BATAVIA — Since serving as a ball boy during his father’s days roaming the sidelines, Brennan Briggs has always wanted to be a football coach.
“My wife, Sharon, worked in Buffalo, and she would get out of work and run him to practice,” recalled Brennan’s father, Jim, a Batavia alumnus and longtime head coach for the Gates-Chili Spartans football team. “He always had a passion for wanting to follow in my footsteps and be a coach. And he did.”
The younger Briggs’ decision to enter the coaching ranks altered the course of Batavia High School football, as since he took over the Blue Devils’ program in 2012, the vibe surrounding the team has done a complete 180. Before the 2004 BHS alumnus took the reins, Batavia had endured years of futility, failing to achieve a winning season the previous nine seasons prior to Briggs’ arrival. Before Briggs became the Blue Devils’ head coach, the team’s last winning season came in 2003, when Briggs was the team’s starting quarterback as a high school junior.
Upon seizing control of the Blue Devils’ program, things quickly came full circle for Briggs. He struggled to gain traction out of the gate, finishing his first two seasons as head coach with a combined record of 6-10. Then, in Briggs’ third season at the helm, everything changed.
The 2014 season was a magical one for Briggs, his coaching staff, his players and Batavia football fans everywhere, as for the first time since the 1991 season, the Blue Devils finished as sectional champions with a 15-14 win over Livonia in the Class B title game. The finals victory ignited a string of three consecutive championship seasons for Batavia, with a 52-20 win over Livonia in the ‘15 title game and a 40-21 win over Hornell in the ‘16 final completing the impressive stretch. The Blue Devils won their next championship two seasons later, 49-14 over Wayne in ‘18, then spent a couple of years away from the mountain top before reclaiming championship glory to conclude the ‘21 campaign with a 22-14 win over HF-L. They seized another sectional championship this fall, defeating Monroe, 16-8, in a dramatic Class B final.
With Batavia now widely renowned as one of the elite programs throughout all of Section V and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, Briggs finds himself at the top of the list of the top coaches in the area. And while the turnaround of the Blue Devils’ program may have been swift, it didn’t come easily for Briggs and his coaching staff, which is one of the most hard-working units you will ever see at any level of athletics.
“He would expect us to put in a lot of work, and with most coaches, they would talk the talk but not walk the walk,” said Butch Ray, a 2017 alumnus who played on all of Briggs’ first three championship teams. “He would put in just as much work, or more, than us. With watching film, being here early, even when it was the offseason. He just lived and breathed football. That’s all he did, and I think that’s what made us buy in.”
That buy-in from everyone within the Batavia program has been the driving force that has guided the Blue Devils to such a successful run. Coaches can spend all their time on Xs and Os and scheming for opponents. But at the end of the day, if one hopes to be successful, a coach must establish a good rapport with his administration, coaches, players and entire football family, and Briggs has done that since becoming head coach a decade ago.
“I think the number one thing is that if you’re honest with the kids and honest with what their role is going to be and honest about what you view their contributions to the team to be, that goes a long way,” said Nick Burk, Batavia’s longtime JV football coach. “I think in most circumstances, kids are going to reflect that in the discussions they have at home with their parents. So I think we’re not giving kids a line of you’re going to be division one or playing in the NFL someday. We just try to be honest with the kids and make sure they’re clear with what we view their role is and that allows us to have a good relationship because we are upfront with telling the kids how they can help the team be successful.”
Briggs begins building relationships with his players early in their athletic development. The Blue Devils’ head coach is a physical education teacher at Batavia Middle School, where he meets a lot of his players when they are beginning their football journey as modified athletes.
“That’s a great gateway for kids to be introduced to football,” said Burk. “They want to be a part of the program because it’s led by Coach Briggs, who is very popular amongst the kids at that age level at the middle school.”
That’s not to say that Briggs pressures his athletes into pigeon-holing themselves into playing one sport. Batavia’s success over the years has been built on the backs of several successful multi-sport athletes.
“We have a lot of basketball players out here, kids who are wrestlers, track kids, kids from different sports,” said Burk. “The fact that we are a program that kids from all those other teams want to be a part of, I think that has led us to be successful. It allows us to have a lot of different kinds of athletes.”
Briggs’ vision for his program stretches all the way to the modified and youth level, where he begins working with coaches to establish the relentless mentality he has helped instill in his athletes over the years.
“He wants the modified level to have a fun time, a good time, and he wants it to be real fundamentally-based where kids learn a lot of the fundamental skills to make them successful,” said Burk. “Then when they transition to JV, with that foundation of fundamentals and kids really enjoying football, he wants it to transition into developing the competitiveness and the toughness that we have made a brand of here in Batavia. We feel we are one of the most physical teams in Section V, and teams know that when they play us, we’re going to bring it.”
Burk has been with Briggs since he took the varsity job, which came after one season at the modified level and two at the JV level, as has Batavia defensive coordinator Ben Buchholz. When you ask Buchholz, who has been Briggs’ right-hand man since day one, he believes the success that Batavia football has experienced has been on account of the familial atmosphere throughout the program that its head coach established beginning in the ‘12 season.
“When I first started coaching, my three kids were five, six and seven years old, and he never once gave me any grief about being able to have the kids at practice and spending time with them,” said Buchholz, whose two oldest sons, Maggio and Bronx, are contributors on this year’s championship team. “He’s made it a family atmosphere for every coach within our program.”
