MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - You can count on one hand the number of breaking news stories that could trump anything happening on the fields of the BlueCross Spring Fling state tournament.
The call I got around noon Friday saying that Robert High was no longer Brainerd's basketball coach was at the top of that list.
The word "legend" gets tossed around too easily when discussing successful high school coaches, but that's the best adjective to describes High's standing among his peers. Simply put, Robert High is the face of Brainerd High School and has been for years. Mention Brainerd to any TSSAA official or the most casual prep sports fan around the state, and hiss name is quickly identified as synonymous with the school.
In his 37 seasons as the Panthers coach, High is one of only 13 coaches in the nation to earn more than 1,000 wins, and his staggering total of 1,001 is tied for second-most in state history. His teams won at least 20 games 31 times, and he had eight 30-plus win seasons and three Class AAA state titles.
No other school in the area has more than one championship in the state's largest classification.
High also won a state cross country title and worked as the school's athletic director for 15 years.
But more impressive than his win totals are the countless kids whose lives he has touched as a mentor.
"He has helped so many kids in their personal life, things you don't even see on the court," said former Panthers guard Jay Price, one of 12 All-Americans who played for High and now the men's and women's basketball coach at Chattanooga State.
"Whether it was making sure kids had a ride home or something to eat, he was a lot more than just a coach. For young African-American kids, he's someone positive they could pattern themselves after. Here we have shootings almost every day, and we're in a time when we need positive influences in kids' lives and we take away one of the best this city has had. It just doesn't make sense to me.
"He's the reason I'm coaching now. Because of what he's instilled in my life, and other people's lives, there are a lot of us who want to return the favor and help kids today. We all want to live up to him, make him proud."
The school's gym bears High's name and that of former Lady Panthers coach Carolyn Jackson, who retired after last season. They earned that honor because of years of dedication and success at the school, but it wasn't enough for High to be granted one more year with the program, which he requested. Instead, principal Uras Agee informed him that his services no longer were needed at the school.
It's one of the most disappointing and shocking endings to a proud career I can remember in more than 23 years of covering area sports. If there were a Mount Rushmore of area coaches, High, Jackson and East Ridge's Catherine Neely would be at the top of the list for both their influence on thousands of kids' lives and their success on the court.
"Robert invented basketball in Chattanooga, didn't he?" TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress said. "No ifs, ands or buts about it, the respect he has around the state from his peers is the greatest accolade any coach can have. He and Carolyn and Catherine Neely are the names and faces so many people around the entire state think of when they talk about high school sports in Chattanooga.
"For a lot of us, Robert High is Brainerd High School, and that's the best compliment I can imagine any school could have."
Prep coaches who spend decades working at the same school clearly are not in the profession for the money. Those are the folks who care more about molding teenagers into productive citizens and responsible parents, and they should be rewarded by at least being able to end their careers on their own terms.
"It was sad when Howard got rid of Coach [Henry] Bowles before he was ready, and this is a sad day for Brainerd," Price said. "It's a blow to the community. It makes you ask, what direction are they going in? What's the identity of the school now?
"They sure better have a plan, because this is a move that everybody will pay very close attention to."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org ot 423-757-6293.