In his latest coaches interview, CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with former Vermont head coach Tom Brennan, one of the more personable figures in college basketball. Brennan led the Catamounts to three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances (2003-05), including the first Tournament win in school history when Vermont knocked off Syracuse in 2005.
Jon Teitel: You graduated as the all-time leading scorer at Phillipsburg Catholic High School. How far did you think you could make it as a player?
Tom Brennan: After graduation I went to Georgia with the idea of being a coach. I thought playing in the SEC at the Division I level was quite an honor; I never had any false aspirations of playing in the NBA.
JT: During your college career at Georgia you played against the great Pete Maravich. Was he the best opponent you ever played against, and what made him so great?
TB: Without a doubt; he was so athletic. His dad Press was one of the greatest coaches ever; he created the amoeba defense that Jerry Tarkanian later used to win a title in 1990. He completely sold out for Pete, and let him do whatever he wanted.
JT: In 1971 you graduated from Georgia after receiving the team leadership award. What made you such a great leader on the court, and how did those skills transition into being a great leader on the sideline?
TB: Not bitching about playing time (as a senior who did not play a lot) helped. I learned about what expectations to have for guys like myself who sat on the bench. I never felt like I was a great coach, but I always thought that I was a good leader. I got my guys ready to play, taught them how to believe in themselves, etc.
JT: After completing your college career you started as a graduate assistant at Georgia. What was it like to coach some guys who had previously been your teammates?
TB: Back then they still had a separate freshman team, so I got to coach a bunch of new guys who I never played with before.
JT: You later served as head basketball and baseball coach at Division III Fairleigh Dickinson. What was the biggest difference between Division I and Division III, and how did you do as a baseball coach?
TB: Bill Raftery got me that job and I had to take the baseball job as well. It was an entirely different world: driving in vans, no scholarships, etc. On Senior Day, I introduced each of my 4 seniors as hailing from wherever they wanted to be from!
JT: After that you became an assistant under such great coaches as Rollie Massimino, Bill Raftery, and Bruce Parkhill. Which of them taught you the most about how to be a great coach, and could you tell at the time that Massimino was capable of winning a title?
TB: I remember when Rollie hired me that we were sitting around when he said, "We are going to win a national championship here", and damn if he did not do it. It was one of the greatest "I told you so" moments I have ever seen. Raftery is one of the greatest guys you would ever want to meet; he takes care of everyone and treats everyone the same. He told me one day about the importance of coaching. "It's all BS, Tommy: if they make the shot, you are a hero; if they miss it, you get fired."
JT: In 1982 you were named head coach at Yale where you ended up coaching future Republican nominee for governor of Oregon Chris Dudley. What was the biggest difference between the Ivy League and other conferences, and how did Dudley rank among the smartest players you ever coached?
TB: Chris was one of the smartest and toughest players I ever coached, and was a terrific rebounder. His grandfather was a diplomat. The only problem is that he could not shoot free throws.
JT: Your claim to fame as a recruiter is that you never lost a Vermont native via scholarship to another Division I school during your Vermont career. How were you able to be such an effective in-state recruiter and how crucial was that to your success?
TB: It was crucial because Taylor Coppenrath came out of Vermont, but it is a bit of an overstatement because Vermont was not a hotbed of basketball talent. It is a small state, and it is a hockey state. It was all about relationships; I always wanted to play five local guys if I could.
JT: After a one-points win over BU in Boston for the 2003 America East tourney title, you brought the Denis Lambert Trophy (named in honor of the former Vermont athletic director) to Lambert's home in Stowe, VT. Why did you do that, and what was his reaction?
TB: It was one of my greatest thrills ever. I lost both of my parents in automobile accidents before we got "pretty", so they never got to see our success. Denis was a mentor to me, and a salt-of-the-earth guy. Even when we were 3-24, he hung with me and told me "you're my guy".
JT: What is your biggest memory of the 2003 NCAA Tournament, the first-ever NCAA trip in school history (the loss to Arizona, getting stranded overnight in Denver en route to Salt Lake City, etc.)?
TB: My brother in Seattle said that if we got to the conference title game, he would buy me an Armani suit, so when we did, he did. We got to Utah around 1:30AM and were pretty tapped out. At the press conference they asked us about missing all the hoopla, and one of my players said that the only one who cared about the hoopla was the guy in the Armani suit! The plane they brought us back home in was one used by Mick Jagger and the Yankees. Arizona kicked our ass, and the altitude got to us.
