WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Brad Brownell's seventh season as head basketball coach at Clemson University was the best of his tenure with the program. The 2017-18 Tigers defied the pre-season media predictions of a 13th-place finish in the always-tough Atlantic Coast Conference, ending the regular season 11-7 and tied for third place behind Virginia and Duke. The team won 25 games and made a run to the Sweet-16 of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, the first time since 1996-97 the Tigers advanced past the first weekend of March Madness. Soon after the season ended with a four-point loss to 4th-ranked Kansas in the Regional Semifinal, Brownell started working on the 2018-19 season.
Brownell mentions UNC Wilmington because that's where he got his start as a full-time coach in NCAA Division 1 college basketball. He was hired in 1994 by then-new Head Coach Jerry Wainwright to join his staff at UNCW. Brownell may not have had much coaching experience at that time, but he had the benefit of learning from several quality leaders. His father, Bob, was a teacher and a head coach. A young Brad would ride along with his Dad, even doing some scouting during some trips. At DePauw University, Brownell played for Royce Waltman, a former assistant coach for the legendary Bobby Knight at Indiana University. During Brownell's junior season, the team played for the Division 3 national championship against the University of Rochester, losing by a 43-42 score. Brownell had the ball in his hands as the clock wound down in that game, chuckling as I asked him if he was fouled as he tried to get off the game winning shot. He talks about the experience starting around 8:00 of the podcast.
"Absolutely I got fouled there," he says with a broad smile. "Problem is I was about 35 feet from the basket, so I don't know if I would have made the shot anyway. Maybe the Good Lord was looking out for me because I would have had two free throws with no time left, down by one. If I'd have missed those two free throws I might not have been able to live with myself!"
After graduating, Brownell worked as a graduate assistant at Evansville University with Head Coach Jim Crews, another Knight disciple. He landed a job as an assistant coach at Division 2 Indianapolis University, where he would also complete his Master's Degree.
Brownell married his high school sweetheart Paula, and had impressed several coaches with his work ethic and knowledge of the game. A mention here, a reference there, and the call came from Wainwright about the opening in Wilmington. The former Wake Forest assistant had gotten the opportunity to take over a program for the first time. Brownell says he could sense immediately Wainwright had a plan.
"He was extremely excited," Brownell says about the phone call he took from the new coach. He talks about it at 9:30 of the podcast. "But I could tell in his voice that he knew what he wanted and that he was very focused and had a lot of confidence. I talked to Paula about it. I didn't know where Wilmington, North Carolina was. I had no idea it was on the ocean, on the coast. We looked and saw that and said 'Holy Cow, this could be a great opportunity'."
Brownell spent the next eight seasons as Wainwright's assistant at UNCW, taking over as Seahawks' Head Coach in 2002 when Wainwright left to become the head coach at Richmond University. The program was at a high point, coming off its first-ever NCAA tournament win, riding the shooting of Brett Blizzard to an upset of 5th-seeded University of Southern California in the first round of the tournament. Brownell talks about the importance of landing Blizzard at 13:20 of the podcast.
"We knew that he was an ACC-level player that was being overlooked," Brownell says about the star guard.
In his four seasons leading the program at UNC Wilmington, Brownell's teams won 83 games, won two Colonial Athletic Association championships and twice advanced to the NCAA tournament. In 2002-03 season, Brownell's first as head coach, the Seahawks lost to University of Maryland on a buzzer-beater. They took George Washington University to overtime in the 2006 tournament before bowing out.
"The most difficult part of it was, I'll never forget this and if you go back and look at the Star-News, there's a picture of me on the day I got the job. Jerry, who obviously spoke that day, was at the podium when he was leaving to go to Richmond and his shadow is basically on top of me at the event. There was a big article the next day like 'you're coaching under this guy's shadow and unless you make the NCAA tournament, this year is going to be a failure'. So having to deal with that as a first year coach at 33 years old, that's a lot to ask."
While things on the court were positive, the behind-the-scenes scenario at UNCW was a different story. Brownell did not receive a contract extension following the 25-win, NCAA tournament 2005-2006 season. Tensions ran high between the coach and UNCW Athletic Director Mike Capaccio. After twelve years in Wilmington, investing himself professionally and personally in the community, Brownell made the decision to leave. He talks about the situation starting at 21:45 of the podcast.
Brownell says his daughters Abby and Kate were a little too young to be fazed by the move out of Wilmington. Paula, though, was a different story.
"She wasn't one hundred percent supportive at the time," he says about telling his wife about the move. "She quickly got there. But, it was hard. It was unbelievably hard to leave Wilmington at the time. We just had so many great people, great friends, great memories, great experiences. We were unbelievably happy in a lot of ways. Just a little bit professionally I was frustrated and a little upset how some things had been handled. I didn't feel like I'd been dealt with honestly."
Brownell took over as head coach at Wright State, and immediately took the Raiders to a Horizon League championship and appearance in the NCAA tournament. Brownell's teams won 20 or more games in each of his four seasons, and in 2010 was hired to take over the program at Clemson.
"Having grown up in the south, my girls feel that they're southerners, so it was back to sweet tea and warm weather," Brownell says about the move from Ohio to South Carolina. "To coach in the ACC, I think Paula and the girls knew how much that meant to me and was a goal of mine.
Brownell had immediate success at Clemson, winning 21 games and making the NCAA tournament. The Tigers then went six years without making the "Big Dance". Despite the dry spell, Athletic Director Dan Radakovich signed Brownell to a contract extension after the 2016-17 season that ended in a 17-16 record.
"Dan's been terrific," Brownell says about his relationship with the athletic director. "He's got a great vision. He's been patient, it's taken a little longer. We've had some obstacles to overcome, probably more than people realize. We've built a brand new facility, renovated it to something that is now on par with most teams in our league and given us facilities to be able to recruit better athletes. But also to be able to make sure the experience of our players is first-class, and that is something that is really important to me."
Brownell says he also has a great relationship with Dabo Swinney, Clemson's head football coach. He says the football program's success has helped the basketball program when it comes to recruiting. Brownell beams when he talks about the high-profile athletic programs fostering a family atmosphere.
"Every football Saturday we've got a whole host of recruits here and give them a chance to experience Clemson," he says. "So many places talk about family, but I really think we live it here. It really is significant. The nature of Clemson is different than almost any other place you're going to go. A town of twelve to fifteen thousand, and we've got an 80,000 seat football stadium. We've got a 9,000 seat basketball arena. Our fan base is rabid. They are loyal and they are supportive and passionate. If you come here for a football weekend it's really like a family get together."
Brownell's daughter Abby is a student at Clemson, while Kate will be heading into her senior year in high school. Don't be surprised if you see Brad and his family in Wilmington before the next school year begins. Even though he left Wilmington professionally twelve years ago, friends and family will bring the family back to this special place along the ocean.
You can hear the entire conversation with Brad Brownell by clicking on one of the links listed below.
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