Estelle follows his heart, dream to Houston

By MIKE PHILLIPS / Corsicana Daily Sun

When people hear Navarro College men’s basketball coach Johnny Estelle is leaving it’s sure to break some hearts in this part of Texas.

Estelle already has one.

“It’s a tough time, a real tough time,’’ said Estelle, who is taking a job as an assistant coach at the University of Houston. “It’s hard to leave this place. You spend 13 years at a great institution in a great community you can’t walk away from it without having tears in your eyes and a broken heart.’’

That’s the way Estelle is leaving — the way he coaches and the way he lives — with class and distinction.

Estelle simply loved his job and his life in Corsicana. He had many offers to leave over the years but simply never thought about going anywhere else.

“I never looked at Navarro as a stepping stone,’’ Estelle said. “I always looked at it as home.’’

He wasn’t looking for a job.

He was looking forward to next season.

Then the storm came.

An assistant coach left Houston, and the phone rang. It was James Dickey on the other end.

“It was like a whirlwind,’’ Estelle said. “It happened a week.’’

He and some restless nights, some long talks with his wife, some longer talks with himself — and a lot prayer.

“It wasn’t a cut and dry deal,’’ said Estelle, who literally sat down with his wife and came up with a list of criteria that would be enough to pull him away from Navarro County.

“The people in Corsicana and Navarro College have always been so dear to me and my family,’’ he said. “The whole athletic department has made this one of the best jobs in the country. They are all family and made Navarro College a part of their lives.

“I’ve been here 13 years and in this profession that’s kind of unique,’’ he said. “I’ve had opportunities but never thought about leaving. But this situation in Houston met a criteria that met what it would take to leave. James Dickey is one of the best coaches and he’s a man of great character, and a great person.’’

Another big factor was Alvin Brooks, the former Houston coach and current associate head coach at Houston who has known Estelle for years.

“He has been a mentor for my life,’’ Estelle said.

Estelle spent eight years as an assistant coach at Navarro and the last five as the head coach of a program that was covered with success. He went 126-48 and won three regional championships and a conference championship.

There were other numbers — all impressive, some mind-boggling. Just look at his 90 percent graduation rate and his 100 percent placement rate. Then there are the two All-Americans and the 22 Division I signees who left Navarro ready for the next level.

“Those are all important,’’ Estelle said. “But it’s about the memories you have, about those players and the people here. You will have those memories for a lifetime.’’

He’s walking away and leaving the cupboard stuffed.

The Bulldogs return five sophomores from a 25-8 team and has 15 signed to scholarships for 2013-14.

He leaves with nothing but praise for his assistant coaches Eric Colbert and Brian Crawford and everyone on the staff, including Debbie Bonner, Navarro’s academic advisor. And of course, Estelle couldn’t leave without thanking former Navarro coach and legend Lewis Orr.

“I love him like a father,’’ Estelle said. “I owe a lot of my professional and my personal development to him.’’

And he thanked his players.

“I had a lot of good players and appreciate all the hard work the players did. I love those guys,’’ he said.

Estelle always gave it everything he had and equates the effort in a metaphor he tells people about, working hard every day where you are no matter what your dream may be.

“Whatever your (dream is) whatever your Duke is,’’ he said using Duke as the metaphor. “You do your best, always. I guess I’m a blue-collar coach in a white-collar coaching world. I’ve just always taken it one day at a time.

He won’t rule out the possibility of one day becoming a Division I head coach.

“Well, Navarro had (current Marquette coach) Buzz Williams, and he worked out pretty well,’’ he said with laugh.

Estelle, who has four children, said he will be back from time to time.

“I love it here,’’ he said. “I will always be grateful for the loyal fans who supported us. I will always be a Bulldog.’’