Checking in with Larry Neumann heading into 20th season at Nederland

Published 6:34 pm Thursday, August 30, 2012

One former Nederland football coach has a school named after him.

Another just got an entire street renamed for him.

So, what is Nederland going to do for Larry Neumann when he finally decides to retire? Rename part of the whole town?

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

As good as Bum Philips, C.O. Wilson and many, many other coaches have been in Bulldog football history, Neumann is clearly in a class to himself. He’s got the school record for victories (146), which is over double the nearest competitor. He’s also the longest tenured coach in school history and has been since 2003.

But, don’t build a memorial for him just yet. He’s still going strong, leading a football and athletic program that is enjoying some historic levels of greatness.

Spend any time with Larry Neumann and one thing will become immediately apparent. For a man who owns his school’s record book and is creeping up the list of most successful coaches in Texas high school history, he’s incredibly self-deprecating. Last year, as the Bulldogs were on pace to win the outright district title for the first time since the 1960’s, Neumann would joke about how he was just glad they weren’t trying to run him off. That he was barely hanging onto the job as it is, so every win helps.

At least, I’m pretty sure he was joking.

Part of that may come from his humble beginnings into coaching. Neumann spent 18 years as an assistant coach across four different school districts before landing his first head coaching job. He spent five years, “dragging (his) wife across the entire state of Texas,” trying to land a head coaching job without success.

That’s when Nederland called.

“I always had some ambition to be a head coach, but there was never a timeline and I never felt like I had to get it by a certain age,” Neumann said. “I had some great assistant coaching jobs, and I always felt pretty satisfied with where I was at and what I was doing.

“Once I decided that I was ready, I took my wife all over Texas. I interviewed a whole lot. I guess you can become a pretty good interviewer without ever getting a job. Wally Freytag, the Athletic Director in Austin, would call me every time he had an opening, because I was such a good interview. But, if you come in No. 2, you still lose out.

“Like the song says, ‘Thank God for unanswered prayers.’ I had gone to Katy Mayde Creek for a year, and then the Nederland job opened up. I went through the process and had the opportunity to come here. The things that happened were good for me, through all the disappointment, that led me here.”

That first year with the Bulldogs, Neumann spent six weeks away from his family and slept at St. Charles Catholic Church, just down Bum Phillips Way from the Bulldog’s football stadium.

“I can remember being named the head coach and the whirlwind that came with it,” Neumann said. “The stabilizing of that first year’s coaching staff and living in Nederland for about six weeks without the family. St. Charles put me up for about six weeks. I was laying my head there at night, but spending all of my days at the school. I was just doing what any other coach experiences in the first year at a job, checking keys to see what opens what, trying to find out what people’s responsibilities are at the same time as you’re diagramming a vision for what you want to do as a head coach.”

All that work paid off almost immediately, as the Bulldogs won as many games as they had in the previous three seasons combined and made the playoffs for the first time in six years. Those playoff trips would become a recurring theme with his Nederland teams.

Let’s talk dominance and success in a program. There’s no question Neumann has been successful at Nederland. He’s won 146 games in 19 seasons as the Bulldogs head coach.  He’s made 16 playoff trips during that stretch and won at a .664 pace, good for fifth highest in school history.

Since Neumann took control of his program, only nine teams in Class 4A have made more playoff trips than the Bulldogs. He may not have a state championship to show for it, but it’s an easy case to be made that Nederland has been one of the Top 10 programs in Class 4A over the past 20 years under him.

Not surprisingly, Neumann tries to give that credit to the staff around him, the community and his players.

“Head coaches and quarterbacks get too much of the credit,” Neumann said. “Everyone knows that. That’s absolutely true, because our success has had everything to do with how our players have bought into the system. That goes for offseason training, coaches and how they promote it and staying consistent with how we do things.

