The RTC Interview Series: One on One With Tom Brennan, Part IIPosted by rtmsf on June 30th, 2011
Rush The Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you periodically throughout the year. If you have any specific interview requests or want us to interview you, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yesterday we brought you Part I of our One on One interview with the always-entertaining Tom Brennan. In addition to learning that integration helped knock him out of a starting spot at Georgia and that his athletic director at Yale all but pushed him out the door to Vermont, we re-discovered that the man simply loves to tell stories. Whether it involves him telling his new boss that he’s already fulfilled all his career goals or thinking he had coaching all figured out at the tender age of 27, he had us riveted to each and every word. Part II is only better.
Ed. Note: Brennan uses some colorful language during this interview, so if you’re sensitive to such things, you may want to skip past this one.
Rush the Court: Guys like us who study the sport knew you were pretty good in ’03 and ’04, but most of America, though, didn’t know about you guys until that ’05 season. The ESPN program helped with that, but then of course the NCAA Tournament run built upon it. You guys really caught lightning in a bottle in terms of national coverage, and with Taylor Coppenrath, TJ Sorrentine, and yourself, you all became national names almost overnight. What was that like?
Tom Brennan: We were pretty. We really were pretty. I had this radio show every morning during morning drive-time. It was like something out of a novel. Sorrentine was the little street kid from Pawtucket [RI], you know, who was the leader and had his hat on sideways. And Coppenrath was like Lil’ Abner; he was from a town of 200 people, and they loved him. They loved him! He never complained; he was really a treat. And then I had three or four other guys that just really blended in. I always say this — like, David Hehn — the first year we won [in 2003], we won at BU, and he made a jumper with about five seconds to go to win the game. So now, it’s Vermont’s first championship, we win it on the road. Everybody’s nuts, but then we had Coppenrath and Sorrentine. You know, Sorrentine was out that year, and he’s coming back and he’d been the MVP. And the year he was out, Coppenrath was the MVP. So now I got these two studs, and they’re both really good, but I also have to manage all this sh– to make sure everybody is on the same page. Like Hehn went from a superhero to A Chorus Line — he went back, “just let me guard the other team’s best player.” But if any of those kids had ego problems, I think we could have blown up. They were just so good about it, and everybody really was into the idea that we’re all better if we’re together, and we’re all better if we don’t care who gets the credit and that kind of stuff. As cliched as it sounds, it really was the truth. Coppenrath and Sorrentine were both ultimate teammates, and the other three guys were as well. And we were tough! We’d been around — all the same guys — for three years, then ESPN got interested. ESPN The Magazine did a big story on us, and Sports Illustrated. It was off the hook, and it’s such a little state and we’re the only Division I school, and people just went crazy about it. Really, those guys were like the Beatles — they really were.
RTC: So let me ask you about those three NCAA Tournaments. In succession, you went up against Lute Olson, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim and Tom Izzo. [laughter] There’s no break there, right? What was that like? Olson’s now retired — he coached until he was about 150, but these other guys continue to get it done even as they advance well into their coaching careers. What is it about these coaches that makes them so successful?
TB: I always said, “if God had another son, he would look like Lute Olson.” It was remarkable what Calhoun did last year — he finished ninth in their league! And it’s not like he’s going to rally them — he’s a bad-ass. You know, he gets in those kids’ faces; he doesn’t take no for an answer. I mean, he’s just ruthless, and yet, man, they did it. They did it. I was always impressed with that, and what happened was… it was funny. I was so in awe of Lute Olson — it was just unbelievable, because, again, the guy was like a god to me — and I didn’t know him, but I just knew of him, and what he’d done and what he’d accomplished and how he looked and he was always so gracious. And so I’m walking down, we’re getting ready to play them, and what happened was that his wife had died a while back, and then he ended up with this woman from Pennsylvania [Christine Olson] — I don’t even know how the hell it happened, but she was like a Republican leader, some big deal from Pennsylvania — and I read this thing where he was very happy. That he’d met this woman and she’d really made him happy, so I didn’t think much of it, but when I was walking down to say hello to him, I was so nervous. Honest to God, I wasn’t even