Another era in Laurel football comes to an end.
On Tuesday night, at a regularly scheduled board meeting, Todd Breland declared his intentions to step down as the Tornadoes head coach. The move was then approved by the board, along with the naming of Laurel's new head coach - Ryan Earnest.
Breland produced an overall record of 82-27 in his eight-year tenure.
“I want to thank the administration of Laurel that took a chance on me,” said Breland. “I’ve been fortunate to work with some great people over the years. A special thanks to Dr. Benigno for this opportunity and Dr. Watts for her leadership and vision for the district. They have given us every opportunity to be successful.
“Also, the fans, wow. They are none more passionate than Laurel fans. Most of all, I’m thankful for every player and coach that has walked through the door. Those relationships that have been built will last forever. Thank you L-Town for letting me be part of your ‘Family.’”
Breland served as an assistant to Milton Smith before being promoted to head coach in 2012. The move came as a surprise, said Breland.
"I got a call from Milton Smith one day," said Breland. "He asked me to come down to the field house. When I walked in, Smith told me that he had stepped down. Then he offered his congratulations, and that I was the new head coach.
"It caught me by surprise. I felt like somebody put a hundred-pound bag of sand on top of my head. But at the same time, I was excited to start my journey. This place has a rich tradition of winning football games. You're going to have the athletes."
Breland’s first year seemed ordinary. Laurel advanced into postseason play for the fourth straight year and finished 6-5 overall, 4-1 in Region 5-4A.
Then came the big move.
"I was sitting in the middle of the national forest on a four-wheeler when I got a call," said Breland. "I was told that we'd moved up [from 4A] to 5A. I started getting more phone calls, asking what are you all going to do? I said we're going to play football. We didn't just start playing football. We're going to play the game. It didn't faze us."
He was right. He, nor Laurel, was fazed in the least bit.
Laurel became the surprise team in 5A that year (2013), finishing 12-2 and 6-1 in Region 3-5A. Before all was said and done, Laurel was battling Picayune in four overtimes in the South State Championship.
“I think it bothered more people outside the school than it did the players and coaches,” said Breland. “We went on a five-year run after that of being in the South State Championship.”
One of those years, 2014, the year following its move to 5A, Laurel won its third title in school history, defeating highly-favored Oxford, 29-26.
"It was at that point in my career that I realized how much it meant to a city, added Breland. "I was dragged across the field by reporters. I wanted to be with my team, but I couldn't get to them. So I watched from across the field. I watched Laurel's side and saw the celebration. At that point, I was glad that I was across the field because I got to see from afar. I got to see how much it meant everybody from the players to fans."
During the five years (2013-2017) of consecutive South State appearances, Laurel, under Breland's command, went 57-15, including three straight region titles and two state championship appearances.
"When I took over the program from Coach Milton Smith," said Breland. "It was already in good shape. There was nothing wrong with it. Over the last eight years, we've had a good record (82-27), and I would like to think that I'm leaving it better than I found. I believe any coach wants to do that. It's important."
In the last two years, Breland led Laurel to 10-win seasons, 10-4 in 2018, and 10-3 in 2019.
Laurel is known for producing D1 athletes. Several came under Breland, most notably Ole Miss tight end Octavious Cooley, Tulane quarterback Keon Howard, Arkansas State wide receiver Omar Bayless, and Ole Miss wide receiver Dontario Drummond - to name a few.
"I get joy out of seeing them have successful careers," said Breland. "I tried to count them up in the last eight years. We've had a little over 50 kids obtain scholarships. And we've had others that went on to careers in the military. I'm proud of all of them. We keep in touch. I turn on the TV, just flipping channels on Saturday, watching those guys. It's heartwarming."
The memory that stays in Breland's mind the most didn't occur under his tenure as head coach. It was a game in 2007 while Breland served as an assistant.
"The game that stands out to me the most, and I've coached a bunch of games here, was the 2007 game against Moss Point in the South State Championship," said Breland. "It was the most exciting game that I've been a part of as a Tornado.
"It was sold as the game with the best defense in the state (Moss Point) versus the best offense in the state (Laurel), and it was just two teams going at it. You couldn't have stuffed another person in the stadium. And how the game played out and then the ending of it, a miracle play just showed how special of a year it was with a special group of kids. It sent us to the state championship, which was the first one in 17 years, where we went on to win it. It was something you'll never forget where you were when it happened."
Breland was first hired at Laurel in 1995 by then-head coach George Blair.
“Coach Blair hired me to be an assistant coach with the eighth-grade team,” added Breland. When Coach Buddy Duke came in the next year as head coach, I started coaching defensive ends.”
In 2003, Breland left for a four-year stint at Wayne County, where he served as running backs coach. He returned to Laurel in 2007.
Before taking the head job at Laurel in 2012, Breland made one other coaching stop at Northeast Jones in 2009, then returned to Laurel the following year.
Like the transfer of power from Smith to Breland in 2012, Breland will hand the reigns over to an assistant as well. Offensive coordinator Ryan Earnest, a Laurel native and former player under Breland from 1995-1999, will be the new head coach of the Laurel Tornadoes. A story on Earnest will drop soon.