PORTSMOUTH — In life, there are people who you believe are special by seeing their talent on a court, by hearing their command on the mic, or by reading their ability to write.
However, it’s extremely rare to find a person who is as humble, if not more so, than the talent that he or she displays.
As a coaching fixture in Scioto County from 1967 to the present day, Jack Branon has developed many players with his coaching talents on the various fields of play and has changed many lives with his perspective outside of the daily grind that sports provides.
He’s not only done that, but has diversified his knowledge — and his coaching portfolio along with it — by opening his mind to the worlds of baseball, basketball and cross country.
However, all legendary careers — and all careers in general — come to an end.
Branon, who has served as an assistant to Shawnee State women’s basketball head coach Jeff Nickel during each of his first seven seasons, has retired from coaching.
The 2019-20 season, in which Shawnee State went 29-4 and won its sixth Mid-South Conference championship in seven years, was his last.
His legend, though, will live on forever in many Scioto County communities — including Shawnee State.
“He’s so loyal and he’s so hardworking,” Nickel said. “You know that you have a person with exemplary character when that person’s character rubs off on everybody in the program and makes people better as a result. All of the players love him. He’s someone that tries to relate to everyone and understand their perspectives. He’s a kind and generous man.”
Derek Moore, who had the opportunity to play under Branon when the latter coached Portsmouth Post 23’s American Legion baseball program, concurs with Nickel on Branon’s legendary impact.
“Coach Branon was a guy who I have tremendous respect for,” Moore said. “I have known him for a very long time. He coached my dad (Bruce) in high school, so I heard many stories about his dedication to the game. Once he coached me, I definitely knew that’s what he is about. His respect for the game was something I took away from my time as a player when he coached me. And I hope that is one thing that I take with me during my coaching career.”
Clay gives Branon A-plus
student-athlete, managing experience
To be a great coach, one has to study and learn from great minds.
While attending one of the county’s early athletic powerhouses at nearby Clay High School in Rosemount, Branon got to learn from two great coaching minds in Kinney Long and Arch Justus.
Branon’s athletic skills, however, were on the diamond.
During his four seasons inside the baseball program at Clay, Branon was part of an instrumental group that helped lead the Panthers to their second and third-ever district championships, with the titles coming in 1959 and 1962 respectively.
In 1962, which was Branon’s senior season, Clay went 18-2, which capped off a four-year career where the Panthers went 46-23.
Branon’s senior class is still the only class in Clay baseball history to win two district championships in a four-year stretch.
In addition to his time playing baseball at Clay, Branon served as Justus’ manager from a basketball perspective while still in high school.
Then, after rewarding careers in baseball and cross country led to NAIA all-district honors in the former sport and a MVP team trophy in the latter, the experience garnered by Branon under Justice led to his initial foray in coaching — when Justus put Branon on his staff to start his career in 1967.
During his time at Clay, Branon helped Justice go on an historic run as an assistant coach, leading the Panthers to an 80-9 mark.
The 1969 Clay unit, which went 26-2 and advanced to the OHSAA Final Four, is still — to this day — the best unit in school history.
“Kinney was a great guy, a great coach,” Branon said. “He was really into the game. From a basketball standpoint, I wasn’t good enough to play, but I’d help Arch with statistics and different things like that. That actually became my first official coaching job. It was unbelievable how much I learned from him during my first coaching experience. We were able to go all the way to the Final Four in 1969. The first time making it to that stage was tremendous.”
Coaching career buds into
head roles at Green, Wheelersburg
In 1970, Branon got his chance to lead a program in his own direction — upon being named the new head coach at Green High School in Franklin Furnace.
There, he won 32 games and built the program into one that remains competitive today.
While at Green, Branon played the lead role in developing another great coaching mind of his own — Dan McDavid.
McDavid, who went on to make the Green baseball program his own while also coaching the football programs at Green, South Point and West (assistant coach), passed away this spring at the age of 65 — but not before impacting many lives of his own as both a coach and referee, to the point where players considered him a brother at worst.
To most, he was a father figure.
“Some of the best people that I’ve ever known in my life were at Green,” Branon said. “Dan was one of those guys. He was a tremendous person. He was one of those guys that was a coach on the field. You just knew that at 17 years old, he was going to be a coach, and he certainly more than proved that to be right.”
Branon later helped coach basketball at Green under Mike Hughes, then made the move to Wheelersburg — coaching as a head baseball coach and cross country coach and an assistant basketball coach all in one.
There, Branon established his legend as one of the greatest minds across the board.
