It's one of the oldest schools in the city, but what Brainerd may lack in state-of-the-art facilities is overcome by the fact that no other program can match its athletic foundation.
There are few local schools that can claim to have a coaching pillar, one who is respected throughout the state as both a competitor and an educator. Brainerd has two such legends in girls' basketball coach Carolyn Jackson and boys' coach Robert High, each with more than 40 years at the school.
And while the annual Times Free Press Best of Preps tournament tipped off Thursday at a new venue, one welcome constant was seeing Jackson working from the Lady Panthers' bench. She retired from teaching five years ago but has continued to coach and has averaged more than 20 wins in those last five years.
Away from the court, evidence of the importance she puts on academics is the fact that the last three valedictorians at Brainerd have been Lady Panthers basketball players. When progress reports are sent out every three weeks, all the players must bring theirs to Jackson to evaluate whether they need pats on the back or extra tutoring or if they will be held out of games.
"I wasn't ready to stop coaching," Jackson said. "Any time I would think about it, there would be a couple of players who would ask me to stay with them until they graduated, and I just kept coming back because of the kids.
"I don't want to just coach them in basketball. Since I started, I've always wanted to try to mold kids into positive citizens, because that's what's most important. I learned early on that the sun will continue to rise long after basketball season or a career ends, so I wanted to make sure the kids who played for me learned more than just the game."
It would help Jackson enjoy this season, her 40th, if she could get her team healthy going into the heart of the district schedule. Right now the Lady Panthers have four starters slowed by nagging injuries, and although they all tried to play through the pain Thursday, they ultimately couldn't keep up with defending Division II state champion GPS.
That loss aside, Jackson's accomplishments are staggering. She has 920-plus wins, her 1984 team is the last Hamilton County public school to win a girls' state basketball title, and the gym at Brainerd is named in honor of her and High. But despite all that, Jackson didn't hesitate to rattle off her biggest achievement as a coach.
"What I'm most proud of is hearing from all my former players who have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, coaches and have families of their own," said Jackson, who also coached cross country, softball, volleyball and track at the school. "Those relationships are what mean the most to me in this game now."
Shay Smith, a 1989 Brainerd graduate who played basketball, softball and volleyball and ran track and cross country, is just one example of the connection former players feel to Jackson. Smith was a volunteer coach for the Lady Panthers for two years and worked as an assistant for seven more seasons before moving on to help coach at Orchard Knob. Even though she no longer sits on the bench with Jackson, Smith still rarely misses a Brainerd game. She was there Thursday.
"I never had anybody mean as much to me as Coach Jackson," Smith said. "She let you know how much she cared about you as soon as you were around her. She would shoot you straight; she'd always tell you the truth even if it was something you didn't want to hear. But she also made sure you knew that she had your back and she would support you and listen to you no matter what. She brought out the best in a lot of kids who played for her and made them want to return the favor by helping out other kids the way she set the example for.
"Carolyn Jackson and Robert High are household names. Everybody knows who they are, and there's a lot of us who played for one of them that know how fortunate we are because of that."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...