“I was never coached by one of the greats like Phil Jackson, Bill Belichick or Nick Saban, but what I had was even better — a role model named Jim Brandt.”
The odds of you knowing the name Jim Brandt are slim and none. As a high school coach, he never won a state championship. The truth is, some years he didn’t even have a winning record. There certainly aren’t any books written about him or any ESPN videos covering his career. In fact, if you look him up on Wikipedia, your search will come up blank. In many ways, he is the run-of-the-mill high school coach from average-town USA. Jim taught high school math for 36 years and coached several sports over that span of time.
You could make the argument that every high school in America has at least one coach just like him, and you would be right. However, this author — and the thousands of individuals who once roamed the halls of Grand Ledge High School — will tell you that Jim Brandt is “our one-of-a-kind” coach and that we wouldn’t trade him for any other coach in America. 1987 alum Stephen Johntson speaks for all of us: “Outside of my father, no other person had a greater impact on my life than Coach Jim Brandt. He was my role model.”
Jim was the second of two boys born to Bill and Irene in the small town of White Cloud, Michigan. He was the classic baby boomer; born to parents who were heavily influenced by the Great Depression. His father was the town barber who charged $1.25 for a haircut. Jim describes his childhood as “stable, real stable.” He lived across the street from the high school, so he spent most of his young life going to Friday night games because that was the “center of social life in the community.” At the time, White Cloud High School only offered four sports, so it should come as no surprise that this athletically minded boy became a 4-sport athlete.
Jim looks back on his high school athletic career with humility and a bit of humor. For example, he admits that baseball wasn’t his strength: “I always say that I batted .500 in baseball. I got one hit in two years. I couldn’t hit the ball.” However, as a junior he led his football team to a conference championship as the team’s quarterback and, as a senior on the basketball team, he led the conference in rebounds. His momentary claim to fame was breaking the school record in the 110-meter hurdles at a regional meet his senior year: “One of my thrills in high school was breaking the school record in the hurdles. Unfortunately, my good friend broke my record in the next heat, so I held the school record for five minutes.”
If Jim had graduated in 2020, he probably would have been recruited by a Division II school, but in 1963 those schools either didn’t exist or they didn’t recruit athletes. Therefore, he enrolled at Michigan State University as a no-preference freshman. He briefly walked on to the football team and immediately got a tough dose of reality: “It took me just two weeks to find out that I was a good athlete, but a long way from Big 10 caliber.”
And so, as most people do, Jim tried to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life with his bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He was accepted into law school at the University of Michigan, and into a graduate program at MSU. Then a late third option emerged, which was teaching. He received 24 job offers to teach math, and he hadn’t applied for any of them. Still unsure of what to do, Jim accepted the $5,900 annual salary to teach math at Grand Ledge High School in the fall of 1967. By design, it was a temporary path for Jim and his new wife, Diane, or so he thought.
The following year, Jim tried his hand at coaching. He gravitated to the sports that he knew best — football, basketball and track. It was a lot of fun and he initially earned an extra $200 per sport. Then, in 1973, Jim became the head varsity basketball coach. It was a tough gig because the school had switched to the City League, and the basketball team regularly had to face future NBA stars such as Magic Johnson and Jay Vincent. Although Jim’s program was moving in the right direction, five years later the players’ parents held a meeting and demanded his resignation. It was a tough time. To Jim, coaching was a lot more than wins and losses, but the parents felt otherwise.
Jim still knew that he had a lot to offer and he was determined to make an impact on student-athletes. So, when his long-term friend and fellow track coach, Carl Chapman, quit coaching cross country, Jim said to his wife, “I think I can do this. This doesn’t look that hard.” So, without any background in long-distance running or a fundamental understanding of the sport, he jumped in with both feet. He purchased books, went to running clinics, and asked a lot of questions. He had early success with runners, but he also had a year when his team finished 21st of out of 21 schools at a regional meet. Coach Brandt made his fair share of technical mistakes, but he also got a lot right when it came to building character and developing leaders.
The important point to remember is that Jim cared. “I tried being a hard-nosed, demanding coach, but it just didn’t fit my personality. Instead, I tried to be a positive motivator.” The longer that he coached, the more he realized that “high school kids were looking to be a part of something,” so he actively recuited students to join the team. It became common to see 30 Grand Ledge runners step to the starting line against a conference opponent that struggled to field a varsity team of seven. After each meet, even if a runner did not factor into the team result, Coach Brandt would read off everyone’s individual times. Jim believed that every runner was a valuable member of the team. “Coach Brandt embraced each of his runners as a valuable member of the team, no matter their competitive ability,” observed 1987 graduate Jay Hesse. “He fostered a team culture that developed personal relationships and competitive success.”
