Hoops heating up Vermont

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Keeping a man from walking into on-coming traffic is one hell of a way to meet. But that's how I met Tom Brennan.

It was during a rainy night at the 2001 Final Four in Minneapolis. Waiting for a traffic light to change while walking back to the hotel just after 1 a.m., Brennan took what could have been his last step into a crosswalk as a car nearly sent him to the ground.

Standing just to his left, I screamed to get his attention, grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back from the oncoming traffic. When he hopped up to the curb, he turned to me and didn't hesitate to put on what I've come to know as his familiar charm.

"I'm Tom Brennan, the Vermont coach," he said without a thought about what just almost happened. I'm still not sure if he recognized me, but I do remember how he just laughed off a rather scary few moments so casually.

Since then, checking in with Brennan has been well, let's just say, always entertaining.

Take this past March for instance, when Brennan's Catamounts reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the school's 103 years of playing basketball. Vermont would miss its West Region news conference in Salt Lake City because an apocalyptic snow storm that forced them to stay in the Denver airport, bus down to Colorado Springs and then eventually get to Utah in the wee hours of the morning before its first-round game against Arizona. But along the way, Brennan did his own news conference via his cell phone, giving us at ESPN News updates on the Catamounts' progress, always doused with comedic flavor.

Then again, Brennan's infectious personality is what makes him a cult hero back home in Burlington, Vt. Brennan being Brennan is why his drive-time radio show pulls in higher ratings than both Imus and Howard Stern in the local market, according to who else, Brennan. Local sports guy by morning, Division I basketball coach by day, Brennan has teammed Steve Cormier the past 11 years to form "Corm and the Coach," on WCPV, 101.3 FM.

It's a typical morning-drive show with pranks, such as Brennan calling his fellow colleagues to wake them up (Brennan not above chanting the time of the day while screaming, "Wake up you sleepy heads, you've got 15 minutes to get to work."). On any given morning, Corm and the Coach talk to callers who were at a local spaghetti dinner the previous night to a UVM eye surgeon who repairs cataracts to hundreds of people in Nepal every year.

Brennan's personality, however, could only create so much buzz once the show ended. It would take winning, not one-liners, to make the hockey fans and those hitting the slopes to take notice of that sport being played in Patrick Gym. And the wins finally started to pile up in 2001-02 and the success has snowballed the past two seasons.

Hired in 1986, Brennan's teams won a total of 14 games in his first three seasons. The 'Cats posted a high of 16 wins three times over his next 11 season -- losing more often than winning. But in case you don't follow America East basketball, Vermont has put together back-to-back 20-win seasons and have a total of 54 wins over the past three seasons. But last year, Vermont finally won the game that counted most -- beating Boston University on the Terriers' homecourt to win the conference tournament.

"Most people don't get a 17-year window to win," said Brennan, whose box-like office atop Patrick Gym has one of his most prized possessions and butt of many jokes -- a picture of him trying to guard Pete Maravich when Brennan played for Georgia in the late '60s and early '70s. "Most people wouldn't be allowed to stick around and win 40 percent of their games. But we've built up a lot of goodwill, so when we won, so many people were happy for us."

Happy? Try ecstatic. And, if there is such a thing as instant passion, Vermont fans have it for their 'Cats.

Call it what you want, but this picture-perfect college town has gone crazy over its hoops. Amidst knockout foliage in the fall, bitter winds off Lake Champlain in the winter, a student body that is traditionally earthy and outdoorsy, to say the least, has adopted those 'Cats who play in sneakers instead of skates.

Just a lunchtime drive away from the Canadian border, hockey may still be the sport of choice among most of the student body. But the local's choice of entertainment isn't so clear cut when both teams are playing on given night. Oh, and the eclectic fan base includes a senator (Patrick Leahy), an independent congressman (Bernie Sanders), the lead singer of Phish (Trey Anastasio), a frontrunner for president (Howard Dean) and two guys in the area who make ice cream named Ben and Jerry.

"Basketball wasn't the thing when I got here, it was hockey," said guard T.J. Sorrentine, a 5-11 point guard from Pawtucket, R.I., who was the America East player of the year as a sophomore before sitting out last season with two broken wrists. "But if you win, they come out. When I first came here, there was nobody in the stands and now the place is packed."

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that earlier this month, Brennan, his staff and his players hosted a tipoff dinner with Mama Gooch's spaghetti and meatballs on campus to a record crowd. The banquet hall was packed with a few hundred people. Greeting every person who entered was Brennan, who played the roles of host, unofficial emcee calling out the arrivals, politician giving a kiss to babies and wives, and, of course, comedian.

"Hey, Frank, check your shoes at the door," Brennan yelled to a Catamount fan who works security at Burlington's airport. "The guy just laughs when we come through at the airport. I thought we should give him the same business here."

Brennan's trusted assistant Jesse Agel plays the straight man to Brennan, at this dinner and throughout the season.

"We're like yin and yang," Brennan said before someone else pipes up that they were more like Andy Griffith and Barney Fife of Mayberry.

"Coach knows basketball, but he likes being the head coach and doing all of the motivational stuff," said Vermont native and reigning America East player of the year Taylor Coppenrath. "Our assistant coaches do a lot."

Brennan calls Coppenrath "Lil Abner," a country kid who wasn't on his high school varsity team as a junior -- "In Vermont! Can you believe that? This is Vermont."

