Memories converge for coach

Tue, 2012-07-24 10:22 -- univcomm
If Don Brandon had written the scene for a motion picture, it couldn't have been sweeter. And, after all, hadn't his life to this point had a Capra-esque quality to it, anyway? Born and reared in Alabama, Brandon had not only met his boyhood idol but been mentored by him. Brandon had won more than 900 baseball games and 20 conference championships as Anderson University's baseball coach.

He had, in true American fashion, pulled himself up by his bootstraps. And now he stood here on a stage in Orlando, Fla., at the American Baseball Coaches Association's annual meeting. He stood on the verge of yet another career milestone. He was about to be inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame, and the moment could not have been more perfect.

As he rose to approach the podium – and deliver a speech he’d worked on for weeks – he passed the first of many famous and familiar faces which had helped to shape his career and bring him to this pinnacle. Dr. Robert E. Smith, the man generally acknowledged as being responsible for baseball’s inclusion into the Olympic games. Smith had just finished a glowing introduction speech, and Brandon was up next.

He cleared his head and thought about what he wanted to say. His mind was racing a thousand miles per minute. The memories of a career flooding together at one moment in time.

“I wanted to thank everybody first,” Brandon remembered of his agenda at his induction ceremony Jan. 4. “What really went through my mind were all the great coaches who were in the crowd, where I got started and how I got to where I was over a number of years.”

Every face in the crowd seemed to contain within it a different memory, some kernel of information or advice that had shaped Brandon’s career and paved the way to this day. The sight of Smith unleashed the first of those memories, a scene from the very beginning or at least close to it.

Who could have possibly imagined all that talent collected on the same field during a small college ballgame in the middle of central Indiana?

Carl Erskine was already famous. He'd thrown two no-hitters in the Major Leagues, and he'd struck out a then-record 14 New York Yankees during a single game of the 1953 World Series. A career Dodger, Erskine started the franchise's first game in Los Angeles in 1958. Two years later he returned home to Anderson and took over the reigns of the local college's baseball program. There he found a wide-eyed sophomore by the name of Don Brandon. Brandon still recalls listening to a radio broadcast of Erskine's World Series masterpiece as a 12-year-old growing up in Cullman, Ala. He loved the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Erskine was his favorite player.

"He was somebody I looked up to and somebody I wanted to be like," Brandon said. "I knew he was from Anderson, and I knew about Anderson because my family was very involved in the Church of God."

In fact, it was the Lord who would lead Brandon to Anderson, not his baseball idol. Don followed his older brother Jerry to Anderson College in 1959. Jerry had been a left-handed pitcher of some repute, but he'd felt the call to the ministry and put whatever baseball career he might have managed on the back burners.

"My older brother was a better ball player than me," Brandon said. "I think he would have had a chance to go pro if he had stuck with it."

The younger Brandon arrived on the Anderson campus like a whirling athletic dervish. He played basketball and football, but baseball remained his passion. Before his sophomore season, the game gave him a gift he would never forget.

"I loved the Dodgers," Brandon recalled. "I still remember (Erskine) pitching that first game out in California, and he won it. Then, before I know it, they're telling me he's going to be our coach."

Erskine began coaching the Ravens in 1960, and he quickly took a liking to the kid the other players simply called, "'Bama."

"He was a tenacious player," Erskine said. "He pitched some for me and played the infield. He was terrible to keep on the bench because he always wanted in the game. He wanted to play."

One of Anderson's biggest rivals during the Erskine-era was another Christian college -- Taylor. That team featured a young player of its own who would one day make greater news off the diamond then on it -- Smith.

Smith met Brandon for the first time on a baseball diamond, fitting in a Hollywood kind of way, and years later he'd be among the first to send off a letter encouraging committee members to approve Brandon's nomination for the NAIA Hall of Fame.

"I have known Don for a quarter of a century and know him to be one of the finest coaches in college baseball, an outstanding Christian gentleman and a person who has given unselfishly of himself to his student athletes, his university and to the game of baseball," Smith wrote in a letter dated May 23, 2001. "Don's record as a baseball coach speaks for itself .”

As an individual, there are none better than Don."

Smith echoed those sentiments during his introductory speech. It was a speech in which he concentrated not on Brandon's record on the field so much as his record off it.

"For this NAIA Hall-of-Famer wins are nice," Smith told the assembled coaches, "but young men and their lives are what it's all about. For Don Brandon coaching has been, and will continue to be, ministry."

At that last comment, Brandon might have caught a glimpse of one of his fellow Hall-of-Famers in the audience, legendary coach Gordie Gillespie -- one of the earliest opposing coaches to impact Brandon's fledgling career.

Brandon officially took over the reigns from Erskine in 1974. He’d coached the team for one season in 1972 before taking a one-year sabbatical to finish up his doctorate degree at Springfield College.

When he returned, there was no doubt in Erskine’s mind that Brandon was the right man for the job.

