Sunday, December 15, 2002

Small School, Big Voice

If I could sit down and have dinner with any three people, other than family and close friends, Tom Brennan would be the first person I’d invite. Funny thing too because he cut me when I tried out for the UVM basketball team as a freshman. However, I always have admired Brennan's personality and lifestyle. What other college basketball coach ends his morning radio shows, “Yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery, today’s a gift, that’s why we call it the present. So tear into it like a 5 year old on Christmas.”? He ended his 19-year coaching career at Vermont with three straight conference titles and the upset of Big East champion Syracuse. I interviewed him in his Burlington office in August 2002. I had written for the Burlington Free Press that summer, and did this profile on him in anticipation of when Vermont played North Carolina in Chapel Hill that December. After chatting with him for 50 minutes I told him I only had a couple more questions and, looking at the clock on the wall, that I was sorry for taking up so much of his time. He told me that I could take as long as I wanted and that “I don’t even see the clock.”

He can’t talk negatively, and frankly, he just can’t stop talking. When asked what he most dislikes about basketball, he’ll tell you recruiting. But don’t interrupt (not like you can) and he’ll confess how much he reveres his job – none of his players leave early for the NBA and he hasn’t been fired in 17 years as University of Vermont’s head coach. Not a bad scenario for someone
who enjoys writing poetry and co-hosts a morning radio show in Burlington, Vt.

Besides the fact that “it’s hard to be a 17-year-old’s best friend when you’re 52,” Tom Brennan may despise recruiting for another reason. Every basketball team in the America East Conference is given 13 scholarships except Vermont, which receives 10 and a half. While many coaches might use this discrepancy as an excuse, Brennan realizes he doesn’t have the enormous pressure to win like many other division one head coaches, such as UNC’s Matt Doherty.

“There’s no gun to your head saying if you don’t win X amount of games you’re going to go or if you don’t win a championship in a certain amount of time,” Brennan said. “So I always feel very blessed that I never got popped and to me that’s a big thing.”

Another big thing for Brennan takes place on Dec. 19, when UNC hosts Vermont in a contest scheduled because of unique circumstances on Jan. 19, 2002. The two teams stayed at the same hotel before their respective road games against Connecticut and Hartford the following day. Both coaching staffs hit it off, resulting in the Dec. 19 game.

“We’re very grateful that Carolina will play us because it’s such a prestigious school,” Brennan said. “It really helps us because it’s a big pay day for us and it looks good on your schedule. It’s just a great game until you have to play it.”

Last April, Brennan tuned into the McDonald’s High School All-American game on television. He soon discovered the talented Tar Heels’ recruiting class of Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May. Overwhelmed by UNC’s gifted trio, Brennan changed the channel after the announcer indicated the third player attending UNC. Even while recognizing Carolina’s teenage flair and deep tradition may hinder his chances of winning, he still relishes the opportunity to coach in the Dean Dome.

Regardless of the game’s outcome, fans will get their money’s worth with Brennan on the sideline. Carolina fans will soon learn what everyone in Patrick Gymnasium already knows, that Brennan is just as much a cheerleader as he is a coach.

“In games you can just look over and he’s putting on a little show on the sidelines,” said UVM co-captain Andre Anderson. “He jumps around and sprints down the sidelines. He’s always got that fist in the air. He’s an exciting guy and fun to be around.”

It’s no surprise he raises his arms in the air every time one of his players launches a shot outside the arc – he’s a veteran coach who loves games. But Brennan’s love for games goes beyond coaching.

“I’m at the point in my life I wish we had 80 games and 30 practices instead of the other way around,” he said. “I just love watching everybody go and seeing how people react to different situations. I really enjoy the whole ambience of it, everything about it.”

Recruiting is nothing more than a necessary evil,
I hate it more than Texans’ hate boll weevils.
Hey, I know it’s nothing more than a means to an end,
But really, I’m too old to have 17-year-old friends....

Brennan’s notoriety has inflated statewide to the equivalent of Jim Calhoun in Connecticut or Roy Williams in Kansas. And much of this can be attributed to the free publicity on his morning radio show. His popularity is so eminent that his show, “Corm and the Coach,” has been rated number one for the past 10 years by The Reader’s Choice, beating Don Imus and Howard Stern.

One night this past August, Brennan was watching the biography channel in his newly built home in Colchester. During the program, blurbs of different people popped on his screen. And sure enough one of them was Howard Stern, the often controversial but always well-recognized American entertainer. As the show examined Stern’s book and movie, the man plopped on his couch reflected on his radio success.

“You’re just a little guy in Burlington, but he came up here and you kicked his butt,” Brennan said. “To me that would be like going to Carolina and winning. It’s hard to do, it’s really hard to do.”

Brennan acknowledges the uniqueness of his situation, given the opportunity to work on the radio before 9 a.m. – promoting the basketball program and school, while developing his poetry hobby. In many ways he is a combination of David Stern and Howard Stern. He has the wit of a seasoned coach and the disposition of an entertainer. While he brings a similar personality to both jobs, there is a difference.

“Coaching is very real,” Brennan said. “You’re dealing with good guys and guys you really love and want to see do better and want to make better. Radio, you’re trying to get people to buy something they can’t afford and don’t need. And if they do it and you make them laugh one time, bingo, you hit the jackpot.”

The Burlington community adores Brennan because altruism is a part of his program, not just a publicity stunt. Every year the Vermont basketball players raise money for charity by serving almost a thousand people attending the annual Kevin Roberson Spaghetti Dinner. Roberson, a former conference player of the year at UVM, was tragically killed by a drunk driver in 1993. The event couldn’t be better for Brennan.