No, Vermont doesn't produce too many hoop finds. There have been just 17 Vermont natives to play for Brennan during his tenure. And only one Vermont native slipped through Brennan's state-wide net, instead choosing to go to Fairfield (He has since transferred back to Vermont). What it amounts to is an average of one in-state recruit a season, and winning in any Division I league with such sparse homegrown talent isn't easy.

"Winning and getting to the tournament here is amazing," Brennan said.

And as a result of last year's trip to the NCAAs, the excitement over basketball carries over to the Vermont administration. It's serious about putting Vermont's hockey and men's and women's basketball teams into a 6,500-seat arena adjacent to campus. The facility would replace Patrick Gym.

"Tom accepts his limitations," said senior associate director of athletics and former UVM hockey player Jeff Schulman, who then proceeded to take his infant son over to a life-size cut out of Brennan and the America East trophy for a photo-op. "We're playing in a glorified high school gym, and he hasn't had full scholarships. But he figured out a way to be successful."

Krista Balogh, UVM's athletic marketing director and a former Catamount swimmer, promised that Vermont's Green and Gold scrimmage -- which has struggled to get 100 fans to attend in the past -- is expecting 1,500 this season. Students are likely to flock to games this season after the university passed a student fee on their tuition so that they could attend games for free.

"You can tell things are changing on campus," said Vermont native Matt Sheftic, who will sit out the season after tearing his ACL in a pickup game last month. He's hoping that the NCAA will grant him a medical redshirt to play in his sixth season. He missed a season after his sister died and is hopeful the NCAA will look at his extenuating circumstances. "There is so much more commitment here."

But the 54-year-old Brennan isn't a "lifer." He's grateful for the extended stay, and while nobody wants him to leave, his plans are to coach Vermont for a total of 20 years. He's not looking for an upgrade, either. He'll simply retire from coaching after the 2005-06 season -- or at least that's his plan, which could easily change.

"The entertainment side is where I'm better," said Brennan. "If I can do the radio and hook on for some TV games then that would be great. I don't need the coaching. Most coaches do need to coach. I don't need it."

But the plan to hand the job over to Agel might be tougher than it was three years ago.

"My dream is to do that because he's done tremendous things here," said Brennan who came to Vermont at the same time Jim Calhoun was getting started at Connecticut and Mike Montgomery was beginning his career at Stanford. "I don't worry about anything, and he worries about everything. But what scares me is that he has helped make this job too good for the Vermont assistant to get it.

"For 16 years, nothing changed. It was business as usual. But we've got a new president, a new AD, and it was the perfect timing for us to be good."

If high expectations are a problem, well Brennan has one this season. For the first time, Brennan may feel like he has to do well to keep his job. The expectations are higher. If he didn't get into trouble off the court (He was taken off the air for a year five years ago after making a few comments about a foreign player), and his players were in good standing, Brennan was pretty much untouchable.

But, the school gave him the full allotment of scholarships (13) this season. And with Sorrentine and Coppenrath -- two former America East rookie and player of the year winners who are both juniors -- the Catamounts should be looked at as favorites in the league over BU and Northeastern.

Agel also admitted Vermont is recruiting higher-profile players because of the recognition it received from being stuck in the snowstorm as much as playing in the NCAAs. Vermont also upgraded its 2003-04 schedule, tipping the season off at Nevada in the Preseason NIT (a win over the Wolfpack could mean a second-round matchup against preseason No. 1 Connecticut).

The 'Cats also picked up a game at UCLA. Brennan said Agel was against the idea, but Brennan simply said, "Do you want to play a home game against Southern Vermont or go to Pauley?

"Next year we're at Kansas and possibly Louisville. If we have another good year, we've got to do this. My recruiting pitch is that you can come here to play with champions, but after next year, you can play in this new place because our president has a vision and a plan."

Any added pressure isn't apparent talking with Brennan. And one wouldn't even know Brennan is on the verge of back-to-back NCAA Tournaments by talking to him during his radio studio or at his home, which overlooks Lake Champlaign. One minute he's delivering some sort of shtick and then the next he lets you know that he takes care of Chris DiJulia, the son of Saint Joseph's athletic director Don DiJulia. Brennan befriended "D-Jules," who suffers from cerebral palsy, years ago. Don DiJulia and Brennan were good friends dating back to when Brennan was an assistant at Villanova under Rollie Massimino.

Brennan flies Chris DiJulia up for games and the wheelchair bound DiJulia stays at his house. In the team photo after the Catamounts beat the Terriers, DiJulia is front and center. Brennan isn't in the photo. He was still in the locker room, in shock, that Vermont was going to the NCAAs.

Penn coach Fran Dunphy, a close friend of Brennan's and DiJulia's, said when he called Chris after Vermont made the tournament, he said Chris said, "I have no words." Brennan had trouble remembering his own two years ago. Brennan said he still gets a B12 shot monthly to improve his memory, because two years ago he couldn't remember a thing.

But he feels great now, arriving at the radio station at 4:30 a.m., 15 minutes before Cormier, and an hour before they go on the air for their 3½-hour gig. He's also the same coach who while at Division III Fairliegh-Dickinson-Madison used to introduce his players at their last home game, "where they'd like to be from instead of where they were from.''

"The running joke is that everyone always asks Tom what he wants to do when he grows up," Cormier said.

It doesn't appear Brennan will ever answer that question. He's having too much fun in Vermont, coaching a basketball program in a state known more for maple syrup than as a hotbed of hoops.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.