Note: The following appears in the February edition of Orange The Experience, which should arrive in mailboxes this week. Read about men’s basketball coach Brad Brownell’s background and the path that ultimately led him to Clemson.
By Philip Sikes // Athletic Communications
On a given school day, parking along the Avenue of Champions is wide open first thing in the morning. Outside of a utility vehicle or two, and a CAT bus waiting to transport the first batch of students to campus, you’ll rarely encounter any issue finding a spot on the road that runs between Memorial Stadium and Littlejohn Coliseum.
But take a closer look and you’ll notice one vehicle almost in the same exact spot — the southwestern edge of the coliseum on the street — each and every day. It belongs to Brad Brownell, Clemson’s fifth-year men’s basketball coach.
He starts a typical work day with an early morning workout in Littlejohn’s weight room, before heading in to his office at Jervey Athletic Center shortly after. If he’s not in a staff meeting that sometimes lasts up to a couple of hours, he can be found in front of a laptop breaking down film of the next opponent, searching for weaknesses for his team to try and exploit.
Visitors come and go. An assistant will drop in to go over the opponent’s offensive sets. His director of operations needs to figure out travel plans for the next road trip. The administrative assistant needs his signature on several items, ranging from office forms to basketballs and posters. He takes time to schedule the week’s interview requests with his communications director. All the while, he never diverts his attention too far from the computer screen and the task at hand.
Following additional meetings with the team’s academic advisor or the department’s sports psychologist, Brownell heads out to lunch. A public figure, he enjoys the local dining establishments and can be seen frequenting them often.
After the break, he’s back in the office hand writing the day’s practice plan. He uses the same template to detail what he wants done, down to the minute. Once it’s prepared, a copy is provided to his staff, and after more individual meetings with his assistants, he’s off to a two-hour practice to do what he loves the most — teach.
A deeper look into Brownell’s background reveals just how he became a teacher, and why it’s been so important in his family.
Brownell grew up in Evansville, Ind., the son of Bob and Genny. His father was a teacher and coach, first at Evansville Day School and then Castle High School. Like a typical coach’s son, Brad enjoyed spending time with his father at practice and games.
“He wanted to go all the time, but when it was during the week and he had school the next day, I didn’t take him,” Bob said. “I could take him on weekends, though.”
Unlike a typical child at 10 years old, Brad didn’t spend his time running around the gym or chatting with friends. Instead, he kept a shot chart for his father’s teams.
“If you took most kids along with you under those circumstances, they’d be fine with a Coke and some popcorn,” Bob said. “But Brad wanted more than that. It wasn’t just entertainment to him. He was eager and willing to get involved.”
Sometimes, Brad’s involvement became literal. Bob was coaching a group of ninth-graders during a Christmas break practice, and one day he decided to have a layup competition.
“Right handed, left handed, cross-overs,” Bob said. “I threw Brad into the mix as a sixth-grader, and he won it.”
Bob stopped coaching in 1984 but kept teaching and was able to follow Brad as he starred in basketball, golf and soccer for Harrison High School. He was Harrison’s point guard and played alongside the likes of Indiana University’s all-time leading scorer Calbert Cheaney.
“I’m 6-4 now, but I was probably only six-feet-tall as a junior,” Brad said. “I was a late bloomer. But I was the guy making decisions, or directing traffic as dad always used to tell me.”
Bob and Genny knew from an early age their son was not only a special athlete, but also a leader. He was all-conference in all three sports and team captain as well.
“It was easy for someone who was gifted,” Bob said. “Every step of the way, he was a good player and leader.”
When it came time for college, he chose basketball over soccer, but not initially. He spent a year at Purdue University with his high school sweetheart, Paula Dingmann, before getting the itch to play again.
“I ended up transferring to DePauw because I missed playing,” he said.
Brad spent three years playing for and learning under former Indiana assistant Royce Waltman at Division-III DePauw University, a small private college located in Greencastle — just over two hours from his hometown.
“I learned so much from him,” he said of Waltman, who passed away last year after a long health battle. “It wasn’t all Xs and Os. He approached everything with a team-first concept.”
The DePauw experience was more than just basketball. It was there that Brad got his first taste of teaching.
As a senior history major, he spent time as a student teacher at Greencastle High School.
“I wasn’t like most college kids,” he said. “I got up at 6:00 and was at school by 7, and taught at least four of the six periods. I had a world history and U.S. history class. It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it.”
There was a time he thought he would end up a high school coach and teacher, like his father. But an opportunity to serve as Jim Crews’ graduate assistant at the University of Evansville came open after graduation and he worked on his staff in 1991-92.
That same year, the NCAA then banned graduate assistant positions at the Division-I level. Fortunately, Waltman left DePauw that year to take the head job at the D-II University of Indianapolis. Brad moved to Indianapolis and continued working toward his master’s degree under his college coach.
“I had a lot of responsibility at the D-II level,” he said. “You wash players’ laundry, you recruit, make sure guys do their school work. You’re involved in every scout. That was a great learning situation for me, and that probably got me off to a faster start in the business than most other guys my age.”
The opportunity to learn the game from Waltman wasn’t lost on the family.
