Football coaches moving on to new jobs is nothing new in the profession, as most coaches are nomadic by nature, and sometimes by necessity.
Opportunities to advance their careers, whether it’s going from being a position coach to a coordinator or a coordinator to a head coach, are often the reason coaches change schools. New challenges, such as going from a school in a smaller classification to a bigger one, are also a major motivating force, especially when those challenges are often accompanied by a raise. Then there are the unfortunate instances where a team isn’t performing up to expectations, and a change is made by the school.
This month marks six years since I started working at The Star, and if I were to look at my list of contacts from February 2014 and compare it to my current list, there would be few coaches listed under “football” that are the same now as they were back then. Mac Barnes is still at Lamar, Kelly Jimmerson is still at Enterprise and Demetrius Hill is still the defensive line coach at Meridian High School. Not all of these coaches have left the area: Calvin Hampton, for example, was an assistant coach at Meridian in 2014 and is now the head coach at Southeast Lauderdale.
At the turn of the new year, I expected two more names to remain from my original 2014 contacts list: Robert Roberts at Newton County Academy and Brad Breland at Union. Not only were they the coaches of their respective schools when I began working at The Star, but they had been coaching their teams for longer than I had even been in journalism full-time.
My introduction to Roberts actually came in November 2013, when I was working at The Natchez Democrat. The Generals traveled to Natchez to take on Trinity Episcopal Day School in the MAIS Class A playoffs, and the game got a little chippy as we like to say. For the sake of fairness, I had to ask both coaches how they felt about said chippy-ness, which is when I first met Roberts.
Almost a year later, I made my way to NCA again and reintroduced myself, explaining we had met the previous winter at Trinity. I’m sure we talked about that game, but I don’t remember the details. I do remember an off-the-record conversation I had with Roberts about that year’s team, though. In so many words, Roberts indicated to me he felt very good about his team’s chances of winning a state championship that year.
Fast-forward to November 2014, and that’s exactly what the Generals did, edging University Academy out of Alexandria, La., 7-6. It’s the only state title in school history, and Roberts expressed to me after the game how grateful he was for the coverage we gave them that fall, something that’s always stuck out to me about him to this day.
In total, Roberts spent 13 seasons at NCA, and his reason for doing so wasn’t complicated.
“The kids didn’t want me to leave, so I stayed around another year, then another two years, and it just kept up,” Roberts told me last week. “It wasn’t for money or anything, but I enjoyed it. I had a good time. … I just enjoyed teaching the sport to kids.”
Like Roberts, Breland had become a staple at Union, having led the Yellowjackets for 19 years before announcing his retirement in late January. While I don’t have an interesting introduction story with Breland like I do Roberts, it was probably the friendliness Breland displayed to me that stood out about him whenever we spoke or I went to Union to do a story. What he meant to Union, though, is probably better stated by those who knew him.
Dustin Hamrick, former Union baseball coach who now coaches at West Lauderdale, tweeted the following when the Union Public School District announced Breland’s retirement: “Thanks to (Breland) for all you taught me as a coach and for your friendship! Tough man to replace.” His son, Conner Breland, probably summed it up better than anyone with his tweet: “You built a program in 18 years that somebody would be stupid not to take. A program where they’ve never won. Never even been to the playoffs now they’re a team that’s never lost. One of the best to ever do it and you can’t argue with me otherwise. Congrats Dad!!!!”
In a separate tweet, Connor Breland summed up his father’s accomplishments at Union: 147 wins, 15 playoff berths in 18 years and overall the winningest coach in school history. What probably makes the elder Breland most proud, though, was being able to make an impact on students who attended the same high school he did.
“The (Union Public School) District has been good for me and my family, and it’s been a blessing to work here, especially with it being my alma mater,” Breland said to me when discussing his retirement. “Obviously, everyone has a little extra pride in their home school and their hometown.”
Union and NCA aren’t simply losing beloved coaches, they’re losing people that have become synonymous with the schools they coach. That’s difficult to replace, but it also means they’re leaving behind a good situation for whoever ends up taking those positions. (NCA announced last week that Arnie Oakes, defensive line coach at Scott Central, will take over as the Generals’ head football coach.)
While retirement is nice, I’ve often found from talking to coaches that the itch never truly goes away. Roberts told me he plans to follow Newton County football this fall, as his son, Rob, is offensive coordinator for the Cougars.
“I get to sit back and watch instead of having to do all the work,” Roberts joked when we spoke last week.
As for Breland, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he ends up sticking around football in some capacity. He flat out told me that he’s not about to lounge around the house all day, even if he is retiring from Union.
“I’ll work doing something,” Breland said. “I can’t sit at home.”
Coach Roberts and Coach Breland, congratulations on your respective retirements. You both earned them, and I hope you get to enjoy the extra time. Thanks for always being welcoming to The Star anytime we called, and I’m sure we haven’t heard the last from either one of you.
Drew Kerekes is the sports editor at The Meridian Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.