It was an aggressive pep talk from Gary Barnett during the early 1970s in the halls of Air Academy High School that launched a career in football that Gregg Brandon brought to a close last week.

“Really he just kind of banged me against the lockers and said, ‘You need to play football, boy,’” Brandon said.

And thus began a career that saw Brandon go on to play Mesa State and Northern Colorado before entering coaching at Ellicott High School and then weaving through Wyoming, Utah State, Northwestern and Colorado – where he reconnected with Barnett – Bowling Green as an assistant under Urban Meyer and then his successor as head coach, Virginia, New Mexico State and then for the past six seasons at Colorado School of Mines, where he led the Orediggers to their first NCAA Division II semifinal appearance this past season.

“I’m extremely confident coach Brandon has put all the building blocks in place to make the next head coach a success as well,” Mines athletic director David Hansburg said during a news conference Thursday. “Isn’t that what it’s all about?”

Prior to his encounter with Barnett in high school, Brandon, 65, had given up football. He played at Air Academy as a sophomore, didn’t like it, and thought basketball was his calling.

“I found out I was just another guy as a basketball player,” he said.

After sitting out his junior football season, he joined Barnett’s squad as a senior and helped the team to a Will Rogers League title.

He entered coaching at Ellicott in 1978. His father got sick during the first week of two-a-day practices, and Brandon recalls visiting him as he lay “on his death bed.”

“I told him I only had 12 guys at that practice,” Brandon said. “He said, “What the hell, you only need 11. Suck it up.’”

His father, who had played collegiately at Rice and against Colorado legend Byron "Whizzer" White, died weeks later when Brandon was 22.

Barnett served as a mentor for Brandon, coaching him in high school and then bringing him on staffs for the famed doormat-to-Rose Bowl turnaround at Northwestern, where Brandon served as recruiting coordinator and receivers coach, and then at Colorado.

Brandon called Barnett, who coached at Air Academy for nine seasons before launching his college career, a “big reason I got into the business.”

"When I got the Northwestern job, it was only natural that Gregg was one of the first two people I hired," Barnett told the Toledo Blade in 2003. "He has a tremendous offensive mind and has done a great job coaching. He is calm and he rarely loses control of the situation. Gregg has been like a son to me."

Brandon’s career has not been without controversy, however. He was fired as Bowling Green’s coach despite signing a three-year contract extension the previous season and posting a 44-30 record in seven seasons.

“There have been some off-the-field things that I think ultimately have impacted what's happened on the field,” Bowling Green athletic director Greg Christopher said at the time.

In October, Brandon was accused by Mines professor Ning Lu of interrupting a lecture and shouting at everyone to leave so the team could use the room, according to The Denver Post. The incident later drew an apology in the class from Hansburg and a human resources representative.

Hansburg said the timing of Brandon’s retirement had been discussed long before the incident, noting Brandon had initially targeted seven years when they were first negotiating for the position.

“He said seven years, and then this summer when we were out for a round of golf he said, ‘This could be it,’” said Hansburg, whose professional relationship with Brandon began at Northwestern.

“Coach Brandon is certainly going out on top and I’m proud to say I’ve worked with Gregg.”

At Mines, the Colorado Springs native was a two-time Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Coach of the Year. He coached a Harlon Hill Trophy winner (quarterback Justin Dvorak), 15 All-Americans, 14 Academic All-Americans and won four conference championships for a program that had captured seven in 95 years prior to his arrival.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Brandon said. “I had great support here. This guy to my right (Hansburg) has been tremendous for me throughout the years here. We’ve elevated this thing together. The next guy has got his work cut out for him.”

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