“He came to the job very naturally,” Erskine said. “He was ready, and I was ready to move on to some other things. Once I left, I didn’t have much input with his program. I felt like I needed to stay away and let him do things the way he wanted to do them.”

By 1976, Brandon was already beginning to taste success. The Ravens advanced to their first Area VI tournament that year – the NAIA’s equivalent to today’s NCAA Regionals – but a rude awakening was in store for the youngsters from Anderson. Gordie Gillespie and his Lewis University charges were on their way to their third straight national championship, and they were to be one of Anderson’s first opponents. The Ravens watched the defending national champs get off the bus and immediately rethought their place in the game.

“We were ready to get back in our vans and head back to Indiana,” Brandon joked.

Lewis was so deep that it didn’t even bother to pitch the previous season’s World Series MVP until the championship game of the area tournament. For Brandon, however, the experience was simply the first step on a learning curve that would soon lead to great success of his own.

In 1978, Brandon took perhaps his most important step toward greatness. He went to the NAIA World Series for the first time as a spectator, and the experience served to further open his eyes to the challenges that lay ahead.

He watched an early-round game between Warren Turner’s Missouri Southern team and Ed Cheff’s Lewis Clark State squad. The experience left him more than a little depressed.

“It just blew me away,” he said. “I thought we’d never get to that level.”

But his depression quickly turned to determination. Upon returning from that trip, Brandon left his administrative duties with Anderson’s football team and concentrated on baseball full time. The results were almost immediate.

By 1980, Anderson returned to the Area VI tournament with a 42-4 overall record and a sixth-place national ranking. In 1984 the Ravens made their first appearance in the NAIA World Series and three years later they were back again. The team in 1987, ironically, played both Turner’s Missouri Southern team and Cheff’s Lewis Clark State squad during that year’s tournament.

From 1979-1992 Brandon won 542 games, averaging 39 wins per season. His teams won seven Hoosier-Buckeye Conference championships during that span and three Indiana Athletic Conference crowns.

“The NAIA had a different approach, and we were able to manage and run a lot of things by baseball people at the grassroots level,” Brandon said in a press release. “It was clear what we had to do to succeed. We were in a district with 17 or 18 teams in Indiana, and if you did well in the conference you got in the district (tournament). If you won that, you knew you were going to be in the (Area).”

Gillespie, whose Lewis team had provided one of the earliest sparks for Anderson’s success, was among those to support Brandon’s NAIA Hall of Fame induction in writing. “Don’s example off the field is the important part of Don’s greatness,” Gillespie wrote. “Coach Brandon’s impact on young people will be with them for the rest of their lives.”

During his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Brandon spoke directly to the younger NAIA coaches in the crowd.

“There are some coaches in this room that will be receiving this honor soon,” he said. “To the young coaches my advice is to get involved in leadership roles in the NAIA, attend tournaments, help run tournaments – see what it takes to get to the next level.”

Later, during a telephone interview, Brandon explained why he addressed the young coaches in particular.

“I wanted them to see what I went through,” he said. “And I wanted them to know that they can do it, too.”

"I take no credit for the amount of development with baseball at AU," Erskine said. "That's Don's work totally."

Brandon has shaped Anderson University into a program that is respected across the nation. His success did not end when the Ravens made the leap from the NAIA to the NCAA Division III in 1993. Anderson advanced to the World Series in that opening season and returned again in 1998.

The Ravens have played in a postseason tournament in an unbelievable 20 consecutive seasons, including last year's trip to the Division III Central Regional in Bloomington, Ill.

In 29 seasons as a head coach, Brandon's teams have made seven World Series appearances, finished in the top 20 of the final coaches' poll 18 times, won 20 conference championships and seen 31 players sign professional contracts. Brandon's overall record is an astounding 902-401-4.

As he concluded his acceptance speech on the podium in Orlando, Brandon attempted to add a bit of levity to the proceedings.

"When you get as old as I am, you become better than what you actually were," Brandon joked, "because neither you or anyone else remembers."

Even in jest, nothing could be further from the truth in Brandon's case.

"Don Brandon has one quality that has sustained him through all these years and that quality is enthusiasm," Erskine said. "He is one of the most enthusiastic baseball minds I have ever been around, and that includes a lot of the people I played with on the Dodgers. He's one of the most deserving people in Indiana to be included in a Hall of Fame. He has promoted the game, and his university, unselfishly. He has all the credentials of a Hall-of-Famer.

"I'm happy for Don. I've always been concerned with whether or not baseball will continue to be a kids' game. Will it continue to be the game of the young? Kids today have all these other distractions, and I think less and less of them are playing the game. Don runs his own camp and a tournament in the summer. He, and some others, are helping to keep the game alive. Don is really a traditionalist, and I couldn't be more proud of what he's accomplished."

GEORGE BREMER is a sports reporter for the Anderson Herald-Bulletin.