Tom Brennan was hurriedly walking to Patrick Gym, sporting a new suit on his way from downtown Burlington to campus.
The wind was whipping; the air bitterly cold; snow covering his feet.
The way Brennan tells this story, like many others, is woven with laughter and (probably) a few embellishments.
But it’s still Brennan through and through.
He wasn’t sure if it was his third or fourth year at Vermont. All he knows is that he walked right into a fountain he didn’t see since the snow had it covered.
His suit pants ripped, his knee was bleeding and he fell back into the snow.
“I was lying there, like a snow angle, wondering is this meant to be?’’ Brennan said “Enough is enough. I went back home, changed, hurried back up the hill and got there a minute before the game started. We beat Hartford at the buzzer. And there I was in the middle of the pile and everything was good. I was dead and gone at 1:30 p.m. and at 4 p.m. I was right back at it.’’
Brennan will have his name unveiled at Patrick Gym Monday night against Siena. It will will forever be on the court, even once there is a new arena/gym on campus.
No coach has had the wild ride with a school and state that Brennan had.
How many coaches have their names on the court when they lost (276) more game than they won (264)?
The big night is finally here! Tonight, we add Coach Tom Brennan’s name to the Patrick Gym floor. Get there early for the ceremony by 6:45 p.m. before @UVMmbb faces Siena! #ThisIsVermont #MyBoy pic.twitter.com/tyXaQAgDHD
— UVM Athletics (@UVMathletics) December 11, 2017
But it’s hard to come up with a coach who had as big an impact and changed the fortunes of a program.
Brennan was the face of Vermont basketball for 19 seasons. The Catamounts weren’t in the narrative of college basketball when he arrived, but by the time he retired in 2005, Vermont could proudly back a men’s sport other than hockey or skiing. He went 3-24 in his second season. He didn’t have a winning record until his fifth.
Vermont had never been to the NCAA tournament. Brennan took them to its first three. Vermont had never won an NCAA tournament game. And the Catamounts win over Syracuse in 2005 in Worcester, a game I will never forget witnessing, was one of the greatest moments in the state’s sport history. Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine, who hit an epic 3-pointer to ice the victory over Syracuse, were the players of note. But Brennan, whose arms raised high when Sorrentine buried the deep 3, was the one who put in more time in building a winner.
But he did it his way. He never sweated the process.
“I didn’t worry about my job from the standpoint of getting fired,’’ said Brennan, who had state-wide radio show that was hardly about sports for years while being the coach of the Catamounts. His breezy style and carefree attitude transferred to his team that didn’t seem to get bogged down when things went awry.
“I knew we had to win at some point,’’ said Brennan. “But I never equated my record with being a loser. I’m not a loser. Losing was just the cost of doing business. It was a hard struggle. But I knew you can’t win if you don’t lose. We got slapped around but it was for the great good. I had a wonderful administration and they were great to me when we got good.’’
Vermont is now an established America East power because of what Brennan did during his tenure. His successor, Mike Lonergan, won 126 games and four America East titles, getting the automatic qualifier once during his tenure. Current coach John Becker has already won 145 games and attended two NCAA tournaments in his seven seasons.
Congratulations to former Vermont HC Tom Brennan, who will have the court named after him tonight in Burlington. Catamounts’ upset over Syracuse in 2005 was vintage March Madness.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 11, 2017
When Becker took over for Lonergan, he immediately wanted Brennan to be a part of the program, even taking him on road trips.
“He’s the Godfather of Vermont basketball,’’ said Becker. “He has helped me understand the importance of this program for our state and former players. He has been a mentor and a friend as I’ve navigated my years as a first time Division I head coach.’’
Becker said it was important to bring him back, because no one loves being a Catamount as much as Brennan. And Becker said he’s a wonderful person. “I’ve always felt, ‘Why shouldn’t he still be in the family?’ He started the family. It would be like kicking your grandfather out of your family. You can’t do that.’’
That would crush TB, as he is affectionately called.
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When the Catamounts win, he feels elated. When they lose, he’s despondent. He lives it. He breathes it. And he loves every second of it.
Brennan, now 68, has no plans to leave Vermont. Why would he? He has grown to love the state that loves him back.
“In this state there has always been a definitive definition between space and peace,’’ said Brennan. “As much as I love going to Madison Square Garden and New York, there is nothing like looking out my window and seeing this beautiful state.
“I’m not the best coach and I’m not even the best basketball coach Vermont has ever had,’’ said Brennan. “But I’m the proudest.’’
Now that Tom Brennan will get his name on the court, who else should get their name on something of value at their respective school? A few ideas:
Mark Few, Gonzaga: He’s won 511 games with the Zags, delivered them to a national title game, and transformed Gonzaga into a national program. He has helped put the school on the map. The Zags are a brand that is known to all who follow the sport. He will be in the Hall of Fame at some point but first he deserves his name on the court.
Bob Huggins, West Virginia: Huggs has won 829 games overall, 239 at West Virginia. He brought the Mountaineers to the Final Four. He is as much West Virginia as any other coach who has graced the sidelines. He still has work to do in Morgantown but at some point something should be named in his honor.
Rick Byrd, Belmont: He is the architect of one of the top programs off the major grid. He has won 667 games at Belmont and gone to seven NCAA tournaments. Byrd is Belmont. Don’t be surprised if he’s celebrated for his accomplishments at the school.