For more than two decades, the Saguaro High School and Cesar Chavez High School boys’ basketball programs have been models of consistency.
Their head coaches have returned each season, providing the kind of continuity it takes to build successful programs.
That all changed suddenly this offseason. Bob LaRue won’t be on the bench for the ’20-21 season at Saguaro High in Scottsdale, and Gary Lee will be missing at Laveen’s Cesar Chavez.
Ironically, both men have been directing their respective programs for an identical run of 21 years each.
But there doesn’t appear to be any similarity to the way they exited their jobs. It was reported in March that LaRue, who has actually put in 31 years if you count the seasons he spent as an assistant coach, suddenly stepped away from his job. Lee, on the other hand, did not have his contract renewed.
High school coaches generally operate on one-year contracts. That way the school doesn’t have to say its coach was fired, just that his/her contract wasn’t renewed.
We don’t know whether it was LaRue’s decision to leave the Saguaro program, or if he was asked to walk away. LaRue, who started the boys’ program back in 1999 when the school opened, won a state title in 2004, and 10 years ago he was still posting 20-win seasons.
But over the past few campaigns, his records have not been as glossy…12-14 in 2016-17, followed by a 14-13 mark the next season, and a very disappointing 4-21 last season.
Maybe he was getting discouraged, or just plain worn out. Or maybe he just saw the writing on the wall.
However, the dismissal of Gary Lee at Cesar Chavez is harder to understand. He was let go following two consecutive 20-win seasons, 22-7 last year and 24-5 the previous season. In fact, the only time he didn’t hit the 20-win mark over the past six years was in 2017-18 when he won 19 games.
Perhaps the school administration felt his replacement might be able to accomplish something that has eluded Lee all these years: a state championship.
Lee’s successor, Joe Esposito, appears to have the coaching credentials to make that happen. He was a head coach at Angelo State (Texas) and served as an assistant on the coaching staffs at UNLV, Memphis, and Texas Tech, as well as director of basketball operations at University of Minnesota.
But Saguaro has taken a totally different route than at Chavez, replacing a seasoned veteran with a rookie. Lucas Ramirez will step into the role of head coach for the first time, although the 26-year-old has been an assistant at Horizon High School in Scottsdale, North Canyon High School in north Phoenix, and Phoenix College.
Ramirez is a Horizon graduate and spent the last three seasons as an assistant coach in the Huskies’ program before getting the Saguaro job.