Vance High football coach Aaron Brand leaving CMS
Aaron Brand is settled in Charlotte.
Six months ago, he led Vance High School to its first appearance in a state football championship. His players are confident they can go back this season. Brand’s 12-year-old son, A.J., is a youth football star.
In the Vance High community, Aaron Brand is part celebrity, part surrogate father, part football coach.
So when he was offered a job at Irmo High School in Columbia in May, Brand, 43, said he felt “a whirlwind of emotions.”
But as much as a draw as all of that was — the players, his community status, his love of home — Brand still decided to take the job in South Carolina.
“They have excellent facilities,” he said, “and I think they care a little bit more about football down there, and the pay increase was too much to turn down. Still, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
More and more, football coaches in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, like Brand, are leaving — or looking to leave — to go to South Carolina or other systems. In the past two seasons, seven of the 19 CMS schools have changed football coaches. Vance is expected to name Glenwood Ferebee, from Virginia, to replace Brand. And South Mecklenburg will have to hire a new coach before the 2019 season begins.
Why are coaches moving? In many cases, it comes down to money, teaching and facilities.
Brand will nearly double his salary at Irmo. He will make more than $100,000 annually. At Vance, he teaches three full-time classes. At Irmo, Brand said he won’t have to teach. He will have daily lunch room duty, and plenty of time to stay on top of his coaching duties. And the Irmo weight room and playing field — two important items for any football coach — dwarf anything Vance has to offer.
Brand said the money was a big draw, but the facilities were also part of it. He feels that facilities at some CMS schools are supported by the system more than others.
“What could (CMS) do differently? At the end of the day, they don’t love all schools equally,” Brand said. “I still can’t get over the fact they moved my (state semifinal) playoff game (with Myers Park, due to poor field conditions). It didn’t affect the outcome, but our kids deserved to come out of their locker room.”
Coaching stars marching out the door
In the past 10 years, several strong head football coaches have left CMS: Tom Knotts left Independence High for Dutch Fork. Bobby Collins left Hough for Lancaster. Mike Newsome left Butler for Kannapolis Brown. Jarvis Davis led West Mecklenburg to its first conference title in 30 years and left to become an assistant at Rock Hill. Sam Greiner led Harding to an improbable state title and left three months later for Harrisburg’s Hickory Ridge. Many strong assistant coaches have also moved.
In each case, the coaches got a big raise, fewer teaching responsibilities and what they all described as “more support.”
Unlike Brand, who is moving to another state, Newsome was able to stay inside the North Carolina public school system and continue to accrue years towards his retirement pension. But he understands why coaches still make the jump south.
“Is it an epidemic? I can see where somebody would say that,” said Newsome, who led Butler to state championships in 2009 and 2010 before leaving. “When I got the opportunity to go and was getting a considerable pay raise, I was able to stay in the state retirement system, which was a bonus. With Aaron (Brand), you get a chance to double your salary, who wouldn’t take that opportunity?”
In some districts, football coaches in South Carolina are paid as administrators, not teachers, so their salaries rival those of assistant principals. Knotts, for example, made around $64,000 when he left Independence 10 years ago. He makes well north of $100,000 now as athletics director and head football coach at Dutch Fork.
A 2016 survey conducted by the State newspaper in Columbia, showed that nearly a dozen South Carolina athletics directors or football coaches, like Knotts, earned more than $100,000 annually.
Tommy Wilson, schools superintendent for Anderson County (S.C.) District Five, told the State newspaper in Columbia in 2016 that he was given permission by his school board to seek out — and pay — the best football coaches he could find. He said graduation rates increased afterward — as well as the performances of teams on the field. According to the S.C. Department of Education, the graduation rate at TL Hanna was 77.5 percent in 2012. In 2018, the graduation rate had jumped to 85.9 percent.
In the eight years before Wilson started in 2013 and increased coaches’ pay, TL Hanna averaged 4.6 wins per year. In the five years since, it’s averaged 8.8 wins, including going 11-1 in 2017 and 14-1 in 2018.
The 2018 team reached the school’s first state championship game in 44 years.
“Our desire is to have the highest paid coaches in the state. They understand the expectations as well,” Wilson told the State. “You get what you pay for. If you want a $60,000 coach, they are out there. When I came here from Georgia, I felt the athletics (had) been totally neglected. And I think the stronger athletics programs you have go hand in with strong academic and arts.”
Last year, CMS gave coaches a 20 percent increase in their coaching stipends, the first such raise in 14 years.
Head football coaches saw increases from $4,172 to $5,006.40. But across the state line, in nearby Rock Hill, the head football coaches’ supplement is $7,415. A football assistant there can easily make more than a CMS head coach, or coaches in other North Carolina systems like Cabarrus County.
“I’ve lost two assistants going to Rock Hill,” Newsome said. “They make double (the stipend pay of) what they make (at Kannapolis Brown) as an assistant. They drive from Kannapolis to Rock Hill every day. I tried to talk them into coming back, but they won’t because of the pay cut they’d have to take.”
CMS director of athletics Sue Doran did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
Would amending rules help CMS?
In some cases, South Carolina football coaches, like Knotts, double as athletics directors, giving schools another option to increase the total salary. For years, CMS has not allowed coaches to become athletics directors without giving up their whistles. CMS added the rule, believing that ADs didn’t have adequate time to coach teams and do the job.
But today, a growing number of CMS coaches would like to see that rule changed.
“I think there are definitely some of us who would like the opportunity to do both jobs,” Myers Park head coach Scott Chadwick said, “and I think the obvious reason would be to be financially compensated a little bit better, but also because I think some of us would actually like the chance to do the job. In my case, the ideal job would be AD and head football coach and that opportunity is not afforded to me where I’m currently at.”
Chadwick, whose team is loaded with college recruits, said it’s hard to not look across the border and see spring practice, better facilities, no teaching, plus more money and not feel a pull. Chadwick will begin his sixth season at Myers Park next fall after five at Union County’s Marvin Ridge High School before that.
And Chadwick said CMS could take a big step towards keeping its best coaches by relaxing the coach/AD rule.
“That’s the easiest step it can take,” he said, “and that may not be enough, but at least it’s a step. For me right now, I’m really happy at the school I work at and with the administration and community ... That’s what has kept me here. That’s why I haven’t further pursued things like Aaron did, but at some point, I’ll have to look closer at opportunities to advance myself career-wise and financially.”
Losing a top-tier coach like a Chadwick or a Brand can have an enormous effect on a school, Vance athletics director Carlos Richardson said.
Richardson said, after a big change, you worry about students transferring. You worry about not having as many fans show up at games, particularly if the team isn’t winning the way it has, and football is the main financial driver of a high school program.
Still, Richardson said he understands his good friend’s motivation.
“It’s a big loss,” he said. “Brand is more than a coach. He’s a dad, you know. He’s everything. But sooner or later you have to start thinking about taking care of your family. Football is a full-time job, 12 months out of the year. Coaches want to be compensated ...
“One of the things that keeps coaches here in Charlotte is that you’re coaching great kids, the best of the best. That’s a draw, but sooner or later, you’re looking at how much time you’re spending doing those things and losing money. A lot of coaches lose money when they coach, to be honest.”
Brand said he’s lived that. Then an opportunity comes for you to do the exact same thing you have been doing but with less school work, and a lot more pay.
That happened to Aaron Brand this month — and Aaron Brand said he just couldn’t say no.
“It’s a chance to do better,” he said. “In this business, to be honest, people that look like me don’t get all these opportunities, and the chance to put your family in a great situation.
“I had to jump on it.”