Whether putting people into positions where they can succeed or helping out behind the scenes when things go wrong, Gene Brownell is all about servant leadership.
Brownell has been a part of the Aberdeen Central sports program since 1977, eventually becoming athletic director in 1998. He will retire at the end of the month, just days after his 75th birthday.
Brownell, who is visible at every Central athletic event, knows there is a change of pace coming.
“We are used to living life at a certain pace. That pace has to change,” Brownell said. “Now, there are somethings about that pace that are attractive and there are somethings about that where you go, “Whew, am I going to be able to do that?’ “
Brownell has witnessed many changes during his tenure with the Golden Eagles, none more obvious than Central transitioning to a new facility. The move not only featured enhanced classrooms, but also increased the number of gyms and fields available for games and practices.
“My friends in the (Eastern South Dakota) conference used to say, you went from the outhouse to the penthouse,” Brownell said. “Facility wise for our kids, and for our coaches, and for our programs, that’s exactly correct.”
Through the years, Central has had a number of different coaches and also added a few sports, but one thing has remained a constant: a passionate and detail-oriented athletic director who was willing to stay in the shadows and let the spotlight shine on others.
“I didn’t want our coaching staff and our kids to make me look good,” Brownell said. “My job was to make them look good.”
Brownell and the late Don Meyer had a shared philosophy when it came to helping others. The two men had many talks about leadership style.
“He and I were exactly the same age. We had a very open and close relationship in a personal sense and more so in a professional sense,” Brownell said of the former Northern State men’s basketball coach.
Those talks often focused on the proper way to do things.
“We discussed the necessity, whether it’s a sports team or a sports program, you had to have an over-riding, over-lying (mission) that did not involve winning and losing. It had to be bigger than winning and losing,” Brownell said. “It’s about we not me. We talked about service leadership. We both had similar personalities about what we wanted to have happen.”
While Meyer passed away in 2014, Brownell still recalls some of his life principles.
“We had a lot of discussions about what our jobs were, what our responsibilities were and did those kinds of things. It was always serving other people. Be a faithful servant. Do the right things in the right way at the right time. All of those kinds of things,” Brownell said. “Those were the things that not only came out of his mouth, but those were the things that he did every day.”
The same can be said of Brownell’s leadership style through the years.
Now, Brownell is ready to hand the AD reigns over to someone who shares the same values and vision that he has, longtime girls’ basketball coach Dawn Seiler.
“(Coach Meyer) and Dawn Seiler are the two most pragmatic individuals I have ever been around in my life,” Brownell said. “They just see it for what it’s supposed to be, not necessarily for what it is all the time, but for what it’s supposed to be and work towards that particular end.”
Brownell has the most absolute respect and confidence in Seiler and knows the program will be in good hands.
“I will do anything that Dawn Seiler asks me to do, but this will be her job on July 1 and I’m comfortable with that. I’m very comfortable with that,” Brownell said. “When I go out the door I will be her biggest supporter, and I will never be a critic.”
As Brownell took a second to reflect on his career, emotions stopped him in mid-sentence as he talked about those he has worked with over the years.
“I have been so fortunate to have had the opportunity to do this job for this long with the people that I’ve had to work with,” he said. “They have let me do my job, they have helped me do my job, and they have supported me while I have done that.”
Make no mistake, the man who grew up in the small town of Henry still has a passion for athletics and probably always will.
“I’m just a small-town kid who grew up on the streets of a little dusty town,” Brownell said. “For as long I can remember if you could throw it and catch it, or kick it or bat it, or run with it or dribble it, I wanted to be a part of that. That was just it. I do, yet.”
It’s just that now Brownell will try to figure out a way to channel that energy and passion for athletics in a different way for the first time in more than 40 years.
“My role is going to change. Life does not stand still,” he said. “It’s very fleeting, It’s very fast and you have to be ready for it. And I’m going to have to figure it out.”
You can be sure the one thing that will never change is Brownell’s desire for helping those around him.
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