By Howie Lindsey of 790 KRD | Photos by Danny Alexander
Wiley Brown’s success as the head coach at Indiana University Southeast (IUS) isn’t a surprise to those who know him best. And it’s not really a surprise to those he has barely met.
Brown seems to have that effect on people.
“My grandmother rooted me in hard work, always helping others and putting a smile on someone’s face,” he says with a broad smile of his own.
Sitting behind an unassuming desk in his modest office inside the IUS Athletics offices that are attached to the Grenadiers’ home gym, Brown echoes his grandmother’s words: “Someone you meet may be going through something worse than you are.”
Brown’s quick smile and warm demeanor combined with a strong work ethic and his extensive basketball knowledge have formed a successful mix for the IUS Grenadiers the last decade.
Under his direction, the Grenadiers went to seven consecutive National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament appearances from 2007-8 to 2013-14. Brown has led IUS to six River States Conference (formerly known as Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletics Conference – or KIAC) tournament titles, and he has been named KIAC Coach of the Year three times (2010, 2012 and 2014).
When you ask Brown about his coaching success, he deflects the praise.
“The two Hall of Fame coaches I have trained under – that’s a good way to start,” Brown said.
And truly,Brown has learned from two of the best.
He spent 15 seasons at the University of Louisville in various capacities, from strength training to interim assistant coach to outreach coordinator. His tenure bridged the years between Denny Crum and Rick Pitino.
Brown says he learned from both Hall of Fame coaches.
“Coach Crum, I took his strategy in scheduling,” Brown said. “We play a tough schedule in the beginning and you learn from them. That’s Coach Crum’s philosophy. And then, hopefully, by the time you are at this point, your team is moving in the right direction. Those games that you have when you blow teams out, you just don’t learn from those games. You learn early against tough teams, so when that happens at the end of the season, you already know from earlier how to handle it.”
This year’s Grenadier team played well, but took losses to Bellarmine, Lindsey Wilson and Georgetown. They learned from those games and won 9 of 10 games from Nov. 30 through mid-January.
From Pitino, Brown says he learned to focus on getting his team just right for a run in the postseason.
“Coach P always had his guys ready for tournament play,” Brown said. “He may not have played a tough early schedule, but he got them ready in different ways, and by tournament time, they were always tough.”
On the sideline, Brown is a little closer to Pitino than Crum’s Cool Hand Luke persona.
“Coach Crum was always so laidback, on the court and off the court,” Brown said. “Now, I’m not like that on the court, but he would also tell us all the time: ‘You guys are grown men, and you came here to play college basketball. I am going to let you play.’ That is what I try to give to my guys now. And Coach Pitino as well. He would reign them in, in the beginning, but when it got to conference play and then tournament play, he would loosen that string up and let them play. You have to play loose at the right times.”
Brown explained, “Really I learned from both coaches that you always have to let the talent show. I try to let my guys go. As long as they play defense and rebound, I’ll take a few bad shots every now and then. I want to let them show their talent.”
His ability to work with players is really his coaching hallmark.
“I think one of the reasons he’s such a successful player’s coach is because he’s done it,” IUS Athletic Director Joe Glover said. “He’s been there at the highest level and knows exactly what they’re going through as student-athletes.”
Brown’s knowledge for the game was evident to the players back when he was a strength coach at UofL.
Marques Maybin, former UofL star and current host of Midday with Marques Maybin on 93.9 FM said, “You hate to be so cliché with Wiley Brown, but you know he just knows. All you have to do is talk to him for three minutes, and everything that comes out of his mouth is right. It’s hard to doubt him because he did it as a player and a pro. Everything about Wiley Brown says he’s knows basketball, especially Louisville basketball.”
It was that basketball knowledge, combined with his connections in the local basketball scene, that made Brown so attractive to IUS a decade ago.
“I’m very blessed. I really am,” Brown said. “I have a great job here. I loved my time at the University of Louisville, and I was fortunate to use my experience at the University of Louisville to get this job here. … This school to take a chance on a coach who had never been a head coach before. I had coached AAU basketball, but they gave me a shot.”
Brown took the reins at IUS and ran with them, winning 24 games in that first season and more than 200 games since taking over.
“He wanted to be in that position for a long time, and when he got his opportunity he has taken advantage of it,” Crum said. “I am really proud of him. It’s a good place, a nice university and it’s close to home here. I don’t know where he could have gone that’s better than that spot.”
Brown understands Kentuckiana’s basketball culture and knows where to find the right players to add to his roster mix. Every player on the IUS roster is from an easy drive to New Albany, nine from Kentucky and eight from Indiana.
But Brown’s success at IUS isn’t just a product of Crum and Pitino or his local connections. His success has come from years of hard work.
“Everything Wiley Brown has he earned with hard work,” Louisville Assistant Athletic Director Jim McGhee said. And McGhee, a 40-year staff member at UofL, knows all about hard work. “Wiley worked hard at every spot and worked his way up. And he can work with anybody.”
The roots of that work ethic go back to Brown’s hometown. When introducing himself to crowds or in interviews, Brown likes to start with the line, “I’m from Sylvester, Georgia.”
“My hometown means very much to me. It is still special to me,” Brown said. “I don’t know if I could live there today, but my older sister lives there and my younger sister lives there. My grandmother, who raised me, passed away a couple years ago. And my mother, they passed away about a year apart. … I still go back to visit.”
Brown and his three siblings were raised to value hard work.
