O'Neal new coach at BTW
By Tim Gayle
The Macon County Board of Education replaced Booker T. Washington’s winningest football coach with one of the sport’s up-and-coming stars by naming Lawrence A. O’Neal as the Golden Eagles’ new coach at its board meeting on Tuesday.
O’Neal, the son of Hall of Fame coach Jackie O’Neal, was serving as the defensive coordinator at Pike Road.
“He’s a great football coach,” said Pike Road athletic director and head football coach Patrick Browning. “He will do a really good job at Booker T. Washington. He’s a phenomenal person. I hate to see him go, but I wish him the best of luck.”
It marks the second consecutive year Pike Road has lost one of its coordinators to a head coaching job. In 2020, former offensive coordinator Blake Boren took over as head coach at Montevallo.
“We are going to start an immediate search and we’re hoping to have a strong candidate in place soon,” Browning said.
In O’Neal, the Macon County administration took a bold step by naming a popular assistant with an outgoing personality to his first head coaching job in replacing Maurice Heard, who coached the team for 10 years before getting into administration.
Heard’s record of 24-74 makes him the winningest coach at a program that has experienced just one winning season and one playoff berth since Tuskegee Institute High, South Macon and D.C. Wolfe merged into Booker T. Washington in 1991. O’Neal was raised in a football program known for winning -- his father Jackie won 241 games at Reeltown -- but was attracted to a program that has never won.
“It was really just the kids,” O’Neal said. “Every summer, I would go to Frank Walker’s camp (in Tuskegee) and sit down and talk to coach Heard about the football team. I just always saw talent at Booker T. Washington. From praying on it and talking it over with my family, we decided that if we take the knowledge we have and the ability God has given us and get behind these kids, we can do something special in a town that really needs something special done.”
He was a special player for his father at Reeltown, taking a team to the finals in 2000 and returning in 2001 with one of the most impressive teams in central Alabama history. The Rebels went 14-1 with the younger O’Neal at quarterback (and safety), losing to Maplesville 14-13 early in the year, the only time in the regular season a team scored more than one touchdown on the defense. Reeltown avenged the loss by thumping Maplesville in the semifinals, then destroyed Notasulga 46-6 in the championship game.
The elder O’Neal, who coached the Rebels to 25 playoff appearances in 28 years, took six teams to the finals, including two led by L.A. O’Neal.
“He’s got a great football mind,” Browning said. “He played quarterback in high school and really understands the offensive side of the ball. But in college, he played on the defensive side of the ball so he also has a great mind for defense.”
O’Neal, who played in the secondary for Western Kentucky, said his goal was to create a Booker T. Washington team that was a “disciplined ballclub that plays fast and physical. We want to make sure we don’t beat ourselves with penalties, we want to make sure we line up in the correct place and we want to know our assignment so we can play fast and impose our will on people when we get to the ball.”
He first arrived at Pike Road High in 2019, where he served as head coach of the middle school program before he was elevated to defensive coordinator of the high school team this past season.
“He was so impressive,” Browning said. “He really elevated our defense. He’s as much a reason we had the success we did as the offense was. When you’re having more opportunities to score, you can’t put a value on that.
“He wanted to be a head coach, he wanted head coaching experience. That’s why I brought him in as the head coach of the middle school program because he wanted to do that to get some head coaching experience. He’s going to maximize Booker T. Washington. I’m excited to see what he does over there.”
Pike Road’s defense was nearly as impressive as its offense last year as the Patriots rolled through an undefeated season in its first year as a Class 5A program by forcing 29 turnovers and scoring six touchdowns with its defense.
“My biggest strength is communicating to the kids and putting it in a simple way that they can play fast and play the game the way it’s meant to be played, with a lot of joy,” said O’Neal, who has coached quarterbacks and receivers at Reeltown in addition to serving as defensive coordinator at Pike Road.
O’Neal said he will add three members to the BTW coaching staff and praised superintendent Jacqueline Brooks, principal Brelinda Sullen and athletic director A.J. Nelson for their vision in helping him create a better product on the football field.
“They’ve done everything in their power to really assure me that we’re fixing to start taking athletics to another level at BTW by being able to bring in guys that specialize in certain aspects of the game,” he said. “We want to win football games, but our main goal is to impact young men so that they can be great husbands, great fathers and great members of the community.”