Decked in Notre Dame gear, cheeks casually grizzled, Mike Brey laughingly recalled a group of high school boys he likened to the “Sweathogs” from the 1970s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter.” They filled several of his history classes at Maryland’s DeMatha High as he simultaneously launched his coaching career 36 years ago. “It was a challenge every day controlling the environment,” he says.
Commanding that unruly roost was part of the job when Brey, a DeMatha grad fresh out of college, served as the head junior varsity coach for Hall of Famer Morgan Wootten, under whom he apprenticed for five years.
“It was a great first experience,” Brey said of being a high school coach, a route taken by only a handful of the other 14 men currently directing ACC programs. “That’s been a great benefit, that I was a high school educator before I got into this. Because I handle all these guys like I did in my history class. Just handling young people – teaching moments, times to teach, time to give confidence.”
Unfortunately, directing a high school team is no longer considered a promising pathway to a renumerative spot on a college coaching staff -- if it ever was -- as an ACC head coach was overheard advising an aspirant’s father the other day.
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High school coaches also have lost much of their influence with big-time recruits, hardly a new trend. They’ve been supplanted by gaudy NBA dreams, sneaker-sponsored AAU coaches, ubiquitous informal advisers and, soon, NCAA-sanctioned professional agents. Gifted players more readily jump from school to school now, too, setting aside hometown loyalties for perceived advances in opportunity.
“If we don’t get the high school coaches back in the mix, we’ll never rein this thing in,” Que Tucker, commissioner of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, says of outside influences on players who are “spiraling or already spiraled out of control”. (See also, Rice Commission.)
Yet working with players in their formative years in an immersive role has a wealth of benefits according to the likes of Louisville’s Chris Mack, who launched his career in the 1990s as a girl’s basketball coach in Ohio.
“You learn to think out everything,” Mack says. “Nobody was plugging in the scoreboard, nobody was sweeping up the floors to start practice. Nobody was remembering to bring the dry eraser board. So I think my mind operates, do we have everything we need?” (Even the most organized coach can miss something; the start of Dean Smith’s first outing as head coach at North Carolina in 1961 was delayed due to the lack of a game ball.)
Historically, some of the ACC’s most successful coaches rose from the high school ranks -- directly when it came to Everett Case, N.C. State’s trendsetting leader at the league’s dawn. (Maryland’s Bob Wade, another direct high school to prime-time coach, was a notable flop in the late-80s.) Besides Case, ACC Hall of Famers Gary Williams of Maryland and North Carolina’s Roy Williams started as high school coaches.
The Heels’ Williams spent from 1973-78 at Owen High School in Black Mountain, N.C. When he got the job, shortly after the girls’ teams won 90 in a row, Williams recalls the principal warning the Warhorse boys were on a streak of six straight seasons with fewer than six victories each. “I said, ‘I’ll change that.’ So I did that. I stretched it to seven.”
Eventually Williams got Owen on a winning track. He also developed a key, hidden aspect of his coaching: “If you want to beat people, you have to sweat more (than they do).” So he demanded his players devote themselves to challenging their physical limits year-round. “That’s something I still do today – trying to get kids to pay the price in the offseason. If you’re going to beat people, sweat more. I’ve lived that philosophy really my whole life, and I think that started with high school coaching.”
For Brey, the carryover from high school days is being a “confidence giver” and teacher, reflected in his supportive, sometimes smiling mien on the sidelines even during intense competition. “Trying to find positives and uplifting guys and not pounding on guys on mistakes,” he describes that approach.
The preponderance of ACC head coaches got their starts in a supervised college setting, given a chance to learn by working for proven masters. By contrast, coaches of pre-college players have more independence forging their path, as did N.C. State’s Kevin Keatts in a dozen years at Hargrave Military Academy in the Virginia countryside.
“It allowed me to make mistakes. When you’re living in Chatham, Virginia, it’s a little different than living in Raleigh,” Keatts says. “When we played, nobody really cared if we won or not. So I was able to develop my own identity from a standpoint of practice plans and calling timeouts and drawing up plays and everything else. And nobody cared if I made any mistakes. But it helped me grow, it helped me grow my system.”
Actually Hargrave is a traditional national power, closely watched from afar, annually producing about 10 Division I prospects, including current ACC players Braxton Beverly and D.J. Funderburk of N.C. State and Pitt’s Trey McGowens. Keatts’ squad of post-graduate Tigers won national prep school championships in 2004 and 2008.
Running his own program at that level, including an annual meeting with the UNC junior varsity, was a challenging, defining experience, Keatts says. “I drove the bus, I swept the floor, I washed the clothes. Nothing was (beneath) me. That’s helped me.”
An outlook that would probably help anyone, come to think of it.