Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In Natchitoches, a macho man with a soft heart

       The calls still come in, not quite as frequently and not quite as boisterously, but once in about six weeks, I hear the familiar voice.
    "Chinaman, [blank] [blank] you," he says. "You little [blank]. Why don't you ever answer your phone? I can't ever get you. ... When are you going to come down here and see me?
Bettye and Jim Bruning, in good times
    Few have ever said Jim Bruning was subtle, or politically correct. And, yeah, you can fill in the blank-blanks.
    It has been almost three decades since he was Coach Bruning -- the head football coach at first Natchitoches, La., High School and then, after integration, Natchitoches-Central High.
    And he was a darned good football coach. He coached at those schools for 20 years -- the last 12 (1966-77) as head coach. He spent practically his whole life in Natchitoches, and those were his only coaching jobs.
    Most years, he was a big part of winning teams. But one year was special -- 1969. Natchitoches High, in its last year, won the only state championship (Class AA) in the program's history. 
    The people in that mid-sized North Louisiana city remember that. Bruning's players that year still relish it, still get together to celebrate the good times.
    Bruning was a big man in Natchitoches, and still is. More than football, what people know, what his players and ex-students know, is he was a true friend, an endearing personality.
    He was gruff and tough, an old-school disciplinarian ... and he was funny, and fun, and full of mischief.
The young couple, with baby Janyce
    He is 83 now, and his health has been -- is -- a concern. Walking is difficult and even breathing is a problem. I'll spare further details, but being in an assisted-care facility and in a hospital isn't his choice.
    It's been a lonely existence of sorts since 2009 when Bettye, the attractive dark-haired girl he married in 1956, died of breast cancer, eight years after the first diagnosis. They spent a lot of their last two decades traveling together.
    The three children -- Janyce, 59; Harryette, 55, and Jim Jr. ("Bubba" to everyone), 52 -- are long gone from Natchitoches. Two live in Texas, one relatively closeby in North Louisiana, but they check on Dad often. So do his many friends. 
    And he'll call those friends, anytime he feels like it. One of those is a retired sportswriter -- also in Texas -- who he entertains with, well, a practically one-way conversation -- Coach's hearing is almost nonexistent -- but so what?
    I'm expecting analysis of LSU football and the Northwestern State Demons in the coming weeks. Because Bruning is not shy of [blank-blank] opinions.
    Covering high school athletics for The Shreveport Times or Shreveport Journal in the '60s, '70s and '80s meant lots of visits to schools -- particularly in the immediate area -- and phone calls to coaches, particularly those farther from Shreveport-Bossier. 
    So I covered games involving Bruning's teams only a few times, but the first was memorable -- the 27-7 Class AA state-title victory against Tallulah at old Demon Stadium in Natchitoches in December 1969. That was at the end of my first football season as a fulltime employee at The Times. 
    I'd see Bruning and his assistant coaches scouting games, and he'd always have some clever things to say (OK, some BS), and we'd laugh. 
    But our friendship became more than writer-coach because of a story I did before the 1973 season opener. Because Jim Bruning was bold and brash in a hilarious way.
    His 1972 team had been 10-2 and shared a district championship, but the 1973 opener was a real challenge -- at Neville (Monroe).
    That was never an easy game for any visitors (and still isn't). But Neville then was the defending Class AAAA state champion and, as always, a formidable opponent.
    So I called Bruning early that week and asked how he felt about his team going to play at Neville.
    "We're going to beat their butts," he said (don't think he used "butts"). Of course, I laughed and said, "You want me to print that?"            
    "Yeah, I don't care," he replied, and then went on to say that his guys wouldn't be scared, wouldn't be intimidated, that they had a game plan to win, that Neville was just a good opponent but could be had, etc., etc.
    Disbelieving -- and laughing -- I asked again if he was sure that I could use these quotes. Sure, he said.
    Neville's coaches always loved using the "us against the world" hype to pump up their players, so this bulletin-board stuff was perfect for them.
    "Hey, next time you're down here, stop by and I'll buy you a steak," Bruning said.
    The story ran -- on a Wednesday, I think -- with the quotes, a little toned down. 
    On Friday night, Neville beat Natchitoches-Central 42-0.
    On a trip back from South Louisiana to cover a playoff game late that season, I called Bruning ... and he (and Bettye) bought me a steak dinner.
    "If you ever need a place to stay when you're coming this way, you can stay with us," Jim said. (Their new home was big enough to house his starting lineup.)
    Took him up on that -- several times. I was single and hungry, and so Bubba -- then about 10 or 11, but already bigger than me (there's a laugh) -- was my roommate.
    It was during one visit that he said, "What kind of name is that you have? Are you from China?" And, from that point, I was "Chinaman." (Who knows why? I think Dutchman would have been more accurate. But not for Jim.)
    Let's see, I think the steak or catfish dinner count is up to about a dozen. I have been reminded of this, oh, about 150 times over the years. But there is no way that Bruning would ever let me pay, even if I offered.
    Of course, I reminded of Neville, and 42-0, and butt-beating a few times.     