JT: What is your biggest memory of the 2004 NCAA Tournament (the loss to eventual national champion Connecticut, Coppenrath shooting 3-for-17, etc.)?
TB: We were up 7-0 with the ball and then we missed a lay-up. I said after the game that if we went up 9-0, they would never have caught us, but Coach Jim Calhoun did not think that was funny. I was proud that we hung with the team that ended up winning it all.
2005 NCAA Tournament
JT: You upset Syracuse in a three-point overtime win for your school's first-ever tournament win. How were you able to pull off the upset, and how did that game change your life?
TB: As Neil Everett said on ESPN, "Sorrentine made a shot, and Brennan got a job." Sorrentine said that he took the shot because I believed in him and he believed in me. There were three big reasons we won: Gerry McNamara was 3-of-18 from the field, Hakim Warrick had 10 turnovers, and Carmelo Anthony was already with the Nuggets. We knew we could win if they just let us hang around, and we did.
JT: You lost to Michigan State after shooting a season-low 31.4 FG%. Did your team just run out of gas or was the defense just overwhelming?
TB: One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was talking all year about just winning a game in the tourney, so once we accomplished our goal, that was it. It meant so much to the school and to the state, but we just did not have anything left. Michigan State was so long and athletic; they just wore us down.
JT: After the biggest win in school history you decided to retire. Why did you make that decision, and what was it like to go out on top?
TB: Actually I told them the previous November that I was leaving, so I got to play the whole year with house money and without any pressure. You do not get the time any more to go from 3-24 to 25-9 over two decades. There was nothing more I could do there, and I did not want to go elsewhere for a big-time job; I just wanted to go out in style.
JT: You coached a lot of great players (TJ Sorrentine, Taylor Coppenrath, Eddie Benton, etc.). Who was the best you ever coached, and who was your favorite?
TB: I it is hard to pick out one favorite, but Coppenrath probably gets the nod for willing us to three conference titles.
JT: After retiring from coaching in 2005 you went into the TV and radio business as a commentator. How did you enjoy those gigs, and what do you hope to do in the future?
TB: Right now I am up in the air. If the right situation comes along, I might coach again: I have been out of coaching for five years, and I feel re-charged. I liked ESPN, but I was just a talking head. I am enjoying retirement, but will try to get out a little more.
JT: Your nineteen year career is the longest of any coach in the history of the America East. What is the secret for staying with one program for such a long time?
TB: I think it is about relationships and building up some emotional equity. You have to convince people to root for you to be successful. In the early years when we were not good, I just kept working hard, and Ben and Jerry eventually named an ice cream flavor after me!
JT: Who is the best coach you ever went up against, and which young coach do you think has the best career ahead of him?
TB: I am a big Jay Wright fan, but he is not that "young" of a coach. I coached against all the great guys like Bill Self, Rick Pitino, etc. Later in my career I would schedule games against great schools where I wish I could have coached. Brad Stevens jumps out as the best young coach I can think of.
JT: Your son Brian was a standout guard at Indiana (Pa.) University, which reached the Division II Elite Eight in 2000. How proud are you of him, and what has he done since graduating?
TB: I am very proud of him. He is now an assistant coach down in Maryland.
JT: Your sister Noreen Pecsok also went into college basketball coaching. Who is the better coach?
TB: She is clearly a better coach; she is a hero of mine because she never gets upset. She is fifteen years younger than me, and believe it or not, we have never had a single conversation about basketball.
JT: When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most?
TB: Just as a guy who loved his school and loved his state, who was proud to be a part of something special.
Brennan is also on Jon's list of best coaches in America East history
Albany: Richard "Doc" Sauers (1955-1997) 702-330, 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, two conference titles, one-time national Coach of the Year
Binghamton: NO COACH HAS BEEN THERE FOR 5 YEARS
Boston University: Dennis Wolff (1994-2009) 247-197, two NCAA Tournament appearances, five conference titles, three-time conference Coach of the Year
Hartford: Paul Brazeau (1992-2000) 100-122
Maine: John Giannini (1996-2004) 125-111
UMBC: Randy Monroe (2004-present) 72-82, one NCAA Tournament appearance, one conference title, one-time conference Coach of the Year
New Hampshire: Gerry Friel (1969-1989) 188-335, one conference title, one-time conference Coach of the Year
Stony Brook: Steve Pikiell (2005-present) 58-91, one conference title, one-time conference Coach of the Year
Vermont: Tom Brennan (1986-2005) 264-276, three NCAA Tournament appearances, two conference titles, three-time conference Coach of the Year