Wednesday, January 14, 2004
Some might call him intense. Others would say he is focused.
Passionate, competitive and driven may also come to mind when describing long-time Hood River Valley High School wrestling coach Mark Brown.
But the one word that best describes the 41-year-old Brown is “committed.” Committed to his team, committed to his family, and committed to his community.
And it is that sense of dedication that will be the most difficult to replace when Brown steps down after the 2003-04 season.
“Mark is always there for the team no matter what,” said senior Rocky Level, who has wrestled for Brown since he was in middle school. “He puts in the extra time during the summer and he always seems to step to the plate for us.
“He’s serious when he needs to be, but he also knows how to have fun. It just seems like he gives the guys on the team whatever we need when we need it.”
Sometimes it’s a pat on the back. Other times, it’s a kick in the pants. But regardless of how his emotions may be displayed, the wrestlers who know Brown realize he’s doing it for their own good.
That’s because they can relate to him. Just like the guys on his team, Brown is a warrior. He has been on the front lines, coping with the highs and lows of wrestling competition since he was a freshman in high school.
But he is also a tremendous motivator and a valuable friend to his wrestlers, which are intangibles that can’t — and likely won’t — be replaced overnight.
“Whoever comes in here is going to have some shoes to fill,” said former HRV coach and current Hood River Middle School wrestling coach Keith Bassham, who has known Brown since he was in high school.
“He is one of the most knowledgeable coaches in the state, but he is also one of the most respected. And if we’re going to find someone of that caliber, we’re going to have to go out and recruit.”
Which is exactly what Bassham did back in 1994 when he was looking to turn over the program he had inherited in 1980-81 — the year after Brown graduated from HRV.
Fully aware of what Brown had done with a troubled Sheldon High School program in the early 1990s, Bassham planted the seed for a possible return when the two were reunited at a Junior National Camp in Hood River.
“Dennis Price and I had heard that he may be looking to return home,” Bassham said. “So I told him that if he would be my assistant for one year, I would turn over the reins to him.”
It just so happened that there was a campus security job opening at HRV the next fall — which was, coincidentally, the same position Brown held at Sheldon.
Almost without a second thought, Brown accepted an opportunity to return to his old stomping grounds, and build upon the foundation laid by Price and Bassham before him.
“It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to everyone in Eugene, because I had rescued the program from a pretty bad situation,” Brown said. “But even though it was tough, I think they understood.”
Just like that, Bassham got his man. And without missing a beat, the HRV wrestling program continued to excel at the district and state levels for the next eight years.
But by no means was it easy. Brown’s first year at HRV was also the school’s first in Class 4A.
While Brown was familiar with 4A from his days at Sheldon, he was never faced with the same challenge of trying to recruit kids.
Due to HRV’s relative size, Brown was forced to walk the halls and convince kids to come out for the team — something Price had done with him when he was in ninth grade.
“I don’t think I ever won a match in middle school,” Brown said. “But when coach Price told me how much he needed me on the team, I was lit up by it.”
Brown used those same motivation tactics to build his own team, and it didn’t take long for the word to travel: “If I wrestle for Brown, I’m going to be a winner.”
“That’s the most important thing I try to give to these kids,” Brown said. “If they learn how to work and behave like winners, it will only bring other positive influences into their lives.”
Anyone who has ever wrestled for Brown knows that he demands integrity both on and off the mat. He doesn’t put up with any lip, and he certainly won’t tolerate any negativity toward opponents, teammates or referees.
“Class” is another word that defines Mark Brown, and regardless of how well his team performs, he always insists that his wrestlers display strong character in everything they do.
“I try to tie wrestling in with life,” he said. “You make a commitment and you do the best you can. If you don’t achieve your goals, you move on and try better next time. But you don’t quit and you don’t blame other people for your frustrations.”
Brown, like his parents, George and Linda Johnson, has always worked hard for everything he has achieved.
When he was in high school, he put his heart and soul into wrestling. And it paid off his senior year when he won a district title and earned fourth place in the state at 148 pounds.
When he coached at Sheldon, he took a program that was “in the toilet” and built it back to
Then, he took an already successful HRV program and helped it win a district championship (Mt. Hood Conference, 2002) and place 12th at state (2003).
“It’s hard to say which year was my most successful,” he said. “The undefeated run and the district title in 2002 were pretty nice. But having such a good year in the IMC and placing four kids at state last year were also pretty special.”
