Reality is, Lakatriona Brunson is in charge of Miami Jackson HS football
If you’ve channel-surfed your way into an episode of "South Beach Tow," you already know Lakatriona Brunson, even if you don’t know her by that name.
On the Jennifer Lopez-produced reality show, the 38-year-old Brunson goes by Bernice, a tough-as-nails tow truck driver and manager at Tremont Towing. She’s the type of woman you dare not cross for fear you might lose more than your car, and her polarizing, if somewhat profane, character has given Brunson a rather infamous reputation around Miami.
These days, Brunson is taking on a new role as head football coach at Miami Jackson High School. The school announced the hiring Monday, less than a month after former University of Miami and NFL defensive back Earl Little resigned from the position, making Brunson the first female high school football head coach in the talent-rich state of Florida.
It might seem a bit unconventional to name a controversial TV star the leader of a struggling football program, but Brunson insists that neither her celebrity status nor her gender will keep her from leading the Generals back to South Florida football prominence.
It’s about having a team of coaches that’s going to work together to get those boys back to what Jackson used to be.
"I know the game just as well as any other person," Brunson told FOX Sports on Thursday. "And if I go out there, do my thing, put my knowledge on that field and help those boys be the best they can be, my record will speak for itself. I don’t have to say anything."
If there’s one problem Brunson won’t have to worry about as she sets forth in her coaching career, it’ll be connecting with those she’s set to coach. In fact, Brunson, who was already a physical education teacher at the inner-city school of 1,350, said it was the Jackson players who encouraged her to pursue the vacant job.
"The kids came to me clueless," Brunson said. "It was like a big gray area of, ‘What’s next?’ I listened to their pain, and I listened to everything that they said. There were a lot of kids that left because of (Little’s resignation), because there was so much uncertainty. I guess they felt like there was no one there for them.
"So for me, being on the campus already and having a relationship with a lot of the guys, it was easy for me to say, ‘Well, hey, maybe I should do this.’ "
A 2012 state semifinalist, Jackson went 3-6 last season after making the playoffs in 2014 in the fourth-largest of Florida’s eight classifications. Brunson said she won’t have a chance to fully evaluate her team’s strengths and weaknesses until after spring practice ends in May, but she anticipates that a more stable coaching staff will help the players get moving in the right direction.
"It’s about having a team of coaches that’s going to work together to get those boys back to what Jackson used to be," Brunson said. "It has to be a collective. Everybody has to do it together. If you’re short one thing, that can hurt the team.
"You need to have a coach that’s the go-to coach, that laughs with the kids," she continued. "You’ve got to have the stern coach. You’re going to have this coach, that coach, a whole bunch of different personalities when you’re dealing with a team, so that if the kids don’t connect with one person, they have someone else to go to."
As for which of those characters Brunson will be?
"I think I’m the stern, honest and fair coach," Brunson said. "I’m going to tell you what it is. I’m going to give it to you 100 percent. But I’m also that mother figure that’s going to sit there and tell you what’s right and wrong. You can either like it or be mad, but I’m going to tell you anyway."
That’s largely who she was on "South Beach Tow," too — the tell-it-like-it-is part, maybe not so much a mother figure to the folks whose cars she towed — but Brunson maintains there’s a clear divide between who she was on TV (the show has been on hiatus since December 2014) and who she’ll be on the football field.
"Don’t get me wrong, every woman is bipolar, so we flip a little bit," Brunson said. "But when I’m with those kids, it’s about the kids. It’s about giving them what they need, and I don’t think they take me for who I was on a reality show because they see me every day. I’m that person who talks when I need to, and when I talk they listen, and that’s all I need.
"The energy is 100 percent (the same) though," she continued. "One thing about me, Lakatriona Brunson, is that I know how to use what I need to use when I need to use it. So if I need to bring that energy on the field to get my kids riled up, I do it, but to a level where it’s always going to be respectful — toward the game, toward the school, toward us as coaches.
"During other things, you have to protect yourself. As far as (‘South Beach Tow’), I have to be that strong person — can’t let nobody run over me, it’s all about the money. But over here, it’s about the kids and the respect."
And if Brunson can’t hammer that message home, Luther Campbell certainly will.
Campbell, known to most as Uncle Luke, is best remembered as the leader of the 1980s rap group 2 Live Crew. However, he’s also been a well-respected in the Miami football community since 1994, when he founded the Liberty City Optimist Club, which has mentored several NFL stars over the years, including Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, Bucs linebacker Lavonte David and former Bengals wideout Chad Johnson.
Over the past seven years, Campbell has served as defensive coordinator at several local high school powers, including Miami Central, Miami Northwestern and, most recently, Miami Norland. Now he’ll be in the same role at Jackson, where he says he has no doubt the players will respond to Brunson in her first season on the sideline.
"I’ve been coaching for years, from youth league in the park all the way up to high school, and there have always been, whether it’s a team mom or just a tough mother, women that come in and step up," Campbell said. "There have always been mothers that would come and get in those boys’ faces and say, ‘Look here, you all need to play like men.’ That’s the community that we live in.
"Mothers are very, very familiar with football, and in a lot of cases more familiar than the men," he continued. "Now you add that combination with Coach Brunson, who has played the game before on a semi-pro level — you’ve just got to know the game."
Mothers are very, very familiar with football, and in a lot of cases more familiar than the men.
A graduate of Miami Northwestern High School, Brunson played power forward on the basketball team at Tennessee State and later played defensive end for the Miami Fury of the Independent Women’s Football League. Prior to taking over the varsity football program, Brunson coached girls’ flag football at Jackson and was an assistant on the girls’ basketball team.
"A lot of times people make this big deal out of it being a woman, but I don’t see it being no different," Campbell said. "She’s in the school, the kids know her, she teaches physical education. So she’s jumping in their chests anyway. They know her better than anybody, so I don’t think it’ll be an issue of kids not wanting to be coached by a lady coach.
"They’re being led by a woman every day, anyway," Campbell added. "Their mama."
Campbell said he’s known Brunson since she was a child, calling her "the little girl that would be knocking out the boys on the football field in the sandlot park," and now he expects her to command the same respect from her players. Brunson said she foresees a similar response, but even without coaching a single practice or winning a single game, she’s already made history.
"I worked hard for everything I ever wanted, and nothing was ever given to me, and that’s something you have to instill in kids these days," Brunson said. "Once you show them there ain’t no handouts, that you have to work for it, and instill some morals into them, then we can get some productive citizens out there."
Once a renegade truck driver, Brunson is now a bona fide role model, and by Bernice or any other name, her impact can’t be denied.
"You never know who looks up to you," Brunson said. "But I try to carry myself in a manner where, if I were a young girl, I would want to be like me."
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at email@example.com.