    And the phone calls -- when I was living in Florida, Tennessee or Texas -- always came. Coach Bruning liked talking about sports, and life.
The coach and his kids: Janyce, Jim Jr. ("Bubba")
and, at her wedding, Harryette
    His children will tell you that the coach was much the same at home as in football.
    "He was pretty demanding," said Janyce Bruning Kinley, a social studies/world languages coordinator in the Bryan (Texas) school district. "He was very loving and crazy, doing stuff that drove mother crazy, like when it was snowing and the roads were icy, and he's doing donuts in the street.
    "He was the disciplinarian of the house, but also the fun one."
    On Janyce's Facebook page, a friend -- Danelle Moon -- posted this: "Your Dad wore a football helmet on the day I started driver's ed and he made a statement in front of other students, 'Well, Lusby" is driving today, looks like I'm gonna be eating my knees!' He was the best instructor ever ... and a hoot!"
    "A great daddy," said Harryette Tinsley, who lives near Arcadia, La., and teaches computer classes at Ruston High School. "He was there to support us, no matter what I did or screwed up. He was very stern, believed in right or wrong.
    "He loved my mother with all his heart. He might act rough and tough, but he had such a big heart."
    And, as Harryette noted, one of Jim's fondest wishes is that all four of the Bruning grandchildren earn their college educations.
    "Caring," said big Bubba Bruning, a tax accountant for an oil company in Humble, Texas. "He'd do anything for you, but he wanted you to learn to do things for yourself. He was a disciplinarian; he wanted you to do things right.
    "I learned to iron because of him," he added. "He wouldn't let me out of the house (for school) unless I was neatly dressed."
    Bettye and Jim loved to travel, always, so they hitched the trusty camper to Jim's truck and "they showed us much of the country," Bubba said. "Mom being a librarian (research librarian at Northwestern State, then school librarian for a dozen at Natchitoches-Central), we had to learn all that [history]."
     Son-in-law Allen Kinley, who played and coached at Woodlawn High in Shreveport, played at Northwestern and for a couple of decades has been a weight-training coach for Texas A&M athletics, said Bruning "has been like another Dad."
      When Allen met Janyce in his first week at NSU and they began dating, Coach Bruning soon pulled out the game film from a Natchitoches-Woodlawn game and checked out Woodlawn's No. 84 at linebacker, "and then he called [Woodlawn principal] Bubba Cook" for a scouting report.
      He received approval. "If I had not gotten along with him," Kinley said, "I don't think his daughter would have stayed.
      "He's been very accepting of me. He gave me a hard time about being from Woodlawn, but we've always had mutual respect from the beginning."
      Kinley said that he "amazed that every time we visit, there are a lot of his ex-players there to visit with him."
      And even in the assisted-living facility and the hospital, Janyce said, "He's very social. The more people around, the more he likes it.
      "He cares about people. He'll tease them, get on them about their bad habits, and so on, but he has a bigger-than-life personality.
       "At the hospital, a nurse asked him, 'Is there anyone in town who doesn't know you?' "
    James Lindwind Bruning grew up in Clarence, a village seven miles east of Natchitoches. He was known there as "Sonny" and he grew tall and slim, and was a talented athlete -- especially in baseball, and good enough in football at Natchitoches High in about 1950 to earn a scholarship to LSU.
    But when LSU wanted him to redshirt as a freshman, after about a week he went home to Natchitoches -- and to Northwestern State. He lettered as an end in 1952, but messed around in school and ended up in the U.S. Army and a stint mostly served in Germany.
    He came home, back to Northwestern, and Bettye -- engaged to someone else -- soon was his wife. He lettered for the Demons in 1955-56-57, and his field goal to beat McNeese State 23-20 in 1957 helped coach Jack Clayton's first NSC team share a conference championship.
    The next year, with the Bruning family growing, Jim joined the coaching staff of his own coach, Trent Melder, at Natchitoches High. He was there to stay.
    In 1958 and '59, the Red Devils were district champs, with a 10-0 regular season in '59 but a state semifinals loss. In 1960, a 9-1 record wasn't enough to make the playoffs (only the district champ qualified then).
    Then came a decline, and Melder stepped out of coaching after the 1965 season. Bruning took over the program, and the first year was rough -- a 2-8 record.
    But he was building discipline, and a stable, loyal coaching staff, and what followed was six playoff years in succession -- records of 9-2, 9-3-1, 14-0, 9-3, 8-3, 10-2.
    After four district titles (or shares) in six years, Bruning's last five seasons of coaching were so-so. Still, he got out -- into a decade of work for an oil distributor in town -- with an 80-50-3 record over a dozen seasons ... and a lot of respect.
    The 1969 Natchitoches High team produced a magical, once-in-a-lifetime season.
    Led by a talented backfield -- All-State quarterback Gene Knecht Jr., tailback Rand Dennis and junior fullback Jim Knecht -- that was as big as the Red Devils' linemen, the team survived a close call in the season opener (7-6 vs. Mansfield), routed its next seven opponents (scoring 28 to 42 points each time), then survived five close games in a row (its first three playoff games) before dominating the state-title game.
    Gene Knecht made All-State; so did center Steve McCain (also the next season), linebacker Ricky Whittington and defensive back Joe Beck Payne. 
    Dennis and Jim Knecht went on to play at LSU; Gene Knecht also signed with LSU, but after a year there, transferred to NSU, which Gene Knecht Sr. was the longtime defensive backs coach.
