Steve Freeman has built more than a football program at Brownwood. A lot more.
The energetic workaholic who’s in his office most days by 4:30 a.m. has orchestrated a much-needed overhaul of Brownwood High School’s athletic facilities. Freeman’s fingerprints are on every project, from the construction of the Gus Snodgrass Fitness Center on the BHS campus to the fencing around the school’s softball and baseball fields to the massive renovations at Gordon Wood Stadium.
“When W.T. Stapler and Steve Freeman came here in 1995, we basically had no athletic facilities,” said Dallas Huston, radio voice of Brownwood sports since the 1960s. “Everything has either been done by Steve’s hand or under his direction and initiative. A lot of people have no idea how extensive it is.
“With what he’s done for the school and the community, if he never won another football game, I’d still want him to be our coach.”
Freeman doesn’t act as the foreman for these projects. In most cases, the BHS athletic director and head football coach is doing more manual labor than anyone, from welding to hammering to sawing. Brownwood football observers say Freeman’s work ethic has trickled down through his coaching staff and players, and is the main reason the Lions have remained perennial playoff qualifiers despite being at the bottom of Class 4A enrollment figures.
When Brownwood lured Stapler out of his Texas retirement to be its head coach in 1995, he came with the understanding that Freeman would be his assistant head coach and succeed Stapler as head coach. The two began to rebuild the BHS facilities by forming an fund-raising alliance with a group of local businessmen called the Alumni Business and Community Club, or ABC. Since 1995, Freeman said the nonprofit corporation has raised $2.2 million.
The first BHS/ABC project was the construction of the Gus Snodgrass Fitness Center that serves boys and girls athletes in all sports with a weightroom, meetings rooms and an indoor turf room. BHS coaches, including Freeman, helped with some of the construction inside the facility.
Freeman, who became Brownwood’s head coach in 1997, didn’t stop there. He was just getting started.
When 1986 BHS graduate Mitch Moore returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach in 1995, coaches had to manually move pipes to water the football practice fields on campus. Freeman, with help from other coaches, installed a sprinkler system.
When someone drove onto the field next to Slayden Street after a rain, leaving deep tire prints where the Lions practice, Freeman put up a knee-high chain border around all the practice fields.
Freeman helped resod the practice fields with Bermuda grass, using dirt hauled over from old Lions Stadium, Brownwood’s home field through 1971 that was being torn down to build an intermediate school. The message in using dirt from Lions Stadium was that five state championship teams had played on that same dirt.
With assistance from an uncle, Freeman led the installation of four goalposts at the practice fields. Not every practice field needs a goalpost, but like the decision to use the dirt from Lions Stadium, there was a reason for it.
“I had a gentleman ask me one time why we had so many goalposts,” Freeman said. “I told him that when our kids turn the corner and approach the school, I want them to see two things. One is a school that has pride and looks good and is well kept. The other is that, with all those goalposts, they can’t help but think about Brownwood football.”
Freeman’s vision for seeing something before it’s built also led to BHS having its own version of a monument park. In a separated concrete area between the athletic dressing rooms and the fitness center sit seven marble statues of the state of Texas, one for each of the Lions’ state football championships won under Gordon Wood’s direction between 1960 and 1981. On a brick wall behind the statues are 29 plaques honoring the other Brownwood playoff teams.
“We put it (monument park) where we did because we want our kids to see it every day,” Freeman said. “It’s not meant to put pressure on them, but it’s a reminder of who they’re playing for. We don’t want to separate ourselves from our past.”
Living up to his role as athletic director, Freeman didn’t stop building around campus with the football program. Brownwood once lost the chance to host a Class 5A playoff softball game in part because the fence around the field was damaged. So Freeman, with help from Dr. Steve Steed, a Tarleton State professor whose wife, Mary, is the volleyball coach at Brownwood, constructed chain-length fencing around the BHS softball and baseball complexes. They also built a covered batting cage for the softball team.
