me and my teammates.”
With an emphasis on character, Steele spent much of his career trying to do what was best for his players and not just what would translate into a victory.
“He is very competitive and he wants to win,” Donna said. “Don’t give him a trophy for runner up, it might just end up in the dumpster. But, honestly, Jeff is not a win-at-all-costs coach. Character comes first. I have seen him sit star players to make a point, even if it costs the game. The two things he does not negotiate on are positive attitude and effort. If he gets that from the entire team, no matter what the scoreboard says, that’s a W in his book.”
LCHS assistant boys basketball coach Michael Parker has worked with Steele for 13 seasons and credits Steele for giving him his start in 2003.
“He gave me a spot on his staff as a community coach while I was a senior in college,” said Parker. “My first 12 years coaching high school basketball were spent on his staff at Johnson, with the majority of them being his right hand man. So much of who I am as a coach comes from what he has taught me over the years. We really push each other and make each other better.”
Parker believes that Steele’s love for his players, his competitive spirit and his focus on his players rather than on opposing players are the cornerstones to Steele’s success over the years.
“First, I think what makes him most successful is that he loves his players,” Parker said. “I truly believe this is the foundation of success for him. When your players know that you love them, they’ll let you coach them hard. Second, Coach Steele is the ultimate competitor. Winning isn’t everything, but the desire to win is what drives Coach Steele. He knows we won’t win every single game we play, but he has the desire and drive to win every single game we play. That is something he instills in his teams. It’s not necessarily about whether you won or lost, it’s whether you gave everything you had to try to win. That desire is what is most important. And, lastly, Coach Steele does a great job of simplifying things that the opponent does while staying focused on what his team does best. He’s a dear friend of mine and I love him to death. He has had a career worth celebrating.”