    Bruning was selected Class AA "Coach of the Year."
    "He was an exceptional coach," said Jim Knecht. "A good motivator. He motivated you to go beyond what you thought you could do.
    "He expected you to do your best. If you didn't, he'd let you know. He got the best out of his players."
    Dennis said Bruning was "a figurehead type head coach" who let his assistants handle the details, such as Levi Thompson devising different offensive schemes each week.
    "We had kids who had brains," said Jim Knecht, "... who were smart, fast and strong. We lined up in slots and trips (formations); no other teams had seen those then."
    "We had good players across the board," said Dennis.
    "Smartest group of kids I ever coached," said Dan Poole, for a decade the school's defensive backs and track/field coach until -- in his words -- he was "demoted" to school principal. "It was the whole team, and they were also very competitive, adjusted to changes very quickly."
    And he credits Bruning for this: "I don't know how he could read the kids so well. We had kids who didn't look very good in practice, but Jim would play them. He knew which ones would come through in critical situations; he would pick the right ones. He was just great at picking personnel.
    "He grew up here, so he knew the families and the kids."
    The connection started early. Stuart Wright, Natchitoches-Central's starting quarterback for three seasons (1970-72) and as a freshman the backup to Gene Knecht in 1969, remembers that "what made a difference in our program (in high school) was that he was at every one of our junior high games. He knew us better than we knew him."
   His kids, and his players, will tell you: Coach Bruning kept up with everyone.
   "The main thing I remember," said Wright, "is he'd get on your case in a heartbreak; he got on everyone. But he was a really genuine great guy. His bark was a lot worse than his bite. He really loved the kids through the years. He's been like a second father to all of us."
   Same from Jim Knecht: "He's a guy who was almost like a father. He's kept up with all of us; showed true interest in our lives. He really cares, and that makes a difference."
   Wright is an attorney in Natchitoches and was first assistant district attorney in Natchitoches Parish. Knecht has been a family medicine doctor for 30-plus years in Natchitoches, and a team physician for Northwestern State and Natchitoches-Central's football teams for decades.
   "He really cared about his players; he would do anything to help them in their lives," added daughter Harryette.
   "What we remember is he always had such a gruff exterior," said Rand Dennis, for 35 years a litigation attorney in Baton Rouge and now living in San Antonio. "He would bark at you, but you know there'd be a smile right behind that."
    Knecht and Dennis played together at LSU in the early 1970s, giving Natchitoches half of the Tigers' starting defensive backs -- a proud Coach Bruning watching them often.
    What the players also knew was that their coach's concern covered more than football.
    "If we were playing hooky from school," recalled Dennis, "he'd come out in town and find us. He'd watch out for us."
    "I remember him many nights calling parents to check on the players, make sure they were home," recalled daughter Janyce. "Same on the weekends. And if they weren't home, he went into town to find them."
    Wright, who often has treated the coach to meals in recent years said Jim's memory " is better than mine. He remembers games, and people. You go in and he recognizes you immediately."
    He credits Bruning's influence for helping pave a smooth transition in a rough period when court-ordered integration forced the merger of practically all-white Natchitoches High and all-black Central High in 1970.
    The new school emerged on the west side of town on the Highway 1 bypass. The old Natchitoches High, located on the Northwestern State campus along University Parkway, became the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts.
    With that in mind, Bruning felt as if the 1969 state championship trophy belonged to old Natchitoches High and the team players. For years, that trophy sat in the Bruning home, in the large recreation room/den; I kidded him about it often. Later, it began being rotated among the players. Word is that John Williams, in Tyler, has it now.
    That '69 team, with some from preceding and succeeding classes, reunites every June for an outing at nearby Toledo Bend.
    "It's been a wonderful thing," said Dennis, saying that while he was able Bruning brought crawfish to the Friday night gathering. "He thinks of us as his boys, and we like that he does. It's been rewarding."
    The 1978 Natchitoches-Central yearbook includes a copy of a letter written on behalf of Bruning's players in his final season of coaching. Harryette provided it, it is entitled "Coach" and it reads:
    "In the past years the senior football players have given our head coach an award. This year's award, which represents our love, respect and admiration, has been, and is, much more meaningful because we are coach's last group of seniors.
    "Coach Bruning's overall record speaks for itself; however, no won or loss record can ever reveal the success that this man has had in the growth and development of young men. Records are for statisticians or spectators and never can be used to judge the value of a man. No won or loss record can ever picture the father image of Coach Bruning. Prints are just numbers on a scoreboard and are short-lived, whereas Coach Bruning's image of a man will live with us forever.
    " 'Macho' is a Spanish word meaning 'all man.' Until eternity, we seniors will remember you as our coach who was, and is, 'macho.' "
    My friend, macho.
    I am waiting for the next call, the next blank-blank politically incorrect opinion ... and the next steak dinner.   