“State police are involved and I’m the maitre d’,” he said. “And I greet people and host them. It’s really the only thing I do well. If there ever was a job I was born to do that was it. But unfortunately we only do that one night a year.”

As his popularity increased, so did his poetry, which he began reading on the air about nine years ago. His self-proclaimed “Nipsey Russell” style reveals Brennan’s spontaneous nature.

“It’s a thing I really enjoy doing, but I don’t take it seriously,” he said. “I don’t sit in a cabin and contemplate the world and come up with ideas. I do it between the time I get to the radio at 5:30 and leave at 9:00.”

He has accumulated about 600 poems, the best of which he plans on publishing in the spring and titling, “Poetry for the Unwashed Masses.”

I don’t have to make promises that I know I won’t keep,
Because my players are individuals, not some heard of sheep.
They’re here to learn life lessons, not just play ball,
And the group I have now has stood nothing but tall....

Growing up in Phillipsburg, N.J., Brennan enjoyed playing a variety of sports, but particularly excelled in hoops, graduating as the all-time leading scorer at Phillipsburg Catholic High School. He followed his stellar prep school career at the University of Georgia, competing against the legendary Pete Maravich and Johnny Neumann.

Brennan traded his jersey and high-tops for a coach’s suit and wingtips after he graduated from Georgia in 1971. He broke into the division one ranks in 1982 as the head coach of Yale and has remained at Vermont since 1986.

Although Brennan earned his third America East Coach of the Year Award and Vermont set several school records last season, including 21 wins and its first regular season conference title, success wasn’t always typical in Patrick Gym. The Catamounts won 14 games in his first three seasons.

“I was given great advice by one of my assistants when we first got the job,” Brennan said. “We were like 3-24 or 5-20 something and I said, ‘This office sucks.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it’s yours.’ And I thought, you know what, it doesn’t suck that bad after all. And I never forgot that.”

And when I went to recruit them, I faked a good cheer,
But to tell the truth, I’m really glad they’re here.
Because this group is special, they’ve stolen my heart,
Mostly of course because they make me look smart....

Five years ago Brennan learned of an eight-year-old boy from Enosburg Falls, Vt., diagnosed with leukemia. Moved by the prognosis, Brennan provided Thomas Cook a position on the baseline near the team’s bench, serving as the ball boy for all home games. Some of the players grew close to Cook and were devastated by his death a year ago November. Still, Brennan uses Cook as a reminder to his players ofhow blessed they are.

“I say: ‘This guy would kill to run up and down. I’m going to have to tell him to run harder?’ I would never have to tell him to run harder.”

Serving as inspiration, a strong work ethic has never been a problem for his players. Just like Cook, Brennan’s upbeat spirit rubs off on those around him.

“He definitely supports us emotionally,” said sophomore Taylor Coppenrath. “Just seeing him and the way he speaks gets me motivated. It makes me want to play harder and do better.”

When Brennan’s English bulldog, Gunner, died in November, his players witnessed his emotional attachment.

“The only time I saw him down was when his dog died,” Anderson said. “Other than that he’s always up ready to go. He’s not really a down guy, he’s an exciting guy. His personality makes him the kind of coach you want to play for.”

It will be hard for the Catamounts to perform better than last season. Despite bringing 11 players back from a team that broke numerous school records, Vermont lost two of its top three scorers, including Trevor Gaines to graduation and point guard T.J. Sorrentine, who broke both wrists in a scrimmage on Nov. 1. Anderson will take over at the point, filling in for last year’s conference player of the year.

“It’s a big blow obviously,” Anderson said. “Personally, I have to take it as an opportunity. And at the same time everybody else has to pick it up and make up for T.J. by committee because we got the guys that can do it.”

Brennan may be the ideal person to help the team adapt without Sorrentine, having witnessed almost everything in his extensive basketball career. The same man who adopts certain trends like a popsicle craze last summer.

“I’m a tremendous creature of habit,” Brennan said in August. “Like now, I’m on this popsicle kick. I’ve been eating popsicles since it got hot. I’m eating like 20 a day. I don’t know what the hell the problem is. But I know by September I’ll never touch another popsicle.”

While his potato chip and candy cravings pass, he has maintained a routine after moving into his new house by Lake Champlain in the summer of 2001. One day driving home Brennan began thinking about how grateful he was to own this home and reflected how it became a reality. The first thing that came to mind was Roberson. Brennan reminded himself of his star player’s legacy.

“Well, one reason it happened is because that guy came. Man he meant so much to us and so much to this program.”

Still contemplating, Brennan ironically passed 40 Henry Street, Roberson’s residence his senior year, and beeped his horn.
Since then his team went on a tear. Tears of joy flowed down his cheeks when he won his first championship as a coach last March. Now every day Brennan drives out of his way to beep.

Although middle-aged, Brennan is young for a man who has accomplished all of his personal goals in life – made possible by a small division one school in a town in Vermont.

“I feel comfortable with who I am,” he said. “I love where I am. I really feel that this community and university has given so much to me and I get to give back to it every day through the radio and through our program. Then again, I’m not for everybody. Not many people want a disc jockey as their basketball coach.”

This story first appeared at in December 2002, three months before the Vermont men’s basketball team won its first conference title in school history. Vermont won titles in 2004 and 2005 as well, and Brennan retired as a coach in March 2005.