The RTC Interview Series: One on One With Tom Brennan, Part IPosted by rtmsf on June 29th, 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.
You know him from his gregarious, affable demeanor as a studio host on ESPN as well as an on-air radio analyst for Sirius and Westwood One, but there’s a lot more to former Vermont head coach and media personality Tom Brennan than a friendly quip and a quick smile. The personable transplanted Vermonter who has a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream named after him coached the game for thirty-five years, taking him from Georgia to Fairleigh Dickinson, Villanova, Seton Hall and William & Mary as an assistant, before elevating to the top position at Yale, then the Universitas Viridis Montis (UVM). In talking to Brennan, you get a sense that he’s not only a guy you’d want to play ball for, but the kind of person you’d also ask to be the best man in your wedding. He’s got so many stories, anecdotes and ironic twists from a lifetime of achievement that we decided to break up the interview into two parts. In today’s Part I, we’ll track Brennan from his early days as a player in the segregated South to his crowning achievement as a three-time champion of the America East Conference at Vermont. Tomorrow we’ll move into the broadcasting career he never thought he’d have, and talk about how likely it is that one of the neatest guys we’ve come across in this sport ever gets back onto the sidelines.
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: Let’s talk a little bit about your career arc. You’re an east coast guy who grew up in New Jersey. How did you end up down in the South in Athens, Georgia, in the early 70s playing ball — what was that like?
Tom Brennan: Segregation. I can answer you in one word. Segregation. Seriously. I loved going to Georgia, I loved every minute of it. We had a coach [Ken Rosemond] from North Carolina who was on the ’57 championship team, and he was an assistant — he and Dean Smith were Frank McGuire’s two assistants. Dean Smith got the Carolina job, and my guy got the Georgia job, and he really felt much like McGuire, that he wanted to get players from the North. He felt the competition was better and that basketball was more important up this way. But really, I’m not naive, there’s no way if it was ten years later that I think I would have been recruited to Georgia. I think I was a Division I player, I mean I played in the SEC, and I would have gone somewhere and I could have gone a lot of other places besides Georgia, but honestly as I look back on it now, had integration been in play, I probably would have gone somewhere in the East. I loved when I visited there. He saw me in some all-star game, and I happened to have a good game, and so I just went down to visit and I really liked it. He was going to get it going, and they had the same building [Stegeman Coliseum], honest to God, in 1967 that they have now. They still play in it; they’ve upgraded it. But back then it was like off the hook, it was like from Mars. We had a lot of northern guys, and I just loved going to school there, made a lot of great friends. Matter of fact, I just got off the phone with somebody I’m going to go spend some time in Maine with, who was our manager during my time there. You know, I was the oldest of seven kids and I kinda wanted to get away. I thought it would be like an adventure, and it kinda turned out to be that way. I just think, and I don’t say it as a wise guy, I just think if it had been 1977 [rather than 1967], it would have been a lot different.
RTC: It’s a beautiful campus — the Georgia campus — and I’ve been to the arena you’re talking about. I’m just wondering, Vandy was one of the first schools in the SEC to integrate in the late 60s… were there any other schools at that point that were integrated or was it pretty much still all white?
TB: It was pretty much all white. Perry Wallace [the first black SEC basketball player] was it for Vandy, and he was a stud. He was a really good player, and I mean, you had to be a special guy to do it. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And then when I got there, the first African-American came to Georgia. His name was Ronnie Hogue, and it’s a cute story because when I was a senior, he was a sophomore, and I was starting the first couple of games. And he replaced me and got 43! [laughter] [Don’t tell Coach B, but Hogue actually scored 46 points!] And so I became a contributor! And you know what too is interesting, at that time, my brother who is now a PhD psychologist, was in Vietnam, and we had integrated at Georgia and we had the first African-American player, and I wasn’t even in tune to anything. I’m thinking now as I look back on Vietnam, I should have written my brother a letter every day. Every single day. I just didn’t even think about it. It was kind of the same way with Hogue. He was just a good guy, a really good guy, and being from New Jersey, I’m thinking, what is taking so long [with respect to integration]? How is this even an issue? When are these people gonna figure out that we all are created equal and if a guy’s good enough to play, it shouldn’t matter what he looks like or what his background is. I never really took it seriously. And then I read a book about all the athletes that were the first to integrate, and Ronnie had some interesting comments in there, and there were things that I didn’t think about, but I wasn’t black. I’m thinking, sh–, I never even thought about that, I never even thought to say to him, are you doing ok? I was just trying to beat the guy out! And he was a good kid, it wasn’t like he was a pain in the ass at all. It wasn’t real prejudice, but he was just a player, and I was a player, and we tried to treat him as well as we could. It was such a historic thing but I didn’t know it. I didn’t have any kind of frame of reference about that at all. It was neat being a part of that. I’m proud of being a part of the first integrated team at the University of Georgia. I’m not sure if they had a football guy yet — I think maybe they did. I’m not 100% sure about that, but I know Ronnie was the first black basketball player. [Georgia had five black football players enroll in the fall of 1971.] You know, we were boys and we hung out. The thing is that there was a big black community in Athens, and it wasn’t socially mixed so much, but there was a lot of places he could go and there was a lot of people he could see, and he was really obviously a hero to all those people and I certainly understand that.
