Hoops Played Here?

On the shores of Lake Champlain, led by an odd pairing of coach and player, the Vermont Catamounts have ignited an unlikely case of basketball fever
November 29, 2004

Nothing better expresses what basketball teams need than Freedom and Unity, the motto of the state of Vermont. Let 'em play, but jeezum crow (as Vermonters say), make sure they look out for one another. Do both, and a team like the University of Vermont just might reach the NCAA tournament two years in a row after never having done so before. Might do it with the very coach who lost 50 of his first 58 games and couldn't beat the Division II school down the road. Might even do it with a homegrown star so lightly regarded in high school that his coach all but told the Catamounts' staff that it was wasting a scholarship.

The Vermont basketball team mustered for preseason practice last month just as the leaves around Lake Champlain were turning their most brilliant colors. Talk about your peak season: Catamounts senior Taylor Coppenrath, a 6'9" forward from West Barnet, Vt., is now a two-time America East player of the year and a preseason candidate for the Wooden Award, and his name is on the lips of NBA scouts. Coach Tom Brennan, who has decided to make his 19th season at Vermont his last, also dressed the Atlantic East player of the year of three seasons ago, senior point guard T.J. Sorrentine, when he took the Cats to Kansas last Friday, where they led by four points in the final five minutes before losing to the Jayhawks 68-61.

Vermont, which will also play North Carolina before Christmas, tried just such an into-the-lion's-den approach last year, only to open 0-4. But in one of those losses, at UCLA, Coppenrath sprang for 38 points and the Cats lost by one, vaulting the team and its star into the national conversation. They remained there all season--through the five weeks starting in mid-February that Coppenrath sat out with a broken left wrist; through his first game back, the America East tournament final, in which he scored a myth-making 43 points wearing a soft cast; and through the Catamounts' NCAA first-round loss to eventual national champion Connecticut.

All of which guarantees another season of attention for Vermont, hardly something its coach dreads. When Brennan says, "We're a program now," he's referring to his Cats, but he might just as well be talking about Corm and the Coach, the wildly popular morning drive-time show he co-hosts with radio deejay Steve Cormier on WCVP-FM. It has made Brennan so familiar to so many Vermonters that, with minutes to go in a tight game, fans will wander down to the Cats' bench and ask, "Where we going afterward, Coach?"

"He wants everyone in the state to feel [the team's success] is theirs," says Brennan's brother Jim. "That's the way he enjoys something. When we were kids I remember him saying, 'I hope I can be a star someday, because I know I could handle it.'"

The two archetypes of contemporary Vermont are the native (with his pickup truck, antigovernment politics and laconic manner) and the flatlander (with his Volvo, alien views and fast-talking ways). They clash often enough that it sometimes seems the state's motto should be Freedom versus Unity. The two poles are embodied by Vermont's Northeast Kingdom and Chittenden County, homes to West Barnet and the university, respectively. Shortly after signing Coppenrath, Brennan took his recruit to an Italian restaurant--and no sooner had they placed their orders than one of the two cooks, angry over something, quit. With the flatlander coach and the native player each playing to type, their small talk didn't begin to cover the two hours before the food came. "It was painful," says Brennan. "And it had to have been worse for him because he had to listen to me."

Brennan went over better than he thought. "He was funny," remembers Coppenrath, who didn't yet realize that he had signed up for several years' worth of on-the-air wake-up calls.

The village of West Barnet huddles near several stores, a historic mill and the white clapboard church whose lawn Coppenrath mowed as a kid. When he and two of his friends hit the sixth grade, their dads led a successful effort to pave over the spot where the grange hall once stood and to raise a basket standard at each end. That the project involved approval of something Northeast Kingdomers despise--a tax increase--underscores the widespread support for basketball and the local kids' playing it. It wasn't long before Barnet Elementary enacted "the Taylor Coppenrath rule," which required kids to have a change of clothes available in case they got too sweaty at recess. In the meantime George Coppenrath hauled his son up and down the Eastern Seaboard, trolling for competition. When Taylor was 11, he and his Vermont age-group champs lost all six of their games at an AAU tournament in Florida; a few years later, at a point-guard camp in Pennsylvania, Taylor was rated second among 50 campers.

Brennan and his assistants liked Coppenrath's large frame and light feet, as well as the soft hands he had developed as a soccer goalie. Still, entering the 2000--01 season, they handed him a redshirt. "He was the slowest and weakest guy we had," says associate head coach Jesse Agel, "but in sprints he touched every line. He's honest and hardworking. Vermonters don't like shortcuts." By December, with the Catamounts on their way to an 11--17 record, the coaches realized they were wasting their best player in practice.

