VT's Brennan going out in style

Originally Published: February 25, 2005
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- The party at the Rusty Scuffer on Church Street was still going well into Friday morning.

Forget about the bitter cold outside. The air inside was about as warm and cozy as any postgame party at any Division I school in the country.

We're not overselling this one bit. This was as genuine an evening as you'll ever see in college sports, let alone college basketball. NCAA president Myles Brand should have been here to witness what college athletics is truly about at its core. This was amateurism, academic performance and kinship at its purest form.

"When I first had this for the seniors, it was me and their parents and the coaches," Rusty Scuffer owner Jack Fontaine said. "Now look at this place. You can't move."

At one end of the restaurant were the officials who worked the game, who actually hugged retiring coach Tom Brennan before and after the game.

"He makes the game better, and everyone respects him," official Stephen Uno said. "I've been with him for about 17 years. He's been a character as long as I've known him."

At another end of the bar was Brennan's family and a close friend, wheelchair-bound Chris DiJulia, the son of Saint Joseph's athletic director Don DiJulia, whom Brennan had flown up on a private jet from Philadelphia for his final home game.

Mixed throughout the establishment were three of the five seniors -- Vermont native son Taylor Coppenrath, Cameroon's Germain Mopa Njila and Ontario's headband-wearing David Hehn -- and their families. The Coppenraths, who have snowmobile trails that run through their West Barnet land, were standing near Mopa Njila's mother, who made her first trip to Vermont from her native country. All here in a bar along a cobblestone street not too far from the Canadian border.

Brennan was working the room with the locals, the Vermont administrators, writing greats Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe and Dick Weiss of the New York Daily News, members of the ESPN Original Entertainment crew for "The Season" and anyone else within earshot.

Over and over, Brennan remarked about how it couldn't get any better than what he was experiencing Thursday night.

He's right. This was an ESPN Classic without the need for a headline game.

Let's start at the beginning:

Brennan -- who announced Nov. 4 that he would retire after this, his 19th season at UVM -- said his day began picking up people at the airport and getting flowers for the seniors.

"And we still had to play a game?" said Brennan, issuing one of his many one-liners.

Patrick Gym was sold out. This isn't the Carrier Dome. It's not Cameron. It's big-time high school with 3,266 loyal subjects sitting in pullout bleachers. There is a coat check for some, while others just hang their winter garb over a railing. They sell a 50-50 raffle at the door. Even the president of the university, Dan Fogel, who was once at LSU, sits in the middle of the mayhem on the hard bleacher seats with his yellow and green-striped tie and sport coat.

Everyone is involved in making a Vermont game go off without a hitch. We mean everyone in the athletic department.

Students handed out posters of Brennan, the seniors and lyrics to Brennan's entrance song for a final serenade of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said." Katie McNamara, who just went over 1,000 points for the women's basketball team, was sweeping the floor under one basket. "I've got to earn my keep," she quipped. Hockey players were tossing T-shirts into the crowd. Wearing the mascot uniform was another women's basketball player.

This was a collective effort. A member of the basketball staff wheeled DiJulia out to the bench, positioning him next to Brennan's chair. A most poignant moment would come later in the night when the Catamounts tied the score at 54-54 and Brennan touched his fist to DiJulia's outstretched arm before he slapped anyone else's hand.

Earlier, Brennan made an entrance worthy of a sitting U.S. president, walking out with a strut, taking a victory lap and hugging fans and slapping hands along the way.

Then it was time for the player introductions. The school surprised Mopa Njila by finding a recorded version of the Cameroon national anthem and a flag to put on the wall. Hehn's Canadian national anthem also was played, the Maple Leaf flag positioned below Old Glory, before "The Star-Spangled Banner."

When the seniors were announced, they met their families along the baseline in front of a section that Brennan termed Nicholson row, a bunch of seats against the back wall that were within five feet of the basket. The players cried. Their parents were teary-eyed. Brennan couldn't even watch, hiding behind his underclassmen with a towel. When it was over, the seniors' parents hugged each other and their son's classmates in a show of affection hardly ever seen by a senior class.