nervous about the game, I was nervous about him! Because I knew, they’re a #1, we’re a #16 — I mean, they had [Andre] Iguodala, they had all kinds of players on that team. We had been stuck in the snow, we didn’t get to Salt Lake until 1:30 in the morning, and we played at 11. It was crazy. It was just crazy. Our kids were like, “f—, look where we are.” And that’s the thing, by the time the second year came around [against UConn in 2004], we really weren’t that shook, and by the time the third year came around [against Syracuse in 2005], we knew that we could win. We really knew we were good enough. So, anyway, I go up to Lute Olson, and he said, “Coach, how are you?” And I said, “Coach, I just wanna say that I’m just so happy that you’ve found peace in your personal life.” I’m thinking to myself, “what the f— are you saying?!?!” I’m hearing these words come out, and I’m thinking, “you a–hole!” I didn’t even know what to say to him; I was so awestruck, honest to God. So he said, “well, thank you.” And I just turned and ran like a rabbit, and thought “jeezus… good first impression, there.” But you know what, when I retired, he wrote me the nicest letter. He wrote me a beautiful letter, and so it was nice. But you know, we never had a chance. [Vermont lost 80-51.] I have a picture on my cell and we were up, like 7-6, got it blown up and put it on my wall. But then, and this is a cute story too. We got stuck in the snow, and I went on [Tony] Kornheiser’s show, PTI or whatever it was — I guess it was his radio show at the time — and I said, “you know, this is ridiculous.” I said, “they make billions of dollars on this thing, and they can’t get us from Denver to Salt Lake City? If you think this was Duke in this hotel, we’d still be here.” I wasn’t even finished, and the AD knocked on the door: “hey, yo, that’s enough about that.” [laughter] So that was enough about that. So then anyway, but what happened was, we did get tapped out, and to take us home, the NCAA felt so bad and I guess my rant had a little bit to do with it, they sent us a plane that [Bruce] Springsteen uses, the Rolling Stones use, and you couldn’t even tell it was a plane. So now, my wife and I are standing at the back, and the captain comes down, and he says, “are you the coach?” I said, “yes, sir. I’m the coach.” He said, “well, you come with me, I’m going to take you to Mick Jagger’s suite.” So I turned to Lynn [Brennan, his wife], I said, “hey, you gotta turn into a Brazilian model by the time we get to the top of the stairs.” [laughter] It was wild. But it was a great experience; it was a great experience for our kids. And I knew that we had a chance to keep going, that we had this group that was good. So then the next year we played UConn, played them tougher than anybody as I recall, on their march to the championship. [Vermont lost 70-53.] I think they beat us less than anybody else, and then the next year we got Syracuse.
RTC: And a great, great story all three of those years. Let me transition for a minute into your post-coaching career of broadcasting, I guess the career you never thought you’d have. I read an article during the ’05 run that ESPN executives were watching your press conferences and considering them like auditions, before they offered you a job.
TB: As Neil Everett said on several occasions down at ESPN… I’d walk into the studio, and he’d say, “Sorrentine made a shot, Brennan got a job.” [laughter] And I said to him, “that’s exactly what the f— happened, but let’s keep that under the radar if you don’t mind.” That was a job to me; coaching was never really a job. This was a job, man, there was a lot of preparation. I had to know a lot of other things; I was nervous. The guys are saying, “just be yourself.” Well, it’s not easy to be yourself when you’re pissing down your leg, you know, when you’re scared to death, it’s hard to be yourself. Plus I had [Doug] Gottlieb with me, who never showed up. He was a handful to deal with. But it was good. It was really a neat experience. I would sit there and just kinda pinch myself. It was like you won a contest. I was thinking, “look who’s here — you got [Dick] Vitale, who’s it. You got Digger [Phelps] from Notre Dame, you got [Jay] Bilas from Duke, you got [Steve] Lavin from UCLA, you got Rick Majerus from Utah, and then you got me… from Vermont.” But it was good; it was good. And then, like Mike Jarvis told me when I got there, he said, “listen, understand this now, I’m really happy for ya, but as soon as you sit in that seat, there’s somebody better looking sitting in the door. You realize that, right? So just understand — you do the best you can, and don’t worry about the outcome cuz you got no control over that.” And so they kept me for four years. I really enjoyed it. I had a great run; I met a lot of great people. And then they just decided after the fourth [year] that they weren’t going to renew me. So, ok, fine. That was that. I just thought I’d been stealing money there the whole time. It’s unbelievable how great that was.
RTC: And Westwood One since then, right?
