By Mallory Schlabach, Editor in Chief
Brandon Tatum walks around the gym, surveying his team warming up. His silver athletic pants swish as he swings his arms through the air, motioning the team to follow him.
“We’re going to take it easy tonight since we have our first game tomorrow,” Brandon says to a group of teenaged boys shooting baskets in the grey and blue gym at Abilene Christian School.
The sound of basketballs hitting the plastic tile floor echoes as the boys hurry to circle up in the middle of the court around Brandon.
“Joe, Jason, David, Chris and Michael…” Brandon rattles off the names of the basketball players he wants on the gym floor. He stands tall above their heads, but chooses to kneel down in the middle of the circle as the players begin to move into position. The three players who weren’t called stand on the sideline. A couple look disgruntled because it means they won’t start in tomorrow night’s big game against Hamlin.
At first glance, Brandon could pass as a high school player himself, except that he sports a goatee.
At 21, he’s only a few years older than most of the players on his team. But any of them will tell you that his age doesn’t matter.
Brandon, senior Biblical text major from Austin, learned late in the summer that he had just landed the job as a head basketball coach. He wasn’t holding his breath. After all, he still had more than a year of college to finish.
“OK. We’re going to go over pre-game stuff right now and get it out of the way,” he says. Brandon talks quietly, his deep voice echoes in the empty gym.
“Each man needs to do four layups and then switch sides,” he yells as the players form a line underneath the basket and begin to take a warm-up lap before running the drill.
Jerron Packwood, a senior point guard, leads the team around the gym dribbling the basketball. Hunter Haught follows holding his ball, as the team saunters around the gym and lines up to shoot layups.
“Guys,” Brandon yells before they begin shooting, “no dunking in warm up tomorrow unless you can prove otherwise that you can dunk.”
Laughter fills the room as the players look sheepishly at each other, then the first two take off for the hoop.
Going against odds
Last spring, Brandon walked into the Athletics Office in Moody Coliseum after helping at a varsity basketball practice and heard Abilene Christian High School was looking for a head coach for its basketball team.
Thinking he should probably give it a shot, he put together a portfolio of what he’d done before, turned it in as his junior year ended and waited to hear something.
Little did he know that his name had already come up at Abilene Christian’s athletic director’s office.
Mark Coley, athletic director at ACS and the high school principal, said former head coach Brad Pursley had coached the basketball and baseball teams for the past three years but because of other commitments could only coach baseball.
Coley said the school didn’t really advertise it needed a coach; he just mentioned it to a few people and let the news of the open coaching position spread through word of mouth.
“His [Brandon’s] name came up a couple different times from people we respect very well. So we looked into that and visited with him,” he said.
Coley was looking for a coach that could be a disciplinarian, that had a strong basketball background and someone that was “churchy” and spiritually minded, he said.
“Of course he went to Brentwood Christian, so he was familiar with our type of school. His goal is to be a campus minister/basketball coach at a Christian school, so he fit right in with what we were looking for,” Coley said. “He had that type of personality and the basketball background because he’s played and then coached at ACU. Everything seemed to fall in place.”
While things fell into place at ACS, Brandon wasn’t sure what to expect.
Several months after turning in his application, Brandon hadn’t heard anything either way. In late July he received a phone call from Coley, who wanted to meet with him. The next day, Brandon was sitting in Coley’s office. Within the week, he was promised he would know something. After three weeks he assumed the worst; he didn’t even know how many people he was running against.
In August, Brandon’s phone rang and the only words he heard were: “Do you still want to coach?” It was Coley.
“I said yes I did, but I could hardly breathe on the phone, I was so excited,” Brandon said. “I didn’t think I had a chance to be the coach only being 21-years-old and still in college. I thought it might hurt me.”
Making an impression
Since Brandon began as coach in August, he’s made friends and met new faces. So has his team member Michael Bacon. Michael, a junior guard who transferred from Abilene High School this year, is getting used to the team, coach and playing basketball again.
Attending a private high school is much different than the public school downtown, but all that matters is that the coach is good and the squad is going to be good, he says as he fiddles with a basketball on the sidelines during a break at practice.
“All of my previous coaches have been yellers and screamers. And Coach, he’ll yell if you do something really wrong, but he’s encouraging,” Michael said. “Yeah, he’s young, but he knows what he’s doing.”
Making a good first impression was important to Brandon. At his first practice he made a plan of what he wanted to go over. Within half an hour he said he’d thrown out his plan and started with the basics.
“I knew they knew I was young, but I needed them to know that I also knew what I was talking about,” he says as his hands move about. “The biggest thing in athletics is to have the kids buy into the coach and the coach’s system. That begins with the first appearance.”
He said his first practice was awful, but mostly because he didn’t know what to expect. He spent two months conditioning his players through running drills. He saw them practice with a basketball for the first time during the team’s first practice in October.
“Some of my players had never played before, and so we needed to set them up at the basics, while others were star athletes and needed to move forward.”
Many players say this year the team will be quick mostly because of the off-season practices.
“Our off season workout was running -all running, ” said Hunter, a junior point guard, laughing. “We just ran laps and laps around the football field and ran sprints. He definitely works us harder than in the past. I think we’ll win and play as a team.”
Brandon calls everyone to the court again to start a shooting drill. He absentmindedly reaches up to touch his blond hair as he talks occasionally. As the players rotate between taking shots and grabbing the rebound, Brandon stands underneath the basket talking to his assistant coach about what’s next, while keeping an eye on the players.
