JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — East Tennessee State University (ETSU) has named a new women’s basketball coach to replace one-year coach Simon Harris, who the school is firing in the wake of an internal investigation announced a week ago.
Brenda Mock Brown, 44, who coached at UNC-Asheville and led that squad to two NCAA tournaments, will take over the program for the 2022-23 season.
“There was one person that I kept saying, ‘she checks every box,'” interim Athletic Director Richard Sander said during a news conference.
Mock Brown coached at UNC-A from 2012-2020, taking them to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and 2017. She compiled an overall record of 117-137, including winning records in each of her last five seasons.
“My priorities are in this gym, and you can look at them,” Mock Brown said, pointing to the current team members in Brooks Gym, the Bucs’ home floor. “They’re sitting right over there. Those are my priorities, and without exception.”
Mock Brown will take a program that appears to be beset by scandal. ETSU plans this week to release the finding of its internal investigation of Harris, which was precipitated after the coach kicked two players off last year’s team and their complaints led to a determination he used an “invalid rule” in that decision.
The investigation found multiple other improprieties, though, which led Noland to announce in a letter that the findings show his “conduct is likely to lead to an NCAA finding of a Level I and/or Level II violations of one or more governing athletic rules.” Noland called Harris’s actions “unconscionable.”
ETSU Athletic Director Scott Carter resigned an hour prior to the university’s announcement of Harris’s pending termination and Sander, who served in the role from 2012-2017, stepped back in.
The new coach’s remarks came after Noland said ETSU will quickly establish better methods for helping student-athletes on and off the field, including partnerships with ETSU Health.
“I expect him to focus on student-athlete health and welfare,” Noland said, referencing particularly the past week that has been “extremely difficult for members of our women’s basketball team.”
Mock Brown, who also had two teams (2017 and 2019) make the NCAA Division I Academic Top 25, thanked the remaining staff and said the program “was squeezed by the unexpected in many ways” over the past week.
She quoted Martin Luther King Jr., saying a person’s ultimate measure is not where they stand in “moments of comfort and convenience” but “at times of challenge and controversy.”
“This is a time of challenge,” she said. “There’s controversy, there’s tumult surrounding this. But there’s also opportunity, and where we stand and how we respond to this as a family will reveal the heart and the character of this program and I have no doubt, after this morning, after talking with (Sander), after meeting President Noland and I know just looking at the people who showed up today, we’re going to respond and move forward positively and we’re going to get this thing done.”
Mock Brown said she was no stranger to a challenge. UNC-A’s Bulldogs were 37-83 in the four years prior to her winning the head coaching job, and the team was 2-28 in her first season.
“I do not shy away from challenge,” she said. “I’ve been knocked down, I’ve been kicked in the teeth. The brakes have been beaten off of me and I’ve gotten right back up.”
After winning just 20 games the following two years, though, the Bulldogs had a historic 2015-2016 season, going 26-7 and making the NCAA tournament. They made a repeat trip the following year when they finished 19-15, and also posted winning records and went to minor postseason tournaments in 2018 and 2019.
“This is going to take some patience, love, compassion, work, dedication,” Mock Brown said of the team’s rebuilding. She said her core values are work, integrity, purpose and love.
ETSU has compiled a record of just 29-80 the past four seasons, including 6-22 in Harris’s only season last year. Brittney Ezell led the team during most of the past decade, when they were 119-172 overall and made Women’s NIT appearances in 2015 and 2018.
The team made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances — the only ones in its history — in 2008, 2009 and 2010 under longtime head coach Karen Kemp.
As to the likely style of play, Mock Brown said the first year especially that would be tailored to the current group of players. Developing and leveraging those players’ strengths will be her first priority with the system evolving from there.
While she said she was not “stubborn about style,” Mock Brown said she is “stubborn about how we play.”
She said she coached “gritty” teams at UNC-A that opponents “didn’t like playing” because they “scouted the heck out of” the other teams.
“We rebounded the heck out of the ball,” Mock Brown added, saying the two years the Bulldogs won the Big South Conference tournament they ranked near the top of the league in rebounding margin.
“I think that’s where we’ve gotta be, because defense and rebounding, that’s a lot of controllables there, and we want to be gritty and tough,” she said.
Mock Brown left that coaching gig because her husband had “an incredible opportunity” to pursue his engineering doctorate at Georgia Tech. The Western North Carolina native, who played at Wake Forest University and was a two-time team captain, had assistant coaching stints at Georgia Tech, UNC-Charlotte and University of Florida.
While she lavished praise on the assistant coaches and athletic department staff, Mock Brown spoke most to the players, who she worked with for 45 minutes prior to the news conference.
“I want to build relationships and create an experience for you guys, with your help, that go beyond just surface level, that go below that surface,” she said. “And that takes time and I’m committed to put the time into you guys, and that 45 minutes has been a joy with you.”