Photo of Braxton Harris courtesy of HCU athletics
HOUSTON- On this April morning, excitement, anticipation, and gratitude exude from Braxton Harris’ voice all at once. Spring practice for his Houston Christian Huskies is well underway and it seems he can’t get enough of it. Back in his home state. As a D-I head coach. Tasked with the challenge of building a program to a state of competitiveness within the Southland Conference.
He is just thankful for the opportunity, and eager to begin the proverbial climb to the top, that every new head coach embarks on, each aiming for a slightly different peak when it is all said and done.
“It’s been fast and furious, that’s for sure,” Harris commented. ”Seems like just the other day that I got the job. Now we’re halfway through spring. Everything comes up pretty fast in year one.”
When Harris, a top-level recruiter left Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina, to become the second head coach HCU’s 10-year football history, a cheer was let out in Belton. Once again, the UMHB football program had another achievement to add to the display case, as Harris became the first Cru alum to earn a D-I head coaching job.
Amongst the other tasks bestowed upon the shoulders of a head coach, and a first-year head coach at that, recruiting rises to the forefront. Great programs are built from firm foundations. And those firm foundations are laid by the first class of players to say ‘yes’ to a program, often one that is not yet in the conference championship discussion.
As the spring rolls by, Harris is doing plenty of that type of recruiting. But he is also taking on another recruiting challenge. Recruiting the city of Houston to buy into his program, one that has won a combined three games in the last three seasons. But there is reason to believe that trend will be reversing course very soon.
“There’s plenty of things to do here in Houston,” Harris said. “For us we’re trying to show the value HCU football can bring to the community. The only way to do that is to get people around the program, to connect with our players, coaches, and the university. If you do those things, it gives you a chance.”
Harris is speaking from experience. He witnessed one of the best to ever build a program from the ground-up. And he saw it happen firsthand.
Learning from Fredenburg
“Coach Fredenburg did such a great job of building relationships,” Harris noted, as the conversation shifted to his time at UMHB. “Everybody felt like they knew Coach Fred. Everybody felt like he was their coach. That’s because he did such a great job of building those relationships across campus and the community.
“One of those things I took from him was you have to work at those relationships, and there’s really no difference in recruiting [prospective players] and recruiting a fan base. You’re recruiting your student body, your faculty, your alumni, your donors. The only difference is how people fit into those spots within the program.”
His time spent at UMHB coincided with the program’s first trip to the Stagg Bowl, in a 2004 miracle run that saw the Cru repeatedly rise to the test against the likes of D-III football’s so-called juggernauts at the time. Trinity, Hardin-Simmons, Washington & Jefferson, and Mount Union all fell to the relatively unknown Crusaders, who just five years before had never fielded a varsity football squad.
Harris was a sophomore on that 2004 team, a quarterback who played sparingly, but absorbed the atmosphere constantly. The son of a high school coach, he had a pretty good idea that coaching was to be in his future too. And he recognized that he had been placed in a position that allowed for daily interactions with two of the UMHB program’s main architects: Pete Fredenburg and Larry Harmon.
“The guy who recruited me to Mary Hardin-Baylor was Larry Harmon,” Harris recalls. “Those two guys have played a huge part in my coaching career and my development. Coach Fred gave me an opportunity to start coaching when I was young.”
The transition to coaching with the Cru
Harris joined the UMHB coaching staff in 2006, first as a student assistant, then as the receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. The level of success was high, Harris notes, because the level of expectation from Fredenburg was high. No favoritism was shown,
“He held the expectation high for everybody. It didn’t matter if you were 23 years old starting out as a coach or one of the coordinators, the standard was the same. When you’re that young, sometimes you don’t see the benefit of that.
“I think I learn more from Coach Fred every year I’m away from that program, but I see certain things and go, ‘Well, that’s how he did it. It makes a lot of sense now.’ He taught me how to work. He taught me how to coach the right way and demand a standard. He made me a better coach, that’s for sure.”
As he now graces the field at HCU, leading his team into its 2023 season opener against Arkansas Baptist, many of the lessons learned from his time in Belton are displayed. And that is not limited to instilling a high standard of excellence. Fredenburg, Harmon, and others on the staff also displayed a somewhat surprising level of servant leadership.
“My dad was a high school coach, my mom was a teacher. They had inservice the day I was supposed to move in. We drove up on a Sunday and Coach Harmon met us there and helped move me in. Larry Harmon, the defensive coordinator, was helping move boxes. I think that says a lot about Larry as a person and his style of leadership. Just like Coach Fredenburg, he is going to be a servant leader.”
