After 30 years the Houston has a new basketball coach, but not without a bit of familiarity…and even the blessing of the former coach.
Get this much straight. Brad Francis is taking over the Houston basketball program come fall with fresh expectations…his own. He knows it won’t be easy, but that’s OK. He knows his way around.
Call it “something old, something new”, perhaps, but Francis is perfectly happy to share why after 18 years as a varsity assistant at Russia, two years at Lehman, and a year at St. Henry he’s respectful, but unfazed by replacing venerable John Willoughby as the Houston Wildcats’ head coach come November.
Something old? Well, there were all those seasons as an assistant under Paul Bremigan at Russia. He knows all the back roads (and back doors) of the Shelby County League.
And if you know your Shelby County League basketball, the name Francis is as common as full-court pressure. It’s hard to keep straight all the players in the league (and from Russia) named Francis in Brad’s 22 years at Russia as a player, coach, athletic director and teacher.
Something new? He’s never been a head basketball coach before; and he’s replacing a veritable icon in Willoughby, who stepped down last spring after 31 years to take the job at Sidney. 31 years is an eternity in modern coaching tenures. Comets come along with more regularity.
Why Houston, and why now?
“It was time,” he said last week from his home in Russia. “I had been an assistant for 18 years with Paul. I had been the head baseball coach at Russia. I had been a head coach in golf. It was just time to be a head basketball coach somewhere. Being it’s the Shelby County League, that was intriguing and when the job opened up I knew I was going to apply.”
He’s undaunted by the history, accustomed to challenge. Five years ago he stepped away from Russia and Bremigan altogether to start his own business. By occupation his company sells hotel keys to a thousand different clients nationwide.
And where replacing one as well-known and respected as Willoughby is concerned, you could not ask for more than to be anointed by the former coach himself during the interview process.
“Not many people replacing someone who’s been there 30 years end up getting interviewed by that coach,” smiles Francis. “John was the athletic director at Houston when I got hired so it was a pretty neat experience, pretty special.
“I’ve told the kids now that I’m going to do some things the same as Coach Willoughby, but there’ll be some things that I do different. And I’m sorry to be blunt about it but I don’t much care which ones they are. As good a coach as he was, Coach Willoughby is not here any longer. They’ll see some similarities, and they’ll see some differences.”
His friend and former coach has no doubts or concerns.
“I know it’s something he’s wanted to do for a long time,” says Paul Bremigan. “And the thing about Brad is he’s so organized and detail-oriented. That’s one reason why we worked so well together all those years. I was always looking six hours down the road and Brad was looking six months down the road. He always knew the schedules and who was coming out of Cincinnati in the brackets. He’ll be very well prepared and he knows the game. He’s taking over a good situation.”
He inherits what amounts to a program in transition, one that struggled in Willoughby’s last years since appearing in the state tournament semi-finals in 2011. The ‘Cats were 7-15 last season…1-11 in the SCL. If the cupboard isn’t bare, it’s certainly in a state of rebuild, in a new school, which means making the most of available experience and the talents at hand. In workplace terms, Houston basketball is an open shop for opportunity.
“You have to coach to the capabilities of your players,” he says, familiar with the process after all those years as an assistant to Bremigan – and last year with Eric Rosenbeck at St. Henry.
“We return three players with experience…Cameron Arnold, Caleb Sluss and Isaiah Beaver. And when I walked in the first day this summer I didn’t know any of them. I didn’t see them play last year because St. Henry did not play Houston. I didn’t scout them. I told them there’s 28 varsity starters here right now until you prove me differently.
“As far as style of play…I just want them to play hard. I’ll run an offense that fits the personnel. If I had Brent Pleiman and Adam York (former 6’5” players at Russia) I’d do something different, but my biggest kid’s about 6’ 2” and you have to play to your capabilities. If you’re nine deep you can press a lot. If you’re five deep and three of them are post players you’re going to walk it up the floor and look for your Brent Pleiman, whoever that might be.”
If you see some similarities with those Russia teams over the years with Bremigan, don’t be surprised. Francis lists the now current coach at Troy as not only friend, but primary basketball mentor.
A season last year under former Russia standout Eric Rosebeck at St. Henry was another opportunity for observation and growth… along with a litany of old, familiar faces in coaching that have shaped his ascension.
“Paul was my freshman coach in high school. He was my JV coach as a sophomore, and he was my varsity coach my junior and senior seasons. It would be hard for me not to say that he’s been the biggest influence on me as a coach. However, I really respect the job that Dave Borchers does as Russia’s JV coach. I learn a lot from watching Scot Elchert at Jackson Center, from John Willoughby, and I’ve always admired Jack Albers from Marion Local.”
And raw material aside (players), the competition from the likes of Elchert, Nate Barhorst (Anna), Corey Britton (Ft. Loramie) and the rest of the Shelby County League make his position all the more challenging at a school where basketball is so poignant. Yet, at the popular ad says, he’s comfortable in his own skin talking about what lies ahead.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Francis, a respecter of memorabilia and a keen fan of local sports history, especially the Cincinnati Reds. “I tell the kids all the time. No one ever said this is easy. To win high school athletic events of any kind in this area, not just basketball…it’s hard. Track, cross country, baseball, softball, and especially football…it’s hard to win in this area.
“But no one has a geographic or cultural advantage in the Shelby County League. We’re all pretty much the same because we’re small. You can only put five on the floor.”
He’s been opening new doors now for the past five years, literally; and now…he might just have the key to replace John Willoughby at Houston (How-ston, for the unknowing). He and the Wildcats open on December the 2nd against….Russia!
So they say about the new guy, coaching the same old game.