“One thing I learned from my dad is that perception is greater than reality,” Freeman said. “We lost that playoff game because of the perception of our field. We fixed the perception.”
In 2002, it had become obvious that Gordon Wood Stadium, which opened in 1972 and was named for the legendary Lions football coach, needed massive renovations. The grass was worn out by November, costing the facility playoff games it used to get because of its centralized location in Texas. A closer look revealed upgrades also were needed for the press box, public address system, dressing rooms and concession areas.
Dennis and Daniel Bloom, twin brothers who graduated from Brownwood in 1961 and own a marketing firm in Dallas, gave half the funds for a new grass turf field that would be named Bloom Field. The family of Bill Jamar provided funds to rebuild the press box, which now bears his name. The ABC group set out to raise the remainder of the money for the new turf and other stadium renovations.
“It got to where when people saw me coming, they started running the other way,” said Bart Johnson, who headed the ABC’s effort by helping raise $1 million in eight weeks.”Once we got going, people came out of the woodwork to help. Brownwood turns out for this kind of stuff.”
Some businesses gave as much as $25,000. Some individuals gave as much as $5,000. Freeman also received envelopes with $5 or $10. Every donation was needed.
When the field was finished and all the initial renovations completed, Freeman kept going. With the annual Bluebonnet Relays drawing 1,800 track and field athletes, a barrier was needed on the south curve to keep people off the track during races. Freeman and Steed put up a wrought-iron fence to assist traffic flow, but when they finished, the new fence made the adjacent covered walkway that led Brownwood football players from their dressing room to the field look obsolete.
“Here we had this nice new fence, and the tunnel looked like an old greenhouse,” Moore said.
So Freeman and his son, Colby, the Lions’ starting quarterback from 1995-98, constructed a new walkway with wrought-iron railing and a metal A-frame roof painted maroon. The father and son pulled an all-nighter to complete the roof.
“Steve will work all hours of the night to get it done. He’s not one to stop at 5 o’clock. He’ll stay until 2 or 3 in the morning,” said Kevin Gabaree, an assistant superintendent at BHS for the last six years. “He’ll have his sons helping, his wife Jani, assistant coaches, athletes, whoever he can get.”
When the walkway was finished, it was Colby’s idea to name it in honor of Huston, the voice of Brownwood football for five decades. The walkway was dedicated as the “Dallas Huston Walk of Champions.”
“When they dedicated the Walk of Champions, Colby and Bart Johnson and the mayor were up on the podium with me,” Huston said. “But Steve refused to get up there with us. That’s the way he is. He doesn’t want the credit. He’s a very humble man.”
The humble man also helped dig the holes for the new video board on the south end of the stadium, next to the Walk of Champions.
The growth of the Bluebonnet Relays required more throwing rings for the discus and shot put. Across the street from the stadium, Freeman and a BHS maintenance worker cleared a pasture full of mesquite trees, brush, weeds and tall grass for the space for three additional throwing rings.
The finishing touches came with a bronze statue of Wood, which fans see when they enter the home side of Gordon Wood Stadium.
“We didn’t set out to make the Taj Mahal, but it’s something the town is proud of,” Freeman said of the stadium renovations.
On the projects Freeman built himself, the Brownwood school district or the ABC group paid for the materials. But Freeman and his helpers performed the labor at no charge. Not even Gabaree can estimate how much money Freeman has saved the school district in labor costs.
“I don’t have a clue how much people charge for doing that much work, but it would be a very large sum of money,” Gabaree said.
Work ethic began in Roscoe
Freeman’s passion for building projects is an extension of a work ethic instilled while growing up and working on his family’s farm a mile east of Roscoe. Jerland Freeman worked at a fast pace and expected his three sons to keep up.
“I first remember having expectations and direct responsibility when I was six years old,” Steve Freeman said. “With daddy, there was no time to go back and do something you were already supposed to have done.
