Catawba Football: Coordinators come back
SALISBURY — Kevin Brown was injured his senior year at Berkeley County High in Moncks Corner, S.C..
Fortunately, Berkeley’s offensive coordinator was a friend of Davie Bennett’s. They had worked together as Clemson graduate assistants under Danny Ford, and that explains how film of Brown made it into the hands of Bennett. This was 1993, and Bennett was a 31-year-old Catawba assistant in charge of running backs and recruiting.
Bennett appeared in Moncks Corner, knocking on Brown’s door, not long after watching that film, and that first meeting with Bennett was a fork in the road for Brown’s life. That meeting led to his current role as Catawba’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for head coach Curtis Walker.
The 6-foot-3 Brown was an excellent, three-sport athlete in Moncks Corner, but no one, with the possible exception of Bennett, expected him to become the standout he became at Catawba. He became the starting quarterback opening night as a redshirt freshman, taking the reins during an ugly adversity-filled 42-0 beating from East Tennessee State and showing the kind of leadership qualities the Indians needed.
As a sophomore in 1995, Bennett’s first season as Catawba’s head coach, Brown broke a leg against Newberry, but he would come back stronger. As a junior in 1996, Brown broke Catawba’s record for touchdown passes, led a 9-2 team and was named SAC Offensive Player of the Year. As a senior in 1997, he led Catawba to a ranking as high as No. 4 in Division II.
“The best memory I have as a player is winning against Carson-Newman in 1996 when they were No. 1,” Brown said. “Our defense won the game (17-3), but it was still a great feeling.”
When Brown finished his playing career, he was Catawba’s all-time leader in TD passes with 53, although Luke Samples (72) and Brad Roach (64) would later eclipse his record. When Brown graduated, he ranked No. 2 on Catawba’s all-time yardage list behind Mike Warfield, although the careers of Samples, Roach, Mitch Ellis and Patrick Dennis have pushed Brown down to sixth.
Brown was playing at Catawba when Walker became Bennett’s linebackers coach. By 1998, they were both on Bennett’s staff and part of Catawba’s greatest football success since the 1940s. From 1999-2001, the Indians were 33-5, and they were ranked contenders on the national scene each season.
Bennett got the call to start Coastal Carolina’s program after a 2001 appearance in the national semifinals, and Walker and Brown would go with him to South Carolina.
Walker would coordinate Coastal’s defense for a decade. Brown served as quarterbacks coach and passing-game coordinator, grooming standouts such as NFL player Tyler Thigpen. Then he became offensive coordinator.
When Bennett’s tenure at Coastal ended in December, 2011, his staff was scattered. Walker became defensive coordinator at Western Carolina for a year.
“I went to work with my father,” Brown said. “I was out of coaching for a year,”
When Walker was named as Catawba’s head coach last December, he knew Brown was the guy he wanted to run the offense.
“Even when Kevin was a player, I knew he would be a coach and a good coach,” Walker said. “He has the demeanor and he has the presence. Coaching with him at Coastal, I could see what an even-keel guy he is. I wanted to get him to Catawba because I know how much pride he has in this school and this program.”
“Curtis had to talk me into getting back to coaching,” he said with a chuckle. “But it wasn’t a hard talk at all. Catawba is home.”
Brown’s presence was a key reason that exciting quarterback Danny O’Brien is playing for the Indians this season, and Brown experienced one of the better football days of his life on Sept. 28 when O’Brien directed a victory at Carson-Newman.
“Winning a game up there — that’s something Curtis and I had never done,” Brown said.
Brown said the goal now is to get the Indians back to where they were a dozen years ago, and he’s confident it can be done under Walker’s leadership.
“Coach Bennett always said you needed three things to get it done — resources, facilities and players — and we have those three things in place here,” Brown said. “Now it’s a matter of everyone buying in and doing the work. We’re building team chemistry and we have a great leader in (safety) L.J. McCray. We’re hoping that more guys are going to step forward as leaders like the guys we had in the 1990s. We’re very young, but we’re close. I think we’re very close.”
While Brown guides the offense, the defense is coordinated by Keith Henry, one of the great players in Catawba history and a member of the Catawba and SAC halls of fame.
Henry, who played at Maiden High, was the Indians’ All-America safety when Walker, who had starred at Graham High, began his own stellar playing career at Catawba.
Walker was a freshman linebacker in 1988 when Henry was Catawba’s 6-2, 210-pound All-America senior safety. Henry had earned permanent fame in 1987 when his blocked punt for a safety beat Carson-Newman 2-0 in Jefferson City in 1987. Catawba wouldn’t win a game in Jefferson City for another 20 years.
“Keith was a leader as a player, the guy I looked up to as a young guy,” Walker said. “He was a tremendous player, holding the school records for interceptions (20) as well as for tackles.”
Henry played pro ball in the Arena League for two years, earned a masters and launched a long coaching career in Division I. He’s coached at Ohio, N.C. A&T, Charleston Southern and Gardner-Webb. He spent 11 seasons at Wake Forest on Jim Grobe’s staff, coaching defensive ends and linebackers and finally special teams.
His run at Wake ended after the 2011 season.
“Keith and I stayed friends and always talked to each other often during those years,” Walker said. “When we were putting the staff together here, I was excited when we had the opportunity to get Keith back to Catawba. He coaches with the same tenacity he played with, and the guys play hard for him.”
Catawba has felt like home to Henry ever since Bill Mauldin recruited him at Maiden long ago.
“It was a chance to run the defense and work with some great people, and it’s a great fit for me,” said Henry, who is married with four children. “There are no egos here. We’re just trying to win football games.”
The hand Henry has been dealt isn’t a full house. The defense has suffered key injuries and lost standout lineman C.J. Barksdale before the season even began.
“We don’t have the depth we’d like to have, and we are young, but we have to grow up fast,” Henry said. “The guys have played five games now, and I’m not ever going to use young as an excuse.”
Catawba has been great (at Carson-Newman) and not very good (losses to Newberry and Tusculum).
“The great teams are consistent, and that’s what we’re shooting for, but there is no magic call,” Henry said. “You have to limit explosive plays. You try to hold ‘em to 2 or 3 yards on first down and get off the field on third down, As coaches, we have to get these young guys in positions where they can be successful. As a defense, you have to find a way.”
Catawba (3-2, 1-2 SAC) was successful on Sept. 28 at Carson-Newman, making Henry 2-for-2 in his last two trips to Jefferson City. Not many people can say that. The last time he’d been there was 1987 when his blocked punt made him a Catawba legend.
Catawba’s depth chart lists seven of the top eight in the secondary as freshmen and sophomores, but if anyone can find a way to slow down Wingate Saturday afternoon, it’s Henry.