In the middle of the storm, the letters poured in.
Hall of Fame coach Joe Turbeville had nominated Dr. Jerry Brown for the S.C. Athletics Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame in September 2014. The letters in support of that nomination came from players and colleagues through the fall and winter.
As a retired principal of secondary schools for nearly 30 years, the last 15 at Spring Valley High School, I have worked with numerous coaches and have seen more high school football and other athletic events than you can imagine. During this time, I have not worked with or seen a coach who compares to Jerry Brown.
– W. Ben Nesbitt, former Spring Valley principal
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Coach, as he was affectionately called and known for decades, has had a major, everlasting impact on many, to include myself, and helped mold and positively influence us into the business professionals, entrepreneurs, teachers, community servants and men we are today. ... Both him and his wife treated all of us like family and acted as one cornerstone in my transition into manhood.
– Sammy Hicks III, Spring Valley player 1985-89
Through his football program, coach Brown reinforced character, strong work ethic and a daily relationship with God. His football program was about more than just winning games, and I know he would even say that coaching is God’s calling on his life. ... I consider him to be one of the best men I know and definitely the best coach I know.
– Brandon Cantrell, Berkeley High player 1996-99
Two and three at a time they arrived, life rafts of encouragement and confirmation as coach Jerry Brown struggled with disappointment and depression after resigning from his post as Spring Valley High football coach after one fraught season.
“It’s not a coincidence that those letters came in then. They just let me know God is not finished with me yet,” said Brown, half-smiling. “I still have a ministry to do. There are still kids who need me to do what I’ve been doing.”
Brown, 64, had expected to end his career at Spring Valley, where his high school coach, Turbeville, had brought him on as an assistant in 1970. Where Nesbitt hired him for his first head coaching job in 1984. Where he won his first state championship as a head coach in 1988.
He did not expect to be where he is now, sitting in his favorite chair in his Dutch Fork living room on a Monday morning, holding on to those letters and on to hope that some program will give place to the purpose he still believes he has.
He did not expect, after 44 years, five championships, and countless players guided into college and manhood, to spend an entire offseason looking for a job.
He had attempted retirement in 2011, after nearly two decades and three title wins at Berkeley, but found that armchair did not suit him.
In 2012, he took over the beleaguered Batesburg-Leesville program. In 2013, he led the Panthers to the Class 2A Division 2 championship.
The championship year of 2013 was a whale of a ride, and as a parent of a player, I do not want to belittle the season in the least, but it was the message, the leadership and example that coach Brown brought to these boys that they will carry with them the rest of their lives. I will forever be thankful Mitchell Cobb had the opportunity to play for coach Brown. The boys on the football team are the beneficiaries of being led by a man who lived what he believed in. He walked the walk. My only regret was, he left BL too early.
– Henry Cobb, father of B-L player Mitchell Cobb
Brown shares that sentiment.
“My biggest regret is that I left Batesburg-Leesville after only two years. There was a lot more that we could have done with those kids,” he said. Looking back at those two years, Brown sees that a small town might be the best place for the ministry he and his wife, Mary Ames, make of football coaching.
But the memories of his time at Spring Valley, and the poetry of concluding his illustrious career at the place that had served as his launching pad, enticed him away.
He was hired at Spring Valley in April 2014.
I only had the pleasure of his coaching for one season, and during that season, I can say he did more for my mindset, my skill set and confidence than the many years combined that I’ve played football. ... He was a complete coach in the sense that he wanted to shape you, not only as an athlete, but more importantly, as a young man. ... I selfishly wished he could be here for my senior year, but I will remember everything he taught me in that one season and apply it to my game with vigor and determination that will be a testament to his belief in me and my belief in myself.
– Ryan Lee, Spring Valley quarterback
Although I only had one season to work under coach Brown, he made a profound difference in a positive way in my life, both professionally and personally. ... Coach Brown is passionate about seeing young people grow to become productive members of society who are good husbands and fathers in the future. ... He will forever be remembered as a great husband and mentor of thousands of people he has impacted in his 40-plus years of coaching.
– Mitchell Moton, Spring Valley assistant coach
“What happens when you love something too much, it becomes an idol …” Mary Ames Brown said.
“And anything you hold too close, God will take it away from you,” the coach finished. “It happened with my mother. It happened with my football,” said Brown, whose mother died when he was young.
Brown will not discuss in detail the events that led to his resignation except to say that he had concerns about staffing and organization before the season started. Brown took the head coaching spot at Spring Valley but did not take any assistant coaches with him and did not hire any.
“It just wasn’t a good fit,” he said.
The Vikings completed the season with a 6-5 record in November.
In January, Brown was placed on administrative leave related to an allegation that he hit a student in one of his classes. An investigation determined the alleged incident was horseplay and not a malicious assault.
“The people who know me knew it was not true. You don’t have to explain yourself when you have spent your whole career being who you are,” Brown said.
He gave a 5-foot-7, 150-pound tailback a chance. I remember getting down on myself because of my size. I asked coach Brown if I was big enough to play tailback. Coach Brown looked me in my eyes and said, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog!” From that point on, I never looked back. I went on to break rushing records at Spring Valley, all because of his belief in me. He demanded a lot from us, but we never wanted to let him down.
