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Zukauskas, Lawrence Academy have fresh start

New coach Paul Zukauskas is tackling the problems at Lawrence Academy head-on. New coach Paul Zukauskas is tackling the problems at Lawrence Academy head-on. (Mark Wilson/Globe Staff)
By Bob Holmes
Globe Staff / September 2, 2011

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Paul Zukauskas has no interest in rehashing Lawrence Academy’s 2010-11 school year, and that’s just fine with the reporter sitting across from the first-year coach.

How ugly was it for the prep school? A football season that started with talent and promise dissolved into one controversy after another and cost the head coach, athletic director, and headmaster their jobs.

There were student protests, a forfeit, a league probation that bars the school from the postseason for three years, and allegations involving money and recruiting.

It was a major black eye for Lawrence Academy and the entire Independent School League.

Moving on seems like a good idea.

“Like I tell my guys, and everybody around here, we’re moving on,’’ said Zukauskas, who will hold his first team meeting today and begin practice tomorrow. “Whatever happened, happened. If you’re upset, OK, now it’s time not to be upset.

“It’s a new season, we’ve got some new coaches, we’ve got some new players. We really have a fresh start here.’’

After graduating in 1997 from BC High, where he was a Globe All-Scholastic as a senior, Zukauskas moved to Boston College, where he started four years on the offensive line, earning All-America honors his senior year. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 2001, played four years with them, and retired after the 2004 season.

He joined computer company EMC in 2006, working in sales. In 2009, the Weymouth native became a graduate assistant for the BC football team, working toward his master’s degree. And as the calendar turned to 2011, he became a man without a job.

“As a graduate assistant, you have a timeline,’’ said Zukauskas. “It’s a two-year timeline. I was looking in the NFL, and I was looking in college football. I had some interest, but things weren’t working out.

“I have a 10-month-old and I’m married, and everyone was trying to help me out. I was hoping to get a full-time job at BC, which didn’t work out.’’

BC offensive line coach Sean Devine told Zukauskas in February about an opportunity at Lawrence Academy, that the coach had resigned.

Zukauskas was aware there were issues at the school.

“I knew a lot of it, because we had recruited some of the kids at BC, and it was tough not to follow, it was in the sports pages,’’ Zukauskas said. “I knew that a team [St. George’s] had forfeited a game.

“And I knew they had really good players, which was different, because, as a high school athlete, I had never heard of Lawrence Academy until they started getting good.’’

But the bottom line was that Lawrence Academy needed a coach and Zukauskas needed a job. So in late February, Zukauskas, 32, applied for the job. When word spread that he was applying, some thought he was crazy.

“I think a lot of people have asked that,’’ he said. “It was an opportunity to coach football and be a head football coach. And it was a great opportunity for my family.

“I really fell in love with the people here. Initially, it was just looking for work. But I really like everyone surrounding the school. I live on campus, in this kind of family atmosphere. I could see my family, a little more than if I was coaching in college or the NFL and then also being able to coach football.’’

Zukauskas was hired in April, the same month the ISL handed down Lawrence Academy’s punishment, including stripping the school of its last two ISL titles and imposing the three-year probation. He will coach a team that went 8-0 last fall before losing to Salisbury in the postseason.

If the ISL probation bothers him, he doesn’t let on.

“It’s not a big deal, and it’s not like we can’t go out and win every game,’’ said Zukauskas, whose season opens Sept. 24 against Milton Academy. “So what? We can’t go to a bowl game at the end of the year. That doesn’t bother me as much.

“I just want to win. I want to be consistently good and have the kids feel like they’re part of a great football program. I think we can do that here.’’

Being a head coach for the first time has given Zukauskas a better understanding of what his BC High coach, the late Jim Cotter, went through.

“I loved Coach Cotter,’’ he said. “As a coach, you ask, what’s your identity? I’d love to be known as a tough team, and that was Jim Cotter. He was a tough guy and he tried to bring that out in us. He didn’t think we were very tough, being from the suburbs, but it certainly rubbed off on me.’’

Still looking close to his NFL size of 6 feet 5 inches and 320 pounds, Zukauskas is eager to tackle the challenges, to block the distractions.

“A lot of people thought this program wouldn’t be here today,’’ he said. “We’re going to have a team and I think we’ll be competitive. And what more can you ask for at this point?’’

So to all the fans, alumni, and students, your new coach knows that a lot went on in Groton last year. But if it’s OK with you, he just wants to coach the team.

Dorchester’s day A proud Dorchester community unveiled its new playing fields Wednesday, courtesy of ESPN. The media giant paid to refurbish the fields of four school teams in the country, and the Dorchester Bears were one of them. The ESPN crew was there, along with Mayor Thomas Menino, to film the students from the two schools that make up the Bears, TechBoston Academy and Dorchester Academy. The team got new locker rooms and uniforms in the deal. The film is part of ESPN’s series, “ESPN Rise Up,’’ that will debut Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. . . . One interested observer in Dorchester Wednesday was city athletic director Ken Still, who sent a request to the Bruins. Pointing out that former Bruin Willie O’Ree was the first black player in the NHL, Still hopes that someone in the organization could bring the Stanley Cup to a city high school. Still hopes an appearance by the Cup might create some hockey fans. Take it as a hint.

Bob Holmes can be reached at rholmes@globe.com.