“Hunter you’re the first one, so keep track of how many you shoot,” he yells to the retreating figure, and then returns to demonstrating what he wants the team to do next.
Every few minutes he switches their routine and pushes them to move quicker and yell louder.
While his team is learning drills and plays, Brandon’s learning that relationships are what make a team.
He’s learned from coaching that building relationships is a major part of coaching. He knows he has to earn their respect and trust in order to be a good coach and have a great team, which is something he’s doing well, Coley says.
Coley’s seen Brandon cheering at football games and selling snacks in the concession stand at football games.
“He works hard and has been to a lot of our activities here, the kinds of things that are athletic-related but don’t necessarily have to anything to do with basketball. So I think our kids are relating to him.”
He said parents like him, too, and that at the parent’s meeting in October before practices began, only positive comments were made about his coaching style.
A life of basketball
Brandon began playing basketball on a team in first grade. He also played soccer, baseball and was named athlete of the year his senior year of high school. Basketball was his favorite sport to play so he stuck with it after high school. He loved the strategy and excitement of the game.
Growing up, he had a neighbor across the street who would come over to shoot hoops a lot, he said. They often played three-on-three tournaments with friends.
“He was really good, and if he was on your team then you knew you’d win. If he wasn’t, then you didn’t have a chance,” he said.
Brandon’s sister, Whitney, although four years younger, also played basketball with him and his friends and ended up being pretty good after playing all those years in the driveway, he said.
His basketball heroes were his high school coach Jeff Strickland and University of Texas’ head coach Rick Barnes. Both influenced his decision to go into coaching.
“A lot of coaches will say they began coaching because that’s all they know. I wanted to coach because I know the impact a coach can have on a kid’s life.”
Strickland showed him the importance of being a coach.
“If I can help just one kid, then I’ve done my job. A lot of kids, even at Christian schools, go through rough circumstances and need a male role model in their lives. I want to be that for them, if I can,” he said, explaining that his goal is to be a campus minister at a Christian school or college and the basketball coach.
As a big UT fan, Brandon said he grew up watching Rick Barnes all his life. Between his freshman and sophomore year of college, after e-mailing Barnes on a whim, he was able to coach for two weeks at his camp, for elementary-aged and high school athletes. UT alumni like Freddy Williams and PJ Tucker arrived for the high school week and Brandon said it was all he could do to not ask for an autograph because he was a coach with them.
Since coming to ACU, Brandon’s played on the JV team for a year and helped coach and observed the varsity and JV teams for the past two years.
“I was always the weird kid. I never really wanted to play. I’d much rather interact with players and coach, even though I was good and did play sports.”
He wanted to be an assistant sports coach for varsity so he decided to prove to head coach Pleasant that he was dedicated. He woke up for JV practices at 6 a.m., went to class and then would sit in on the varsity workouts in the evening.
Last year, ACU had a new head coach, Jason Copeland, and Brandon didn’t know if he’d be able to do the same thing.
“He came up and introduced himself the first day I got the job early on in May,” Copeland said. “He was here the whole first summer and worked really hard to get things done and organized. He’s just a very responsible young man.”
Doing everything from observing to helping in practice to reserving hotel rooms for away games, Brandon was able to do it all and despite the sometimes boring and tedious work, he said the work paid off.
Brandon’s team began the season with 12 players because many players from his team also play football, and the team was still in playoffs until last weekend. Only one player had played on varsity before. By his third game he had a new team, six new starters and was looking at a different ball game with height.
Coley, who also coaches the high school football team, said after looking at the roster, that with the football players Brandon would probably have 21 or 22 players to split between JV and varsity.
“We haven’t had that many players since I’ve been here,” Coley said. “That’s another thing that I think indicates that kids like him and want to be around him. There’s kids that are trying to decide whether to play, and I think a lot will decide to play because of him.”
In the team’s first game, although it lost, the players were able to stay close with them and only lost by 11 points, an impressive feat since Hamlin’s already played several games with all its varsity members, Brandon said.
The player with varsity experience, Jerron, predicted the team would do well against Hamlin, owing their success to the coach.
“It’s kind of a mismatch right now, but we’re still going to do real good. They are not going to see the same team this year. We have speed and the ability to shoot 3s, something we’ve never been able to do well,” Jerron says with a smirk as he catches an incoming basketball. “Coach is good at telling what each player’s good attributes are and helping them develop them on the court.”
His teammate Michael agrees.
Brandon has helped Michael work on some trouble areas and helped him improve, something he admires in his first-year coach.
“Coach does really well. He’s a good teacher because I’ve been slow my whole life, and he is the first coach that I’ve had that has actually taken the time to work on my speed with me,” Michael said mimicking running in place quickly. “He’s given me drills to work on and worked on my agility with me.”
Working hard with the team is something Coley’s seen Brandon do a lot. He runs practice every weekday for two hours and opens the gym for shooting during the weekend.
“He is kind of a no-nonsense guy,” he says. “Even though he’s not a whole lot older than them, he’s still has that aura of being an older guy and has earned their respect. They don’t mess around much. They spend almost every minute they’re out there working on something. They work pretty hard and I appreciate that about him.”
Brandon wants to see them go all the way to state or as far as they can. But he also wants them to know it’s not all about the sport.
“Basketball is just a stupid game compared to everything else. It’s a stupid game that is a lot of fun, but it is only preparing you for the life to come,” he says with a smile. “Basketball teaches you self control, self discipline. You have to be on time and learn how to control your attitude. Most of these kids will stop playing basketball after they graduate from high school. I want them to be able to take something with them besides just playing a sport in high school.”