Sunday afternoon might seem a bit surreal for Rich Brooks, as he waves to folks lining the Nevada City streets as grand marshal of the county's 108th annual Fourth of July parade.
It's a storybook ending to a hometown-boy-makes-good tale, as Brooks returns to his Sierra foothills stomping grounds after stepping away from the sidelines of a celebrated 40-year football coaching career.
"It will be a fun experience," Brooks said over the phone Thursday night from his Springfield, Ore., home. "I remember the Fourth of July in Grass Valley very well. The parade and the fireworks.
"I remember one summer, between my freshman-sophomore year, we put together a team to challenge the firefighters (in firehouse contests). It was such a fun celebration. And it will be great to be part of it again."
Brooks, a 1959 Nevada Union High School grad and the school's athlete of the year, retired as head coach at the University of Kentucky in January, wrapping up a seven-year run that can only truly be appreciated by long-suffering Wildcat fans.
He finished with a 39-47 record in the Bluegrass state, not exactly the kind of resume that would earn accolades across the country. But considering the kind of rebuilding project he inherited, the 39 wins - 30 of which came over the last four seasons - are quite impressive.
He was hired to turn around a Southeastern Conference also-ran that had been hit hard by NCAA sanctions under both of his predecessors - Hal Mumme and Guy Morriss.
A 9-25 record over his first three years did little to excite Wildcat fans and earned Brooks a spot on the hot seat. He took the heat in stride, however, announcing at the 2006 SEC media day with a tongue-in-cheek "I'm back."
And after nearly matching the win total of his first three seasons in year four, leading Kentucky to an 8-5 campaign and win over Clemson in the Music City Bowl, it became clear Brooks would be in Lexington for a while longer.
Another 8-5 season followed in 2007, including an upset of eventual national champion LSU. The Wildcats scratched out a 7-6 year in 2008 despite major problems on offense and posted another 7-6 season in 2009, including road wins over Georgia and Auburn.
Brooks closed out his college coaching career with a 130-156-4 record in 25 seasons. His previous stop was his 18-year stay in Eugene, Ore., where he also built a struggling University of Oregon program from the ground floor up and eventually led the Ducks, in his final season, to the 1994 Rose Bowl.
Maybe it was his upbringing, a toughness forged in the foothills as the son of a gold miner and as an amateur boxer, that kept him on course despite downright disappointment early on.
In both cases, Brooks wasn't afraid to dig in and get his hands dirty, taking the early bumps and bruises in stride as he continued to build.
"Oregon was more of a ground-up deal," Brooks said. "With Kentucky, as I've said, they already had the fan base, the finances and facilities.
"At Oregon, everything was in disarray and it took a lot longer to get to that level. And now you look at Oregon, and it has the foremost everything. You can't really compare it with what it was like in 1977 when I took over the job.
"They've gone from some of the worst facilities, to some of the very, very best."
Brooks, who played football and graduated from in-state rival Oregon State, also coached the St. Louis Rams for two seasons and later served as defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, who reached the Super Bowl in 1998.
And now, as Brown returns to his hometown, where his own coaches stoked the fire, his career comes full circle.
"At that time, I was focused on high school coaching," Brooks said, thinking back to when he departed Nevada Union and Nevada County more than a half century ago. "I knew what I wanted to do, because of the associations I had with coaches at Nevada Union. ... Ben Berry and Ursal Snapp were my freshman coaches, Tim Kays coached me in track and John Valentino was my varsity football coach.
There were just a lot of positive role models on the Nevada Union coaching staff. They influenced me a great deal. So, I wanted to go and help young men, as well, and participate in the game I love."
Brooks, who plans to split his retirement time between Springfield - located just across the river from Eugene, Ore. - and Lexington, said he also looks forward to seeing many of his classmates and friends, along with sharing time with his brother, Wayne (NU class of '55), this weekend. He's kept in touch with many longtime friends from his Grass Valley days.
"A lot of the guys are still in contact," he said. "I do think that (being from a small town) plays a role in that. Nevada Union just had more of a genuine and caring atmosphere than say a large city school might have.
"No. I wouldn't trade where I grew up and where I went to school for anything."
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