“You don’t stay anywhere without people who you don’t even know having your back. People promote what you’re trying to get done and support it when you don’t even know its happening. On a grassroots level, we get great support about our community. Our kids show up, work hard and are supported by their families. It’s a big thing.”

Many of the coaches on that staff have been with him since his first season in ’93. That includes both his top two assistants in offensive coordinator Monte Barrow and defensive coordinator Delbert Spell. Many historically strong programs have that kind of retention, but one of the reasons why it may be so for Neumann is he approaches being a head coach with the experience of being an assistant for so many years.

“I do think from the very get-go, we were able to establish a way of coaching and working with our kids,” Neumann said. “With the continuity of our coaching staff, we’ve still got that today. I’m proud of our history here and of our coaching staff. For the most part, what we started out doing, we’re still doing. The sentiment, the vision has stayed very much the same. You get a quality coaching staff, you get consistency and continuity. At Nederland, that’s been a big part of our success.“

No matter how many wins a football coach at Nederland picks up, there is one game every year that can define a successful season for the Bulldog faithful. Not surprisingly, Neumann has also turned around Nederland’s luck in Mid-County Madness.

Before he got to Nederland, the Bulldogs had gone through as tough stretch in the rivalry with Port Neches-Groves as they ever had. From 1965-92, Nederland only won three games in the rivalry, going 3-22-3 over that stretch.

Since then? Neumann has gone 13-6 and has been the winning coach in almost 40 percent of the all-time Nederland victories in the rivalry. The Bulldogs were shut out seven times from 1965-85 in this rivalry. In the 19 years Neumann has coached in this Madness, he’s never been shut out.

Going to the playoffs will get you respected. Beating PN-G that frequently? That’s likely to get you canonized.

Every successful coach has had moments in time when they’ve flirted with the idea of leaving for one reason or another. As sustained as Neumann’s success has been over the years, it’s natural to expect he’s been courted frequently for other head coaching jobs around the state.

While he says he has been called on occasion, for the most part, he hasn’t done any looking – except that once.

“That opportunity was about a space and time that I felt motivated to look into the position,” Neumann said. “Interviewing for the sake of interviewing has never been part of my makeup. I did it for so long trying to get a head coaching job. Once I became a head coach, I didn’t feel like I needed to go out just see if people wanted me.”

La Marque has been one of the best programs in the state of Texas, so it’s easy to see why it’d be a draw for Neumann. However, the program he’s built at Nederland has rivaled what La Marque did over that stretch in everything but state titles.

He may have come close to landing that job, but the program he’s built at Nederland would be tough to replicate anywhere else.

“With all due respect to the La Marque Cougars, again, thank God for unanswered prayers,” Neumann said. “Not only would we have had some weather to cause us some distress with the hurricane at the time, our success has continued here. It wasn’t motivated by thinking we couldn’t be successful here, it was more about what La Marque could offer.”

However  his success has come, let’s give him a little state-wide historical context. Heading into this season, Neumann is one of the longest-tenured coaches with one school in the state. He is in the Top 25 of active coaches in terms of most career playoff appearances with 16.

He’s also on the short list of winningest active coaches right now, just missing that 150-win mark that would have put him in the top 200 for career wins all-time in state history. It’s safe to say he should be there by the end of the season (knock on wood), putting him in some pretty rarefied company. Only 41 active coaches have won 150 games in their careers.

Neumann has also had a hand in plenty of the school’s overall athletic success. Since becoming athletic director at the same time he was hired in 1993, he’s seen a boom in all the school’s sports.

The basketball team under Nederland alum Brian English has been dominant in district play the past two years. Toni Leach has led the volleyball team to successful season after successful season. Both the baseball and softball programs have blossomed into perennial playoff contenders, not to mention what soccer, track and Nederland’s other sports have been able to accomplish.

“People make a difference,” Neumann said. “You have to first point to the young men and women who have participated in our sports that have been the highest-quality individuals. Then, you have to look at the head coaches, many of whom I’ve had the privilege to recommend. The philosophy at Nederland, I think, is to allow the success of an individual and the sport across the board in an unselfish way.”

