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BOB RYAN

Gathering is evidence Brennan went out on top

ST. LOUIS -- Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo, and Roy Williams are certifiably great coaches with a total of two national championships and 14 combined trips to the Final Four. Bruce Weber arrived here with a 36-1 team that has been ranked No. 1 since Dec. 6. They are the men in the tournament spotlight.

If they're lucky, someday they'll all wind up like Tom Brennan.

Brennan's teams won one (1) NCAA Tournament game. He retired from the University of Vermont with a losing career record. But the Victory Tour for a coaching life well led continues amok, the latest chapter being a daylight fete organized by Harvard coach Frank Sullivan, who yesterday invited people to a St. Louis establishment called J.D. McGurk's to "commemorate his retirement from coaching with his friends." And so while the aforementioned marquee mentors put their teams through the requisite faux dog-and-pony-show practices and did their coachly duties for the assembled national media at the Edward Jones Dome, Brennan and a few hundred of his closest friends were hoisting 'em about 2 miles away at McGurk's.

In case you're wondering, this does not happen at every Final Four. Of course, Tom Brennans aren't happening anymore, ever, which was kind of Sullivan's whole point.

"To me," said Boston University coach Dennis Wolff, "this is the way everyone's career is supposed to end and, unfortunately, so few do. All of us here are his friends. I competed with him, but I am happy for his success. He is a special person."

"He is everyone's crazy uncle," said Hofstra coach Tom Pecora. "He is the one who puts it all in perspective for the rest of us. They talk about old school. Well, Tom Brennan is old school. He tells you who he's recruiting. He approaches it the way people did 20 years ago, before it all became so corporate. We should all be like him. Plus, he's never boring."

The truth is the rest of them couldn't be like Brennan. No one else at that level was wired like him. Said 17-year assistant Jesse Agel, "Tom, unlike the rest of us, wasn't very concerned about the X's and O's. He was more concerned about the kids, on and off the court, and how they were moving through life, and what was going to happen to them after they left Vermont."

It was no secret that Coach Brennan had his own M.O., what with his daily morning radio show and all, and that Agel was indeed Vermont's chief tactician. Tom Brennan made sure everyone knew that.

T.B., as he likes to call himself, had a style, an act even, and it worked for him. Like, who else invites the opposing coach out to dinner the night before the game?

"It used to drive Jay Wright crazy," said Pecora, who assisted the current Villanova head coach at Hofstra before becoming his successor. "He'd say, `He takes you out to dinner, he never watches a [naughty word] tape, and we can't beat him in that gym.' "

Pecora said that Brennan's, shall we say, relaxed style of coaching is something more people should emulate. "We all overprepare," Pecora maintained. "He used to say to Jay, `You've got better players than us. Just do the Frank McGuire thing. Sit down, fix your [naughty word] cuff links, and you'll win."

La Salle coach John Giannini, who was a Brennan foe at Maine for many years, stated Brennan was special in other ways. "He would take you out to dinner," Giannini said. "He would call you to congratulate you if you got a job and he would call you to pick you up if things were not going well for you. That's a reflection of the type of person he is, and also a reflection of the fact that he respects the coaching profession. There was always a humility about him. He always shared the credit. He never acted as if he were the reason the team won. I think that's why his players played hard for him."

Going to play Vermont in the Tom Brennan era was a unique experience. "I remember my first trip to Burlington," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who had been an America East foe at Delaware. "You go up there. You get the dinner. He calls you at 6 a.m. for his radio show. And then the game starts and you can't get a call! I'm a mid-Atlantic guy. As soon as I get to the court, I hear these thick New England accents. I say, `One guy's from Vermont. One guy's from New Hampshire. One guy's from Massachusetts. What chance do I have?' "

Speaking of first times with the One and Only, Sullivan recalled his first scouting trip with Brennan as a freshly minted Villanova assistant under Rollie Massimino. "It's 1974," Sullivan began. "We pick up a hundred or two hundred dollars in cash and I think we're supposed to be heading for Newark to see a kid. But along the way we stop at a clothing store and, if I'm not mistaken, he buys a leisure suit with some of the cash. Next we stop at Solano's restaurant for a meal. He spends all the cash before we even get there."

It was the start of a beautiful friendship. "The great thing," Sullivan said, "is that when he started to win, he acted the same as he did before. It was just that the stage became bigger. More people became aware of his approach. But now it's like when Al McGuire got out of the game. Who's going to be the next one to come along?"

Massimino had him first. The Villanova mentor put him on the payroll for $13,000, in part because he liked the kid and in part because of a letter of recommendation from the president of the University of Georgia, where Brennan had been a pretty good 6-foot-4-inch forward who once dropped 37 on LSU. "He was a flamboyant, emotional, hard-nosed type of kid," Rollie declared."

From Villanova, Brennan moved to Yale, and then, in 1986, to Vermont. He started off 14-68 the first three years and he wound up with four straight 20-win seasons (the only ones in Vermont history), three straight league titles with the attached NCAA berths, and one very big, valedictory victory over Syracuse. He had announced his retirement in November, never dreaming the season would be quite this good. "It's been a thousand times more than I ever would have hoped for," he said.

The man to pity is Mike Lonergan. The Maryland assistant is the new Vermont coach. "This guy really ought to be rethinking this thing," said Brey. "He's not only got to follow a winning coach; he's also got to be following David Letterman."

It was late afternoon and the guest of honor took a look at what was basically a mob scene at J.D. McGurk's, and at that moment wins and losses were utterly insignificant. If Messrs. Pitino, Izzo, Williams, and Weber had any sense, they would have been desperate to trade places with a guy whose career wound up with a record several W's shy of .500.

"I guess it all comes around," Brennan sighed.

"It wasn't the wins and losses," said Agel. "It was about the ride. It was about the journey. That's what made it special."

At J.D. McGurk's, no one was leaving. They all wanted to remain in Coach Brennan's orbit.

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