Hall-of-Famer Steve Brett ‘s decision to coach basketball was a good move
By Bill Richardson
There was a day in the fall of 1963 when Steve Brett was hit with a harsh dose of reality.
He was a good basketball player on his freshman team at Loogootee High School, but stood just 4-9 and weighed only 92 pounds. Professional basketball, he suddenly realized, was not in his future.
Then and there, though, another dream came into focus.
“Coaching, it seemed to me, would be the next best thing and from then on that’s all I pursued,” he said.
It eventually led to 37 years on the sidelines as head coach at Bloomfield, Seymour, Loogootee and Shakamak, where his teams won 467 games and lost 378. In the process, teams coached by Brett cut down the sectional nets 11 times and claimed a pair of regional championships.
The highlight came at Loogootee in 2005, when Brett guided his alma mater to the Indiana state tournament’s Class A championship game. The cherry on top was enshrinement into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.
It appeared that Brett’s days as a head coach were over, however. After retiring from Shakamak in the spring of 2015, he spent a year away from Indiana’s game, then served two years as a volunteer assistant on the staff of Josh Thompson, his former Bloomfield player, at Vincennes Lincoln.
Fate intervened, when in July Thompson resigned at Lincoln to move to small-school power Barr-Reeve.
A ‘huge favor’
The Alices had what they needed, though, right under their noses. In a matter of days, Brett was tabbed as Lincoln’s head coach on an interim basis.
Lincoln principal Steve Combs, himself the Alices’ former head coach, says Brett did the Vincennes Community School Corporation “a huge favor” by stepping in.
“When your basketball coach quits three weeks before school starts it puts everyone in a bind,” said Combs. “We needed someone who was willing to put the time, effort and care into our kids that was necessary. He’s a Hall-of-Fame coach, has been at big and small schools, and has been successful everywhere he’s been.”
It’s not been the storybook season everyone was hoping for, but one filled with ups and downs. At times the Alices have played well enough to make some memories, but at other times not so well. The team had a record of 8-10 record entering its annual showdown the Washington Hatchets on Jan. 31.
Brett entered the season ranked 12th on Indiana’s list of active coaches with the 467 victories. He says the season has been rewarding, all the same. There have been no problems and it’s been fun. As always, he’s sorry to see the season coming to a close.
After graduating from Loogootee High School in 1967, the son of Hugh and Eula Brett may no longer have harbored dreams of an NBA career, but he was good enough to make the freshman team at Indiana State University. He was invited back by coach Gordon Stauffer the following year, and was eventually offered a partial scholarship by the Sycamores. He wound up playing three years of varsity basketball in Terre Haute, before earning an undergraduate — and later a Master’s — from ISU.
Naturally, much of Brett’s passion for the game comes from his high school coach, the legendary Jack Butcher, who sits atop the Indiana all-time coaching wins list with 806 wins, all in 45 years at Loogootee.
“I owe him a lot,” said Brett, who played on Butcher-coached teams that combined to win 38 games during his junior and senior seasons. “He certainly got after me, justifiably, several times while I was in school. He taught me lots of lessons about how to conduct yourself. But he also taught me to be a competitor. I think I got some of that from my parents, too.”
It’s not without irony that Brett cut his coaching teeth at Lincoln, where starting in the fall of 1971 he served for six years as an assistant under the immortal Orlando “Gunner” Wyman.
If Butcher gave Brett his fire, it was Wyman, an ex-Marine who would guide Lincoln to the 1981 Indiana state championship, who gave him advanced lessons in coaching.
“I learned how to coach basketball and how to teach basketball from him,” Brett said. “He was a big influence, as far as Xs and Os go. I was around him long enough to learn that there really aren’t a lot of new things in basketball. It’s just that someone has taken something and given it a different name.”
Brett gained more than experience during those early years teaching and coaching in Vincennes. It’s also where he met his wife, Janis, a Dugger native who taught business and English at Lincoln. The couple married late in 1973.
“All of our dates were scouting trips,” Brett said with a chuckle. “Basically, she had a good idea of what she was getting in to. She was an excellent teacher, too.”
By the 1977-78 season, Brett was ready to be a head coach. He found the perfect starting place in Bloomfield, who was looking to replace Guy Glover, a mythical basketball figure in his own right. Brett, who’d done his student teaching under Glover, found yet another excellent mentor.
“We thought a lot alike,” said Brett, who coached the Cardinals to 223 wins, eight sectional championships and the 1986 Terre Haute regional title in 16 years at the helm. “That probably had something to do with me getting the job there. We both always believed in playing the toughest schedule you could possibly play, and that would prepare you for the tournament.”