“What a fantastic opportunity Brad had to learn the Indiana system,” Bob said. “What a background to have at that time; I give Royce all kinds of credit.”
Paula was teaching in Indianapolis at the time, and the two were engaged and married just after Brad finished up his master’s degree in 1994. But the next step was still in question at this point in their lives.
“I didn’t have a job, didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said. “I was looking to go almost anywhere.”
Brad was working Crews’ summer camp in Evansville when he received a call from UNC Wilmington coach Jerry Wainwright. A Chicago native, he was friends with one of Crews’ assistant coaches who called the same area home. A job was open on his staff, and it was a chance for Brad to get his foot in the door.
“He was looking for someone to be his restricted earnings coach,” Brad said. “I got the job and didn’t make much money. To supplement, I taught a couple of college classes because I had a master’s degree.”
He taught classes on health, physical education and university success skills, and even fittingly taught a course on coaching basketball. For the first time in his life, as a newlywed, Brad was a good distance away from his family roots in the Midwest.
“We were elated for him,” Bob said. “It’s part of life’s progression.”
Brad worked his way up the coaching ladder over the next eight years in Wilmington. After his first season, Wainwright appointed him to handle all the scouting — a big responsibility for a young coach.
“I was almost like a defensive coordinator,” he said. “Working for him those eight years was a big influence on me.”
Wainwright moved on to the University of Richmond in 2002, and at the age of 33, Brownell assumed his first head coaching position at UNC Wilmington.
Success soon followed. His first team went 24-7 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament, nearly defeating defending national champion Maryland before the Terrapins hit a buzzer-beater in the opening round.
Bob retired from teaching in 2004, and at that time he and Genny made an effort to come to as many games as possible.
“We rented a condo there and enjoyed it,” he said. “You get away from the Indiana winter and enjoy the basketball and good family time.”
By that point, both of Brad and Paula’s two girls — Abby and Kate — were born and raised in Wilmington.
After a second trip to the NCAA Tournament in four years and a 25-win season in 2005-06, Brad decided it was time for the next challenge. With the family implanted in Wilmington for 12 years, he knew it was a difficult transition.
He was hired as Wright State’s head coach, a move that made sense for a variety of reasons. Wright State is located in Dayton, Ohio, Bob’s hometown. Another unique factor was that Genny’s mother, Elsie Minnick, lived about an hour from Dayton and was able to see Brad coach, something Bob called “a stroke of luck.”
Brad compiled four 20-win seasons at Wright State and was hired at Clemson in 2010, a completely different challenge than his previous two head coaching stops.
Brad took the Tigers to the 2011 NCAA Tournament in his first season, winning over UAB in the opening round. In his fourth season, he guided Clemson to an appearance in the NIT semifinals. His first four teams compiled 32 ACC regular season wins, more than any coach in school history.
Challenges come in many forms or fashion. Now in his fifth season at Clemson, he has had to replace his leading scorer from the previous season each year. That was an even bigger ordeal this season with the departure of K.J. McDaniels — a player few had pegged as a future pro — to the NBA a year early.
Despite the loss in personnel, including two assistants from his staff that have gone on to become head coaches, the biggest challenge is the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“In the last 18 months we’ve added Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville and Notre Dame,” Brad said. “Those are four very good basketball programs. The league was already good and challenging, so by adding those schools you’re forced to make a commitment.”
Clemson’s administration has shown that commitment. Plans are set for a major arena rebuild to begin after May graduation, a project that will displace the men’s program to Greenville to play its games in 2015-16. The rebuild will give the basketball program a much-needed facelift and impact not only the gameday experience for fans, but more importantly enhance recruiting.
“The challenge is that to be successful, the entire university and community has to get behind it,” he said. “That’s what we have in football that’s so special. We’re trying to push that, and it’s happening. The best days of Clemson basketball are ahead.”
Through the journey that has taken him from the Midwest to the South Atlantic region and back two different times, Brad Brownell credits his parents for instilling hard work and integrity in him at an early age.
“I was raised do my best, tell the truth and do things the right way,” he said. “You work hard at what you can, and not worry as much about things you can’t control. I was taught to be unselfish as a player, and as a coach and leader. I carry those values to this day. You raise young men by making them work hard, by being men of integrity and by being selfless.”
Those lessons were instilled from not only his parents, but also his grandparents. A school principal for 30 years in Cincinnati, Mrs. Minnick recently turned 95 years old. On her 90th birthday, a friend asked if she wanted to have a birthday party. She declined, so the friend put a notice in two newspapers where she had been a school administrator.
“On her birthday, she got almost 450 birthday cards at the age of 90,” Bob said. “That’s impressive. What’s more impressive is that she remembered all but three, and she answered every one of them with a personal note. That’s the kind of person she is, and the kind of role model Brad and his sister (Nancy) have.”
And that explains why education has been so important to Brad Brownell, who has seen nine of his 10 seniors at Clemson earn an undergraduate degree. He comes to work each and every day with the simple mindset of producing the best team and the best group of young men he possibly can. It was ingrained in him at an early age.
“I’m proud of the way Brad goes about his job,” Bob said. “I don’t think (a high-profile coaching position) has affected him as a person. He’s knowledgeable of the game, but more importantly he’s the leader of young men.”
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