Lumberton coach Mike Brill says this is it, and final season or not, his influence on Robeson County deserves applause.
“I guess you can say I’ve kind of been a part of it all as a coach,” an emotional Brill said after Friday’s win over Purnell Swett. “I’ve been in championship situations, won a lot of big games. I’ve got to quit some time. Can’t do this forever. We’re not finished yet I guess, but it’s been a great ride.”
If we had a Mount Rushmore of football coaches, Brill’s rosy-cheeked mug would be sandwiched between Littlefield’s Sammy Collins, Maxton’s Leroy Vaughn and Red Springs’ Clyde Parrish. In due time, the granite facade shall be redesigned to include Mark Heil and reserved spots can be made for Lumberton’s Tunney Brooks as well as St. Pauls’ Yogi Hickman.
Brill, the most outwardly abrasive of the group, is mean by design. He’s fiery about his game plan, hell bent on getting the most out of his players and isn’t convinced that a passing game is a necessity to move the football. Brill won 90 games in a decade at South Robeson — one of the best 10-year marks at one school in county history — and took on the Lumberton gig after a four-year break from coaching for health reasons.
He didn’t miss a beat upon his return in 2007, leading the Pirates to their first postseason berth in five years. Brill, who entered the profession after a brush with the Special Olympics as a college volunteer, was brought in to win and that’s what he did.
“If it wasn’t for my high school coaches, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Brill said. “They kind of showed me the ropes and I followed their lead. I owe it all to them.”
Brill’s bark always has been as loud as his bite. That’s just his nature. And he never pulls punches when talking football. Brill blames himself, not his players or the opposing team, after every loss.
It’s who he is.
“Hell, most people don’t remember that nine of those (35) losses at South Robeson came the first year,” Brill said. “After that, we got it rolling. I’d say we did pretty good. The only reason I know we won so many games is because everybody makes a big deal about it around here. I don’t keep up with all that stuff.”
Brill’s been productive in the ultra-competitive 4A ranks at Lumberton as well.
Before Brill, six coaches tried their hand at leading the Pirates and none left with a winning record. Bill Dockery, Jeff Smouse, Knocky Thorndyke, Gil Carroll, Russell Stone and Jake Smith combined to finish 59-151 over a 20-year period.
Bob Hanna, currently South Carolina’s highest paid coach at Irmo High at $106,214 a year, is the only Lumberton coach to lead the Pirates to a winning record during his tenure other than Brill over the last three decades. Hanna was on the sideline four seasons and went 23-18.
Depending on what happens in the first round of the playoffs next week, at worst, Brill will leave Lumberton with 43 wins in 73 games. A former assistant at James Kenan and Wallace-Rose Hill before his 1990 arrival in Rowland, one could say Brill’s gotten better with age.
Brill’s defense in 2009 was statistically one of the state’s best and fueled a run to the third round of the playoffs, Lumberton’s deepest postseason journey in recent memory. In 2011, following the departure of high-profile talent Marquez North, Brill pieced together an inexperienced unit that overachieved with a 7-0 start, including arguably one of the program’s biggest wins in history — an overtime victory over Jack Britt.
This season, his last, has predictably gone the way it was supposed to for a team with few returning starters and bitten by the injury bug throughout. Friday’s emphatic win over the Rams is icing on the cake, how a local legend should go out in his home finale.
Bryan Carpenter’s 75-yard interception return for a touchdown with 2:36 remaining was the Hollywood ending a defensive guru like Brill deserved.
“The only thing sad about today is that Daddy wasn’t here this time last year, but now he’s gone,” Brill said. “I know Dad and Momma are up there smiling down now. He always wanted to beat these guys as much as I did. Everybody was crying before the game. My daughter said a little speech and she started crying. It was an emotional day for all of us.”
Caustic in his own way, Brill leaves an impression like no other. Whether you’re a former player, parent, fan or writer, his genuine passion for football and family shines through the weathered goatee, piercing stare and wad of half-chewed tobacco.
After 30 years, he’s finished the race and left unquestionable respect in his wake.