It is almost fitting that Brown’s two most memorable seasons at HRV came in 2002 and 2003, because everyone on those teams was with him from the start.
He shepherded them from freshman to senior year, and got the most out of each of them while they were under his watch.
But whether he’s ready for it or not, this year may be different. Three of the four state placers from last year have graduated, and most everyone from the 2002 district championship team is gone.
Four senior leaders and one junior standout (Zach Bohince) will guide the Eagles in their second year of Intermountain Conference competition — one that will be even more difficult after HRV’s heroic performance in 2002-03.
“That conference is tough enough without having everyone out to get you,” said Level, who will be gunning for his third district title in four years. “But now everyone wants to beat us, so it’s going to be that much harder.”
Level said Brown may have to teach more this year. And instead of shooting for a top-10 finish at state, he may have to be satisfied with sending a small handful of kids to the big show.
“I think it would make Mark happy if all the seniors did well at state,” Level said of Jason DeHart, Nigel Bond, Jorge Lujano and himself. “Placing at state is all we have ever wanted since we started here, and we want to finish strong for our coach.”
Brown has no illusions about this season. He knows the team is young and he understands that his role may change to more of an educator than a coach.
But like everything else he has ever done, Brown welcomes the challenge with open arms, promising that he won’t let his team go down without a fight.
“We’re young this year, plain and simple,” he said. “But I know we have a lot of heart on this team, and no one is going to walk over us. Just like all my teams, we’re going to compete every night.”
That thirst for competition has always been a driving force for Brown, which is why he isn’t going to walk away from the sport altogether.
He plans to stay involved with the Airtime Wrestling Club so that the community’s young grapplers can develop strong techniques before they move on to Hood River and Wy’east middle schools.
Brown also hopes to act as an adviser to his successor so he can ensure that the program will continue to thrive.
“Whoever takes over will have a ton of support,” said Bassham. “The goal of all the coaches — myself, Mark, Randy Kiyokawa and Bill Van Ek — is to get kids on the mat. It doesn’t necessarily matter what techniques they learn. As long as they get involved and stay involved, that’s what we want.”
With that in mind, Brown is certain to be a fixture with the Airtime club, as well as the high school team. He says he will volunteer to drive kids to matches, help host tournaments, and even sweep the gym.
“Who knows, I may be even more energized,” he said. “It’s so important to build the youth system because that’s our Little League. Once you’re involved with wrestling, it becomes your lifestyle. You don’t just put it down for good.”
Brown added that he hopes his replacement at the high school brings with him the same desire to help kids achieve their potential both on and off the mat.
“We need to find someone who will take it to the next level,” he said. “I know coaches like that are out there, and I think it’s important that we find them a position at the school.”
Part of the reason Brown chose to leave the program he loves is that he doesn’t believe it is fair to the kids that he is no longer walking the halls of HRV every day.
Brown left his position at the high school last spring to start his own business — an embroidery/ silk-screening company called Northwest Graphic Works.
And while he wishes he didn’t have to leave the wrestling team along with the job, Brown believes that it is the right thing to do.
He speaks of the tremendous influence his former coaches had on him, both at the high school and at HRMS. And what made that bond so special was that they interacted with him every day.
“Phil Hukari, Bob Level, Larry Madsen and Dennis Price were all instrumental in my life when I was in school,” Brown said. “I don’t think it’s always fair to the kids to have a coach from outside the building. And it may be more important to have an on-site coach in wrestling than any other sport.”
At the same time, Brown speaks very highly of his off-site assistant coaches — Jeff MacKay, Jesse Flem, Keith Obilana and Stan Prouty (until 2002-03) — and he knows that the program will continue to flourish as long as dedicated people stay with it.
However, the time has come for the program’s most dedicated member to move on. Brown looks forward to spending more time with his wife Leslie and their two kids, Adam (17) and Lindsay (19).
He wants to put more energy into growing his business and plans to enjoy life’s finer things. “Maybe I can finally take my wife somewhere for a weekend,” he says with anticipation.
But most of all, Brown looks forward to a lifetime of building the sport of wrestling in Hood River.
“You can’t just turn it off and walk away,” he said. “If wrestling is in your blood, it stays there. It’s important to keep up with the competition, but you also need to keep it all in perspective.”
Just like Keith Bassham before him, Mark Brown is ready to turn over the reins of the HRV program to someone new. But only if he is sure that the kids are in good hands.
“I’m not dropping out of the sport,” he said. “I’m just going to complement it from now on.”