The Newton County coaching fraternity and Union County community received sad news Thursday as former Newton County High School teacher and Lady Ram basketball coach Mike West was found dead at the age of 42.
According to Max Cochran of Cochran Funeral Home, West was found dead on a hiking trail in Blairsville on Thursday morning of apparent natural causes. There is no criminal investigation underway as it appeared West may have died from a heart attack.
According to authorities, West left on his own to go hiking and failed to return Wednesday evening.
A search party found his body early Thursday morning.
According to Cochran of in Blairsville, officials will conduct an autopsy to determine the official cause of death.
West taught physical education and health and coached basketball and soccer at NHS from 1996 to 2004 before accepting a coaching position at Union County High School in the fall of 2004.
During his eight years at Newton, West built a reputation as a hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach, but one that taught his girls respect and discipline.
"He was always a fiery competitor," said Ron Bradley, former NHS and current Heritage High School boys basketball coach. "It's going to be a great loss for all his kids."
West had a successful tenure as the Lady Ram's coach, fostering many good players including current coach Tiffani Johnson who remembers her former mentor as a coach the girls looked up to for encouragement on and off the hardwoods.
"It's a great loss to the coaching community," she said. "He's the coach that taught me the most. He wasn't just concerned with his players on the court, but he had an impact on all of us and was always there if we needed him away from basketball."
Bradley added many of West's players really learned to appreciate him after they were away from the sport and had time to reflect on his teachings.
"It might have taken a few years for his players to understand how good he was because he was tough, no doubt about it, but he really cared about his kids," Bradley said.
Johnson, who went on to play Division 1-AA basketball at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., says her former mentor had a distinct style that got the most out of his players.
"Anybody who knew him knew he was hard-nosed, but it was because he really cared about us," Johnson said. "He would do things to motivate each of us in different ways. He was always looking for different angles to help the girls."
West left NHS in 2004 to teach while coaching both girls soccer and basketball at Union County. He turned the UHS Lady Panther basketball program around, posting a 20-8 (9-1 Region 8B-AA) record last year and reaching the state tournament before losing in the first round to Greater Atlanta Christian Academy.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation will conduct an autopsy before returning his body to Cochran Funeral Home where he will be laid to rest this week.
Visitation will be today from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. and the funeral will be at 2 p.m. Monday at First Baptist Church in Blairsville.
West left his mark with many people in Newton County before he moved his family to Blairsville. Johnson for one knows the world lost a great teacher and friend.
"He will be greatly missed," she said. "I hope I can have half the impact he made on me during my coaching career."
In lieu of flowers, a memorial fund has been established for the West family at United Community Bank. West is survived by his wife Jeanna and sons Christopher and Michael.