MURRELL COLUMN: How local Boll Weevils end up in the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 12, 2016

Mike Newell has not coached in Jefferson County, Texas, since 1993, but few may have realized Lamar State College-Port Arthur had a taste of Newell’s influence on the basketball sideline almost two decades later.

Some of the Seahawks’ greatest years on the hardwood have come under the tutelage of a young man named Matt Cross. In a way, the now 32-year-old shaped his career the way Newell has early in his career — not just driven for success, but driven with it.

“Mike Newell is a teacher of the game,” said Cross, now head coach at Talladega (Alabama) College, an NAIA school. “He’s one of the best teachers there is in terms of fundamentals. He knows how to empower his guys and get him to believe.

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I needed somebody like him, to bring out the best in me and bring out the confidence in me.”

Newell, a Sam Houston State graduate, was Lamar University’s head coach from 1990-93 and a Billy Tubbs protégé at Oklahoma in the early 1980s. From 1984-90, Newell led Arkansas-Little Rock during its greatest basketball era — three Trans-American Athletic (now Atlantic Sun) Conference tournament championships and an NCAA tournament win in three appearances.

Not just any tournament win. An upset of 10th-ranked Notre Dame.

And, yes, folks across Arkansas still talk about that 90-83 win over the Fighting Irish, so much so that Newell’s entire team was honored at halftime of last Saturday’s UALR win over South Alabama for their 30th anniversary. It was as great a moment as the Razorbacks beating Michael Jordan-led and first-ranked North Carolina two years earlier in — where else? — Pine Bluff, the seat of Jefferson County, in southeast Arkansas. And, yes, I wrote a story commemorating the 30th anniversary of that.

Cross hasn’t coached in Division I — yet — but he’s a proven winner in the junior-college and NAIA ranks. If you don’t think coaching small-college ball counts for anything, just ask Nolan Richardson and Bo Ryan. If he were still alive, Abe Lemons, for all I care.

Even Newell thinks Cross should be chasing the Big Dance right about now.

“Matt is going to be a great coach,” Newell said. “He needs to get out of NAIA and get into Division I, either as an assistant or a head coach.”

Cross and Newell first crossed paths in the early 2000s in Shreveport, Louisiana. Newell, who formerly coached in the junior college and Continental Basketball Association ranks there, accepted the head coaching position at NCAA Division II Arkansas-Monticello when Cross was an assistant at Evangel Christian Academy. It was there where Cross helped mentor Newell’s coach Nate, who would become one of UAM’s all-time leading scorers.

Wanting to become an assistant on the collegiate level, Cross talked to Newell about taking a position on his staff at UAM. For Newell’s first few seasons, he worked with a staff of only student or graduate assistants, so Cross got to further hone his coaching skills while matriculating in Monticello.

Cross became a full-time assistant there for the 2005-06 season, one of the greatest in the Boll Weevils’ history. (The program finished second in the NAIA championship tournament to David Lipscomb College, now Lipscomb University of the Atlantic Sun.) UAM, at 19-10, made its first NCAA D-II tournament and played in the regional hosted by top-ranked Delta State of Mississippi. Led by double-double sensation Billy McDaniel from near College Station, the Weevils beat North Alabama 90-81 and shocked previously once-beaten Delta State 83-68 to reach the regional championship against Montevallo (Alabama). Sadly, the Weevils blew a 44-30 halftime lead and lost to the Falcons 89-86 in overtime.

I can say “sadly.” I graduated from UAM shortly after Cross’ arrival and was there for Newell’s first two seasons. I even saw the inside of Steelman Fieldhouse (seating capacity 1,500) renovated for Newell.

Shortly after the tourney run, Cross became head coach at Texas College at age 23 and left two years later for a one-year stint at Talladega. Then, LSC-PA came calling.

“Being from Shreveport and following Region XIV, I was always intrigued by that conference and that level of play,” Cross said. “As a young coach, you want to get as much experience as you can at all levels. … I just felt like it was a good fit. They wanted to be competitive and win. We only had one scholarship at the time. We didn’t have any housing or cafeteria or anything. All we had was a basketball, and that was it.”

The Seahawks built a 74-30 record under Cross, winning its first Region XIV tournament championship in 2011 and the regular-season title the next season.

He returned to Talladega in 2012 and has taken the Tornadoes to the past two NAIA national tournaments, reaching the final four last season. Two of his current players, Jamarqus Jones and Dave Thomas, are from Port Arthur.

Last June, Newell was hired by one of the Tornadoes’ rivals in the historically black Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, Dillard University in New Orleans. The old teacher, now 64, got the upper hand in their first head-to-head matchup, 84-74 in New Orleans on Jan. 23 for the Tornadoes’ first conference loss.

“It was really a great college basketball game,” Cross said. “I think we were ranked ninth in the country. We’ve only been out of the top 10 once in the last 33 times in the NAIA rankings. We’re third right now. They were ready and coach [Newell] had a whole week to prepare for us, and he did a good job attacking some of the defenses he taught me in our career.”

Talladega has won five straight since the loss and is 21-4 and 8-1 in the GCAC. Newell’s Bleu Devils, who have secured their first winning season after 12 straight losing records, are 15-8 and 6-2, and they’ll travel to Talladega on Feb. 22.

He’s working a little March magic again in February, but he hasn’t ruled out another shot at NCAA Division I.

“I had some opportunities as a Division I assistant,” said Newell, who also won a tournament game in Tubbs’ absence with the Sooners in 1982. “Coaching is coaching to me because it’s teaching.”

That’s how Cross thinks of Newell. And basketball in the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference is better for the influence of Boll Weevils.

I.C. Murrell can be reached at 721-2435 or On Twitter: @ICMurrellPANews

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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