RTC: Perspective is something we all have to aspire toward in our lives. So then you did some assistant coaching through a number of places including one of my alma maters, William & Mary…
TB: Yeah, you went to William & Mary?! That was one of my favorite stops, I was an assistant to Bruce Parkhill down there. We were both 27 — he was the head coach at 27 — it was unbelievable, the youngest guy in the country. Our first year, we beat North Carolina… and I thought to myself, jeezus, how easy is this sh–? [laughter] Little did I know… but our fourth game, we beat ‘em. And we were good. I think we won 17 or 18 games, and for a W&M team, we were very good. That’s how it started — and then, I was with Bruce for five years — and then I got the Vermont job.
RTC: So how’d you end up at Vermont in the mid-80s, and then 19 years there as the head coach…
TB: Well I went to Yale first. In ’82, I was the head coach at Yale. And I was there for four years, and my athletic director was a fella by the name of Frank Ryan — who used to hand the ball off to Jimmy Brown at Cleveland. I think the last time Cleveland won a championship in anything, he was the quarterback for that team — so he became the AD at Yale, and I got the job, and I was there four years, and my friend was the hockey coach at Vermont. I just wasn’t getting along that well with Ryan; I just didn’t feel like it was a good marriage. I look back on it too, and I was nuts, I was excitable, there were some things that he’d say, “look, don’t act like that; don’t carry on like that.” I’d say, “listen, after the game, before the game… I’m the most gracious guy you ever ever want to meet, but that’s when I’m working, man. That’s my office.” And he’s saying, “nah, no, that’s not how it works.” And now, I agree with him 100% — I totally agree with him. But then, I thought, “what the f— does this guy know? He ain’t a coach. I’m coaching for my livelihood here.” So anyway, it didn’t work out real well. And then they offered me the Vermont job, and it was kind of funny, because I told the AD here [at Vermont], “you know, they never win — Vermont never wins. I’m in the Ivy League now. At least Penn and Princeton you gotta deal with, but we can get better here. We had [Chris] Dudley, who went on to play in the pros for a while. So anyway, I left and went back home after the interview here and knocked on the door of my AD and said “we gotta talk.” He said, “what’s the matter,” and I said, “I’ve been offered the Vermont job.” He said, “I think you should take it.” [laughter] I’ll never forget it. So my leverage sorta went out the window at this point, you know? And honest to God, I can remember sitting here in the hotel before the press conference, saying “what did you do? what the hell did you just do?” And then I kinda thought, “well, you know what, they want you here; the guy didn’t want you there, really, and at least they want you here.” And it’s really kinda funny; if you want to make God smile, tell him your plans. I thought, “it’s so bad, that if you just get it [the UVM program] a little bit better, you’ll be able to get outta here.” And then, nineteen years later, you know, Ben & Jerry was naming an ice cream after me. [Retire Mint]
RTC: So 19 years — obviously you had to enjoy it and like it. What enticed you to stay?
TB: I love being here, honest to God, I should be in the Chamber of Commerce. I just thought it was the neatest place. And I really felt, honestly because of hockey, that we could get good. I didn’t know that we could get good, but I knew that if we got good, people would support us. Know what I mean? I knew the town was too small — I got around, I knew people — it was a great community. And we got incrementally better, and where I was really lucky was that they kept me. I’ve often told people — told groups that I’ve spoken to — this would never happen today. Nobody’s going to stay nineteen years and get incrementally better. It’s just not going to happen. It’s just the world we live in. [John] Giannini from Maine had the best line. When we won the first championship, he said, “we all love Brennan. But we just all wish we had sixteen-year windows of opportunity to be successful like he did.” [laughter]
RTC: You started when Newhart was popular up there!