And why shouldn't they rejoice? This senior class was directly responsible for turning Vermont basketball into a winner, producing two years ago the school's first NCAA trip after 100 years of basketball. The Catamounts went again last year and could go this season after beating Maryland-Baltimore County 66-61 Thursday night to clinch the America East regular-season title. The win earned Vermont the right to host the conference tournament title game March 13 if it wins quarterfinal and semifinal games in Binghamton, N.Y., the previous week.

"I've been here for 20 years, and when I first got here I could yell at the coaches and the refs and they would hear me," said Richard Belisle, who sat courtside across from UMBC's bench. "Now look at this place."

"I waited a long time for this," Belisle said. "Taylor is from this state, and they say he's the first pro to come out of here in 100 years. I won't be around another 100 to see another one like him."

Of course, this game had to have drama. The Retrievers (we're not making this nickname up) had only four league wins, yet held a 12-point lead in the first half. The lead was eight at the break, and any chance the Catamounts had of earning an NCAA at-large berth was about to dissipate.

To add to the team's anxiety, senior point guard T.J. Sorrentine was done for the night after 25 minutes with a strained hamstring (leaving him questionable for Sunday's finale at Maine).

When did Brennan make the decision that Sorrentine couldn't play?

"He makes the decision," Brennan laughed. "I would have put him in there with one leg, like Monty Python where he's asking for a fight [with the knights in a classic scene from the British comedians' Holy Grail movie]."

But the Catamounts rallied, just as they did at Albany last week when they were down 17 in the second half. Coppenrath finished with 30 points, despite playing with a head cold, to hold off the upset-minded Retrievers.

Before the game, Brennan said Coppenrath stopped him in the hallway and said he had to talk to him.

"I thought, OK, this is one of those moments where I'll need a whole pack of Life Savers, and I said, 'What's up, buddy,' and he said, 'I don't feel good,'" Brennan said. "I said, 'You didn't have to tell me that.' That's the last thing I wanted to hear."

What will the university, the community and the program miss when Brennan leaves next month?

"A lot of jokes," Coppenrath said. "There are so many fun stories. He comes into the gym every day with so much energy. He's already been up at 4:30 (for his morning radio show). I get up at 12:30 (p.m.) and still feel like crap."

"These guys are charmed, and I've been charmed," Brennan said. "I was going to quit before this all started [three years ago]. I go from being an also-ran to this. I was 22-88 and thinking about selling insurance."

Tom Brennan
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesThe last three seasons have left Brennan quite content.

Now he's on the verge of the unthinkable -- three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.

"Sunday becomes a big game, and we won't be the darling of the selection committee if we go to Maine and lose," Brennan said. "I think we'll go there and play well."

When the news conference was ending Thursday night, Brennan actually took a serious tone for a minute.

"I'm so thankful and been able to give so much back to the people that have given so much to me," Brennan said. "That's all we've ever wanted to do here. You look up in the stands and see the smiles on the faces of the kids, and it means so much to them when we win. That's all we ever wanted was for people to be proud of us and share in our success -- and it took a long time. For me to leave and get that back, I'm leaving on higher ground."

The latter part of the Van Morrison classic fits Brennan perfectly (sing if you like):

I'm in heaven, I'm in heaven.
I'm in heaven, when you smile
When you smile, when you smile
When you smile.

And when you walk
Across the road
You make my heart go
Boom-boom-boom
Let it all hang out
Baby, let it all hang out

And ev'ry time
You look that way
Honey chil', you make my day
Let it all hang out
Like the man said: Let it all hang out.

"We started playing that on the radio show 12 years ago, and then we played it at the games to get people excited," Brennan said. "It's had a good run. But the shelf life is over."

There is one more encore forthcoming, possibly here for a bid to the NCAAs and then, who knows, maybe a final curtain call with a win in the NCAA Tournament.

"I can't even imagine that," Brennan said as he toasted a few friends.

When asked when Fontaine was going to close for the night, he shrugged and said he had no idea. No one wanted to see this era end, not Thursday night, Friday morning, not anytime soon.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com