Brandon Clark was 23 when he arrived to coach football at Derby. Wet behind the ears, you might say, and pretty much everywhere else.
He had a stellar high school playing career at Valley Center and played wide receiver at Kansas State.
And upon his arrival at Derby in 2003, Clark was ready to join Tom Young’s varsity coaching staff and show what he had.
Not so fast, kid.
Although one of Young’s top assistants, Paul Evans, announced he was retiring from coaching, he decided to stay on the staff. Which meant the eager Clark had to put on the brakes and accept an assignment to help with the middle school’s eighth-grade team.
“At that moment, there was maybe a little ego involved and I felt like I really should have been on the high school staff,” Clark said. “Looking back on it, though, it’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned a lot, especially that football is a fun game to coach even if you’re coaching a B-team football team.”
That assignment lasted one year for Clark, who was moved to the varsity staff in 2004. But he never got to coach with Young, who went to Leavenworth after 21 years at Derby.
Instead, Clark spent a season each with Lucas Aslin and Mark Bliss, who left after one season each. The Panthers were an unfathomable 0-9 in 2005, after which Bliss and his single-wing offense departed.
Derby, one of the most tradition-rich football programs in Kansas, turned to Clark.
It was a bold move considering he had never been a head coach and was 26.
“This has always been a football hotbed, which is why I wanted to go to Derby in the first place,” Clark said. “Ever since I played for Coach (Mike) Smith in Valley Center, I wanted to be a high school football coach.”
Clark asked for only one thing when he was approached about taking over. He wanted his cousin, Joel Applebee, to be on his staff.
“We were roommates in college and we’ve been best friends since we were growing up,” Clark said. “We decided that Derby used to win with its power-run game and we tried to bring that back.”
But that wasn’t enough. Derby was 1-8 in Clark’s first year and fans who have filled the Panthers’ stadium for years were becoming unsettled. After 21 seasons of Young and the 171 wins that came with them, no one knew what to think.
Clark, though, was determined. He went to clinics and talked to coaches like Alan Schuckman (Bishop Carroll), Bo Black (Great Bend), Marvin Diener (Salina Central) and Randy Dreiling (Hutchinson). He remembered all that he had learned from Smith at Valley Center, and from Bill Snyder at Kansas State. He attended coaches clinics in Oklahoma and Texas so soak up every bit of football wisdom he could.
“You’d be amazed by how willing coaches are to help other coaches,” Clark said. “But it all started with Coach Smith at Valley Center. I always tell him that outside of my parents, he’s one of the single biggest influences on my life.”
In Clark’s third year, Derby reached the 6A playoff semifinals and repeated that accomplishment in 2009. Since 2012, the Panthers have won two 6A championships, are 45-6 and have started quickly this season at 3-0. Derby is the state’s top-ranked team and Clark, now 83-33, is entrenched as one of the state’s elite coaches.
“This is something you kind of dream of,” he said, “but it’s way bigger than me and bigger than our coaches. It’s the whole community.”
That becomes obvious when you attend a Derby home football game. It’s important to arrive early for the experience, from the massive crowds to the marching band and to everything that makes Derby such a football-thirsty community.
Derby’s junior football program has thrived for a half-century and kids 7 and 8 are running the same plays they’ll be running for Clark someday, if the plan goes accordingly.
Clark’s work, he says, is not done. He hopes to coach in Derby for many more years. His ambition isn’t to prove himself at a higher level, but to continue building winning teams in Derby.
“I live a pretty simple life and we fell in love with this town as soon as we moved here,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s a better place in the state to raise a family and I’m not going to be one of those coaches who thinks there’s always something bigger and better.”
Clark is coaching with a bunch of his friends, many of whom played at Derby. There’s a devotion that’s uncommon on most coaching staffs.
“I think Brandon brings what all of those other successful Derby coaches brought,” said Todd Olmstead, 45, who played for Young. “He has that discipline and that driving passion to be good. That’s what we kind of lacked in those couple of years between Tom and Brandon. The inmates were kind of running the asylum.”
Clark institute a series of rules, punishable if they weren’t followed. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?
“He stuck to it,” Olmstead said. “And the kids bought into this just being how it’s going to be.”
Anyone who doubted Clark when he was hired has long been proven wrong. But it took hard work and perseverance. Derby was in trouble when Clark came along and there was no evidence that a 26-year-old was up to the task.
Turns out, he was. Turns out, he’s become one of the best coaches in Kansas. And turns out, he’s all about Derby.