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Bill Brainard

Brainard earned his stripes
Longtime official had big impact on many coaches, referees

By KARL PEARSON
Staff Writer

Sixth of a series...

For as long as basketball has been played, the men and women who have officiated it have been looked to for a unique code of conduct and an unwavering sense of integrity.

And, to their credit, that has been the case for the vast majority of the history of the game.

But the impression of the officiating community took a tremendous hit in July of 2007 when it was revealed NBA referee Tim Donaghy had been betting on games and fixing them for at least two years.

To someone like Jefferson's Bill Brainard, that incident must have been like a body blow, because in more than 25 years of basketball officiating, Brainard was the embodiment of integrity. Brainard never worked games above the high school level during his career, but he was always looked to as someone who put the game and its participants in the spotlight and did everything he could to keep it off himself or his partner, all the while maintaining a supreme sense of control.

To the people that knew him, Brainard was the symbol of what an official should be.

"Bill enjoyed the game, but he had command of the game," retired Pymatuning Valley boys coach Bob Hitchcock said. "He never tried to make the officiating the highlight of the game."

"Bill was the kind of guy who officiated because he loved the game and he loved kids," retired Grand Valley boys coach Tom Henson said. "He was there to assist in making sure the game went well. He was not there to be the show.

"Bill was happiest when the game was over that you didn't even realize he'd been there. He was happy to be part of the game, but he never wanted to BE the game."

Brainard also felt it was important to have the next generation of officials maintain the same standards.

"Bill helped my career a lot," Phil Garcia, one of today's most highly regarded officials, said. "I consider him one of my officiating mentors. I always looked up to Bill as an official and a friend."

Brainard's youngest son, Scott, said his father wanted to make sure the games he worked were done in as seamless a manner as possible. After he left officiating, he always looked for officials who followed the same code.

"It was very important for my dad to be very professional," young Brainard said from his home in Texas. "He always made sure he got to games early, he always wanted to look professional, show that he knew the mechanics and he always made sure he acted professionally.

"After he stopped officiating, he would always watch other officials to see how they conducted themselves. The ones who took the professional approach to the game always stood out to him."

His approach to the game and his emphasis on it, along with his work as the commissioner of the once-proud and now defunct Grand River Conference, made Brainard's selection into the Class of 2009 of the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame an easy decision.

Brainard's selection to the basketball hall puts him in rather exclusive company. He is just the sixth person to have membership in the county's football and basketball shrines, having entered the Ashtabula County Football Hall of Fame in 2007. He shares that distinction with Geneva's Dale Arkenburg, Ashtabula's Gene Gephart, Jefferson's Chuck Naso and broadcasters Jim Cordell and Pat Sheldon.

Unfortunately, Brainard will not be on hand March 29 for his induction at the ACBF Banquet at the Conneaut Human Resources Center. He was claimed Jan. 18 by cancer at age 82.

Somehow, though, his son believes he will be smiling down on the proceedings.

"My dad would be very humbled by this," Scott Brainard, who will accept his father's award, said. "He enjoyed playing basketball and he always enjoyed officiating it.

"He'd be real proud to be in the company of a lot of the coaches and players that are already in there. He'd be very pleased."

Playing days

Not many people know that Brainard was an avid player in his youth and for years afterward. He played at Jefferson High School before he graduated in 1944, but it didn't stop then.

Brainard became a key figure with the renowned Clinton Drugs team sponsored by the Jefferson pharmacy of the era. He remained active as a player for many years with the team that included players like ACBF Hall of Famer Jim Dolan of Willamsfield and featured top graduated high school and college players from as far away as Cleveland and south into Trumbull County.

"Dad loved to play," Scott Brainard said. "He played until he was well into his 40s. He also helped coach Clinton Drugs. He knew everybody and everybody knew him."

Officiating days

It just seemed to be a natural transition from playing and coaching to officiating. He got started in the late 1950s. Brainard had his own group of mentors in officiating.

"Bill worked a lot of games with the old group of officials like Henry Garvey and Lou Pavolino," Hitchcock, another ACBF Hall of Famer, said.

Hitchcock first became acquainted with Brainard as a standout player at Pymatuning Valley.

"My experience with Bill as a player was that he was always in control of the game," he said. "He didn't try to become the show himself.

"He seemed to have a knack for defusing tense situations. He had a way of making a comment to the player that usually got him calmed down and still didn't call attention to himself."

Hitchcock recalled hearing some amusing stories about Brainard's officiating at PV game before the school system got the spacious gymnasium it now occupies.

"When I played, we had a pretty good following," Hitchcock said. "By 6 p.m., the halls at the school were full of people and people were packed along the sidelines and the baseline.

"Bill told me he didn't usually enjoy working games at PV back then because he'd be running up and down the sidelines and people were trying to trip him. You were supposed to have an open lane behind the basket to the wall, too, but people were back there, too, and he always used to have to clear the lane, and as soon as he went to the other end, it filled up again. He used to laugh and say he got a lot of help officiating down at PV."

