When he was mustered out, Brown returned to Niagara in 1958 to get his master's degree in education, playing basketball on weekends for Rochester in the Eastern League. That was also the year he met Claire and, typically, made a vivid first impression. "A friend who was a priest had borrowed a car to take some students to the beach," she says. "Suddenly another car pulled up and a man got out and yelled, 'Father Murray, that's the last time I let you borrow my car. You told me you were going on a sick call!' " Claire remembers looking up and asking, "Who's the maniac?" It was Hubie. Father Murray of the Wayward Car married them two years later. They have four children: Molly, 22, is a recent graduate of Auburn; Ginny, 21, is a senior nursing student at St. Mary's of Notre Dame; Julie, 18, will enter the College of Charleston (S.C.) in January; and Brendan, 13, is in the eighth grade of Atlanta's Marist School.
Starting in 1959, Brown spent five years coaching baseball and jayvee basketball and serving as defensive line coach for the football team at Cranford (N.J.) High School. After that he moved to the varsity basketball coaching job at Fair Lawn (N.J.) High School. The school might as well have hired St. Jude, because the basketball team had won only four of 36 games the preceding two seasons. "When I got to Fair Lawn," Brown says, "basketball was the prelim to the wrestling matches." The first thing he did was cut all the seniors from the squad. That's how you send a message! It was a move that, predictably, caused some acrimony among parents in the community. "I got brought up before the Board of Education for that one," Brown says. The team finished 2-16 his first year. The next season Fair Lawn got hot and won five games. Everyone seemed fairly satisfied that the new coach had fallen flat on his face.
Brown taught business, economics and business law at Fair Lawn, and it was there that he learned to use the classroom as a stage. "You're always selling yourself," he says. "Those kids had a choice between five different winter sports, so when I went in that classroom, I had to give them 55 minutes of dynamite, just blow them away. If I wasn't in the top three for Teacher of the Year every year, I was ticked off. That's how good a teacher I thought I was." For all the notoriety he has achieved in basketball. Brown has spent more time standing at the blackboard in classrooms than he has as a head coach in the NBA. By his third year at Fair Lawn he had turned the program around, and the Cutters posted what was for them an impressive 14-9 record.
Brown says he was happy coaching at the high school level, but in 1967 he decided to take a chance—and an $11,500 pay cut—to become an assistant coach at William & Mary. His salary: $7,000 a year. Eight months later he was offered the freshman coaching job at Duke, also for $7,000, and he took it. For four years he was the chief recruiter at Duke, whose coach at the time was Vic Bubas, and he had the difficult task of "trying to get the best white players with the high college boards." It was a chance to further refine his salesman's pitch, so he talked and talked and talked. "Guys in the business used to say to me, 'You kill the mothers,' " he says. "And I said, 'That's right, because all those moms, they like to talk.' " Talking was something Hubie Brown could always do.
In 1972 Larry Costello, who had been Brown's teammate at Niagara, called to offer him the job as his assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks. It is fair to say that Brown would not be one of the highest paid coaches in basketball today were it not for Costello, a debt that Brown readily acknowledges. "He gave me my start," Brown says. "That was big."
Brown worked with Costello for two seasons in Milwaukee. When Charlie Brown died on Thanksgiving Day in 1973, Hubie drew closer to Costello and threw himself even further into his work. It paid off the next season when he was hired as head coach of the ABA's Kentucky Colonels, a team that included Artis Gilmore, Louie Dampier and Dan Issel. On Oct. 18, 1974, the night of Hubie Brown's first game as head coach of the Kentucky Colonels, one of the empty seats in Louisville's Freedom Hall was between two of Brown's old friends. The seat was for Charlie. "One of the toughest things in my life was that my father never got to see me as a head coach in the pros," Hubie says. The Colonels won the ABA championship in 1974-75, Brown's first year, but the next season they were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs. When the ABA and NBA merged after the 1976 season, Kentucky owner John Y. Brown decided to take what cash he could grab in the merger settlement and fold his tent. During this turbulent period, Hubie could not even bring himself to utter the owner's name, referring to Brown as the man who "destroyed the Kentucky Colonels basketball team." To this day, Hubie bears a grudge against Brown, who would later own and all but destroy the Boston Celtics. John Y. Brown is now governor of Kentucky.
With his team and his job gone, Hubie Brown was on the street and, presumably, frantic. As much as anything, that is what would later fuel the speculation—most of it ill-informed—that he stabbed Costello in the back by campaigning for his Milwaukee job. Costello suggested that Brown had done exactly that, and in the years that followed he repeated the charge often to other coaches.
Brown says that when the Colonels disbanded, he was approached by three NBA teams that wanted him to be head coach. He says he never pursued the Milwaukee job and that he had already come to terms with Atlanta.
CHARLEY:... For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life.... He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that's an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you're finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.
The Hawks won only 31 games in Brown's first year, and in midseason Ted Turner bought the team and subsequently instructed Brown to get rid of all the high-priced talent. What followed may have been Brown's greatest triumph. Taking a motley assortment of castoffs and no-name players (Brown had recruited a 27-year-old, 5'8" guard named Charlie Criss from the Eastern League the year before), whose salaries totaled $800,000, Brown pushed and bullied and goaded the Hawks into winning 41 games and making the 1977-78 playoffs, Atlanta's first postseason appearance since 1972-73.