After Lebanon’s girls beat Wilson Central in the opening round of the District 9-AAA tournament a couple of months ago, Hall of Fame coach Campbell Brandon remained seated on the Lady Wildcat bench for several moments as the other players and coaches shook hands and left the court.
When Brandon got up to walk off, I got his attention to hand him Central’s scorebook, which hadn’t been kept because Bonita Brandon, head coach Bud Brandon’s wife, was late arriving to the game. Campbell gave me a quick smile, took the book and trudged off the floor toward the locker room for the final time in the 2013-14 season.
Driving back to Lebanon, it hit me. That may have been the last time one of the state’s legendary coaches sits on the bench. And that it came against the Devilette program he once led to statewide prominence provided even more irony.
I knew Bud had taken out a petition to run for public office and a couple of people had asked me about it. If Bud ran and left coaching, what would become of Campbell Brandon, one of the top half-dozen or so iconic sports figures in Wilson County history?
I’m 49 and Campbell Brandon was coaching before I was born. After asking him and a few other folks some background questions, it appears he has been on the bench exactly 50 seasons. Not consecutively, but half a century overall.
The Murfreesboro native was hired as head coach at Lascassas right out of college in 1960. After four seasons, he came to Lebanon and spent the next 28 years making the Devilettes one of the feared names in girls’ high school basketball. His 1971 team was the first TSSAA state champion in Wilson County. LHS finished second three times over the next decade.
But more than the victories, it was the seamless transition he made when girls’ basketball made the switch from 6-on-6 halfcourt to the 5-on-5 fullcourt in 1979. His Devilettes reached the state tournament in the final 6-on-6 season and the following year following the transition. They were the only team to return to state in 1980.
Most consider them two different games. But Campbell doesn’t.
“A lot of things are the same,” he said, later noting he put 1982 state runner-up stars Nicky Neal in the post, Sherrie Chaffin at the point and Dana Hare on the wing. “We put our three best players on one side and we’re playing 3-on-3. It’s a triangle. The other two are rebounders.”
When he retired from LHS in ’92 with nine state tournament appearances and 740 wins [seventh on the TSSAA list] against 225 losses, it was enough for the state’s high school sports governing body to induct him into its then-new Hall of Fame.
But Brandon wasn’t finished. Bill Robinson called. The longtime Watertown football coach, whose father, Brownie, had coached against Campbell in the ‘60s, had become the Tigerettes’ coach and asked Brandon to come be his assistant.
Brandon, who had never been an assistant, accepted. With the disciplinarian Robinson handling all off-the-court matters, Brandon could, for the first time in his career, focus on basketball. He loved it.
Robinson told me a few weeks ago he, in all his years around coaching, had never seen a coach as good as Brandon at taking a player back to the most basic fundamentals of the game and developing skills to build the player back up.
“He could create some kind of drill to develop any skill,” Robinson said Friday. “He could teach the game. He was as good a coach as I ever saw in any sport. That’s what your good coaches are anyway, teachers.”
At 78, Campbell is still sharp as a tack mentally. He’s detail-oriented. Not much misses him. He said as a young coach, he thought he knew it all until he found out he didn’t. He started asking other coaches what they did, something he says he still does, even though most of them hadn’t been born either when Brandon got started. There’s always something new to learn, no matter how old one is.
“When we were coaching together, I had the title of head coach, but I knew who the best coach was,” said Robinson, himself a 37-year veteran of the coaching profession. “I’m a mere child compared to Campbell.”
Brandon also didn’t follow the modern coaching technique of setting a practice schedule and sticking with it. He followed the “practice until it’s done right” philosophy, which led to some long and late practices.
“He was never on time, but he didn’t mind staying late,” Robinson quipped.
His techniques and Robinson’s discipline worked as Watertown, led by Jill Gwaltney and Jodee Garbes, upset Gordonsville in the 1995 District 6-A finals. After the Tigerettes survived Gordonsville’ last rally, Campbell headed for the exit door to exhale. Bud, then coaching at Walter J. Baird, was the first to reach him, jumping on his back in celebration.
I believe Brandon and Robinson were together five years, though one or both of them think it may have only been four. If I’m right, Campbell has coached 50 seasons [though not consecutively as he sat out a few seasons since “retiring”].
When Robinson stepped down from girls’ basketball to return to football, Brandon left Watertown.
Three years later, Bud Brandon got the job at brand-new Wilson Central. But an assistant hadn’t been hired. Bud asked his dad to come down and look over the players during tryouts and provide some input. Campbell did so and grew attached to the players, so he ended up on the coaching staff for the next 13 seasons as ‘Coach C’.
Though they were part of 300 wins and two state championships together, life together wasn’t always smooth sailing. Bud “fired” his dad on countless occasions. Campbell offered to quit and go sit in the stands. Obviously, nothing ever stuck, except the two of them.
Now, while the 53-year-old Bud Brandon embarks on the next chapter of his life, 78-year-old Campbell is left to do what?
“I don’t know,” Campbell answered me the other night, saying he’s mulling over the chance to remain in coaching, whether it be at Central or elsewhere. “It depends on who they hire. If they bring in somebody I can work with, I may stay on. And then, they may not want me.
“I’m in a wait-and-see situation.”
Why is Campbell Brandon still entertaining the possibility of coaching as he nears his ninth decade on Earth, six of which have been spent with a whistle in his mouth?
“He still has a desire and a passion for the game of basketball at the age of 78,” Bud answered. “It’s remarkable. He’s talking right now about his next opportunity to help somebody coach.
“He has a remarkable offensive mind. He’s going to be an asset to somebody in coaching. He’ll find somebody. He’s networking right now.”
“I still enjoy it,” Campbell said. “I enjoy practice time more than I enjoy a game.
“It kills me to lose more now than it did 30 years ago… I second-guess myself more than anybody else does. I enjoy coaching. I don’t enjoy playing and getting beat. I don’t like to get beat playing checkers. I don’t want to overemphasize winning, but that’s why they have a scoreboard.”
He’s coached so long most of his colleagues from the early days are obviously no longer coaching and scant few are even still living. But he continues to make new friends in the business as he’s in his sixth decade on the bench. He likes to joke his players from the ‘60s are catching up to him in age. He’s coached several second-generation players and, if former Friendship Christian volleyball star Kaitlyn Teeter had attended Wilson Central, there likely would have been a third.
He said players haven’t really changed that much through the years even though he admits to, rather than mellowing with age, being more ornery now than a half century ago.
“The players have always wanted to do right,” he said. “The parents question you more. The fans have always been crazy, but they pay their money to come there and coach from the grandstand.
“I probably need to take some classes in anger management. Sometimes, I get mad on purpose to get the officials’ attention and get the players’ attention.”
Other than his temper, Brandon seldom lets others see his emotional side. But he appeared to get teary eyed when he and Bud saw their Lady Wildcats beat Campbell’s old Lebanon nemesis Shelbyville to win the 2006 state championship, 35 years and many frustrations since his Lebanon team took the ’71 title.
“Ronnie Carter [former TSSAA executive director] told me, ‘I really got a thrill watching you two hug each other’,” Campbell recounted.
He’s often said he never got rich in education. But being around the game and young people have made for a happy life that money might not have done.
“I can’t complain. I’ve had a good life,” he said. “I’ve had some bad times in basketball, but the good times have outweighed the bad.
“I’ve been lucky, lucky, lucky to coach the fine young ladies like I have. I’ve had good players who wanted to work hard.”
The question is, are there more such players in his future?