With the close relationship built between Batavia’s coaches and players, there’s also a special feeling in the air every time you enter the gates at Van Detta Stadium, says Buchholz. One that drives a coach or player to want more when each practice or game is finished. The Batavia DC says that the vibe that’s been established every time the Blue Devils get together is largely due to the work of the program’s head coach.
“His ability to outwork and just put the time in is so addictive in the air,” said Buchholz. “It makes you feel like you’re a part of something huge. And the way he’s gone about doing that, and really set the standard to where you’re going to have to work as an assistant coach in this program. It’s been nothing but special.”
The hard work Briggs, his staff and his players put in on a weekly basis has allowed them to enter each week with confidence since the group took over the program years ago.
“The things that are different from when I was playing are, we didn’t have a lot of offseason lifting sessions, and there weren’t 7-on-7s happening in the summer,” said Batavia Hall of Fame athlete Jermaine Henderson, who finished his career as Batavia’s all-time rushing leader in 2005. Henderson has since returned to the program to serve as an assistant coach in recent years.
“He’s endlessly relentless about how he is going about the team and building that success,” continued Henderson. “I think all of the hard work they put in during the offseason contributes to the success they’re having now.”
The confidence the team has gained through its offseason work has helped allow them to maintain an upward trajectory of success, says Buchholz.
“It’s a belief in this program. We believe that every time we step on the field, we can win that game,” said the Blue Devils assistant. “You never have that doubt. The confidence he puts in his kids, the comfort they have in him, and his preparation, and the preparation we take part in as a staff every day at practice, that sense of confidence is what it takes to win big games. Sometimes you create your own luck, and he’s a big part of that.”
The Blue Devils have never been more fortunate than during its win over Monroe in last week’s Class B title game when a late reception allowed the Blue Devils to regain the lead with one second remaining and walk away with the victory.
“I firmly believe there isn’t another coach that outworks him. His work ethic is unmatched,” said Buchholz of Briggs. “From film to offseason stuff, weight room stuff. There is nothing that he won’t do for this program to make sure that we’re successful every year.”
For the Batavia staff, its work begins on Sunday morning, when the group meets to review the film from the previous week’s game while also taking a look ahead to the next week, while developing a game plan for the first practice of the week, on Monday. Come practice time, on Mondays, the Blue Devils lift, watch game film and break down that week’s game, including details of both offensive and defensive schemes along with looks on special teams.
On Tuesdays, the Blue Devils get to work.
“We start to really ramp up what we’re doing, making sure that the kids know we’re still learning on Tuesdays,” said Buchholz.
The following day, the Blue Devils continue to establish their game plan while ramping up the physical nature of the session.
“Wednesdays is when we better know what’s going on. It’s when you really start to see the plan come together,” said the Batavia defensive coordinator. “A little more hitting on Wednesdays, but we’re always smart about that. Coach says all the time, ‘You don’t lose a guy on Wednesday.’”
On Thursday, the Blue Devils walk through their game plan and ensure that each player and staff member is prepared for the game the following day. On game day, each staff member has their job to help ensure things go off without a hitch.
“He expects every staff member to complete their task before the game, if it’s filling water jugs before the game, getting boxes out, making sure we’re got enough footballs. But it’s nothing he wouldn’t do himself,” said Buchholz. “It’s a relaxed atmosphere. He doesn’t put any unnecessary pressure on the players as far as being quiet or silent. He lets the kids have a good time and relax but makes sure they’re still focused. We have a steady build-up in warm-ups, we have our talks, then he has his final say, and we come through the door, and it’s game time.”
The sideline dynamic between Briggs and his assistants has developed over the years, as he has transitioned from previously calling the offensive plays to now Offensive Coordinator Alex Veltz serving as the team’s play-caller the past few seasons.
“What’s great is, during games, he’s calm,” said Buchholz. “We’ve coached together and we’ve seen a lot of different scenarios from the beginning when we weren’t very good and were building a program. We’ve been on that side of it and then you’ve seen the success and you see a lot of stuff. It’s nice not having him as a coordinator now because it’s an easy conversation. When the offense is out there, and I’m having a conversation with him, it’s nice. And I’m sure the same thing for Coach Veltz.”
As discussed, there have been many factors that have played into Briggs and the Batavia football team’s ascent over the past decade. That list includes the Blue Devils’ head coach’s love for the city in which he grew up and the team for which he grew up playing.
“I think a lot of it comes down to loving Batavia. He lives in this community. He’s got kids that go to school here,” said Burk. “I think that commitment level is something that he demonstrates to the kids. From a standpoint of growth, from a perspective of where he is today, from where he was. I think as any coach will say, your understanding and sensitivity about the challenges that our athletes face every day, approaching each athlete from an individual perspective and recognizing that a lot of kids have opportunities and some kids don’t. I think that creates a real sense of loyalty from the athletes because they know that Coach is going to be conscious of the circumstances they’re coming from, good or bad. And he’s going to be there to help them in any way they can, even beyond football.”
Since his days nipping at his father’s ankles on the sidelines, Briggs has had coaching in his blood. Now wearing the headset himself, he’s turned out to be as successful as he ever hoped he would be. And he’s achieved that success for the team he grew up rooting and playing for, which must make things extra special.