“We (three sons) were a good portion of daddy’s workforce. We didn’t drive around and check on guys doing the work. We were meeting hired hands at daylight and jumping into the work with them.”
The Freemans farmed all day, then performed mechanical work on their machinery and equipment at night. Elnor Freeman, Steve’s mother, kept the family workforce fed — along with an assortment of dinner guests, from the Roscoe superintendent to the preacher.
“It was an ag-related operation … we call it a program in athletics, but it’s the same concept,” Steve Freeman said. “There always has to be a chief, and there was no question that daddy was the chief. But he would not ask us to do something he wouldn’t do.”
Freeman has applied the ideas of running a farm to running Brownwood’s football program. When hiring assistant coaches, knowledge of football Xs and Os isn’t always the highest priority.
“I won’t hire a coach unless he knows how to mow, weld or drive a tractor,” Freeman said. “I can teach him the Xs and Os. I can’t teach him how to work hard.”
Moore said, “He (Freeman) won’t ask his assistant coaches to do anything he’s not doing, not willing to do or hasn’t already done.”
Stapler said Freeman showed his relentless work ethic even while he was student teaching with Sweetwater’s athletic program in 1985.
“He jumped right in there like he was a full-time assistant coach,” said Stapler, who left Sweetwater after winning a state championship in 1985 and coached at Saginaw Boswell and Andrews.
“I tried to hire Steve two or three times before Brownwood, but it just never worked out. In my opinion, he was a can’t-miss as a coach. He’s the hardest-working assistant coach I ever had, and the hardest-working human being I’ve ever known.”
After finishing college at Abilene Christian, Freeman actually farmed before he entered the coaching profession. He ran a cotton and milo operation in Plains, near the Texas-New Mexico border.
“I think he started working the day he was born,” Jerland Freeman said of Steve. “He’s been a good worker all his life. When it came to building something, you’d never see a blueprint. He had it all in his head.”
Beyond the athletic arena
Back in Brownwood, Freeman did not limit his building projects to the school.
When Val Hernandez, who began at Brownwood as its volleyball coach and girls athletic coordinator and now is an assistant principal, bought a new home on Bangs Hill last summer, it needed renovating. Hernandez knew how she wanted to fix up the inside, but she asked Freeman to renovate the backyard, which features a panoramic view overlooking Brownwood.
The coach, with help from two of his players, spent 4 1/2 weeks and built three patio areas, including two pavilions. One of the pavilion areas is large enough for Hernandez to host gatherings and engage in her hobby of planting and potting. Freeman and his players also constructed a fountain waterfall, cedar fencing in the back yard and wrought-iron fencing around the front yard. Freeman didn’t build the knee-high rock fence that overlooks Brownwood, but he drew up the plans for it.
“It’s beautiful,” Hernandez said. “I had 23 family members here for Thanksgiving, and they couldn’t believe how good everything looked. Steve’s not one to cut corners. He’s that way at school, too. If he does something, it’s going to be done first class.”
In the summer of 2001, BHS athletic department secretary Missy Pursley wanted a deck by her backyard pool to host an event. She talked to “a friend of a friend,” but they couldn’t complete the project in time. Pursley reluctantly asked her boss about the project, and Freeman and his youngest son, Kirby, another former Brownwood quarterback, immediately began building a red cedar deck with a hot tub and wrought-iron railing.
“They must’ve worked 20 hours a day for about three weeks,” Pursley said. “They were here every day before sunrise and they didn’t leave until 10:30 at night.
“It (the deck) turned out better than I imagined. It’s built solid. If there’s a bad enough storm, my house may blow away, but I’ll guarantee you that deck isn’t moving. They welded every little piece of pipe all the way to the ground.”
Recalling the welding help from Kirby with Pursley’s deck and Colby with the Walk of Champions, Steve Freeman quipped: “I miss my two sons a lot more as welders than as quarterbacks.”
Freeman didn’t bill Hernandez or Pursley for the labor on their projects, but they paid him for his handy work.
