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Putting down stakes: Speer hopes to have found his coaching home at South Central

UNION MILLS -- As a 32-year old coach, Eric Speer doesn't take it as a good thing that his closet features a virtual rainbow of shirts.

In a little over a decade in the profession, the 2007 Portage graduate has spent time at Michigan City, Lake Station, Hobart, Lake Central, Hammond Academy and Hammond Morton, the latter two as a coach.

All the while, he's longed for a place to put some stakes in the ground and call home, to let some moss grow on the rolling stone that's been his career.

"I'm really excited to plant some roots and be part of a community," Speer said Tuesday after being approved by the school board as South Central's boys head coach. "It gets frustrating, oh, Eric Speer, he's a good guy, a good coach; where he's at again? When people see me in the community five years from now, I'm still the South Central coach. I love it here because they seem like they want me to be here the next 10, 15 years. I think the reason I ended up here was I found a place that wanted me as bad as I wanted them."

Admittedly, Speer thought he had that place at Morton, but with Hammond consolidating its four high schools into two, it re-opened the position and he didn't get the job.

"I felt that was my Kentucky," he said. "I was excited to be there. I wanted to be there the next 20 years and make Morton into something it hadn't been before. That took longer than I wanted it to, but I'm thankful to put that all in the past. That chip I said was on my shoulder in March is still there because I obviously still have stuff I need to prove. I think every coach wants to be somewhere where they can build a program their way and I think (principal) Ben (Anderson) and (Athletic Director) John (Haggard) are going to let me do that."

Eric Speer

Speer was actually a finalist for the girls coaching position that eventually went to Anderson, but was told to hang tight as the boys position was going to be open.

"From what they'd been saying, it seems like that was kind of the plan," Speer said. "There were things they knew that I didn't. I had to trust them. I did and I do. (My wife) Cassie and I put a lot of faith in God. We believe in His next step. Riding it out was the tough part. I'm not patient. I want to know. I'm a planner. I want to know where we're going, what we're doing, who we have. I was home talking to her and she was making me stick to my word. Hey, you said want to go to a place that wants you. Is this not the place?"

Haggard said Speer's familiarity with the circumstances, that boys coach Joe Wagner was stepping down, made a difference, as did the similarity in personalities between the two.

"He reminds me a lot of Joe as far as his passion for basketball, his drive for things to be done a certain way," Haggard said. "We graduated five seniors. We're going to have a lot of young kids. We need someone who's energetic, who knows how to build a program, and listening to him talk, you can tell that's something he has a lot of experience with. He had sense of what he was getting into, which is important. What really impressed me was he'd already watched some of our films. He already knew some of the kids. You could tell he had done his homework."

Speer spoke with Wagner throughout the process and both felt the transition would not be dramatic.

"Especially with our personalities," Speer said. "Joe and I both have a lot of passion for basketball. Philosophy, we've already talked to the kids, there are some differences. It also depends on who you have. Joe's a great guy. I'd like to think I try to be as good of a guy as I can be. I think they'll get the same things, on and off the floor -- be a good student, a good person, and the basketball will take care of itself."

If there is a plus to being well-traveled at a young age, it's the opportunity to have worked with a number of influential coaches in Bob Buscher, Bryon Clouse, Mike Black and Dave Milausnic.

"They all have different ways of doing things," Speer said. "I've taken good stuff from all of them to try to make my own, to be who I am. Clouse had a huge impact. He's so great with Xs and Os and his relationships with kids. I value relationships, too. I feel that is my best quality as coach. I don't know two better people to work for than (Haggard and Anderson)."

Through his friendships with local Purdue alums Robbie Hummel and E'Twaun Moore, he's also developed a deep respect for Boilermakers coach Matt Painter and the rapport he has with his players.

"I mostly love how he gets guys to consistently overachieve," Speer said. "I talk to guys like Rob, E'Twaun, he walks a fine line. He's constantly pushing you, then you invite him to your wedding. It's easy to see he can leave basketball on the court. Rob would tell me, he'd have him running the bleachers, then the second practice is over, it's, hey Rob, I saw your dad at the store. Clouse is the same way. You can be demanding and still have expectations, still be human to the kids."

Speer sees pluses and minuses to taking over an inexperienced team. He inherited a Morton team with seven seniors last season and found them to be set in their ways.

"It might be easier in the sense a lot of these kids didn't play for Joe, so they might be willing to come in and try new things," he said. "At the same time, everybody wants to come into a really good team. No matter who it is, it's my job to turn them into one. It's all a challenge. I'm excited to work with a group in which the eighth graders are going to have me as seniors. In high school, talent matters, of course, but you need a good group of kids who work hard, and I've been told that's what we have. If they do that and they do things the right way, we'll have a chance to win games. If not, we'll have to find kids who do."

While he's been a part of several conferences as a player or coach, this will be Speer's first venture into the Porter County Conference.

"I love it," he said. "I think it's filled with great basketball, great coaches. I know a lot of them from being at Hammond Academy. They're small schools, they want to get their wins. (Kevin) Duzan, (Mike) Grennes, (Matt) McKay, (Rick) Snodgrass, you're talking those names, just to be a small part of that, it's really cool. It's a great conference. Every coach there talks how much fun it is. They love basketball. That's all you ask for, to surround yourself with people who love the game."

Anderson and Haggard are hopeful a teaching position will open and Speer can be brought into the high school.

"That would be huge as far as getting kids who should maybe be playing basketball to play basketball, or just knowing if a kid's having a bad day," Speer said. "That's hard to do when you don't see kids in the hallway."

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