Skip to main content
John Grant Jr. wants to be a coach so he can mentor athletes in lacrosse and life.

Turning Around Lees-McRae Could be 'the Biggest Challenge' of John Grant Jr.'s Life

July 10, 2024
Phil Shore
Josh Foley

John Grant Jr. said he feels an inner need to help people through coaching, much like he needed himself when he was younger.

He remembers not knowing much about college recruiting when he was a student-athlete at SUNY Morrisville, a junior college team. If it weren’t for his coach, current Yale head coach Andy Shay, staying on him about going to Delaware, he might have missed his opportunity.

He also doesn’t think he would have graduated if it weren’t for lacrosse.

Now, he gets a chance to be the mentor for young players like so many were for him. After many years as an assistant coach at the college and professional levels, the legendary lacrosse player was hired as the new head coach at Lees-McRae College.

“When I really realized that coaching is what I needed to do and wanted to do, the journey to get here has been kind of up and down,” he said. “The college level really gives me an opportunity to maximize [being a mentor], where they are removed from home, and I’ve got every opportunity to take care of these guys, and I get to teach life. My subject of mastery is lacrosse, so it really is a dream.

“I know it’s going to be probably the biggest challenge of my life, and I think that’s what’s driving me so hard towards it.”

Lees-McRae is a private college located in Banner Elk, N.C., in the Appalachian Mountains. According to the school’s website, Lees-McRae has a population of 873 students from 34 states and 23 countries. The school has been aggressive in growing. In 2022, the school bought nearly 500 acres of land and turned it into new residences and classrooms.

The lacrosse program began in 1999 and competes in the Conference Carolinas and hasn’t experienced much success. The team has gone through seven winless seasons — the latest in 2023 — with its best season (5-11) coming in 2017.

Despite the record, the school’s growth and investments include the lacrosse program, which had new locker rooms put in place, and new turf field was installed in September 2020.

The head coaching position opened when incumbent head coach Josh Shingleton, a former Bobcats lacrosse player, decided to move on after his wife got a new job, according to Kevin Phillips, the school’s Senior Vice President for Enrollment Management.

Phillips called the lacrosse head coach a “key position.”  He oversaw the hiring of the program’s newest leader while the school also hired its new athletic director; he said the first goal for the new position was to grow the roster from 21 players to 35-40.

“Even a walk on doesn’t want to play for a losing program,” he said, “so we really want to bring the lacrosse program up to where it should be because the facility is there, the locker rooms are there, the funding for the scholarships is there, funding for the equipment is there. We just needed the right coach that wants to do some work.”

Related Article
Lees-McRae Hires John Grant Jr. as Head Coach
Read More

Once the job was posted, Phillips said he received several applications, but three names stood out to him — including that of Grant Jr.

“I knew the name,” he said, “and so I had to be like, ‘Wait a minute. Is this the guy that I think it is?’”

It indeed was the John Grant Jr. that won two Major League Lacrosse and National Lacrosse League MVP awards, who has won a gold medal at the World Lacrosse Championship, who is a member of the inaugural class of the Professional Lacrosse Hall of Fame. He has been an assistant coach at Air Force and Johns Hopkins and with the Denver Outlaws and currently the California Redwoods at the professional level.

He left Johns Hopkins and spent the past year coaching at Gerstell Academy to develop the skills outside of lacrosse — like budgeting and travel — that a head coach needs.

Grant had the itch to coach at the college level again; he said his wife and daughter noticed there was a “hole in his heart.” He had been looking since March, but there weren’t any opportunities in the Maryland area, where he lived with his family. His family is at the center of everything he does, and with his daughter going into high school, he felt there was a small window of opportunity to move as she would be attending a new school.

He knew that wherever he went, though, the job was not going to be a steppingstone to a larger program; he did not want to move his family again while his daughter was in high school, so he wanted to put down roots.

He knew of Lees-McRae because it was one of former Canada coach Jason Levesque’s first coaching jobs. He also liked the idea of coaching in North Carolina and helping grow the game there like he did in Colorado. He liked being in the mountains, and the safety of the community appealed to him.

The diversity in subject areas offered by Lees-McRae, like education, criminal justice, and nursing, also enticed him.

“What do all those jobs for those programs have in common? People helping people. People taking care of people,” he said. “To me, those are the people we trust, we count on. Those people make great teammates, so bringing kids in that are interested in going off and helping others, you can’t tell me they’re not going to be great teammates.”

As for on the field, Grant envisions playing the style that matches his position: attack. He’s already adopted the moniker Attack Mountain, and whether it’s offense, defense or the faceoff, he wants his players to be aggressive.

“I want the ball, and I want it now, so go get the ball,” he said. “Then we’re gonna go to the goal.”

To play such a relentless style, Grant said it will take a lot of sacrifice and conditioning. He wants the practices to be harder than the games. 

Grant expects to hold the players to a high standard and to be accountable to him and to each other. The way he plans to get them to buy in is by building relationships with the players, which is something he’s been working on since he first dipped his toes in the coaching waters.

“I didn’t realize that when I first started coaching way back in Colorado prep school while still playing, I’m like, ‘I’m going to be the greatest Xs and Os coach ever,’” he said. “Turns out, I wasn’t, but turns out I was pretty good at the relationship piece and the mentorship piece, so building that relationship, building that trust is gonna allow us to really grow quickly. I mean, the more they know I care for them, the more we can push them to be their best versions.”

Grant’s biggest aspiration is for each player to build a legacy, one that extends beyond the playing field.

“No one’s going to remember your BTB goal or your game-winning goal in the playoffs. They’re going to remember who you are off the field,” he said. “They’re gonna remember how much they could trust you. I constantly tell them, ‘You want to be the guy, when you’re 40 years old, getting called when they need something. You want to be the guys getting invited to weddings.’ That stuff is important.”

For a program and a school that aren’t as well-known in the lacrosse community, there is an excitement and optimism now that Grant was named the head coach. He said he’s been getting texts and emails from friends, players and alumni. Phillips said former Lees-McRae coaches commented on social media that the hiring was a home run. Redwoods head coach Nat St. Laurent, who brought Grant on as an assistant in 2023, said that he believes his presence will have a positive impact on the program and that he’s looking forward to watching how he builds it up.

Grant has already hit the ground running. He’s holding Zoom sessions with the team and scheduled an ID camp for prospective student-athletes. But there’s still more to do. Phillips said that as the program grows, he hopes to add a full-time assistant position as well as a graduate assistant position to the staff. What Grant will have is time to build and the support of the school and athletics staff.

Phillips is confident Grant can turn the team’s fortunes around.

“There’s been four different [conference] champions in the last four years, so it’s not like one team has got the stranglehold on the conference,” he said. “He’s got the opportunity to change the direction of where we were, and I think you will definitely see that. I have no doubt.”

Grant said he loved that the vision he has is aligned with the vision Phillips has. He appreciated the urgency the athletic department put behind hiring him, saying he was on a Zoom call to talk about the position within 12 hours of applying for the job.

When Grant came to campus, Phillips apologized for the construction, but he waved Phillips off, saying it was appetizing that the school was building.

He wants to make the lacrosse team a centerpiece of that growth.

“Hopefully, they’ve got to keep building more and more dorms,” he said, “because we’re going to keep bringing more and more great kids.”