Era ends: Hightower moves on from East Rowan

Published 11:00 pm Thursday, July 18, 2019

By Mike London

GRANITE QUARRY — The plan was always to coach his son, to see his son play baseball in an East Rowan uniform and then to retire from coaching.

But for 48-year-old Brian Hightower — Catawba College graduate, high school teacher/coach for 23 years and East Rowan’s head baseball coach for the last 15 — the end came earlier than planned or expected.

Hightower won’t get to coach his son, Cobb, a rising eighth-grader at Erwin Middle School, when he gets to East Rowan. That task will fall to newly named East coach Brett Hatley.

Given a choice or resigning or being fired, Hightower recently turned in his resignation at East.

“In my opinion, it was a witch hunt,” Hightower said. “Just unbelievable.”

Hightower has been hired as a P.E. teacher at East Iredell Elementary for the upcoming school year. His wife, Addie, a star athlete during her high school days at Statesville, has strong ties to Iredell County and is still loved there.

Those connections had to help her husband, who also helped himself. He made friends and earned respect in his days as Statesville High’s baseball coach before heading to Granite Quarry. Statesville baseball is always an uphill battle, but Hightower’s Greyhound teams won games against West Rowan and East Rowan, among others.

“This elementary school position, it’s actually a sweet gig,” Hightower said. “I won’t be doing any coaching. Just working with kids every day.”

Hightower not coaching is like Mike Trout not hitting baseballs. It seems a waste, but that’s where things are right now.

The winning was part of the reason he was loved by many at East. People got spoiled. In Hightower’s 15 years, East experienced 14 winning seasons. Under Hightower, East had a record of 287-132, won a 3A state championship in 2010 and finished runner-up in 2008. You could argue that the 2009 team was one seeing-eye single away from winning it all.

But wins are only part of the big picture.  The overwhelming majority of people who played for Hightower testify they became better people for having him in their lives. So do their parents.  Imparting life lessons is always the biggest test for any high school coach. That counts far more than wins and losses.

“No one cared more than I did,” Hightower said. “If anything, I cared too much. For 11 months a year (East takes August off), I was a baseball coach, and I was a baseball coach 24/7.”

When Hightower was suspended from coaching games in late May and with his job clearly on the line, the school system’s Wallace Educational Forum was flooded with his supporters on a Tuesday night. During the public-comment period, 15 people spoke on his behalf. Roughly 100 wanted to talk.

A petition in support of keeping Hightower as East’s head coach attracted more than 3,700 signatures, including notable names such as Catawba College and Rowan County American Legion coach Jim Gantt, the most revered coach in the area, and Carson High coach Chris Cauble, Hightower’s greatest rival.

Cauble’s comment that accompanied his petition signature was telling: “I count it a privilege to have watched my son compete against the caliber of baseball teams that Brian Hightower coached. You cannot hide the extreme commitment he has for all of his players and to the fields he maintains.”

“East Rowan was good in baseball a long time before I got there, but working together, me, that school, that community and the businesses in that area did some special things,” Hightower said. “In 15 years, I raised $300,000. I had more than 50 kids go on to play college baseball. I can’t tell you how much the support of the community meant to me during the good times and the bad times. There aren’t many places where 3,700 people will rally around a high school baseball coach.”

The support that Hightower received touched him.

“The central office of the Rowan-Salisbury school system told me ‘several families spoke against me,’ but even if you multiply several families times 10 that’s maybe 3 percent of the people, so I had at least a 97 percent approval rating and it’s probably more like 99 percent,” Hightower said. “I loved all the support I got, but in the end, they didn’t care about that. I lost a job that I loved.”

Hightower has been at odds with higher authorities on occasions in the past. There was a suspension in 2016 that followed a contentious playoff loss at Ledford that included the ejection of multiple East coaches, including Hightower.

Hightower admits he has flaws and says he tells the truth too bluntly and too often. He’s not someone to whom deception comes naturally.

“I’m always going to be outspoken,” he said. “I’m demanding. I’m hard. I use some foul language.”

It was language that apparently provided the tipping point for Hightower’s time at East.

In a game in the fall league run by East at Staton Field, Hightower chewed out the team after a loss to Carson. He was disappointed in the effort more than the loss. He told the players they had the “ER” on their chests, but they weren’t playing with any pride. They had played like they didn’t care, and that was unacceptable. His passion got the best of him, and Hightower threw some expletives into that rant.

That post-game tirade was recorded by a parent.

That video surfaced this spring, roughly six months after the incident. A promising player lost playing time during East’s high school season, and Hightower was brutally honest in letting him know why. The next day the video was in the central office.

“Six months later, a video from a fall league game?” Hightower said. “To me, that meant it was strictly personal — a family unhappy with playing time. Every kid in our school has a right to try out for the baseball team, but playing for that team, putting on that uniform, those things aren’t rights, they’re privileges. You have to produce to play and you have to be a good teammate. When we won championships, it wasn’t because of the great players we had, it was because of those guys at the bottom of the lineup who did their jobs and were good teammates.”

The video put the wheels in motion for Hightower’s ouster. He was an embattled coach from that point forward. Hightower said he got a call on a Friday night at 7:30 demanding that he explain his actions.

“Unfortunately, there’s a serious disconnect between our school system’s central office and the coaches in the field,” Hightower said. “We don’t have a full-time AD in Rowan County, and we’re in the bottom third in the state as far as pay for coaches. There are people making decisions that are out of touch.

“Some of them didn’t even know East Rowan doesn’t play baseball games on the school grounds.  You’ve got people that say they want your opinion, but if your opinion doesn’t match up with theirs, it’s not welcome.”

Despite several requests from the Post, there were no comments provided by either Rowan-Salisbury Schools or East Rowan on this matter.

Suspended late in East’s season, Hightower was barred from attending his son’s middle school games in Rowan County. He asked about going to Erwin’s game at Mooresville Middle School and was told that would not be a good idea.

In the end, he was let go for “conduct unbecoming a professional.” It was either resign or be fired. He opted for resignation.

“It means I won’t to get to coach my son and I won’t get to coach the guys that Cobb has grown up playing with,” Hightower said.

Hightower stressed that his falling out was with the central office, not with East Rowan or its administrators.

He is pleased that Hatley, his long-time assistant, was hired as East’s new coach, not because he believes he can influence Hatley, who is starting fresh, but because he knows Hatley is a solid and experienced baseball man.

Hightower has no plans to move. He’s not running from anything. And he’s proud of what he accomplished at East.

Hightower knows he poured his heart and soul into it, and by any measure, the good he leaves behind far outweighs the bad.  He plans to remain a part of the East Rowan community. He’s fine with his son playing for Hatley when the time comes and he looks forward to the day when Cobb Hightower pulls on an East Rowan uniform for the first time.

“My life for a long time has been my wife, my son and baseball,” Hightower said. “Now it’s my wife and my son.”