Don’t take his word for it, though. Former Nederland head football coach Neal Morgan knows a little about coaching and the success of that athletic program. He’s impressed with what Neumann has done to sustain that success up and down the program.

“He’s a great coach,” Morgan said. “He’s not just a good coach, he’s been great. But, he’s in a little different situation than the guys who have come before him. With three playoff teams, it’s easier to get into the playoffs. Back when I was coaching, only one team went, and we had to beat some tough teams like PN-G and Thomas Jefferson. That doesn’t take anything away from him, but I think it’s allowed him to sustain his success.”

Morgan also said that the success of Nederland’s entire athletic program starts and ends with the community.

“Bum Phillips told me once, ‘Every community has the school it wants,'” Morgan said. “To this community, success is everything. That goes not just for athletics, but also academics at Nederland, which has some of the highest test scores every year. The community plays a big role in everything that Nederland does scholastically.”

If Neumann had come into a program on a run like Lake Travis is on right now, maybe his success would have been expected. But, what he inherited at Nederland was a school formerly dominant in football that had fallen on hard times.

In the previous 20 years before Neumann took over as coach, Nederland had a total of six coaches. Only two of those coaches managed seasons above .500 (Morgan, ’74, 5-4-1; Lloyd Wasserman, ’78, 6-4). Only once did Nederland even go to the playoffs (’88 under Steve DeRouen).

Since then? Neumann has had 17 seasons over .500 and 16 trips to the playoffs.

In those previous 20 seasons, the Bulldogs went 63-132, good for a winning percentage of .323. Since then, Neumann has almost reversed those numbers, going 146-74.

The most startling thing, when looking back on Neumann’s time at Nederland, is that he wasn’t really associated with the school before he took over as head coach. He had been a lot of different places, coaching at Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, but grew up in Houston, went to college at Kilgore and hadn’t so much as lived in Nederland.

Now? I asked him last season if he could even imagine coaching on the other side of Mid-County Madness. He said he’d never even thought about it and didn’t know if he could even imagine what that would be like.

It goes further than that. His daughter is a teacher in the Nederland school system, married to one of his former players, running back Micah Mosely. In short, Neumann may not have started out that way, but now he’s firmly swaddled in the black and gold.

“Bonnie, my youngest daughter, married Micah Mosely, the all-time leading rusher here,” Neumann said. “That was a unique thing. As a dad of daughters, when that information got to me, I kind of scratched my head. But, my wife told me to stay out of it, so I did. They’ve moved back to town and have a house just right down the street from me. We have been very blessed with our family and the career here. I grew up in Houston, coached there and in Port Arthur. My experiences coming here were great, but this has been a great place to raise a family.”

There are drawbacks to his position. As an assistant coach, Neumann had a lot more interaction with his players on a personal level. Players would routinely show up at his house for backyard barbecues. Neumann said he misses that connection as a head coach, as there’s a distance now as the head man.

“Half my career was as an assistant coach,” Neumann said. “I loved being an assistant coach. Having done both jobs, there’s a different rapport you have with players. I was closer to my players as an assistant coach. There’s some distance that goes with the title of head coach. I love being a head coach, but there were a lot of positives with being an assistant. Things worked out and I’ve been very blessed.”

For someone as good-natured as Neumann, though, it’s hard to keep him from joking with players and enjoying his time in the high school game. When interviewing him for this piece after practice, one of his players stopped by the office on his way out, simply saluting Neumann and leaving without any more being said.

Heading into his 20th season at Nederland, Neumann has unquestionably taken over the lead for the longest tenured coach in the area. He plans on coaching for a long while, as long as his health and other factors cooperate (meaning: he keeps winning).

The point, after 19 years at Nederland, isn’t to memorialize Larry Neumann as a coach. It’s to give him a small salute and walk away, waiting to see what he can do next.