TB: Yeah, and then what happened was interesting because I didn’t get any work. I didn’t get renewed, and then I didn’t get anything. And Dave Revsine is an old friend of mine, and he’s now with the Big Ten Network. So he called me, and he said, “what are you doing?” And I said, “I’m not doing anything, man, that Syracuse thing is long gone.” And I said, “the fact is, ESPN didn’t want me back and there isn’t really many other places to go.” And he said, “your agent is not doing a good job for you. There’s no way you should be out of it.” So, man, you know, he’s my friend. So I said, “well, that doesn’t matter because I just got rid of my agent, because I didn’t need him.” I wasn’t getting any work. I didn’t need an agent. So he says to me, “let my guy… why don’t you talk to my guy?” So, the kid called me and he said, “I think you’re good. I don’t know exactly what happened [at ESPN]. But, I think you’re really good. I think you can do this. Let me try to do something for ya.” So I said, “OK,” and the next thing you know, he got me this Sirius gig from 12-3 on like two days a week, and then they moved it up to three days a week, and then through that, I got Westwood One for about 12 to 15 games for Westwood One. So it all kinda fell right into my lap there, you know? And it was great. I’m hoping to go back — I think I’m going to go back to both of those places, but you never know. You just gotta wait and see what they decide. But it’s been good. I often said this to people, “when your reality of your world is better than your dreams, then you’ve really made it.” You know what I mean? When I was 8-50, even later than that, I just never would be thinking like, “hey, someday you’re going to win three championships, you’re going to win an NCAA game, you’re going to be on ESPN…” Never, I never would have thought it. So I never took it for granted, not one minute. I always appreciated the hell out of it, and never took myself real seriously, and just thought, “this is a neat thing.” And it was. I really felt like I represented Vermont. And I always felt that way when we were getting better, and all these good things were happening, I would say, “this is for everybody. This is for all the people that believed in us and took care of us.” And people loved it! They were happy for me. They felt a part of it. It was just really neat. It don’t suck to be Tom Brennan in Vermont, let’s put it that way.
RTC: I pulled a quote that you mentioned about your retirement in 2005, but you’ve mentioned 8-50 a few times already. Are you done with coaching? You still have some spunk and some energy and quite a few years ahead of you. Are you done?
TB: I know, I know, I don’t even know if I should say this, but I tried to get involved with fifteen jobs this year, and could not get a sniff! I’m thinking to myself, “my last three years, we won championships. I don’t understand this.” I could not get a sniff. And then when the Vermont job opened, I said to the guy, “I really think I should come back,” and he said, “nah, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” I said, “why? Why wouldn’t it be a good idea?” And he said, “I think you’re enthusiastic now, but I dunno in two years, if you haven’t coached in six years…” I said, “listen, listen, all I did was watch basketball for the last six years. It’s all I did.” I said, “I’m a people guy, I can do this.” But he didn’t want to do it. I didn’t know why exactly. So that’s it, he didn’t want it. You know, then somebody said to me, “you should go to the president [of Vermont],” and a couple of other coaches in the league called me and said, “I think it’d be great for the league if you got back in it.” And one guy said, “Listen, I’ll get my president to call your president.” And I said, “nah, nah, nah… I really don’t want that. They don’t want me. If my boss doesn’t want me, then I don’t want to go back.” It’s not the end of the world. And my wife said it beautifully, she said, “would you trade any of what we had before to have this again?” And I said, ”no, not one day of it.” She said, “you know, we’re lucky, we got to do it once. Some people don’t ever get that. You got to go out on your own terms. And you did leave. Nobody asked you to leave. They wanted you to stay.” And that’s what I said to her, “I coulda stole money, I coulda stayed and stole money.” They would not have fired me at that point, not for a while. But I knew, I kinda knew I was done. Now after six years, I knew that I could do it again. I really thought I could do it again, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Now each year gets a little tougher now – I’m 62 now — kinda if it didn’t happen this year, or if I didn’t even get any sniffs, then I think it’s pretty much done. I’m kinda resolved to that. But if someone just called me, like Navy, for example — when the guy left Navy — I thought, “man, that’d be a great job for me at Navy. I’d be perfect for Navy.” I called the guy up. He don’t return my calls. I don’t get any… nothing. And there were several others like that. I just thought, “man, that’d be a good job for me,” and I just kinda looked at it like, if you were looking at it and you got to the transaction, and it said, “oh, so-and-so has hired Tom Brennan.” And you would say, “yeah, that seems like a good fit.” There were a couple really really strange hires this year. How did that happen? Anyway, it is what it is, and like I said, nobody’s been luckier than me, so I really don’t have any beef.
RTC: Sidney Johnson going to Fairfield from Princeton was an odd hire. Were you looking just at the mid-major level, or were you looking at some of the bigger schools too?
TB: Yeah, mid-major. You know, I really felt that’s kinda where I belong. Or Atlantic 10, I would have loved to have gone to the Atlantic 10, or CAA, or… well, Colgate I didn’t want anything to do with. I may have been able to get involved there — I don’t know — but that was one I just didn’t care about. Along the east coast, or like Towson [State] — why wouldn’t they talk to me at Towson? That’s what happened, and that’s the way it was, so I just kinda accepted it and moved on.
RTC: Well those leagues are getting better and better, and as we’ve already learned the last few years, you can get to the Final Four from those leagues.