– LaRon Gordon, Spring Valley player 1985-89
At the end of our (senior) football season, I received an offer to take an unofficial visit to Duke University. ... The downside of the offer was that my parents did not have a suitable vehicle to make the trip to North Carolina. When I shared this with coach, he told me to come to his house after our Friday night game and pick up his truck. I had only known coach Brown for about a year, but he believed so much in the opportunity for me that he trusted me with his vehicle for the trip.
– Tory Liferidge, Duke alumnus, Berkeley player 1993-94
He was the father figure that I desperately needed in my life. Mrs. Brown and he treated me as I were their own son. ... Not sure if you believe in guardian angels, but I truly believe God put coach in my life for a purpose.
– Doug Langenfeld, Berkeley player 1995-96
For those who know him, that sterling reputation remains untarnished. Knowing that has helped him avoid bitterness and acrimony.
Still, in places where administrators and parents do not know Brown and have not read the letters, the flap at Spring Valley has proven a roadblock to his candidacy for other head coaching jobs.
That would not be a problem if Brown believed it was time for him to take a seat in that armchair.
But he cannot sit down. Not with this feeling that he still belongs on the sidelines and in the lives of young men.
Brown has spent the spring consulting with coaches by phone and Internet, lending his expertise to anyone who bids him. He has helped redesign offenses and draw plays. He has given guidance on spring practice. There are other coaches and services that do those things for a fee, but Brown does it gratis because it is what he would be doing anyway.
“I’m just trying to get back to football,” Brown said. “I went through the same thing in 2011. I thought I could get along without it, but I just couldn’t. I want to be able to impact those kids, I think that’s what God’s gift is to me, and I don’t think he’s done with me yet, as far as being a leader of young men.”
“He wakes up in the morning wanting to go coach football,” Mary Ames Brown said.
“She wants me to go grocery shopping. She wants me to clean up. I say, ‘I coach football. That’s all I know how to do.’”
Brookland-Cayce coach Rusty Charpia, a friend and competitor from Brown’s Berkeley days, has offered him a position as an assistant coach, guiding the offensive line.
“He knows my heart for young men and teaching them, and how much I miss working with players,” Brown said of Charpia. “He’s a great guy, and I’d be honored to be part of his staff, and I’m grateful to him.”
Charpia said: “Coach Brown and I go way back to when I was an offensive coordinator at James Island. When I got this job, one of the first places I went was to Berkeley to see how coach Brown did things. He’s been a friend and a mentor.”
Brown’s help was invaluable during the Bearcats’ spring practice, Charpia said, and though he knows his friend is used to being in charge, he is excited about the possibility of Brown joining the Bearcats’ team.
“Coach Brown is a man of great faith, and he’s told me he doesn’t know what God’s plan is, but whatever it is, it’s a great opportunity for us to have one of the state’s best coaches become a part of our team,” Charpia said.
Brown is grateful to Charpia for the opportunity and has enjoyed his work with the Bearcats.
Brown has not formally accepted the Brookland-Cayce position, still waiting to hear about possible head coaching opportunities. But he also sees that assistant coaching might offer the best of both worlds.
As a young man at the start of his career, Brown said, “I never wanted to be a head coach. You don’t have all the tough stuff to deal with, and you could just focus on your group, and your relationship with that group.”
But for a man who once did not want the headache of seeing the big picture, these days, it is all he can see.
In the big picture, there are many more Lethons, Ryans, Orlandos, and Dougs. They are his mission, and the reason he keeps throwing his hat into the ring.
“What those guys really wanted was somebody to believe in them, to never give up on them. A lot of them give up on themselves, but I never give up on them,” Brown said.
Then, too, he knows this season is yet another part of his ministry. It is another opportunity to demonstrate what he has been preaching to his players for so long, to demonstrate the character espoused in those letters.
While attending college and graduate school, during long nights at study, I remembered his speeches and counsel that pursuing worthy goals could be tough, but must be met with unwavering intensity and healthy obsession.
– David Dangerfield, Berkeley player 1996-2000
Never one to back down from a challenge, Coach Brown taught me the value of competition and how to never count myself out, irrespective of the odds that were stacked against me. He taught me the value of intestinal fortitude.
– Orlando Ruff, Fairfield Central player 1991-92
“I think there’s somewhere out that cares about young people, that would love to win championships, too, and we’ll get along great together,” Brown said.
Coach Jerry Brown has a career record of 260-119 at four schools (Spring Valley, Fairfield Central, Batesburg-Leesville and Berkeley). A look at his five state titles:
1988: Spring Valley, Class 4A Division I
1994: Berkeley, Class 4A Division II
1996: Berkeley, Class 4A Division II
2009: Berkeley, Class 4A Division II
2013: Batesburg-Leesville, Class 2A Division II
MOST STATE TITLES
Coaches with the most state football championships:
W. L. Varner
Ninety Six, Union, and Greenwood
Spring Valley, Fairfield Central, Berkeley, Batesburg-Leesville
Saluda, Lower Richland
Winnsboro, Spring Valley, Irmo