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Neal Curland has spent the past 28 years trying to teach young men life lessons on and off the basketball court.
Now Curland is ready to become a leader in a different capacity. The Norwich Free Academy boys' basketball coach officially ended his 17-year tenure with the program Tuesday to become an assistant principal at Bacon Academy.
"I went back to school a few years ago to get certified for school administration," Curland said. "That was my next professional career move, and this opportunity came up recently. I'm very grateful and thankful that Bacon Academy has offered me a position.
"At the same time, I can't put into words how blessed I feel to have taught and coached at NFA for the last 17 years."
Curland began his coaching career at Windham, his alma mater, before moving on to NFA, where been a special education teacher at the latter for 17 years.
"The number one thing I'm most proud of is the young men who've developed in the program at NFA and Windham over the years," Curland said. "Developed not only on the court, but off the court, into fine young men. We always taught more than basketball. It was about life. How to become a good father. How to be a good son. How to be a good friend.
"My state championship (team) are the kids who graduated who are good fathers and good people and good sons and good husbands."
Curland won 450 games during his 28-year career, and his teams qualified for the state tournament every year. He also coached two unbeaten teams, one at Windham (20-0, 1992), the other at NFA (20-0, 2007). His 2000-01 NFA team played in the Class LL state final, the program's only state championship appearance.
"Neal has been a foundation of the program for the last 17 years," NFA athletic director Gary Makowicki said. "He's just such a professional. He's been tremendous dealing with the kids, and the program has really flourished during his tenure. He leaves as the winningest coach in NFA history."
One number that stood out the most to Curland - he never received a technical foul ... at either school.
"He was a life teacher," said Norwich Tech coach John Saporita, who played for Curland from 1996-2000. "Things that you wouldn't think about at the time he was teaching you, you'd look back on that (later) and say, 'Hey, Coach Curland was trying to teach me something new.' He was one of the best coaches I've ever played for, worked for, or every been around.
"I still talk to him to this day. … I could still go to him with any problem. I'm 30 years old now, and I still confide in him if I have an issue."
Curland was grateful for the support he'd received over 28 years from administrators, assistants, players and families he worked with over the years.
"Ultimately, none of it was possible without the support of my wife, Kelly," Curland said. "We've been married 21 years. I met her in 1989 when I was already a head coach, and not once, never once, did she ever mention that I was missing out on something. Or that I should walk away. She never questioned, never once, my passion and times I spent away from her and the family to be with the kids on the basketball court. I'm deeply indebted to her to have been able to coach as long as I have."
Asked what he'd do next winter when basketball season began, Curland laughed, "I get to go to any game I want. Nobody is going to tell me what gym to go to next year. I get to go sit up in the bleachers and relax.
"There will certainly be some loss, some things that I'm really going to miss. But overall, I feel very comfortable that the program will be in great hands there, and there are great kids there that'll play hard for the next coach.
"I'm at peace walking away at this time of my career."