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Coach shoots for one more win in long career

But Willie Broner Jr., Pasco High's boys basketball coach, says winning his 300th game isn't that important. Teaching success in life is.

Win No. 299 was in the bank Thursday night, and it was the furthest thing from Willie Broner Jr.'s mind.

Pasco High School's longtime boys basketball coach could think of just one thing.

"Where's Kira?" he asked son and assistant coach Willie "Pancho" Broner III inside his office after Pasco defeated Springstead 54-33. "Bring my granddaughter in here."

Soon, the eldest Broner was cradling 4-month-old Kira Panchero Broner in both arms, lavishing her forehead with gentle kisses.

"Look at her," Broner said. "She's already a gym rat, just like her grampa."

Not quite. Grampa's been at it for 26 years _ 18 with the Pirate varsity team _ a journey that could reach a milestone as soon as tonight when Pasco visits Tarpon Springs High School with varsity victory No. 300 on the line.

How the 51-year-old Broner, the athletic director at Pasco High, a deacon at St. John's Baptist Church in Dade City and one of east Pasco County's most prominent residents, got to this point is a remarkable journey in itself, the fulfillment of a dream he didn't think he would live to see.

"Oh, it's great," said Broner, 51. "To be here that long, and for the people to have confidence in me to do that. It's been 18 real good years. I've had a lot of good times and I hope (the players) have learned something from me.

"I've tried to teach them more than basketball."

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Born and raised in Dade City, Broner played baseball, basketball and football at Mickens High School, the school for black students in Pasco County in the days of segregation.

He graduated in 1966 and dreamed of attending Grambling State University and of coaching _ baseball, that is.

"I always knew I wanted to be a coach," Broner said. "My forte was baseball, that's what I played, and I had a little success at it."

More than a little, actually.

In 1968, a walk-out left Mickens High in need of teachers. So Broner returned to his alma mater to teach physical education _ and coach baseball, leading the Wildcats to a state championship.

Then came his draft notice. His sweetheart, Annie Doris Davis, knew what they had to do.

"When you love one another, you know you want to spend the rest of your life and cherish this person," she said.

They married in July 1968. She almost lost him the next year.

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The U.S. Army sent Broner to Vietnam in December 1968.

He was assigned to the 19th Combat Engineer Battalion, which Broner learned the hard way was the "Fightingist Engineer Battalion in Vietnam.".

The 19th was constructing U.S. 1 through the mountains of Duc Pho in the southern region of the Republic of Vietnam.

It was a dangerous task, though, as the engineers were confronted daily by the Viet Cong, whether through roadblocks, ambushes or mines.

Broner was an infantryman assigned to protect the engineers. He was driving his platoon sergeant's truck when his unit was ambushed in August 1969.

A rocket-propelled grenade destroyed his vehicle. Broner, badly wounded by shrapnel, lay dazed and bleeding on the road.

"I really thought that was it," he said. "I knew I didn't want to lay in the road when I got hit. A few of my buddies were ambushed, they were laying in the road and the VC ran up in the road and shot them in the head. I knew I had to get out of the road. I got up, or they would have done me the same way."

Broner's unit had rallied on one side of the road, and Broner ran there for cover. He said 20 soldiers were injured in that ambush but none killed.

"Oh yeah," he said. "I'm blessed to still be here. I guess the Good Lord had some more work for me to do."

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It was a long road back.

He spent 15 months in military hospitals, nine months at Jacksonville Naval Hospital and another six at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Discharged, he returned home to Dade City.

The scars are one of the first things one notices about Broner. When he extends his right arm for a handshake, one can see how the shrapnel carved through his arm up to his hand. His head, back and legs bear similar scars.

He used to hide his wounds, dressing conservatively and using bandages. But that just heightened curiosity.

"When I first came out of the service and when I first started teaching, I was very conscientious," he said. "I used to keep it wrapped up, so the kids wouldn't see it and get afraid, and now I don't.

"Most everybody knows it and everybody knows me anyway. It's just a part of me."

Alive and back home, the G.I. Bill put Broner through Saint Leo College. He still was healing, and played baseball for the Monarchs despite the pain his last two years. He graduated in 1974 with a degree in physical education.

"That was a big step," Doris Broner said. "That was something he had always wanted to do. My heart went out to him. He was an older person going to college, and their knowledge was probably better than his. It was hard. But he made up his mind, that's what he wanted to do."

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His first job was teaching at Lacoochee Elementary School, and coaching junior varsity football and basketball at Pasco High.

In 1981, South Sumter High needed someone to coach boys basketball.

"But I didn't know anything about basketball," Broner said. "(South Sumter principal) Bob Edwards told me, don't worry. I'll teach you everything you need to know."

And he did. So did former Saint Leo basketball coach Norm Kaye and current Springstead High coach Greg O'Connell. Broner also cracked the books himself, learning as much as he could. Experience, though, proved the best teacher.

"I just stole bits and pieces from other coaches," Broner said. "If it worked against me, hey, I can use it against them."

In 1982, he was hired as the varsity coach at Pasco. Broner has gone 299-188 since then, winning conference and district titles, sending players off to college and experiencing his share of ups and downs.

Sometimes, the ups and downs were in the same season.

On Jan. 4, 1995, one of Broner's players, 17-year-old Randy Bates, collapsed and died of complications from a heart defect during a game. The team's memory of Bates helped propel the Pirates to one of the finest seasons in Broner's career, a 24-3 record and berth in the Class 4A Final Four.

"When I take a kid away from his mother or father, I am their guardian at that time as long as they're playing for me and then for me to have to tell a parent that their son isn't coming home . . . that was the lowest thing that ever had happened to me," Broner said.

The highest point, Broner said, can happen on any given day.

"The brighest thing in my career, is when I see all my kids that come back, grown men, some are lawyers, doctors, and they call me Coach Broner," he said. "That's gratifying. That really makes me feel exceptional, to think I've had something to do with them being productive citizens."

"It's not just X's and O's to him, it's about life," Pancho Broner said. "It really is."

So how much longer will Broner coach at Pasco High?

"This year, I hope," his wife said.

"In about three years, I think," Broner said. "After that, it's retiring from everything but fishing."

His son isn't so sure, though.

"Everybody asks me that," Pancho Broner said. "I tell them he's not going to leave until the school burns down."