Catching up with Brennan and the boys…
A little over a year ago former Vermont basketball head coach Tom Brennan found himself driving along back roads near the small town of Rochester, VT. The old coach stopped off at a small convenience store where he found a large, bearded man behind the counter, reading a newspaper. The store clerk glanced up briefly, then back to his paper before looking up once again and bellowing out with a great booming laugh.
“I know who you are,” the man said with a sense of amusement.
“You do?” said Brennan.
“Sure I do,” the man continued. “C’mere and let me show you where we all were when you beat Syracuse!”
To know that story is to know what life has been like for Tom Brennan during the last four years. Really, the same can be said for any of the players or coaches from Vermont who stood on the floor of the DCU Center on March 18, 2005 and watched as the clock ticked down on their monumental upset of 4th-seeded Syracuse.
The game was supposed to be anything but a battle for the Orange, just two years removed from winning a national championship, and still featuring many of the key players from that squad. Vermont on the other hand had been to the NCAA Tournament the previous two seasons, but was still looked at as nothing more than a mid-major afterthought. That fact didn’t seem to bother anyone involved with the program, least of all the core group of senior players who were well accustomed to the rigors of March by that point in their careers.
“Everyone smiled for a few minutes after our seed came up but then it was right to business,” says former guard David Hehn. “I remember being at a table with T.J. [Sorrentine] and he almost immediately started talking about match ups. The first time we went it really was special, but each successive year after that it turned into more about business. This was our last chance as seniors so we wanted to go get it. To use the cliché term we wanted to shock the world.”
Shock and awe might have been the more appropriate term. While Brennan and his assistants were concerned about the length of Syracuse and Jim Boehiem’s legendary zone defense, his players were game for whatever the Orange threw their way. Despite being an overwhelming underdog, the Catamounts were in the game at the half, a fact that famed gunner T.J. Sorrentine says made him start to think that this game wasn’t going to go as according to plan.
“It’s kind of funny, before the game right before we left the locker room I asked [teammate] Alex Jensen, do you think we can win the game. He said yes, but only if at the half we’re down by five or six. So I’m thinking, hmm, that’s interesting. So sure enough we come back in at the half down by four; he looks at me and I just start laughing.”
The second half didn’t prove to be any different as Syracuse never made the move viewers around the country kept expecting them to make. A Germain Mopa Njila layup was waved off late in the second half after he stepped on the baseline forced the game into overtime, rather than giving Vermont the win in regulation. While that could have been the window Syracuse needed, everyone knows how the rest played out. With a little over a minute remaining in overtime and Vermont leading by a single point, Sorrentine was dribbling the ball near midcourt and barking out the call for a play. What happened next is the stuff of March Madness lore; we’ve all seen the highlight. Rather than passing off to teammate David Hehn as the play was originally drawn up, a seemingly unguarded Sorrentine let loose a shot that wasn’t so much from down town as it was from the other side of the county. The shot hit home, Vermont led by four; game, set, match.
At the team’s hotel that night after the game, Coach Brennan and his wife spent several hours in the lobby bar, hugging and celebrating with friends and supporters. At the top of every hour though the happy couple would sneak off to their hotel room to watch the opening minutes of SportsCenter in order to see highlights of the game as it led off the newscast. For Brennan it was a bittersweet night in many ways as he had already decided that season would be his last, but little could come in the way of enjoying the win.
“When it finally ended I was just so thankful,” he says. “I thanked God because of how lucky I was to go out like that. How many people are lucky enough to script their own ending? I felt a tremendous amount of pride for the people in the state and the people at the university because they all got so into it.”
That excitement hasn’t stopped either. The beauty of sports is as time passes legends only seem to become that much greater, that much more mystical, a fact that Brennan made his team aware of in the aftermath of their win.
“I said to those kids is we’re not going to let this go, and one of the things that will happen is it will be bigger the further you get away from it. It’ll be bigger in five years than it is now, and it’ll be even bigger in 10 years.”
Nothing that has happened in the aftermath of this story refutes Brennan’s statement. He, Hehn and Sorrentine attest that the game itself comes up at least once a week, in many cases almost daily. In the case of Sorrentine, it may have helped prolong his career playing the game he loves.