Coaching in an SOC II that was stacked with legendary minds across the conference, Branon still managed to win seven Southern Ohio Conference championships over a 20-year span — and won 325 contests in all coaching the likes of Brad Walk, Josh Newman, Andy Heimbach, and his own son Michael among many others.
“We had Dean Schuler, Dennis Hagerty, Chris Rapp, Tom Monroe and Tim Martin, among others, all coaching in one conference,” Branon said. “They really loved the game of baseball and knew the game. It was great being able to be associated with those coaches across the SOC II.”
Branon also put together a run of postseason success never before seen inside the Wheelersburg baseball program, making the school a powerhouse in the sport in the process — by racking up 12 sectional championships, six district titles and Division III Coach of the Year honors in 1996, 1997 and 1999.
The Pirates ultimately won the school’s first-ever state championship in the sport, doing so in 1996 as the pinnacle season in an Ohio High School Baseball Coaches Association (OHSBCA) Hall of Fame career for Branon — all while sending more than 30 players off to college baseball scholarships during his span as the head coach.
“He is the one that started it all,” Moore said. “He brought the first baseball title to Wheelersburg and ever since, that has been the goal. He set the bar to what we want to achieve every year. The way that he ran his program and wanted to get the best out of his players is what we go by every single year.”
“There were a great bunch of guys on that team,” Branon said of the 1996 D-III state champions. “They were very talented, but were also very unselfish, very dedicated to their crafts and great leaders. We had special talents and special minds with that group.”
While racking up honors inside the baseball realm, Branon continued to make impacts across other Wheelersburg programs.
As the head coach of the cross country program, 16 runners qualified for the OHSAA state championships in his 20 seasons at the helm, and as an assistant boys basketball coach with the Pirates, Wheelersburg made multiple trips to the OHSAA state Final Four during his time serving under Bob Eaton and Mike Lovenguth.
He even helped develop future female basketball student-athletes within the Wheelersburg feeder system.
With those kinds of distinctions, his ability to relate to student-athletes from all different kinds of backgrounds, and his natural coaching ability, Branon truly defined himself as one of a kind.
“He’s a great coach,” Nickel said. “You can’t label him as a great coach of a particular sport. He’s a great coach in general, and that’s because he has such an internal drive to succeed. He’s simply persistent and unwilling to give in regardless of the circumstances that he’s faced.”
Branon brings special talents to Shawnee State
After retiring his post as an American Government and World History teacher at Wheelersburg, Branon moved on to coaching girls basketball at East, where the veteran led the program for seven seasons — and took the realm of the Portsmouth Post 23 American Legion ballclub.
During that time, Moore — who had developed his own legacy at Wheelersburg by going 36-0 on the mound with back-to-back state championships and who would go on to a pitching career at SSU that easily ranks as one of the best in school history — got to learn from the legend that he had heard so much about growing up.
“It just shows how much time and effort he puts into his craft,” Moore said. “Just in conversations with Coach while I was a student down at Shawnee State, I knew the amount of work that he put into getting the scouting reports ready for the girls no matter who they played and he would do the exact same for us for Post 23. It shows that his commitment is at an all-time high and his interest is all in for the kids. I know that from having the opportunity to play for him, which was really cool. Coach Branon always said that Dad (Bruce) had one of the best curveballs that he has ever seen. I just thought that it was pretty cool to know that he remembers little things about each player he coaches. I still remember all our tournament trips or just traveling to games, and Coach telling stories or just the conversations that he would have. It was more than just winning and losing. He wanted to know more about the individual.”
When Nickel, who had the interim head coaching tag removed after being named head coach of the SSU women’s basketball program in 2013, came calling in an effort to add the knowledgeable coaching veteran, Branon jumped at the opportunity to serve on his staff as an assistant — seeing the chance to coach under Nickel and work at the collegiate level as one he couldn’t pass up.
“When Jeff got the head coaching job at Shawnee State, he called me asking if I could help him coach in college,” Branon said. “I couldn’t turn that opportunity down. I’ve worked with some really good head coaches. Jeff’s right there with those guys — Mike Hughes, Mike Lovenguth, Jon Eaton and Arch Justice. He’s right there with them and fits into that category of being a committed basketball mind and a great coach. He’s so committed to what he does.”
“He’s (Branon) just been able to bring a wealth of experience from multiple years of being around the game,” Nickel said. “He understands people and players, and knows how to be successful. It’s been a lot of fun being around him everyday.”
Over the last seven years, there have been upgrades to Shawnee State’s facilities and changes in both the student-athletes who have come and gone inside the basketball program — as well as personnel.
