Former Laurel High basketball coach Keith Coutreyer is now the associate head coach at Howard University under head coach Kevin Nickelberry, his former college coach at what is now Washington Adventist in Takoma Park. Howard won at home Jan. 9 over Coppin State in a MEAC contest.
Former Laurel High basketball coach Keith Coutreyer is now the associate head coach at Howard University under head coach Kevin Nickelberry, his former college coach at what is now Washington Adventist in Takoma Park. Howard won at home Jan. 9 over Coppin State in a MEAC contest. (Photo courtesy of Howard University)

Keith Coutreyer had spent 13 seasons as a basketball coach at Laurel High, with the last eight as the head coach of the Spartans varsity boys team.

But the long-time Laurel resident had a decision to make in 2008 when Kevin Nickelberry was named the head men's coach at Division I Hampton University in Virginia.

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Should Coutreyer leave Laurel High, which he had just taken to the Class 4A state semifinals for the first time in 28 years, and become an assistant under Nickelberry? The two had known each other since Coutreyer played for Nickelberry at Columbia Union (now Washington Adventist) in Takoma Park.

"It was an extremely difficult decision. We had a relationship going back to Columbia Union," Coutreyer said. "We had everyone coming back [to Laurel] except [star center] Will Alston. We had a chance to be very good the next year. I was not thinking about the possibility of going to college. I felt like I was a high school guy."

In the end, Coutreyer, who was also a special education teacher at Laurel, decided to move up to the college level at Hampton, a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.For two years he commuted from his Laurel home to Hampton before Nickelberry was named the head coach at MEAC rival Howard, where Coutreyer is now the associate head coach in his sixth year on his staff.

"I started to think about it and looked at my window at Laurel and how far beyond the next year," said Coutreyer, who grew up in New York City. "I felt like I was at the level I was supposed to be at. I have had some great experiences. I don't regret taking it on" at the college level.

Coutreyer keeps in touch with some of his former colleagues at Laurel High. He was an assistant basketball coach at the school under Dwayne Jones, now the principal at his alma mater. A former assistant at Howard is Antoine Gaither, a former player at Laurel High under Coutreyer.

"Coach Coutreyer has always had me under his wings," said Gaither, now an assistant coach at Flowers High.

Nickelberry and Coutreyer had their work cut out for them when they arrived at Howard, which is in the MEAC along with Baltimore schools Coppin State and Morgan State. The Bison have made the NCAA tournament just twice, losing to No. 5 seed Wyoming in 1981 and then getting bounced by No. 1 seed Kansas in 1992.

Howard was 6-24 overall in the first season under Nickelberry in 2010-11 but improved to 16-16 and 10-6 in the MEAC last season, winding up fourth in the conference.

"He is a friend as well as coach, whether things are good or bad," Nickelberry said Jan. 11. "You want a guy who is going to tell you the truth. You don't want an entire staff who tell you what you want to hear. He wears many hats. With him being a high school coach for a long time is one thing that attracted me. I have not had to worry about several areas [he takes care]. I can focus on my strengths, which is recruiting."

Off the court Howard has just two full-time assistant coaches, due to financial constraints, Courtreyer said, while the NCAA allows three at the Division I level. The other full-time assistant is Travis Lyons, who played at DeMatha Catholic High in Hyattsville and at Manhattan.

"I am involved in all phases of the program," Coutreyer said. "My primary responsibility is academics, monitoring and track the student-athletes. I make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do. Our team grade point average is 3.09 and every student that stayed has graduated in the six years we have been here. I am proud out that. It's a great situation for me as a former educator" at Laurel High.

Despite several injuries this season, Coutreyer said the Bison still have a goal of winning their first MEAC title in 24 years.

Part of that optimism comes from guard James Daniel III, who averaged 28.5 points per game in his first 16 contests and has been the nation's leader in scoring most of the season.

"Fortunately for us he was a little under-recruited. That was definitely a coup for coach Nickelberry," Coutreyer said. "Kevin felt he could be a very special player."

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Howard was 8-9 overall and 2-1 in the MEAC after a 72-63 win at home against Coppin State on Jan. 9.

The life of a Division I assistant is not all glorious, despite the nice hotels and some televised games. Coutreyer wonders about being a head college coach, perhaps at the Division II or III level.

"Hopefully that possibility still exists," he said.

There is a lot of time away from family as a college assistant and with that in mind Coutreyer splurged and paid for his wife and their two boys to join Howard on a trip to play at the University of Hawaii in early January.

"I wanted the boys to experience it. This trip was well worth it. I wanted to give back for what they have done for me," said Coutreyer, recalling those two years of commuting to Hampton.

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