Accepting Challenge at SDSU : Brandenburg Leaves Wyoming to Sign Aztecs' 5-Year Deal

Times Staff Writer

Jim Brandenburg, the new head basketball coach at San Diego State, has switched from one of the top four teams in the NCAA West Regional to the No. 8 team in the Western Athletic Conference.

Brandenburg is leaving behind a Wyoming team that beat Virginia and UCLA in the NCAA tournament and will return its top eight players next season. He inherits a team that was 5-25 this past season and 10-19 the year before.

SDSU represents an obvious challenge for Brandenburg, who signed a five-year contract Tuesday with the Aztecs.

He took the job for reasons other than financial. According to Paul Roach, Wyoming's athletic director, Brandenburg's contract package at Wyoming was worth about $160,000 annually. SDSU pays a base salary of $57,000, plus income from a coach's television show and basketball camps. Brandenburg's total SDSU package is expected to exceed $100,000.

"We have to remember the three P's--patience, poise and don't panic," Brandenburg said. "Whatever happens may take awhile. Obviously, I'm not a miracle worker. I can't give you a timetable. If we keep working hard, I think something good will happen."

Brandenburg said he thinks San Diego State has the right ingredients for attracting first-rate players.

Fred Miller, SDSU athletic director, has been trying to improve the university's basketball reputation. He hopes it will parallel the national reputation the football team gained by playing in the 1986 Holiday Bowl.

"Many people have underplayed the tremendous potential of San Diego," Miller said. "If we give this guy the tools, San Diego State has Final Four potential. That's not arrogance. We aspire to do that."

Brandenburg, 51, won't have to work out of a trailer, as did his predecessor, Smokey Gaines. He'll be working out of a new office in the athletic department. Also, Miller hopes that SDSU can provide an on-campus arena in the future. In return, Brandenburg said he thinks he can produce a Final Four team for the Aztecs.

This season, Brandenburg's Wyoming team was 24-10 and lost to Nevada Las Vegas in the West Regional semifinals.

"I've coached teams in the past close to the Final Four," Brandenburg said. "If I can do it in other places, I don't know why I can't do it here."

Obviously, Wyoming is much closer to being a Final Four team than SDSU is. Why, then, would Brandenburg leave that situation for SDSU?

"I enjoy challenges," he said. "Secondly, I think change is good for coaches every once in a while. It keeps boredom out of the job and keeps you from taking people for granted. I'm intrigued by the potential of this program.

"A couple of seasons ago, San Diego State did win our conference postseason tournament. In reality, I think the San Diego community and the potential of this basketball program is of such a magnitude that I just couldn't turn down the opportunity."

In Wyoming, the news of Brandenburg's departure was greeted with disbelief. He had coached the Cowboys to a 176-97 record in nine seasons, leading them to the NCAA tournament three times and to the National Invitation Tournament final in 1986.

There was a rally planned for Tuesday night in Laramie to celebrate this season's basketball accomplishments. It took place without Brandenburg.

Roach negotiated with Brandenburg late Monday evening in an effort to persuade him to stay. Brandenburg had four years remaining on his contract, but he had an escape clause permitting him to leave if he desired.

"I thought we presented a very competitive alternative," Roach said. "We did all we could to convince him to stay. We couldn't get it done."

Brandenburg made initial contact with Miller through an intermediary on Saturday. The two met the same day in Seattle, site of the West Regional, then they reached oral agreement Monday.

Tim Grgurich, a Nevada Las Vegas assistant, was considered the leading candidate for the SDSU job until Brandenburg showed his interest.

Late Monday evening, Brandenburg informed Wyoming players that he was leaving.

"The team was a little stunned due to the progress we made this year," center Eric Leckner said. "He probably is doing the right thing in his eyes. I don't know what he's looking forward to at San Diego State. He talked to us about his opportunities and doing what is best for himself."

Leckner said Brandenburg is an "excellent coach." When Leckner was a freshman, Brandenburg taught him turnaround and hook shots that have aided his career.

Guard Fennis Dembo, the WAC's most valuable player, said Brandenburg taught him how to control his emotions.

According to Dembo, the timing may have been right for a coaching change.

"It makes sense to me," Dembo said. "Coach is getting older and is looking for something new. Coach said he had taken us as far as he could take us. Maybe he did what he did for the best interests of Wyoming. We may be better off next year. . . .

"He's a great coach and motivator. He gets the best out of his players. A coach either has it or he doesn't have it. Coach (Brandenburg) has it."

Brandenburg had been mentioned for coaching vacancies at Arkansas two seasons ago and Iowa last season. He said the timing was right to move this season.

"Truthfully, I don't think I would have made this move if I had a lot of freshmen, sophomores or players going into their junior year," Brandenburg said. "I think they (Wyoming players) are old enough and mature enough now to handle a coaching change. I don't think they'll miss a stroke."

Brandenburg didn't waste any time Tuesday at SDSU. After the news conference, he met with boosters, assistant basketball coaches and players.

"He came across as being very disciplined and very caring," said Aztec forward Juan Espinoza. "As he puts it, he wants us to be like family on and off the court. He pretty much said we were going to build a program here and surprise a lot of teams. He didn't put a time limit on it.

"With the players he had coming back at Wyoming, you'd think he would have stayed there. It kind of impresses me that he gave that up to come here. This shows he wants to build something here and he cares."

Brandenburg emphasizes academics to players, according to Kevin McKinney, Wyoming's sports information director. Only one basketball player graduated during Gaines' eight-year tenure as SDSU basketball coach.

"If a player didn't finish his education in four years at Wyoming, we brought him back to school," Brandenburg said. "I put a premium on academics. You can't be a disciplined basketball player if you're not disciplined in the classroom and in your life style."

Jessie Evans, a Wyoming assistant coach for two seasons through 1985-86 before joining the staff at Texas, described Brandenburg as a disciplined coach. Wyoming was the WAC's top defensive team in seven of nine seasons under Brandenburg. Under Gaines, SDSU stressed offense.

The Aztecs hit an all-time low in 1986-87, finishing with their worst record in 66 seasons.

"Any time you take freshmen and sophomores and throw them into competition in the WAC, you'll get dinged up a few times," Brandenburg said. "They have some guards who can really shoot it. I'm not really worried about how many players people think we do or don't have. I can guarantee that we'll play extremely hard and be entertaining."

The Brandenburg Record

SEASON SCHOOL RECORD 1986-87 Wyoming 24-10 1985-86 Wyoming 24-12 1984-85 Wyoming 15-14 1983-84 Wyoming 17-13 1982-83 Wyoming 16-13 1981-82 Wyoming 23-7 1980-81 Wyoming 24-6 1979-80 Wyoming 18-10 1978-79 Wyoming 15-12 1977-78 Montana 21-8 1976-77 Montana 18-8 Total 215-113

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