At the conclusion of his collegiate career, Sorrentine, like so many other seniors with hopes of playing in the NBA, participated in the Portsmouth Invitational. He performed well enough in front of the NBA scouts and GMs in attendance to earn himself a spot on two NBA Summer League rosters with the Miami Heat and the Milwaukee Bucks. Though his collegiate numbers were good enough to suggest that Sorrentine was capable of spending time bumping elbows with the best players in the world, the Rhode Island native is the first to admit that he owes his shot at the big time to that game four years ago.
“There’s no question, just getting that recognition was huge,” he says. “I think I actually had a better game in the second round against Michigan State, a team that wound up going to the Final Four, I think I had 27 points; that showed people I can really play. But without that Syracuse game I don’t think I would have gotten any looks. I’d be a fool to say otherwise, because there are a lot of kids that can play but never got to be on the national stage like I did.”
Though the NBA wasn’t in the cards for him, Sorrentine spent two years playing professionally overseas in Portugal and Slovenia before a pair of ACL tears slowed him on the court and turned him on to the idea of coaching. Sorrentine got his first break when former Vermont assistant and current Brown head coach Jesse Agel offered both he and former teammate Kyle Cieplicki assistant coaching positions on his staff, positions both held for the 2008-09 season.
For Brennan the rise after Vermont was much more meteoric.
“As SportsCenter’s Neil Everett says, Sorrentine hit a shot, Brennan got a job,” Brennan says with a laugh.
The energetic and personable coach more than made good on his 15 minutes of fame as the leader of America’s latest mid-major darlings, by turning to a career in front of the camera as an ESPN college basketball analyst. He spent four years with the company working in studio before being let go after this last season.
“It was a great four years, I really loved it. The thing was, in the beginning I was so scared they had to put me behind a desk so people wouldn’t see me pee down my leg,” he says with a chuckle. “It was wonderful, I loved it all.”
The Vermont program has seen the benefits of the Syracuse game as well. The national recognition has gone a long way to increasing fan support around the state as well as playing a major role in future recruiting for the Catamounts. Current head coach Mike Lonergan has been able to continue to success of the team in the wake of Brennan’s retirement thanks to his tireless efforts as well as utilizing the biggest win in program history. The current crop of Catamount seniors were all being recruited at the time of the game and as T.J. Sorrentine said during his time visiting with the team, they were all well aware of it. The national exposure the team received, a sort of “free advertising” as Sorrentine put it, has gone a long way in the recruiting game for the team.
Still, this isn’t to say that games of this magnitude are consistently remembered after they’re gone. During that same NCAA Tournament, Bucknell pulled off a similarly shocking upset of Kansas, but lack of success by the Bison since then has led to their story falling from recent memory. The key, says Vermont Athletic Director Dr. Robert Corran, has been the lack of satisfaction with one win.
“Having some sustained success has kept people in the fold and ironically I think that has kept the Syracuse game so much more in people’s minds,” he says. “It wasn’t a once in a lifetime thing, there are going to be other big games for us. Certainly Mike Lonergan the last four years has done a great job of helping with that. The community support and the campus support has continued to grow through the years.”
The win has even gone on to make a lasting impact outside of the realm of basketball. A little over a year ago when David Hehn, a Canadian citizen, was having difficulty obtaining a visa to come back and live in Burlington within a manner of days he found himself on the phone with University President Daniel Fogel receiving help. Hehn was successful in obtaining his visa and now lives with teammate Germain Mopa Njila, a fact that he says only further makes him realize how special and meaningful that day in 2005 was.
“The more you get removed from it all, I think the more you appreciate it. I go back to games now and when people still say thank you, it shows that it really had an impact on these people. When you come from this kind of an environment, the last you thing you’d expect is that the University of Vermont is going to have one of the top 32 teams in basketball at the end of the year if you want to look at it that way. It really was just a special feeling, you can’t articulate it.”
So while several years have passed and the main parties involved have gone off on their separate ways, Sorrentine back to Rhode Island, Hehn to Burlington and Brennan vacationing in Florida at the time of his interview, it doesn’t take much to bring them all back together. Whether it be an old highlight, a helping hand from a fellow Catamount, or a stranger coming up to say “I remember where I was…” the old coach and his players find themselves getting pulled back to the floor of the DCU Center, where to use Hehn’s cliché, Vermont shocked the world.