By Tom Nader
Publisher and Editor
Goodbyes are tough when you are a coach like Craig Nettleton.
A coach who places a higher priority on the relationships than on the pressures of winning.
Never be mistaken, nobody enjoys winning more than Nettleton, but he also absorbs a full understanding that his role as a coach and mentor is not solely defined by his wins and losses.
So when Nettleton informed his Southeast girls basketball team that the 2022-23 season was his last with the Pirates, it hit his heart heavy.
Nettleton has lead the Pirates’ program for the past five seasons, with three of those ending in league championships. His coaching career also includes stints as the Field boys basketball coach and Field girls basketball coach.
In 26 years, Nettleton has amassed a career record of 370-227 for a .620 winning percentage and an average of 14 wins per season.
His next wins will be at North Canton Hoover, where Nettleton was announced as the next head coach of the Vikings’ girls program earlier this week.
Nettleton is retiring from his administrative role at Southeast, principal of the middle school, but his passion to coach still burns bright.
Ultimately, coaching closer to home pulled heavily on Nettleton’s future decision.
He leaves Southeast the same way he did at Field: As a respected, championship-caliber coach who forever puts his players first and creates cultures conducive to winning through building trust.
Nettleton fell in love with basketball as a player growing up on the Northwest school district, where he grated high school in 1982.
He won a lot of games and played alongside 6-foot-6 McDonald’s All-American and Ohio State recruit Joe Concheck.
“My love for basketball goes back to those early days,” Nettleton said. “I loved that the game was quick and it could turn at any moment. I loved that the best team was not always the team that won, which made it more interesting and more enjoyable. I found basketball incredibly fun to play and watch.
“So I knew at a very early age that I wanted to be a coach,” Nettleton added.
His path into the coaching profession, though, was actually not one that he made.
It was made for him.
While a student at Malone University, where he graduated in 1986, one of his professors actually applied Nettleton for a position without him knowing it.
“I was in a basketball class that was taught by Joan Tomec and she came up to me one day and said, ‘Don’t be surprised if you get a call about coaching some time soon’.”
Tomec had applied Nettleton for a spot as an assistant coach on the Kidron Central Christian boys basketball team.
Though Nettleton knew he wanted to coach, he had not been actively looking for a position at that time.
Ultimately, his professor saw he was ready maybe before he knew it.
“That is what got this whole thing started for me,” Nettleton said.
Nettleton eventually came back to his alma mater and served as the Northwest freshman boys basketball coach before he was hired by Field as a 22-year-old teacher in 1986 and then four years later, he was hired to be the Falcons’ boys head coach.
In 15 seasons leading the Falcons, from the 1990-91 season through 2005-06, Nettleton went 200-139 and won league championships in the 1994-95 and 1996-97 seasons.
“I had very little experience, and I benefitted from not knowing what I didn’t know,” Nettleton recalled. “I was on cloud nine at the time, and I quickly learned that there is so much more than just coaching basketball that the head coach has to be on top of, but I was very lucky to have great players and tremendous support from the parents.”
In five seasons away from coaching varsity, Nettleton coached freshman and middle school basketball before returning to the Falcons as the high school girls coach from 2011-12 through 2016-17. In those six years, Nettleton’s groups went 85-56.
Looking back to the start of my career at Field, I look back on those years as great times, because I was young guy with a young family just getting started,” Nettleton said. “We were blessed to have a lot of success with great players that became great men, who are terrific fathers and good at their jobs. I still am in touch with many of those former players.”
Nettleton’s transition to be the Falcons’ girls coach was accepted without knowing how it would go he admits.
“I was confident in what we could do, but I had never coached the girls before so I wasn’t sure what could be different. I got a lot of help from Bob Dunn, who had made a similar transition from coaching the Southeast boys to the Southeast girls. He told me that I was going to love it, and he was right. Coaching girls basketball is terrific and I feel like that the switch to the girls game was perfect timing for me as a coach.”
Timing came back into play when Dunn supported the hiring of Nettleton in 2018.
As school districts across the state began to move away from allowing administrators to also be head coaches, Southeast identified Nettleton as the perfect candidate to be its middle school principal as well as its girls basketball head coach.
“I felt really blessed to have the Southeast opportunity open up for me,” Nettleton said. “I was immediately surrounded by terrific kids, amazing coaches and a ton of support. I could not have asked for a better place to be, and I felt the same way about Field, too, and all that we accomplished there with a great group of role-model coaches.”
The Pirates, who own a sparkling history of girls basketball success, continued that trend with Nettleton, winning three championships in his five years leading the program.
The wins were welcomed, but it was also how Nettleton ran the program that fit exactly what Southeast Superintendent Bob Dunn anticipated when he supported the hire.
“I have known Craig since the 90’s when he was coaching the boys at Field, and I was coaching at Southeast,” Dunn said. “Although our teams were competing against each other, I always had a great respect for him as a man and coach. His teams were always well prepared, and he always got the most out of his players.
“I also admired his work as a building leader and was excited when we were able to have him join our Pirate family as an administrator and coach six years ago,” Dunn added. “He did a tremendous job and positively impacted our students in both positions. He will be missed.”
In his five years with the Pirates, Nettleton’s record was 85-32.
The X’s and O’s have changed over the years for Nettleton, learning along the way, but the one constant and non-negotiable philosophy for him has always been building relationships.
The expectations and accountability he places on his players is strengthened by the fact that he has developed a genuine relationship first, giving the player a reason to work hard for their coach.
“When true relationships and bonds are formed, it is easier to teach the game and it is easier to coach,” Nettleton said. “If you show players that you genuinely care for them, there is a trust that begins to grow. It is what makes seasons great. It is what makes practices fun.
“I enjoy practice. Being in the gym, I have always enjoyed that part,” he added. “That is where you truly get to know the players. It might be in a conversation a few minutes before practice or a few minutes after practice or during the instruction of a drill. As a team, you spend a lot of time together and I always wanted that to be a time the players can forget about everything else and just be there in that moment.”
Some of those moments, early in Nettleton’s career, included him and his wife Terri’s innocent, but mischievous sons.
Like the time his sons Joshua and Caleb, who were about 5 years old at the time, needed a drink, but of course, the school’s water fountain was not working.
“Next thing I know, they came in with a cup of water from the teacher’s lounge. I didn’t think much of it, to be honest. The next time they came back in from getting a drink, they were soaking wet, and I couldn’t figure out why.”
He soon found out.
“I went out to the hallway, and here they were havin ga water fight in the hallway. From one end of the hallway to the other the floor had water everywhere. So after practice, there I was with a couple players with buckets and mops cleaning the floor. Those are the little moments that happen, even outside of the games and practices, that help create the memories of being a coach.”
All three of the couple’s sons graduated from Hoover, where Nettleton will now coach.
Joshua, now 34, is an assistant football coach at Perry. Caleb, 33 went on to be a diver at Wittenberg University and Daniel, 31, is an assistant coach at Hoover.
Nettleton has fond career memories and is still driven for success and relationships that exist in his future, but he is very quick to share his appreciation for his wife Terri and her role during his career.
“There is no way I could have coached for as long as I have without her, with her love and support,” Nettleton said. “She has always gone above and beyond the call of duty for our family. Raising three boys, running them around to all of their different events, she wore so many different hats for our family. She is truly a coach’s wife in that she understood that coaching was a passion of mine and she supported me and my passion.
“The fire burned really early to want to be a coach and there has never been a time that that fire has gone out. The passion I feel for coaching is as strong now as it ever has been. I love every minute of it.”
And there are more minutes to come and Hoover is the next to experience it.
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