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July 7, 2010
Brownell finally gets big break at Clemson
He grew up in Indiana as the son of a high school coach. By the time he was 5 years old, he already was attending his father's games as often as he could and absorbing as much as possible. It was only a matter of time before he continued the family tradition.
"This was something I knew right away I was probably going to want to do, especially when I realized I wasn't good enough to be a Division I player," Brownell said. "I wasn't going anywhere as a player, but I wanted to stay in the game. I had to get involved in coaching."
He then established himself as one of the nation's hottest coaching prospects by leading mid-major programs UNC Wilmington and Wright State to the NCAA tournament. His teams have produced five consecutive 20-win seasons.
"I always felt I would get a job at the highest level," Brownell said, "and I hoped it would be either in the Big Ten or the ACC."
But who expected it to be this particular team -- or this particular season?
Oliver Purnell seemed entrenched at Clemson, which has reached the NCAA tournament each of the past three seasons. His decision to leave for Big East cellar-dweller DePaul unquestionably stunned just about everyone, particularly his former team.
"It was kind of sudden,'' Clemson guard Demontez Stitt recalled. "We didn't really expect it. I had talked to him on the phone a couple of days before he made his decision and it seemed like he was going to come back and that he was looking forward to next season. It took all of us by surprise."
Clemson reportedly first approached Mississippi State's Rick Stansbury, who decided to stay put. The Tigers then turned to Brownell, whose winning background compensated for his lack of major-conference experience.
Brownell, 41, owns a career coaching record of 167-85, giving him a .663 winning percentage that ranks behind only North Carolina's Roy Williams and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski among active ACC coaches. His teams have won at least 19 games in seven of his eight seasons. He made Wright State the chief challenger to Butler's Horizon League dynasty.
"Brad Brownell is an unbelievable coach," Butler coach Brad Stevens said after Clemson announced the hiring. "He has been a winner everywhere he has been."
Brownell never has coached at a major-conference school before, even as an assistant. But don't think for a moment he is unprepared for this opportunity. He has worked toward this chance for his entire career.
The Evansville native is such a Hoosier that he remembers where he was -- at a friend's house -- when Indiana won its last national title in 1987. Brownell played alongside former Hoosiers star Calbert Cheaney at Evansville's Harrison High.
The Cheaney connection is as close as Brownell ever came to joining the Hoosiers. Because he wasn't good enough to play for Bob Knight, Brownell picked DePauw, a Division III program in Greencastle, Ind., coached by former Knight assistant Royce Waltman.
"I got to learn all kinds of things about the Indiana system through Coach Waltman," Brownell said. "It's been a big part of what I've done as a coach going forward. It's what I go to. It's what I know.
"Certainly I have my things that I do differently, but at the end of the day, the basic fundamentals we're taught and the basic principles of how to play the game have been ingrained in me since I was a young person."
He now must teach those principles to a team that has succeeded by playing a different way. Clemson often played an up-tempo style and utilized a pressure defense under Purnell; Brownell's teams generally have relied on a half-court offense and man-to-man defense. Stats guru Ken Pomeroy's website, www.kenpom.com, shows that Clemson ranked 65th and Wright State ranked 315th last season in possessions per 40 minutes. Wright State never ranked higher than 304th in that category in any of Brownell's four seasons on the job.
The Tigers already figured to have a difficult transition as they replaced first-team All-ACC forward Trevor Booker, the first senior taken in the NBA draft. Booker, who went to the Minnesota Timberwolves with the 23rd overall pick, was Clemson's first opening-round draft choice since 1994.
Now the Tigers must also adjust to a new coach and a new system.
"We have to be able to win games in the 80s and the 50s," Brownell said. "We want to be able to do both. We want to win games 85-81 and 58-55 because that's what happens oftentimes in the tournament. Good teams do that. They can adjust the tempo based on the opponent. That's what we'll try to do and that's what we need to do."
Clemson lost to a lower-seeded team in the first round of the NCAA tournament each of the past three seasons, so perhaps a change in approach could benefit the Tigers in the postseason.
Of course, Clemson must get back to the tournament before it can worry about advancing beyond the first round. All this upheaval could make it tough for Clemson to match the fast starts it regularly made during Purnell's tenure, but Brownell believes the players currently on the Tigers' roster can adjust to a possible change in strategy.
"The only thing I wish we had a little more of in this program is that I wish we had more shooting," Brownell said. "We need to address shooting in recruiting."
Clemson ranked third in the ACC last season with 6.8 3-pointers per game , but 5-foot-9 junior guard Andre Young is the only returning player who made more than 33 treys. Wright State averaged 7.5 3-pointers per game last season.
The Tigers arguably face a greater challenge in the paint than beyond the arc. Booker ended his career as the fifth-leading scorer (1,725) and third-leading rebounder (1,060) in school history, and Clemson probably will use a committee approach to replace him.
Clemson still has plenty of size on its roster in 6-8 sophomore forward Devin Booker (Trevor's younger brother), 6-8 senior Jerai Grant, 6-9 sophomore Milton Jennings and 7-2 junior Catalin Baciu, but Grant's the only member of that group who played at least 12 minutes per game last season.
"There's not going to be one guy that's going to replace Trevor," Brownell said.
Brownell can at least take comfort in the fact he inherits an experienced backcourt that returns Stitt, Young and Tanner Smith, who each averaged at least 8.7 points last season. Clemson's veteran guards eagerly await the opportunity to prove they can adjust to the new system.
"Coach Brownell said we're going to throw a lot of things at teams to keep them guessing," Stitt said. "It's going to be a little different, but at the same time it's going to be more fun for us."
Although he admitted being caught off-guard by Purnell's departure, Stitt said he and his teammates are warming up to their new coach. Stitt noted that Brownell sat down with the team and discussed his expectations.
"We just had honest dialogue with them," Brownell said. "I told them even though they didn't know me well at all and I didn't know them, our staff would work hard to build relationships quickly with each of them and spend time with them and go out of our way to get to know them as people and players. We'd approach them and treat them fairly.
"We're excited about what the future could bring. A lot of times you can prosper through change. Change can make you better."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.