The following fall Coppenrath, who had put on 45 pounds and weighed 240, began deploying feet, hands and frame, in that order, in his dogged way--getting position, fielding an entry pass and launching into a quick move, which often led to a foul and what he calls "old-style three-point plays." The course of Vermont basketball changed forever. At the West Barnet General Store, where George Coppenrath leaves game tapes for neighbors to check out, clippings about Taylor's exploits hang next to the picture of a local guy with the 19-pound, 38-inch trout he pulled from Harvey's Lake, which itself sits a few steps from the Coppenrath homestead.

The 55-year-old Brennan, by contrast, is all flatlander, a New Jersey guy whose home in Colchester fronts Lake Champlain. He had a comfortable enough gig as coach at Yale when Vermont came calling in 1986. Figuring he could wheedle himself a better deal in New Haven, he marched into athletic director Frank Ryan's office to announce that he had been offered another job. "I think you should take it," said Ryan. And so Brennan hauled his bruised ego north. "If you want to make God smile," he says, "just tell him your plans."

After three seasons spent pitying himself over Vermont's nine lousy basketball scholarships and emphasis on hockey, Brennan grumbled to his wife, Lynn, that the school lacked commitment. "You were 14-68, and they didn't fire you," she replied. "That's commitment." End of grumbling.

Brennan rejects many coachly conventions. The mind-set of worrying about the next game the moment you hit the tunnel is not for him. "When we win on Saturday and don't have to play again till the following Thursday, that's the greatest feeling in the world," he says. Brennan would rather be a mensch like his late father, Joe, the longtime mayor of Phillipsburg, N.J., and phone new coaches to welcome them to the league or drag a visiting coach to his favorite haunts on Burlington's Church Street. "At first, some think it's a trick," says Tom's sister, Noreen Pecsok, the women's coach at Middlebury (Vt.) College. "Then they realize he's not trying to get you drunk and steal your out-of-bounds plays."

Vermont is still an arriviste among mid-majors. If not for his radio duties Brennan wouldn't make six figures, and until a year ago he didn't get a full complement of 13 scholarships. In a way, he's still near the bottom of the caste system he got to know as a player at Georgia, where, after he was whistled for a phantom foul on LSU's Pete Maravich in 1970, an SEC ref told him, "Hey, they're not here to see you." Nonetheless, as Brennan puts it, "in this business, to be totally at peace isn't something easy to come by." Indeed, to be in the business at all is something he pinches himself over every day. Coppenrath and Sorrentine are players so rare that Brennan has announced he'll go for a third straight NCAA bid--"like Smarty Jones," he says--then step down at the end of this season. "I'll be able to motivate them better," he adds. "I can say, 'I'm a senior too.'"

In 1992 Cormier invited Brennan to read the sports scores during The Steve Cormier Morning Show. Within three days Cormier told him, "Every time I open my mike, I'm going to open yours. We'll go wherever we go." The show, soon renamed Corm and the Coach, rose to the top of the state's morning drive-time ratings, from which it has looked down at Howard Stern and Don Imus during almost every Arbitron period since--a run that Brennan likens to "Vermont going to Kentucky and winning."

Shortly before 6 a.m. most weekdays Brennan slides into his broadcast seat, next to a photo of Nipsey Russell and a copy of 1,001 Riddles for Children. He and Cormier might wake up a rival school's coach, make sport of New Hampshire or chat up some Vermont notable. (Former governor Howard Dean to Brennan: "I didn't have as good a year as you." Brennan in reply: "Better start, though.") Once a week they check in with Brennan's brother Dan, who has his own hit drive-time show in Mobile. (One of the characters Dan plays on the air is Dr. Cory Windblown, an openly gay meteorologist.) And the coach regularly whips up doggerel like this, from a paean to Lynn several years ago on Valentine's Day:

So thank you for bringing joy to my

life, every crisis you get me through

I was just kidding about that Coppenrath

thing, I don't love him more than you

The gig's great value to Brennan comes after a loss. "When he's down, it forces him to focus on other people," says Jim Brennan, a college dean in Pennsylvania who has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology. "When we're upset, we're egocentric. On the radio you've got to be sociocentric. The show really balances him."

before last season Brennan sensed something amiss with his star. "Taylor came back from the summer a little heavy and looking a little slovenly," he recalls. Brennan, as the oldest of seven kids in an Irish Catholic family, knew enough to wade right in. In response, Coppenrath did what taciturn Vermonters aren't supposed to do: He bared his soul. When he had first shown up on campus, Coppenrath said, he just wanted to play and wound up America East rookie of the year. Then he had just wanted to start and wound up conference player of the year as the Cats reached the NCAAs. What could he possibly do now? He felt he was being set up to fail.

"I told Taylor that nobody had given him a thing," says Brennan, who for good measure patched his star through to brother Jim, the psychologist. "That he'd earned all of it and didn't have to stop there. That he's playing with house money now."

