Born To Coach: Isaac Brown Leading The Shockers To Surprising Heights
The Wichita State University men's basketball team has been on a winning streak, including last week's game against highly ranked Houston.
And as the Shockers rack up more victories, it's bringing more attention to Isaac Brown. He was named head basketball coach on Friday after holding the title on an interm basis since the fall. Brown is the first African American to be at the helm of the men's basketball program in WSU history, and the first to lead a Division I men's basketball program in Kansas.
The Mississippi native and former WSU assistant coach took over the team after Gregg Marshall's departure in November.
"In our first team meeting, I wanted to talk to them about just trust in the coaching staff," Brown said. "It was my first head coaching job. I just told them I wanted them to trust me.
"I was going to give them 110%, and I wanted them to give me 110%."
That was an easy request for 6-foot-8 Shocker Morris Udeze. He said Brown — whom he calls "I.B." — was the reason he returned to Wichita State.
"I've been rooting for I.B. this whole time I've been playing," Udeze said. "Soon as he got the job, me and the guys came together, we were like, 'We have to go hard for I.B. so he could get this head coaching job.'
"So we all came together trying to win as much games as possible."
And they are winning: The Shockers now lead the American Athletic Conference. Brown said the credit belongs to the players.
"Because I don’t take any of the shots, the kids take all the shots. They dive on the floor, they get all the rebounds," Brown said. "I just try to keep them organized, keep them playing hard, making sure they are doing the right things on and off the court, and they are taking care of themselves with this COVID."
Leadership comes naturally to Brown and has since he was a high school basketball player in Pascagoula, Mississippi. He was the point guard — a position his coach at the time, Gary Gagliano, said is similar to a quarterback on a football team.
"He had to be somewhat of a coach on the court as a player, and he was very good at that role," Gagliano said. "He was a good leader. All the players respected him because he put so much energy and time into his game. You know, he led by example."
But it went deeper than that, Gagliano said.
"He was also always inquisitive about why we were doing things on the court, not just, 'Let's go do them,' but, 'Why is this going to work, and why should we change this?'" he said. "That's what a great coach does. You have to figure out what the problems are and solve them."
Brown's sister, Jennifer Wells, remembers her brother giving coaching tips even as a young child. She said he didn’t mind teaching her how to use a softball and bat in their backyard.
"He wanted me to be really good at what I did," Wells said. "So being my big brother, he'd tell me how I had to stand and how I had to throw the ball. He’d say, 'If you want to be good, you gotta work hard at it.' "
Wells played softball from when she was about five years old all the way through college.
"And my brother just helped me along the way," she said.
Their mother, Pearl Brown, said she's proud of her son. She's one of 12 children, who all enjoyed caring for Isaac as a child.
“You know, everybody in my family kept him at one time or another," Pearl Brown said. "So he's real loving towards all of the family, his aunts and stuff."
She says Isaac was a good kid, well liked in school, but she does recall one of his more mischievous moments.
"We all liked different cereal," she said. " I had Raisin Bran. Well, one day I went for the box and there was bran, but no raisins. He picked the raisins out.
"What else can I say about Isaac?" she said with a laugh. "Besides that, I love him to the moon and back."
She especially loves to see Brown coaching the Shockers whenever a game is on television, which she watches at her home in Mississippi. She said she rehashes play by play with her son during long-distance phone calls, including the Shockers' 68-63 victory over the Houston Cougars.
“I think they did really well on the court and especially on defense," Pearl Brown said. "That was a great game. I almost passed out.
"I told him that I think the boys really played well."
Though he says he's a "basketball guy, basically 24-7," off the court, Isaac Brown likes to spend time outdoors, hunting and fishing. It was a way of life in the South, he said.
But when it comes to his professional career, he knows he's made the right choice with basketball.
"I’ve always wanted to be involved or be around basketball, and I’ve been fortunate enough to do so," Brown said.
For 19 years, Brown was a Division I assistant coach. He was hired at WSU in 2014. As head coach, he said he feels the difference.
"You’re concerned about everything, just everything that goes on in the program," he said. "You feel that pressure. As an assistant coach, you can give suggestions, but as the head coach you have to give answers on the fly."
Brown embraces the opportunity and said he’s glad to have the support of a great staff, including assistant coach Billy Kennedy, whom he’s known since the 11th grade.
Gagliano, who has retired from coaching, said he's happy to see Brown's success at WSU. Gagliano said one of his proudest moments was to see Brown get the job.
"It doesn’t matter if he was Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, he has the makeup and the personality and the commitment to being a great coach that it requires from anyone," he said. "All the people are seeing the results of his coaching and how well he's done this year under all these circumstances…I think he's represented the university in an extremely positive way.
"I think players really think fondly of him, and they respect him because they know he loves them."
Udeze, who plays center on the team, said Brown cares about his players' wellbeing off the court as well.
"We talk about everyday life, talk about my family," he said. "It's just awesome having somebody like that, your head coach, to look up to and just to give you advice on a daily basis."
Brown said something a coach said to him when he was a young player has stuck with him:
"'Isaac, when I recruit you, I'm not talking about getting to the NBA or championships. I'm talking about having a lifelong relationship with you.'"
Now, Brown coaches with the same philosophy.
"I want to have a lifelong relationship with these kids," he said. "I want them to be, 10 years from now, you can call me, and I'm gonna try to help you to better yourself.
"I think when these kids trust you, and know that it's more than just basketball, I think they'll run through a brick wall for you. And that's the key to it."
In the Mix can be heard each month on KMUW's weekly show, The Range.