  1. I loved him at NHS and I love him now!

  2. From Rand Dennis: I can't begin to tell you how much I loved this beautifully written tribute to Coach Bruning. It perfectly captures Coach Bruning the man, and it stirred such fond memories and left me with a big lump in my throat. As you so poignantly put it, Coach Bruning is "a true friend and an endearing personality." I love that man.

  3. From Kim Gaspard: What a great read on Jim Bruning. I plan on visiting him soon. Jim and Bettye were awful nice to me the summer before my senior year at NSU. Janyce was in a summer English class with me and I would get an invite to study and have dinner at their home. Jim was familiar with me from when I played at Alexandria Sr. High. We played Natchitoches twice during my time there. He kinda befriended me during my NSU years. I consider him one of those foundation builders. Last time I saw him he had lost his LHSAA coaches card. Being on the committee, I was able to get him a new one pretty quickly. He came by school to pick it up. Bettye was in the van outside and I went out to say hi to her. What great people. Again, my compliments on the article.

  4. From Donald Mayeaux: That is a great read and right on! Enjoyed it.

  5. From Maxie Hays: Awesome story! What a man. Really enjoyed the read.

  6. From Bill Morrow: Hey, thanks a lot. I was a sophomore at NHS in '69-70. What a fun year that was! Fantastic football team. We lived next door to the Knechts, Rick Whittington was my golf tourney partner and I played many rounds with Rand Dennis.

  7. From Bud Dean: Thanks for that article. He tried to hire me [as basketball coach] at NCHS in 1979 when I left Parkway, but the superintendent wanted J.D. Garret. Joe Dumars was a sophomore. Oh, what could have been. I probably would have coached him down.

  8. From Pesky Hill: Thank you for doing this on Bruning. Also one of my favorites. He came to our wedding. I need to go see him.

  9. From Ramona Hoogeveen: I had the privilege and honor of working at the same place as Mr. Bruning for a few years after he retired from coaching. He worked at Lott Oil Co. in the '90s. He was still an inspiration then. Great tribute to a wonderful man.

  10. From Rickie Primm: Great man. He is the reason I wanted to be a coach. I had so much respect for him when I played under him and I still have that respect today.

  11. From JP Perry: Great man. I took his driver ed class but did not drive much. He told me no need since I could drive and others needed it worse. Made me proud and I got to drive him around in his truck on errands. So cool for a 14-year-old.

  12. From Diane Dollar Harris: Wonderful article. If it's possible to paint a portrait using words, you did that here. I didn't play football, for obvious reasons, but I was a student at Natchitoches High in '64-67. I don't know any student who didn't respect Coach Bruning. I wish him the absolute best.

  13. From Mark Scott: My high school years are dominated by memories of Coach Bruning and the football legacy he created. I strongly believe a thankful, kindred spirit exists among his footballers.

  14. From Deb Stephens Walley: Great article. I had him for Civics in '69. He was all that was described in the article. I loved football at NHS. My family and I moved to Dallas after my freshman year.

  15. From Phillip Wingo: Coach Bruning, good memories. Stan, Jerome and I had him for drivers ed. We would go to Shipley's Donuts. In football we might have been out of our league, playing Neville and Captain Shreve, but not outclassed. We had some real winners on the teams with which I had the honor to play. Thanks for the opportunity, Coach.

  16. From David Skeeter Cadwallader: I remember scaring Coach Bruning in drivers ed. And him coaching us in football he'd give us hell. But anytime I've seen him throughout the years he always remembered his players and always would talk with you.

  17. From Gwen Stacy: Jim was a fine man with a wonderful wife. Y'all can visit him at The Courtyard. I know he would love having everyone drop by and help pass the time.