Soon Coppenrath had regained his pathological competitiveness. He played intramural soccer his redshirt year and flag football last year. He has also participated in the two-day tournament called Field Hockey Frenzy, playing the sport his six-foot-tall mother, Sue, played in college. "I can see why mom complains about a bad back," Taylor says. His willingness to give almost anything a try extends to the silver ring that hangs from his left ear. It's fodder for Brennan when he ambushes his star with a wake-up call. "He claims his brother Dr. Cory sent it to me," says Coppenrath.

Over the summer Coppenrath led a college all-star team in frontcourt scoring during a two-week tour of China, then hustled back to Colchester High to begin student-teaching in math, one of his obligations as a secondary-education major. "Math gets a bad name," he says. "Everybody hates it. But I liked it through high school and did fairly well. I try to make it interesting." If pro ball doesn't pan out, he'll glide right into teaching and coaching, he says, "just to stay around sports." But a week he spent in suburban Cleveland, going through combine-style paces at the Speed Strength Athletic Training Center, touched off a new round of buzz among NBA people. For years New England kids who stepped into Boston Garden gawked at the house of Russell, Cousy and Bird; last month, as the Celtics walked into Patrick Gymnasium in Burlington for preseason camp, an equipment manager said, "This where the dude with the broken wrist scored all the points?"

Speaking of which, now it can be told: Vermont's trip to last season's NCAA tournament may have hung less on Coppenrath's left wrist than on a few bars of a Van Morrison song. Before every game in Patrick Gymnasium, precisely three minutes and 20 seconds before tip-off, Brennan takes the floor to the same flourish that introduces his sports report on Corm and the Coach: the da-da-da-DUM-DUM, da-da-da-da-DUM of Jackie Wilson Said. Although Vermont hosted the America East title game against Maine, a factotum in the league office ruled that Van Morrison would give the Catamounts an unfair advantage. Brennan, superstitious to the bone, was distraught. Athletic director Bob Corran vowed to play the song and pay the fine. Cormier volunteered the Mitch Miller option, offering to lead the crowd a cappella.

In the end Brennan appealed to John Giannini, then the Maine coach. Giannini had gotten the Brennan treatment on previous visits to Burlington, and now all that hospitality paid off. "Come on," Giannini told conference officials, "we're not going to get beaten by some song."

As Brennan recounts the tale, you can see a that's what you think thought balloon form over his head. The Van played on, and those few bars touched off a two-hour long Vermont-o-rama. The four members of Phish, three of them Vermont grads, sang the national anthem, with keyboardist Page McConnell wearing Coppenrath's number 22 jersey. Virtually every mover in the state, former governor Dean included, sat in the stands, which led to a small scandal when it came out that some had figuratively jumped the line for tickets. ("For 12 years I couldn't give tickets away," says Brennan, still bemused, "and now they're worried about who's getting 'em?")

Coppenrath sank his first six shots and ended the half with 28 points, five more than Maine had. By the end of Vermont's 72--53 victory he had made 14 of 19 from the field and 14 of 15 from the line--bum wrist and all. On the ESPN telecast, thanks to the hamster-power lighting in Patrick Gymnasium, Coppenrath seemed to leave ghostly streaks behind him, which made his performance look even more dreamlike. "This wasn't a game," Catamounts guard David Hehn said afterward. "It was a party. And Taylor was the deejay."

For the after party, several hundred people found their way to Brennan's home. An hour went by, then another, and Coppenrath still hadn't shown up. When he finally arrived, Brennan asked where he had been.

"I was taking a nap," Coppenrath said.

"Taking a nap!" the coach exclaimed.

"You played me 39 minutes."

"I would have played you 40, but I wanted you to get an ovation."

The flatlander always knew he could handle the applause. The news from Vermont is that the native is learning how, too.

From the start Brennan and his assistants liked Coppenrath's LARGE FRAME and light feet, as well as the soft hands he had developed as a soccer goalie.

When Brennan says, "We're a program now," he's referring to his Cats, but he might just as well be talking about his WILDLY POPULAR morning radio show.

"Math gets a bad name," Coppenrath says. If pro ball doesn't pan out for him, he'll glide right into teaching and coaching, "just to STAY AROUND SPORTS."

"I told Taylor that nobody had given him a thing," Brennan says. "That he'd earned all of it and didn't have to stop. That he's playing with HOUSE MONEY now."

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Simon Bruty COUPLE O' CATS Rural Vermonter Coppenrath and Jersey-born Brennan couldn't be more different, but they click. COLOR PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO GREEN MOUNTAIN Coppenrath scored 23 points and grabbed seven rebounds as the Cats nearly upset the top-ranked Jayhawks. TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Simon Bruty CAPTIVE AUDIENCES Off the court Coppenrath student-teaches and Brennan talks sports for his drive-time listeners. COLOR PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO OUTSIDER GETS IN After 18 seasons in Burlington the loquacious Brennan is beloved among taciturn Vermont natives. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Simon Bruty LEGENDS OF THE FALL Brennan and Coppenrath are making Vermont famous for more than maple syrup and autumn foliage.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)