Dealing with coaches

Brainard and Henson can attest to how he dealt with coaches. That was especially true for Henson, yet another Hall of Famer who is renowned for his competitive nature.

"There were times when Bill could have laid coaches out, me included," Henson said. "He talked to me about officiating games with guys like (Geneva Hall of Famer) Al Bailey (another coach well known for his temper) and maintaining control.

"The first two or three years I was back at Grand Valley as a young coach, Bill helped me gain a better appreciation of what conditions officials are operating under. I came to realize they are just trying to do their job. He was trying to maintain control."

For his part, Brainard, perhaps because of his own coaching and playing background, had a unique sensitivity to what coaches endured and how they tried to conduct their program.

"I remember early in the years I was coaching and Bill worked a game up at our old school," Henson said. "The officials used to dress in our coaches' office and after one game, Bill invited me in after the kids had left.

"We talked for quite a while and he was very complimentary of the direction he felt our program was going. You know, I don't remember if we won or lost that game, and it doesn't matter, because the thing that mattered more to me was our talk."

He didn't hesitate to take young officials under his wing, either.

"What a great guy and a great official Bill was!" Garcia said. "He was one of my mentors, along with (the late) Bud Ruland (from Madison) and Bill Sopchak (from Painesville)."

Scott Brainard said there were coaches his father always admired, even though he didn't play favorites.

"Dad always talked about (Geneva Hall of Famer) Bill Koval," he said. "He took me to Mr. Koval's camp (in Pine Ridge, Pa.) when I was playing. I remember when I was a freshman, he took me to a Geneva-Conneaut game and Dad introduced me to Mr. Koval. That meant a lot to me.

"I know he thought a lot of Tom Henson and Bob Hitchcock, too."

Brainard also admired the work of several of his officiating colleagues.

"I know he respected Bud Ruland a lot," Scott said. "He always liked Bill Sopchak, too.

"He was always very complimentary of (Garcia). He thought Phil always conducted himself professionally. There was no doubt in his calls and he was always in position. He thought a lot of Jerry Raffenaud, too."

Because he was concerned about leaving any impression of partiality, Brainard avoided working games involving Jefferson football games involving his older son, Richard, a 1972 graduate, or basketball games that included Scott, a 1981 Falcon product. When he became GRC commissioner, he stopped working any conference games, opting for NEC games instead.

"He didn't want anyone to think there was any favoritism," Scott said.

His son said Brainard would probably not have been a fan of three-person officiating crews used almost routinely today, although not for reasons one might expect.

"He thought it was bad for the schools financially, especially the smaller schools, because he felt it cost them too much," Scott said.

The commish

As much as anything, Hitchcock and Henson admired Brainard for the work he did to try and keep the GRC, a league that seemed to constantly be in transition, going.

"Bill did everything he could to try and keep the GRC together," Henson said. "I remember he did all he could to keep the league going.

"He used to have us over to his home for all-conference voting. He had us over at the house many times for conference meetings, too. And Betty (Brainard's wife of 58 years) was a great hostess. Both Bill and Betty were very good at taking care of people."

"When he retired from officiating, Bill became the commissioner," Hitchcock said. "I know he always tried to make sure he assigned officials to games that matched the coaches' personalities."

After the GRC

Eventually, Scott Brainard got into coaching himself and looked to his father for advice.

"My dad was somebody who always wanted to stay involved," Scott said. "When I was coaching, he used to come to my practices and I'd ask him to come out and talk to the kids. He'd explain to kids how to get position, how to post up, all that stuff.

"But my dad never told me how to do things. He was the kind of person who wanted you to make your own mistakes and to learn yourself. He might talk to you about it afterward, but it was always constructive criticism."

There is usually a sense of an adversarial relationship between coaches and officials. Hitchcock and Henson both count themselves fortunate that they had the opportunity to become much more with Brainard.


Bill Brainard, shown with wife, Betty, and sons, Scott (left) and Rich,
will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation
Hall of Fame on March 29.

"If Bill was working one of my games, and I didn't win, I never held it against him," Hitchcock said. "I know Bill was a major factor in supporting Jefferson athletics, but we used to talk about the rivalry between PV and Jefferson and, you know, it never was so much about the outcome of a game as it was about the relationships."

"After I was done coaching, Bill and I got to be personal friends," Hitchcock said. "We socialized together. He was a great friend."

Henson believes Brainard is more worthy of his place in the ACBF Hall of Fame than he and is more excited about Brainard's induction than his own.

"There's no doubt in my mind that Bill is worthy of being in the Hall of Fame," he said. "When I think of me being in the Hall of Fame, I think a lot of it is because of my longevity in coaching. You can take all that and multiply what Bill has done many times over."

Henson admired the way Brainard always tried to avoid the limelight.

"Bill did so much behind the scenes," he said. "He just loved to be a part of kids' lives."