From this point forward, "Brown" is now "Coach Brown."
A summer that began with a lot of heartache and trouble surrounding the announcement that longtime Brainerd basketball coach Robert High had been let go by the school's administration is leading into a winter with former assistant Levar Brown leading the program.
Principal Uras Agee has put a heavy emphasis on education since taking over at Brainerd before the 2012-13 school year, and that includes his expressed desire to have all the coaches in the building throughout the school day. That ultimately led to the dismissal of retired teacher High, who during his 37-year coaching tenure amassed 1,001 wins and three state championships.
The win total is tied for second-most in state history. He had 31 teams that won at least 20 games and eight 30-win seasons.
His dismissal led to some hurt feelings in the Brainerd community.
"It was an extremely hard decision to make. Coach High is legendary, and I have a lot of respect for him," Agee said. "You can't replace a man of his caliber; what we can do is have a new focus and a new direction."
That new direction is Brown, who spent time coaching at 21st Century, which closed in 2009. He assembled a staff filled with coaches who have Brainerd ties: Ladarius Price, who played there in the late 1990s; E'Jay Ward, who prepped at Brainerd and graduated from Tennessee Wesleyan in spring of 2013, Stephen Cook and Al Cantrell.
In addition, Tony Jones -- who was the head assistant under Bruce Pearl at the University of Tennessee and coached for two seasons at Alcoa most recently -- will be on staff as a consultant.
"I have a lot of respect for Coach High, and I've learned a lot from being around him for 11 years and coaching for five," Brown said. "I learned mainly about the brand of Brainerd basketball."
Brown said he knows he wasn't the first choice of the administration, but he looks at the opportunity as a "blessing." Agee said one of Brown's biggest selling points was his focus on the education of the athletes. The new Brainerd coach has introduced player conduct, academic contracts and weekly study halls and progress reports that could affect playing time.
"You can't help but be impressed by his focus academically. The players are more academically sound," Agee said. "We are trying to move to making more well-rounded athletes that aren't just good athletically, but good students as well. We want kids to be able to go to college, if not for sports, then for academics.
"We are trying to build kids with good character."
Brown admitted that the first time he walked into the gym to prepare for tryouts -- the building is named "High-Jackson Gymnasium" for High and longtime girls' coach Carolyn Jackson, who retired after the 2013 season ended -- that the feeling was "weird," but he said he doesn't feel added pressure in succeeding High.
"We're going to continue to have a family atmosphere here," Brown said. "I'm not here to fill Coach High's shoes. I've got my own shoes.
"I am fully aware and prepared for anything that may come, but it's not about me. It's about the kids."
The Panthers return four starters from a team that finished 15-13 and advanced to the Region 3-AA semifinals. They will be led by senior forward Orlando Moore and junior guard/forward Marques Tipton. Brown said that although High's success is hard to argue with, he is making a slight change in the team's style of play and moving to a more up-tempo style on both sides of the ball.
"We are going to allow the kids to use their abilities, and we think this style makes it possible to do that, so that's what's we're going to do," Brown said.
Brainerd players said the entire process has been crazy, but they are pleased that the new coach is someone with whom they're familiar.
"At first, I took it hard because I have a lot of respect for Coach High," Moore said. "He's a great coach, but we just have to move forward and not let that get us down. Coach Brown is a good coach, and he cares about us and bettering our futures."
Added Tipton: "I wouldn't have felt right if it was anybody other than Coach Brown. We have goals to make it to state this year, and we're working hard, but having fun every day in practice.
"We know that to get something we've never got, we're going to do something we've never done."
And right now, that's to try to move forward past the huge shadow that is coach Robert High.
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.
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