EL DORADO — It is unseasonably warm and the Butler Community College football team is running, hard, on the day before Thanksgiving.
Butler associate head coach Steve Braet, the only man with ties to all six of Butler’s NJCAA titles, is helping put the Grizzlies through their paces just a few weeks before they will play for their seventh, against No. 1 Iowa Western at the Graphic Edge Bowl on Dec. 2 in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Butler’s coaches are trying to push the players before the break — a preemptive strike against the gluttony sure to ensue the next day.
As the workout ends, Braet breaks into a light jog in the middle of a group of assistant coaches, shouting over his shoulder to whoever will listen.
“I’m not going to talk,” Braet says, “no offense, but I told (Eagle columnist) Bob Lutz and (former Eagle sports writer) Adam Knapp the same thing. I don’t want to talk.”
And that’s fine.
There’s plenty of people who do.
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Butler coach Troy Morrell met Braet in 1989, when Morrell was a junior in high school. He was a standout offensive lineman at Buhler who Braet successfully recruited to Butler.
“It’s like the lyrics to that old Kid Rock song, ‘It was 1989, my thoughts were short, my hair was long,’ ” said Morrell, smiling. “So I went through that whole thing with him as my coach ... and a lot of those same traits and qualities he instilled in me as a player are the same things we do to this day, 20-plus years later.”
Braet, who was an All-KCAC defensive lineman at Friends, came to Butler in 1979 and, save for two seasons as an assistant coach at Wichita State in 1982 and 1983, El Dorado is where he’s honed his craft to almost-perfection, running the Grizzlies’ strength and conditioning program in the offseason and coaching the defensive line. Butler won NJCAA titles in 1981, under Fayne Henson, in 1998 and 1999 under Memphis special teams coach James Shibest and 2003, 2007 and 2008 under Morrell.
Braet’s contentment seems to come from the most basic places
“First, this has been a great home for him, he loves the area,” Morrell said. “As long as I’ve known him, he’s lived in the same place in Bel Aire, the same house he was living in when I was a player.
“Second, he enjoys this level and dealing with freshmen who come in and they’re so eager to learn, to work and reach those goals of going to a higher level. He has a deep passion for doing what he does.”
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When Tim Schaffner was hired as Butler’s defensive coordinator in 2005, he wasn’t sure how his relationship with Braet would play out.
“It was a little daunting, to think that a guy who is allegedly going to work under you has 30 years experience and is kind of an icon when it comes to this league and this program,” Schaffner said. “But he welcomed me with open arms. He has been a great mentor, a great rock to lean on. When he opens his mouth to speak I stop what I’m doing and I listen to what he says. Nobody has done as much or seen as much when it comes to this league and this level.”
The relationship between Schaffner and Braet has produced a run of some of the greatest defensive linemen the Jayhawk Conference has seen — with Region VI players of the year in former Florida State and NFL linebacker Markus White (2007), former Texas Tech defensive end Scott Smith (2009) and Florida State defensive end Cornellius Carradine (2010), who could be a first-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
White, who has played for the Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was named NJCAA defensive player of the year. So was Carradine.
“He has that persona, that gruffness, but I think it’s more like tough love,” Schaffner said. “Part of coaching the defensive line is managing some kids who have come in with issues … they have a certain type of personality at that position and he is a master at getting them to buy into what we’re trying to do.”
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Braet can come off as gruff, surely, but when he finds someone who is on his level, the results are indisputable.
Current Butler assistant Zac Clark, who started on the defensive line for Oregon on their 2010 BCS runner-up team, won two national titles at Butler in 2007 and 2008 and remembers his first meeting with Braet.
“It was a really short, simple pitch,” Clark said. “He told me ‘You’re at North, you’ve won one game in two years, come to Butler and we’ll win championships.’
“He’s still got that fire to this day.”
Clark got a firsthand look at that fire one early winter morning while he was a player — during a pre-dawn workout.
It’s perhaps the most telling glimpse into what has made Braet so successful.
“It was coming off my freshman year and I was the only returning starter on the defensive line,” Clark said. “And I finished second in one drill, one time and he was on me ... with that voice, yelling, just letting me have it.
“He said now that Markus, Swanson Miller and Tyler Jessup were gone I needed to be ‘the guy’ and ‘the guy’ does not finish second in a drill, ever. I can’t lie, it hurt a little bit. It startles you when he comes at you like that but that’s because he wants you to be the best. He doesn’t accept anything else and I think that’s why he’s been so successful.”