By CHRIS HOBBS
MAIDEN – Tom Brown has never been one to run a what-might-have-been checklist because he knows he found his life’s calling – coaching football – at a very young age.
“It was an easy call for me to be a football coach,” Brown said this week. “And once I got involved, I never wanted to be anything else.”
He didn’t get filthy rich — at least not in a dollars sense — over a 42-year career that featured 365 high school football wins (330 of them in two tenures at Maiden).
But the game paid big dividends, as Brown, now 74 and enjoying retirement as best he can, has a long list of friends and life adventures. Those range from being pals with regular Joes to country music stars to big-name college football coaches to making 18-hour drives to Texas to deliver a car or flying to Oklahoma to spend some time with a former player who has never lost an appreciation for the experience of playing for Brown.
The awards and other acknowledgements are nice — like the stadium he will be at tonight to watch Maiden play St. Stephens (7:30 p.m.) soon being dedicated and named Thomas E. Brown Stadium — but the sweetness of his life choices come from the simplest of things.
Kevin Wilson, who played center for Brown at Maiden and is a former Oklahoma assistant coach, head coach at Indiana and currently offensive coordinator at Ohio State, is amazingly consistent in the way he always introduces Brown.
It might seem like a little thing in some ways, but it has great value to Brown.
“One of the things that makes me proudest of Kevin,” Brown says, “is that if he is introducing me to somebody… Urban Meyer or Toby Keith, whomever… he always says ‘I want you to meet my high school coach.’”
It’s a title that Brown did not stumble upon, eventually becoming a head football coach after a football and baseball career at Lenoir-Rhyne University. He was a head coach in 512 prep football games when it was all said and done.
As a star athlete at Lewiston (Pa.) High, Brown had a chance to play pro baseball. And although the idea was appealing at the age of 17, his dad was more focused on his son becoming the first from the family to get a college education.
The Kansas City Athletics, bought by colorful owner Charlie Finley in the 1960s, liked what they saw in Brown as a shortstop and offered him an $18,000 contract and $400 a month to play minor league baseball.
For about five days in the summer of 1961, Brown and his late father, Donald, sat in Finley’s office — after Brown had gone through “batting practice, infield practice… the whole nine yards,” Brown said — but they didn’t hear the figure they wanted to.
Brown said his dad had sought out a major league player from their native Pennsylvania – catcher Charles “Tim” Thompson, who spent the 1954 season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, played for the Athletics in 1956-57 and finished up in 1958 after being traded to the Detroit Tigers – and been told not to sign for less than $25,000.
On the table at the same time was the opportunity to play sports at LRU, and that’s how Brown ended up in North Carolina.
“He (Donald Brown) just wanted me to go to college,” Brown recalled. “I was the last (child),” and none before him had gone to college.
Going to LRU set Brown on the path to coaching football.
Brown said he and his father never spoke about a decision that ultimately changed his life, but it was the right call.
“Back then when your parents said something, that was what ya did,” Brown said. “Daddy just said ‘no’.
Chuckling at the thought, Brown said: “I probably couldn’t have hit the curveball any way.”
Having grown up in a county in Pennsylvania (Mifflin) that had a population of about 14,000 in the 1950s, 12-plus thousand in the 1960s and now 8,338 (2010 U.S. Census), Brown already had an appreciation for small-town football when he arrived in Maiden in 1966.
He’d just been fired at old Lenoir High when he taught from a state approved history book (about unions) after being told not to by his principal.
He was in his 20s, a bit cocky by his own admission, and about to begin a path that’s seen him end up in – among others – the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) Hall of Fame.
Maiden went 10-1 in 1966, winning all nine of its Southern District 7 2A games and the league title.
“Early in my career, I was pretty cocky,” Brown said when asked how many games he came out of knowing that he had out-coached the other team’s head coach. “Realistically, there weren’t many good coaches (around).”
Things in that regard began to change in the late 1970s, Brown said, and he changed as well. He had to get better.
“From that point on, you kind of had that eerie feeling that you’re gonna coach your butt off but there was no guarantee you’re gonna win,” Brown said.
The Blue Devils did – a lot – and by 1978, Maiden had a state 2A championship team (12-1-1). Brown then left to go to work as a salesman for a local food distribution company but was back on a high school sideline by 1982, when he was hired to succeed a former star player of his, Mike McRee, as the head coach at Bunker Hill.
Brown returned to Maiden in 1986 as head coach and coached the Blue Devils through the 2007 season. After seven years away, he took over at East Burke in 2014 and spent three years guiding the Cavs.
During his time away from coaching, he spent five days a week for about 2 ½ years delivering cars for Randy Marion’s car dealership in Mooresville, a job he got through knowing a former linebacker and offensive guard at Bandys.
Asked what he might have done if he’d never coached prep football, Brown said: “I’d probably have been a truck driver (because) I enjoy riding down the road… just seeing the country.”
Some of the trips were as little as an hour away and others were to Houston and Miami, both 19 hours away. Sometimes, he’d drive a car back from the delivery point and other times he’d catch a flight back.
Those were often relaxing times for Brown, but his biggest comfort zone had always been a spot on a sideline on Friday nights. He was in shorts 99 percent of the time, ready to coach (or freeze) his tail off.
Through the years, he’d seen some unique things – “(Shelby High head coach) Jim Taylor, he didn’t even wear headphones,” Brown said. “He just wore a boggin.”
Brown is now reading again a book by the late Woody Hayes, who coached at Ohio State. In ‘The 100-Yard War’ Hayes described why he always dressed in short sleeves with a tie, no matter the weather.
“I switched to (coaching) shorts because we (Maiden) needed something to show the kids that we didn’t need to be pansy asses,” Brown said.
He held fast to that in virtually every game but one, a 1977 first-round state playoff game at Alleghany, where the Blue Devils won 32-13.
“As we were coming into the little town of Sparta, the bank had a time and temperature sign that said 22 degrees,” Brown said. “We had to turn right to go up half the mountain and the winds were about 30 miles per hour.
“We went out and had the shortest warm-up in the history of football (maybe 10 minutes) and went back in so I could get my fuzzy long pants on.”
They were, of course, Maiden blue.