TB: Yes, you can. Hard to believe, hard to believe, but it’s true. They’ve done it. Those teams have both done it. Butler! You know, like Indiana State last year… couldn’t get involved with Indiana State, and I’m thinking, “they suck! Why wouldn’t they talk to me?” [laughter]
RTC: Is that something as a coach that you would — you’ve had an unbelievably successful career at Vermont — but is that something that still is out there as a brass ring?
TB: No, no, it isn’t. It really isn’t. If it happened, if it was the right fit… but you know, I’m not getting guys to call up. I don’t want to do that. Honest to God, one of the things I really, I really had it at the end and I still have it now, I just have tremendous peace in my life, where I am and how lucky I’ve been. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. Just like this happened. I’m not going to tempt fate, or I’m not gonna… if somebody calls, or if I call somebody and they say, “yeah, I would like to talk to ya,” then it’s something I would kinda pursue, but I’m not just sitting here thinking, “alright, get me the list of every job that’s open” and you know, I’m just not going to do that. I don’t want to do that.
RTC: Ok, well, I appreciate all the time, I just have a very few ‘quick hits,’ one or two sentences to finish things up here.
TB: Let’s go — whatta ya got?
RTC: Best player you ever coached for or against?
TB: Pistol Pete [Maravich].
RTC: What about your proudest coaching moment?
TB: I think it was Senior Night in 2005, when those guys, it was their last home game and we had just about clinched… y’know, we had to beat the University of Baltimore, but we had just about clinched, and it was so meaningful, and they were so big by then. People were so crazy about them by then. And, like we had Phish when we played Northeastern… Phish sang the national anthem. Are you kidding me?? [Phish lead man] Trey Anastasio said, “hey, can you get me Coppenrath’s number?” “No problem, Trey, I’ll take care of it.” [laughter] “Can you sign this album cover for me?”
RTC: How about up-and-comer in the profession that you really admire what he’s been able to do?
TB: I think, without question, the kid from Butler, Brad Stevens. I was fortunate enough to have them when they played Valpo. And Homer Drew, one of the nicest people you could ever meet in your life. He’s just a wonderful man, a superstar. And he was telling me, “this kids’ good. I know this. I’ve watched him, and he’s really good.” And so then I was there — me, and Dave, and Dougie, did the game — so we were with Drew all morning, and then Butler came in to practice in the afternoon. And he was like 30 then, or 31, I dunno what he was. But he was just a kid, and it was his first year, and I just thought, “this guy really has his sh– together. He really knows what he’s doing, and he’s calm, and he doesn’t overreact. And they play hard, they practice hard, and I thought, “this guy’s a star.” I had no doubt in my mind about that. I didn’t realize that he was going to be a star at Butler; I thought he might be a star in the Big Ten somewhere, you know? Because somebody would snatch him up. But, he’s a guy I really do think a lot of.
RTC: Last night was the NBA Draft. Anybody in particular that you think was particularly underrated or went pretty low who you think is going to be a good player?
TB: Well, I don’t know that he went low, because of where he came from, but I happened to have the good fortune to have [Morehead State forward] Kenneth Faried in their semifinal game and final game in the OVC [Tournament] and then, we saw him together that day [in Denver in the NCAAs against Louisville]. I just thought this guy is really, really good. I think he’s a great player. Just a great motor. So he’s a guy I thought — I think he’s going to really be a good pro.
RTC: You think he could be a [Dennis] Rodman type of player?
TB: Yeah, I absolutely think that. Because I think he’s totally selfless. He’s not real good offensively, but he doesn’t care. Just goes after the ball, plays hard on every possession. Takes great pride in rebounding the ball, which, you know, that’s a big thing. Plus he’s a nice kid. Then… Jimmer [Fredette], we all fell in love with Jimmer! I tell ya, he’s like [Justin] Bieber with a jump shot! [laughter] He was a nice kid. And you know what’s funny, when we did the interviews before the games, so he came in and I said, “hey Jimmer, Tom Brennan.” And he said, “Coach, I know who you are. I’m from Glens Falls [New York]! Man, I loved your teams at Vermont.” I said, “Jimmer, had I known you were gonna be you, I’d have stuck around and grabbed you when you came out!” So he laughed a little bit. And then, Ted Robinson said, “what was the biggest thrill of the year?” And he said, “well, I just think the year — everything happened the way we wanted it to happen, and I think that was the biggest thing.” And I said, “excuse me, excuse me, we’re not going to talk about the shocking upset of the Catamounts at the Glens Falls Civic Center, we’re not going to talk about that?” And he said, “oh well, yeah, that too.” [laughter] Those kids are really easy to root for — so that’s what I’m always looking for.
RTC: Thanks for all your time today, Coach. Have a great rest of the summer.