TB: Yeah, and what happened was, I didn’t think people would care that much, but I just knew that we’d have interest. I knew that if we got better and I was doing a good job in the community, we had people rooting for us. And I remember my first three years — first three years! — we lost to St. Mike’s, a Division II [school] right next door — they’re in Winooski. I remember saying after every game, “I’m going out, I don’t care, we’re going out, we’re going downtown — this is bullsh–. They’re better than us, but we ain’t hiding. We gotta try to get better. We gotta win people over, and they gotta see that what they see is what they’re gonna get.” And I think really what helped us is that there just were a lotta… lotta people rooting for us. There just were a lotta people that, when it really started to happen, thought, “man, this is a neat story. This is really a neat story. This guy has busted his ass for all these years, and gotten better, better better.” And now all of a sudden because of the right configuration and the stars aligning, you know, we got these kids in [the 2001 class] and they were good from the minute they got here. That class won twenty games from the time they were freshmen to the time they were seniors. [they were 89-36 from 2001-05] Never looked back. And then people just went crazy for it. And I think it has a lot to do with the idea of 24/7 — guys like you, people that are just so interested, and now everybody can find out what they need to know so there’s new stories all the time — and we became a story. Sports Illustrated… ESPN did a whole series on us… I can remember vividly, I remember watching that series called “The Season.” They were only going to do three episodes, and then we ended up going to play Syracuse [in the NCAA Tournament], so they did the fourth episode. And I can remember often times talking to my dad about my grandfather — just telling stories about my pop-pop, and what he did, and where he went — and it was always so intriguing to me, and by the time my dad was older and my grandfather was way older, and he had been in an accident by then and couldn’t move around real good, but he was just an intriguing guy to me and his stories just meant so much. And I’m thinking to myself, “you know what, when your grandkids want to know about pop-pop, they can just pop this thing right in here and watch the whole series.” It was unbelievable to me. Honest to God, I just felt like, “how lucky are you to be a part of this?” Everybody said, “well you hung in there and you hung in there,” but Vermont did too. And they coulda fired me for any reason — you know, you get a bad administrator, you get a donor, you get somebody who you’re under their skin, and the next thing you know, times are hard. But they stuck with me all that time, and then we got better and better and better, and then it just went crazy. It was really a neat thing. Only one time did I interview or even look to go anywhere else — in 1990, we kinda snuck into the [America East] championship game. It was crazy, we were the 8th seed but we upset two teams, and we ended up playing BU, and after that I talked to some people at Canisius. Other than that, the whole time I was here, I never talked to anybody else, never really thought about going anywhere else. And then when I got these [class of 2001] kids and I knew I was getting near the end, I thought, “what a perfect way just to go out with them.” And you know, we did it. And that was the thing too, after we won and went to the first NCAA Tournament game [in 2003], that was our AD’s last year. So we got a new AD — guy comes in from Minnesota somewhere — and we sit down and we have our first meeting, and he says to me, “I’d like to know what your goals are.” And I said, “I accomplished them all. I don’t have any more.” [laughter] He said, “no, I’m serious.” And I said, “No, I’m very serious. I was 8-50 my first two years here. 8-50!” [Brennan is too hard on himself — he was only 8-47.] We only had nine scholarships, and it was a sh– job. Nobody was saying like this is a sleeping giant, and we did it. We did it. Part of my problem was part of my joy — I was really satisfied. You really can’t be satisfied and be in this business, you know what I mean? I said to him,”I really want you to have the kind of success here that I had. I’m rootin’ for ya!” The guy was like, “what the f— is this?” So then the second year, we lost to Connecticut — they won the national championship — they were damn good, they had like six pros on that team, and we hung! We really hung in, and I thought, “we’re pretty good!” We almost beat UCLA, we went out there and lost by one; we lost at Kansas by about four or six, and we were good. For our level, we were really good. So, the third year, I just thought, “you know what, I know this is it. I’m just fat and happy.” I said, “I’m softer than Barry Manilow. ” There’s no way I could drive those kids and do what really was necessary, and I knew it. I just said, “look, this is the last year. I’m going to stop after this.” And they were great, they were better that year than the other two, and we were lucky enough to beat Syracuse and it just went crazy from there.
Tomorrow: Brennan discusses his Catamount championship teams in more detail, riffs on some of his coaching contemporaries, and relays stories from his broadcasting career in Part II of One on One.