FLORISSANT — You'll never catch Howard Brown painting the town red.
Maybe blue. Maybe black and gold.
A McCluer South-Berkeley legacy and alum who wholeheartedly embraces the long-standing rivalry with neighbor Jennings, Brown's distaste for red runs through him at a molecular level. There was a time you couldn't catch him in anything red.
Those times have passed.
Brown was installed as the new football coach at McCluer in the summer. The Ferguson-Florissant School District restructured its district boundaries and designated McCluer South-Berkeley as STEAM Academy. Among the changes that occurred in the reshuffling was the end of the Berkeley football program, which Brown played for and then coached for 15 years. The program that gave him his affinity for blue.
With no team at Berkeley, the school district asked Brown to consider assuming the reins at McCluer. In the past, Brown turned down multiple opportunities to leave Berkeley. He refused, believing he and his staff, and their message of “Faith and hard work,” were needed in the community.
At McCluer, he would be able to continue that work in the community. The STEAM Academy at Berkeley is open to all students in the Ferguson-Florissant School District that apply in middle school and meet a certain set of academic criteria. The former Berkeley students ended up at McCluer.
As did Brown — despite the never-ending red that dominates the school's color scheme.
Brown, 39, began his tenure at McCluer with more players in the program than he'd ever had in his biggest years at Berkeley, and with the full support of the school district and its administration.
Activity buses were in place in June as the Comets began offseason workouts. It was a crucial element to start merging the Berkeley players and McCluer players together under the guidance of “Faith and hard work.”
“You'll have bigger numbers when you have transportation,” Brown said. “Everyone of these kids that are out here were out here all summer.”
When talk of restructuring the high schools began, there were some concerns that the students from both schools would have a hard time getting along together. That has not been the case on the football field. The McCluer holdovers welcomed their Berkeley brethren with open arms.
“At first everybody thought it'd be bad but it's been a pretty good experience for all us,” junior linebacker Tyreek Smith said.
“The first day we came over here we got our equipment and everyone was just greeting us. 'We're ready, we're ready,'” said senior linebacker/tight end Tony McMiller, who was at Berkeley until this year. “We all came in with a good attitude and the next day we got to work.”
The results have shown on the field. McCluer is 3-0 and hasn't allowed an opponent to score this season. The Comets picked up a weather-shortened win over Jennings — which Brown still relished — to start the season, then shut out Lutheran South and Oakville. The three wins matches the most wins in a season for the Comets since 2012 when they won eight. In the last 10 seasons, McCluer has won more than three games just twice. Last season it went 0-10.
Among those losses was a 41-0 beating at the hands of McCluer North. The Comets have had their share of struggles with the Stars. Since 1999, McCluer North holds a 15-5 edge and has won eight of the last 10 games.
According to Brown, none of that matters come high noon Saturday when McCluer hosts McCluer North in its home opener.
“This group has never played against McCluer North,” Brown said. “'Faith and hard work,' this version, has never gone against McCluer North. For my kids who are seniors who played against McCluer North, we're trying to tell them too, it's another game.”
Brown and his staff, who all played for him or have been with him since he began at Berkeley, are breaking through with their message and methods, but there are foundation principals to how they go about things that are still new to many of the players. In his 15 years at Berkeley, Brown had it down. In the three months since he took over, there has been a learning curve, one that has stressed his vocal chords.
“I'm still straining my voice, I'm still yelling. There's years at Berkeley I didn't strain, I didn't yell,” he said. “That's where we're at.”
Brown's vision is that McCluer becomes the well-oiled machine that he oversaw at Berkeley as the Bulldogs routinely went on deep playoff runs. But it takes time to build the relationships and the foundation that are crucial to having that consistent level of success on the field and, more importantly to Brown, off the field. “Faith and hard work” does not happen overnight.
“It's not about winning games. It's about changing a young man to understand how amazing he is and how beautiful he is and uplift him and for him to be the best he can be,” Brown said. “We're not there yet.”
The Comets aren't there yet but they have Brown to guide them. And while on their journey together, they might even convince him to wear red.