It was instances such as that one that told Harris his college choice was the correct one. He remembers walking onto campus for the first time, and instantly feeling a sense of peace sweep over him.
“For me, it was the trust factor. I remember walking on campus at Mary Hardin-Baylor, and knowing that was exactly where God wanted me. I had peace about it. It was the whole campus and the university, not just one aspect of it. I had been on a few other visits to other schools, and walked on campus and UMHB and told my mom and dad, ‘this is where I want to be.’”
For someone who had grown up with aspirations of coaching, he soon found himself surrounded by mentors who shared his same passion for the sport and leading the next generation of players. But it was not until he himself made a somewhat seamless transition to the sidelines that he understood exactly what it took for UMHB to achieve its growing national prominence.
“When I switched over to the coaching side, you see all the work that goes into preparing for those wins. One year we went up and played Central. We should’ve been beat in that first-round playoff game, but our guys found a way. Looking back, that comes from Coach Fred. He always thought we could win, and he instilled that into his coaches and players as well.”
He’s found ways to do that in his own journey, too. At Howard Payne in 2019, he took a one-loss team and turned it into a 5-5 squad, posting the program’s best record since 2006. It helped land him his first D-I coaching job, at Campbell (FCS), following the season.
“When you’re a smaller-school guy, like I was for the majority of my career up to that point, you always wonder, ‘If I got that opportunity at the Division I level, what would be different? What would be the same? What would it look like if you could walk into a house and tell a mom and dad, money isn’t an issue?
“What we were able to do there was take the same work ethic, the same values, from a Division III level and put it on a Division I stage. It goes back to relationships. And if you’re willing to build those relationships, it doesn’t matter what school you’re at. People are going to gravitate to people they know care about them.”
UMHB connections in his career post-UMHB
UMHB connections have followed Harris through his career, since departing from Belton in 2009. At Texas Lutheran, he became one of the bricklayers for a struggling program that rapidly evolved into a southern power in the SCAC. The head coach was Danny Padron. His son, Andy, served as the offensive coordinator–a position he now holds at UMHB–and had cemented his legacy as a quarterback with the Cru from 2004-2007.
Then at HPU, the pattern reversed. Harris crossed paths with another UMHB quarterback, this one a future Crusader. He was a strong-legged, all-conference punter from a tiny 2A school in the Brazos Valley. His name was Kyle King.
“Jimmy Smith, the head men’s basketball coach down at Trinity, actually called me about Kyle King,” Harris recalls. “Kyle’s brother, Aubrie, had played for Jimmy at UMHB. He said, ‘Take a look at this kid. He’s the best athlete on the field.’ He was a tremendous competitor.”
King played at HPU during the 2018 season before moving on to UMHB, where he eventually led the Cru to the 2021 Stagg Bowl title, and was a 2022 Gagliardi Trophy finalist. Looking back, Harris said while he had hoped to have King on his team for longer than he did, he knew the quarterback had a mentality that would eventually reveal itself on the field.
“Kyle was a winner. You knew eventually, if Kyle was given the things that he needed, he was going to be successful in college. His success doesn’t surprise me at all. I would’ve liked to have kept him a little longer than we did, but that’s part of the game. I could not be more happy for him and how his career ended up.”
Recruiting has been Harris’ bread-and-butter. He has a way of getting people to buy in, and believe. Not surprisingly, it is very much on par with what UMHB’s coaching staff has accomplished in the building of its program. Being able to develop trust is something Harris says is paramount when it comes to attracting top talent to a program, regardless of where the school is or what level it is on.
“These moms and dads are sending their young men to you to take care of,” Harris said. “After all the glitz and glamour, they want to know who are the people that are going to be there for their young man when he has a bad day. That was more affirming than anything, because those were the things that I was taught from a very early age as a coach. Those things matter.”
Harris and his staff’s recruiting efforts at HCU have already yielded fruit. On Tuesday, defensive lineman RJ Orebo, at one time a Texas A&M signee, announced his decision to transfer to the Huskies. The talent pool within Texas is large, he noted, and one of the reasons he took the job.
Getting back to the Lone Star state was important to him as well, not just from a football standpoint, but from a family standpoint. The fact that HCU is a committed Christian institution covers all the bases, and he is ready to lead the program. After all, he was the one led here in the first place.
“I remember standing on the field while the guys were warming up,” Harris remarked, sharing a memory from HCU’s first intrasquad scrimmage in early April, “and having this overwhelming sense of gratitude. God has given me this opportunity and it’s very humbling. I’m thankful for the people who have invested in my life.”