Coach Brandt said that one of the key ingredients to building a positive team culture was creating a fun and accepting environment where kids could be themselves. Smiles, practical jokes, and out-loud laughter were present most days and each team created their own lingo, nicknames, and odd sayings. Another key ingredient was high standards in and out of the classroom. 1993 graduate, Fred Hutchinson remembered, “There were no shortcuts in his mind, there was definitely a right way to do things.”
Another important part of Coach Brandt’s culture was establishing traditions. For example, in the early 80’s he added a week-long cross country camp, which gave the team an opportunity to gel. Another important tradition was the “500 Mile Club.” To get into this club, an athlete had to run 500 miles between Memorial Day and Labor Day, amounting to 50 miles a week for 10 weeks in the summer. Even the kids who could not make varsity could proudly wear their 500 Mile Club shirts. Jim also added a fundraising event called the 24-Hour Relay and a winter track program.
These intangible ingredients and traditions created a sense of pride in a sport that rarely received attention. So, while Coach Brandt was learning the technical side of racing, the “magic” began to happen. “Winning,” he said, “is a by-product of team chemistry and hard work.” And, once the initial winning occurred, the success just perpetuated itself year after year. The Grand Ledge Cross Country team won 11 of the next 12 conference titles and three regional titles from 1985 until Coach Brandt retired in 1998.
“Jim had established a championship culture based on caring, passion, integrity and a willingness to sacrifice for team goals,” stated 1973 alum and next head coach, Kim Spalsbury. “We called it the ‘Grand Ledge Way’ and continuing down that path was a breeze.” Indeed, Kim led the next generation of cross country runners at Grand Ledge High School to eight conference championships, five regional titles, and five top-five finishes at the state meet over the next decade.
Many high school athletes don’t think about the numerous personal and family sacrifices a coach makes. Many of Jim’s friends developed outside interests — such as golfing, fishing, or skiing — but Jim’s “hobby” was spending Saturdays at a track or cross country meet. Coaching also takes a toll on a coach’s family. Fortunately, in Jim’s case, he had Diane. “I couldn’t have done it without her,” he acknowledged. “A lot of responsibilities fell her way because I was gone so often.” As of now, Jim and Diane have been married for 55 years, they have successfully raised three wonderful children, and they currently enjoy following the lives of their seven grandchildren.
Looking back through the eyes of a 78-year-old, Jim believes he made the right choice to become a teacher and a coach. “There were very few days in 36 years I didn’t want to go to school,” Jim stated with confidence. “It was a great career for me. It really fit my skills and my personality.” Jim also figures that he met 150 new kids each year, which amounts to a direct impact on approximately 5,400 young lives over his career. “Those kinds of rewards are the greatest part of teaching and coaching,” Jim said. Well, another reward is coming his way: Jim is being inducted into the Greater Lansing Sports Hall of Fame in 2022.
Some 25 years after retirement, Jim is still a minor celebrity around town. No matter where he goes, Jim undoubtedly will run into a former student or athlete. While each conversation is unique, the common thread that runs through them all is gratitude. One time Jim and Diane were on a remote trail in Bryce National Park in Utah, and a hiker walking the opposite way asked, “Are you Jim Brandt?” An ongoing family joke comes from his daughter-in-law. She says that, although she lives over 40 miles away from Grand Ledge, she can’t go anywhere without running into someone who knows Coach Brandt. It turns out that after 36 years in education, the Brandt name means something: It means sacrifice, it means integrity and it means character.
Of the millions of high school coaches who could have been chosen to represent character, I selected Jim Brandt because, to me, he was the classic example of a positive role model. Without him, I would not have received a Ph.D. or achieved my potential. When I met Mr. Brandt, I was a high school sophomore with a 2.3 GPA. With no goals or direction, our school counselors were already guiding me towards a career at the local automobile plant. Mr. Brandt was the first person to talk to me about goals and attending college. Day after day, he would walk me down the hall and tell me inspirational stories. Years later, he attended my college graduation. When I got married, he was there. When my father died, he was there. Each and every year, I receive a Christmas card in the mail from Jim and Diane. That’s what impact looks like.
I used to think that my relationship with Coach Brandt was unique. However, I have since learned that every Grand Ledge athlete who ran for him has similar feelings and stories. That’s because he is a man of great character who went out of his way to give all of us the optimal environment to succeed on the track and in life. People always say that sport teaches character. However, research tells us that this isn’t true. The reality is that coaches teach character and build the leaders of tomorrow. My wish for you is that you will have at least one coach who positively impacts your life the way Jim Brandt did for me, and for so many in Grand Ledge, Michigan.