“I’m not for hire for personal projects,” Freeman said, “but I’ll do it in the right situation. Val and Missy have been good to us. There aren’t many ways to pay them back for what they’ve done at school.”
The crown jewel among Freeman’s private building projects is the lake house he purchased 14 years ago. The place has been described as a “clump of brush, trash, cactus, rocks, mesquite trees and chicken coops with an abandoned house that had been an army barrack at Camp Bowie through World War II.”
There was no visibility of Lake Brownwood, even though the water was only 50 yards behind the house.
“I can go home to Roscoe now, and the house is the same as it was when I was born in 1958,” Freeman said. “My bedroom is pretty much like I left it when I went to college. Because we moved around in coaching, it always bothered me that our sons didn’t have a home base to go back to like I have.”
Freeman saw the lake house as that home base. He spent two months clearing, cutting and burning the brush that covered every square foot of the lot. Two hundred fifty-six truck loads of dirt were hauled in to start landscaping a yard. Freeman built and floated two boat docks in 1994.
Today, the back yard is filled with St. Augustine grass and landscaped on different levels sloping down to the lake.
The coach has spent parts of the last 14 years working on the outside of the lake property. He kept the original barrack walls and ceiling, but gutted the remainder of the house. Structural work on the house began two months ago. Freeman contracted out that work, but he’s there most days to oversee the project.
Work ethic impacts football team
Those who closely observe Brownwood football feel certain Freeman’s work ethic on his building projects has a direct effect on the Lions ability to remain competitive despite sliding to the bottom of Class 4A in terms of enrollment over the last decade. The University Interscholastic League lists Brownwood’s enrollment at 977.5 students, easily the smallest school in District 16-4A, which includes Copperas Cove (1,959.5 students), Hewitt Midway (1,931.5), Waco High (1,826) and Killeen High (1,803).
“There’s no way they (Lions) could have done what they’ve done and worked any less,” said Stapler, who lives in Abilene and listens to Brownwood games on his car radio while sitting in his garage. “If there’s a team that works harder than Brownwood, I’d like to know who they are so I can go watch them.”
Freeman’s record at Brownwood is 81-41, and the Lions have made the playoffs in nine of his 10 seasons as head coach, including one state semifinals appearance and two state quarterfinals appearances. The Lions pulled off a dramatic turnaround last season. They were 3-6 entering the final regular-season game, but beat Midway 60-10 and won a three-way coin flip all in the same night to qualify for the playoffs. The surprising Lions then won three playoff games before falling to district rival Waco High in the state quarterfinals.
“He never stops working, no matter how bleak things may look,” Pursley said of Freeman. “He keeps going until he finds a way. He doesn’t settle for defeat.”
Whether it’s with upgrading facilities, lifting weights in February or making every minute of a November practice count, Freeman said the Lions must take advantage of every aspect they can to compensate for their low 4A enrollment. They also must work hard to match up with the athleticism of teams like Copperas Cove and Waco High.
“When our kids get off the bus, they’re confident we’re going to win the game,” Moore said. “It’s not because we’re the most athletic team, but because we’re the most prepared. We always feel like we have worked harder than our opponent. That goes straight from Coach Freeman to the players, and it’s part of us being able to stay competitive in 4A.”
This could be the Lions’ final season in 4A. Brownwood’s current enrollment has fallen under the 3A-4A boundary for the last UIL realignment in 2006. The next realignment will be in February 2008. If Brownwood does drop and becomes one of the largest 3A schools in the state, the Lions suddenly will become favorites instead of underdogs. But as long as Freeman’s the coach, don’t expect the Lions to lose the working edge that helped them win as underdogs.
“I may get upset with a play Steve calls on third-and-1 during a big game,” Huston said. “But all I have to do is get in my pickup and drive around the school and the softball field and the baseball field and the football stadium, and I get a big smile on my face.
“I look around at what he’s done, and I thank the Lord we have Steve Freeman.”