Eventually, the bigger schools came calling. One of those was Seymour, which lured Brett away prior to the 1993-94 season.
“When I got into coaching, I started thinking about places that I thought would (someday) be good places to be,” he said. “Seymour was one of those places. It had the third-largest gym in the country. It hosted the sectional and the regional every year, and Indiana still had one-class basketball.”
It was a dream that “went to pot” in short order. The Indiana High School implemented multi-class prior to the 1997-98 season.
“That sectional went from being one we could win every year to being one we would never be able to win,” he said.
Sectional foes Bedford-North Lawrence and Jennings County were “rolling along,” according to Brett. Then there were traditional powers Jeffersonville and New Albany.
After eight seasons, 79 wins, 91 losses and no sectional crowns, rightly or wrongly, Brett was fired in Jackson County.
He knew he wasn’t finished coaching, but wasn’t sure where he’d next roam the sidelines.
As it turned out, Brett went home. He took an administrative position at Loogootee in the fall of 2001, as Butcher was winding down a career that would see him set the all-time Indiana record with 805 victories.
“He never said anything about quitting,” Brett said. “And I’d starting looking at jobs, because I missed coaching.”
Brett went so far as to interview at a couple of schools, but nothing came of it.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “Mr. Butcher retired in June, and I thought ‘I might as well apply for the job.’”
Some in Loogootee thought that Mike Wagoner, a former Lions’ standout who’d served as Butcher’s right-hand man for more than two decades, had paid his dues and deserved the position.
“I thought Mike deserved a shot, too,” Brett said. “But I also thought, ‘If I can get it, I’m going to take it.’”
Brett got the job, and is grateful to Wagoner for staying on board.
“We worked great together. There was never a problem,” Brett said. “He was easy to work with, and did everything I asked him to do. Actually, I learned some things from him.”
The Lions won 19 games in 2003 and again in 2004. Then came the 2005 season, in which Loogootee finished 21-5 and reached the Class A title game before losing to Lapel, 51-40.
When Brett talks about that season, Wyman comes to mind.
“He always said the goal every year is to win the state championship,” said Brett. “If that’s not your goal, then why are you doing it? Your ultimate goal is to be in the state finals and that year we were fortunate to get there.”
“All of our dates were scouting trips.” — Steve Brett on dating his future wife
Brett recalls that the 2005 team was able to overcome a number of issues, which led to four regular season losses.
“They were a great group of kids,” he said. “They were very coachable and a lot of fun to coach. Plus they had a good group of parents who were very supportive.”
Brett ended up coaching six years at Loogootee, racking up 92 wins while winning three sectional crowns.
For whatever reason, though, it wasn’t in the cards for Brett to finish at his alma mater. He returned to the classroom during his final two years there, then moved on altogether.
His next landing spot was at Shakamak, where he spent seven seasons coaching the Lakers to a record of 73-87 while serving as an dean of students and athletic director.
Retiring … almost
He retired after the 2014-15 school year, spent a year away from basketball, and found that he couldn’t stand it. When Thompson offered the chance to serve on the Lincoln staff, he jumped at the chance.
For the next two seasons, it looked as though his career had come full circle, from serving on the staff at Lincoln, to again serving on the staff at Lincoln.
Then, Thompson suddenly got the job at Barr-Reeve. There was no time for Lincoln to conduct a coaching search, and on top of that there were no teaching openings.
“One of the reasons they asked me to take the job was that I was already involved with the kids,” he said. “I was glad to do it.”
Combs is glad, too.
“When he accepted the job, you could tell he was all in,” said the principal. “He attended Cub League games, volleyball games, football games and is around the school a lot. He’s just a great person and coach, and I’m confident he’ll take us to where we want to be by the end of the year.”
Brett hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about it.
“Whether anyone wants to believe it or not, we’re all interim coaches,” said Brett, who commutes to Vincennes each day from his home in Linton. “They can fire you at any time if they want to, and that doesn’t bother me at all.”
Combs said the matter will be addressed after the season.
“We’ll see how it goes for all parties involved,” he said. “At the end of the year we’ll figure out where we want to go from there.”
Whatever happens, it’s given a Hall-of-Fame coach a chance to stay involved, with high-profile status.
“I’ve really enjoyed this year. I like coaching these kids and I think they’re getting better,” said Brett, who’ll turn 70 on his next birthday. “If they want to find somebody younger, that’s fine. If they want me to stay, I’ll consider that, too, although (Janis) will also have a little bit of say in that.”
Either way, Brett will have no regrets. For a kid who was a 4-9, 92-pound freshman in 1963, it’s been a heck of a ride.