BRANDON – This is the year Brandon celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Brandon School, the precursor of Brandon High School, which is as fitting a time as any to recognize the school’s storied coach, Russ Cozart, who for 34 of his 38 years on the job put the school on the map with “The Streak.”
That’s what Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce officials decided to do Jan. 31 at its annual membership dinner at The Regent in Riverview, where Cozart was presented with the Greater Brandon Community Leadership Award.
As the coach of Brandon’s world-renowned wrestling team, Cozart’s teams have accumulated 23 state championships, 101 individual state champions, 126 state individual places, 43 consecutive Hillsborough County titles, 40 consecutive district titles, 13 consecutive state titles and, of course, “The Streak” — 34 years of all wins and no losses, counting the seven undefeated seasons under his predecessor, Jim Graves.
“I’ve been around wrestling a lot and sometimes winning’s not that important, even though you’ve got the No. 1 team in the state and they’re in the top 10 in the nation,” Cozart said, in accepting his leadership award. “Sometimes it’s more important to build good character and teach the kids, ‘Be honest and be good students and be good role models around the school, because we need it.’”
With his leadership award, Cozart follows in the footsteps of 15 recipients before him, including senators Tom Lee and Malcolm Byrd; state representatives Johnnie Byrd, Sandy Murman and Rich Glorioso; Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi; former Hillsborough County Sheriff Cal Henderson; and Earl Lennard, the county’s former superintendent of elections and superintendent of schools. Other past recipients include Julian Craft; Earl Haugabook; Paul Senory; Sandy and Dottie MacKinnon; and John and Kay Sullivan, the co-founders of Winthrop, who at the Jan. 31 dinner, as a couple, also received the Key Citizen of the Year award.
At the podium, Cozart talked about the town he calls home and the many changes it has undergone from its rural roots to its not-so-sleepy stature as a bedroom community with urban-suburban sprawl.
“I never go into Tampa now,” Cozart said. “If I want something I go down to the mall. I go to the movie, I go here. Brandon’s a great town, whatever you need is right here.”
“You’re right,” he added, as his remarks drew applause. “We have great schools and we have great businesses here and we have a great future.” Then, speaking like a coach, he added: “You know, you have to believe in it and you have to work hard. You have to work hard for your family, you have to believe in your family. And you have to believe in your schools and the people and the teachers who work there, and they work hard.”
Cozart said he would not have been able to accomplish what he has “without the opportunity of working in the Hillsborough County school system and without working at Brandon High School and having the support of every principal and every athletic director and every faculty member at Brandon High School.”
“I’ve been through a lot of kids, I’ve been through a lot of teams,” he added. “It’s been a great ride.”
Cozart thanked his wife of 38 years, Gina; the school’s athletic director, Rashad Woods; and his assistant wrestling coach, Bob Hendrickson, who Cozart said he recruited when Hendrickson was roughly 90 pounds and “a sophomore running around the hallways of Brandon.”
“I was thinking about the lightest weight class, 100-pound weight class, the kid would be perfect,” Cozart said. “I said, ‘Hey, what’s your name, what do you do?’ He goes, ‘I play football.’ I go, ‘OK, OK, I bet you’re really good, too. Would you mind just trying out for the wrestling team here? Bob came out that year and by the time he was a senior he went undefeated and he was a state champion.”
For 25 years, Hendrickson has been Cozart’s assistant. With the two men at the chamber dinner was Carl Green, the principal of Brandon High, for whom Cozart also had kind words.
“I love Carl, he’s a great leader and that’s what we need at our school, we need a great leader,” Cozart said. “When he walks into my classroom with a clipboard I better be whistling Dixie and I better be singing the right song and I better be doing the right dance. Because he’ll tell me like it is, and he’ll say, ‘Coach, I think you could have taught better that day,’ and I go, ‘You know what? You’re right, Carl.’”
As for when Cozart is set to retire, the jury is out. As the coach himself put it: “I love what I do, 38 years of it. I’m not at the beginning, I’m not in the middle of my career, but I know I’m not at the end yet.”
As for Brandon, Cozart is a devoted fan.
“I love my job at Brandon and I’ve had a great time here in Brandon,” he said. “We have a great town.”