Vermont star, coach going out in style

Catamounts: Senior Coppenrath and Brennan, 15-3 so far on their farewell tour, stop at UMBC.

College Basketball

February 02, 2005|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Did you hear the one about the coach who went 8-50 in his first two seasons but lived happily ever after?

"Who gets to stick around after a start like that?" Vermont's Tom Brennan said. "I'm such a dinosaur. It's like I won the lottery, and I get to pay everyone back. The Tom Brennan farewell tour couldn't be going better."

That captivating college basketball story makes a stop at UMBC tonight, where the Catamounts (15-3) will try to extend a 12-game winning streak and their dominance of the America East conference.

This is the final go-around for Brennan and Taylor Coppenrath, the big man who has taken Vermont to the past two NCAA tournaments and taken the coach to thrills he never anticipated. Brennan will finish a 19-season tenure no better than a dozen or so games below .500, but the Catamounts are 79-32 since Coppenrath, 6 feet 9, first suited up in 2001.

Brennan is a New Jersey guy, and Coppenrath was raised in a remote - is there any other kind? - Vermont town 45 minutes from the Canadian border. He looks like a lumberjack, and this Catamount collective comes off as much jam band as basketball team, filling the void since Phish, another Burlington-based product, stopped touring.

The state that gave us Ben & Jerry's and Howard Dean is the liberal yin to New Hampshire's conservative yang. The first image you'll see on the team Web site might be a hockey player, but the state's only Division I athletic program gets a boost every weekday morning, when Brennan is co-featured on a drive-time radio team.

Before he set up shop in Burlington in 1986, he played at Georgia, assisted at Seton Hall, Villanova and William and Mary, then was the head man at Yale.

"I wasn't born to coach, like Gary Williams. I kind of morphed into this," Brennan said. "My first day at Seton Hall, I'm like a lost puppy. Bill Raftery [then the Pirates' coach] gives a demonstration on how to rub off a screen, and I say, `I'm going to learn so much.' Raftery walks over and says, `It's all b.s. If the kid makes the shot, you're a hero. If he misses it, you're fired.' That's been my mantra."

Coppenrath gets 23.7 points and 8.7 rebounds a game. For much of his career, he has been complemented by guard T.J. Sorrentine, who's averaging 18.8 points and 5.2 assists.

"Taylor isn't here to impress pro scouts; he's here to win," Brennan said. "I'm not saying that the kid could care less about getting to the NBA, but he'll go teach school if that doesn't happen."

The NBA's Speedy Claxton (Hofstra) and Malik Rose (Drexel) played in the conference, but Brennan says Coppenrath is the best in America East since the late Reggie Lewis was at Northeastern in the mid-1980s, when the league's name was the ECAC North. He might be the best player to make a league stop in Baltimore since La Salle's Lionel Simmons beat up on Loyola in the Metro Atlantic in 1990.

A La Salle assistant then was Randy Monroe, UMBC's first-year coach.

"Taylor has brought a lot of credibility and exposure to our league," Monroe said. "With Sorrentine, Vermont has two very good players that the rest of their team feeds off of."

Coppenrath carried Vermont to its first NCAA bid in 2003, and last year he came back from a broken wrist to score a career-high 43 in the conference final.

Brennan, who's only 55 but said "his bucket is empty," took his final team to Kansas and North Carolina. He never used to watch the NCAA selection show on CBS, but come March 13, he will. Even if the America East tournament goes to a quality rival like Boston University, Vermont is No. 20 in the Rating Percentage Index, one spot above Maryland heading into last night's games, and it could get an at-large bid.

That would be the best one-liner of all.

"I want to get a picture of me, Sandy Koufax and Jim Brown," Brennan said. "Three great winners who went out on top."

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