“My grandmother always said, ‘There are going to be some bumps in the road, but how you get over those bumps is what will make you the man you are going to be’,” Brown said. “I grew up like that – we didn’t have very much, but we didn’t know it.
“We always made the best of it, and family is the most important thing. I love going back home to visit my sisters. That’s my roots. That’s where I started from and why I am where I am today.”
Brown was a standout athlete from the very beginning. He was an excellent football player, but basketball seemed to be his first love.
“We lived in the projects in my early years, and there was always basketball goals there. The rims didn’t stay on for long, but in those days, it wasn’t concrete for the court. It was dirt. We had dirt courts back then,” Brown recalled. “We didn’t have nets on the rims, so you didn’t know if it went through or not in the dark. Playing like that always made us stronger.”
Louisville discovered Brown on a tip.
“We had an alumnus and traveled in that area, and when he didn’t have anything else to do, he would go to the high school games,” Crum said. “He told me about this kid who played football as a tight end and defensive end. He was an all-state athlete, but he wanted to be a basketball player. We went and talked to him, and he came to Louisville.”
Football was still an option to the very end.
“I was either going to go to the University of Georgia or Florida State, but some things happened with the coaching situations there, and Coach (Jerry) Jones came down to watch me play,” Brown said. “Coach Jones used to coach in Tifton, Georgia, and he knew the area. He brought me up to Louisville, and I fell in love with the area.”
And the area fans fell in love with him, too.
As a sophomore, Brown helped Louisville win the 1980 NCAA Championship. He started all 36 games for the Cardinals, playing alongside fellow legends Darrell Griffith, Scooter and Rodney McCray, Derek Smith and Jerry Eaves.
“We’re still close to this day,” Brown said. “We keep in touch all the time. We always make sure we rally around each other, stay in touch and keep up with each others’ lives. We have stuck together even today.”
During his time in college at Louisville, Brown and teammate Derek Smith are credited for “inventing” the high five. Let him explain.
“I tell all the youngsters, ‘I know you all weren’t alive when I played, but just go and look up who invented the high five,’” Brown said. “They always look it up and then say, ‘Coach, I can’t believe you invented the high five.’ That’s a crazy story, and I’ll go to my grave still telling (it). I tell my son that his father helped invent the high five.”
Brown explained further: “We would always do the low five in practices, of course, but Derek Smith, my best friend, said one time, ‘Give it up high,’ and from then on we generated all that excitement and momentum throughout everywhere we played. So, the high five was invented just from a moment in practice when we were slapping hands. You gotta understand it was me, a 6-foot-8 guy and another 6-8, so why would we do the low five? So, we just said, ‘Let’s throw it up high,’ and that’s exactly what happened.
“We played on national TV all the time, and then you saw a lot of other teams start doing it, too. It’s something to be proud of. I’m absolutely proud we started something that caught on throughout the nation. It goes down in history. We still do the high five today.”
After Louisville, Brown returned to football. Then, Dick Vermeil and the Philadelphia Eagles came calling.
Brown was a pioneer for college basketball stars switching to the NFL. What is now more common place – guys like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and WKU’s George Fant – was remarkable in the 1980s when Brown was under contract for two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles.
After the NFL, Brown spent time playing professional basketball in Spain, France and Italy. But when it came time to settle down, Brown came back “home” to the Kentuckiana area.
“This area has embraced me, and I love this area, too,” Brown said. “That’s what I hope happens with the guys at Louisville now, too. I know the fans will embrace these players at UofL now and treat them like family like they have always treated me like family.”
Of all the accomplishments in Brown’s life story – the NCAA title, the high five, the NFL, pro basketball and coaching success – he was quick to say what he is most proud of: his four children (Nina, Breauna, Wiley Jr. and Caleb) and getting his degree.
“When we walked across that stage, it was special,” Brown said. “It was an amazing feeling. My top highlights: getting my degree, having my kids, winning that championship. … I tell my guys all the time, ‘Please don’t take this for granted. Please focus on getting your education. It can take you a long way, a lot further than this basketball game will.’ “
Brown made the UofL honor roll twice and graduated with a degree in communications, health education and Pan-African studies in 1992.
“It is very, very important to me that they get their education,” Brown said. “It was instilled in me at a young age by my grandmother. And then when I got to Louisville, to see an All-American graduate in four years like Darrell Griffith did, that spoke volumes. It really did. Derek and I, when we went off to our professional careers, we came back and got our degrees. … I want all my players to get their degrees.”
Glover said he values Brown’s focus on academics: “The thing that I believe sets him apart is he truly looks at all those players like they’re his sons. He goes to bat for them and it’s really not just about basketball. It’s more about life and making sure these young men succeed and get their degree.”
Brown has led IUS to success on the court and off, but he’s not done yet.
“I got a taste of the Final Four a few years back, but I want more. I want a national championship here,” Brown said. “I’m telling you, I can hear this ringing in my ear. When we won our national championship, Darrell Griffith was on that stage, and he said, ‘We won the national championship. But that also means we are No. 1 in Bulgaria and Sweden and everywhere.’ It doesn’t make a difference if it is an NCAA championship or a NAIA championship, being No. 1 means you are No. 1 everywhere you go. No one else is the NCAA champion that year. No one else is the NAIA champion. I would love to win a national championship here.”
“ IT DOESN’T MAKE A DIFFERENCE IF IT IS AN NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP OR A NAIA CHAMPIONSHIP, BEING NO. 1 MEANS YOU ARE NO. 1 EVERYWHERE YOU GO.”
– WILEY BROWN