However, one constant to Nickel’s penchant for winning was Branon — a quiet, but wise and positive role model and coach for each of the student-athletes inside the women’s program, and a well-respected leader for his fellow coaching and administrative co-workers outside of it.
Outside of Nickel’s first season in 2013-14, Shawnee State advanced to the Mid-South Conference Tournament championship in each year that Branon was on staff, and in five of those six seasons, SSU won the MSC Tournament crown.
During the 2019-20 campaign, the program put together one of its best seasons in the Nickel era with Branon’s help, winning 11 out of its last 12 contests and defeating three ranked opponents in the MSC Tournament — en route to marking an unprecedented amount of success with that fifth conference tournament title.
No program in MSC history has ever won five MSC Tournament championships in a six-season stretch.
While the 2020 NAIA Division I and Division II Tournaments were unfortunately cancelled, Branon’s success inside the Shawnee State program alongside Nickel was truly unprecedented — leading the Bears to a 190-50 record alongside his friend and fellow peer.
“It’s been a great experience,” Branon said. “I was really disappointed that we couldn’t play for the chance at a national championship this year. I thought we had a real chance. I wanted to stay around long enough to see that happen, but at the same time, I’m 75 years old. I don’t think it’s wise for me to be chasing 20-year old basketball players around when they can run circles around me.”
Then, there’s the fact that he closed out his career like many champions do — on top.
“I just admired his loyalty, his work ethic, and his dedication,” Nickel said. “I just really admired that about him. He still has that desire to go out and compete, and not only compete, but to show up and do all the work behind the scenes in order to compete at an elite level. I really admire that about him.”
Lasting legacy includes
Of all of the experiences that Branon has come out on top, however, nothing tops the opportunity that he had while coaching his son Michael at Wheelersburg.
One particular moment stands out above all, as Branon got to not only accumulate his 300th career head coaching victory, but watched his son blast two home runs in a victory over Valley.
“On a personal level, I was able to coach my son (Michael) for four years,” Branon said. “He was one of the more outstanding hitters that I ever coached. He had one of the best batting averages of anybody on our team. Then, when I won the 300th game of my career, Michael hit two home runs against Valley to get me that 300th win. That was as big of a thrill as any that I’ve had in coaching.”
His experience at SSU, however, is right up there near the top of his list.
“They are people who really love the game,” Branon said of his fellow coaches. “You don’t get involved with the program, on that level, unless you really love the game and love coaching. Those are dedicated people who want to win. Most people will not believe the hours that we put in as a staff in order to be successful. All of the coaches are working, watching film, putting players through workouts and doing whatever it takes to win. You can’t believe how good of a staff it is. I’m so much older than they are, but they treated me well and never acted like they were better than me because I was older. I had a really good time working with the staff. They’re going to be good again because the staff will make them be good. It’s been a great experience being a part of that.”
“We have had a lot of fun coaching together,” Nickel said. “I have had a lot of fun being around him after the bus rides and the big wins, and sometimes after the tough losses. He’s always a shoulder that you can lean on and a person that was respected because he had been through it for so long at various levels. I really appreciate him and his empathy. He’s really helped me through a lot. To have that fire that’s still lit through all these years — it inspires me. He still has that drive, passion and will. It’s a fire that he has a hard time extinguishing. Our program at SSU is way better off now knowing him than before.”
Throughout his time as a coach, Jack Branon has provided a great deal of gifts to players and his fellow coaching peers alike.
However, the greatest gifts that Branon has brought to the table are his heart and his humble demeanor — which has never changed regardless of the situation.
For that, he thanks his wife Sharon, for all of the unwavering love and support that she has provided him as he’s pursued his passions, as well as his children Elizabeth and Michael.
“Jack is a winner,” Moore said. “He’s brought a winning tradition every place that he has went. I will remember him as a loving coach who cared, as a coach who enjoyed the success of his players and just loved the every day grind of coaching. He will go down as one of the very best and I am blessed I got to play under Coach Branon.”
“He’s a role model,” Nickel said. “He’s a strong, Christian man with high integrity and who has treated people in the way he wants to be treated. He’s helped me set that standard and put it in place about how we’re going to act on and off of the court, and what we expect out of each other.”
“I thank God that he made me a baseball and basketball coach,” Branon said. “That’s what I have loved to do. It’s great to be associated with different people across Scioto County and all over Southeastern Ohio. I’ve had a chance to coach at all levels and deal with players at all levels, and it’s been a joy at every stop. It’s been a great experience coaching the broad group of people that I’ve coached and coaching with all of the people that I’ve coached alongside.”