Nonstop Air Ball

Times Staff Writer

Brnnng! Brnnng! Brnnng!

It's 6 a.m. on a game day, and some groggy coach wakes up to a phone ringing in his hotel room.

Radio personality Tom Brennan is on the line from CHAMP 101.3, pulling one of his favorite on-air stunts.

Because Brennan, one-half of the most popular morning drive-time duo in Burlington, Vt., also happens to be coach of the Vermont basketball team that reached the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in the program's 103-year history, it carries a little extra oomph.

So take your phone off the hook, John Wooden, Vermont is coming to town to play UCLA on Saturday.

"I'm not going to call Ben Howland or Coach Wooden, I'll leave it at that," Brennan said, laughing. "I just want to shake his hand. That's why we're coming out."

His all-timer might have been in March after Vermont won its semifinal game to reach the America East tournament final against Boston University.

"BU won the early game, then Vermont won the late game," recalled Steve Cormier, Brennan's on-air partner. "Tom got in the car, drove back, came in the studio the next morning and called Dennis Wolff, the BU coach, first thing at 6 and said, 'Hey, I don't know if you got the score last night, we won!'

"They usually just kind of groan when he does it. I fight him on it all the time."

NPR it isn't, but don't underestimate Brennan's bantering wit and storytelling ability. "Corm and the Coach" beats both Howard Stern and Don Imus in the local ratings.

"I think he's the most recognizable person in the state if you take away politicians," Cormier said. (And yes, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean was on the show several times when he was governor of Vermont.)

"Tom always jokes he could be governor of the state, but there are just too many skeletons in the closet," Cormier said.

It all started 11 years ago after a radio executive saw Brennan speak at a Rotary function and suggested Cormier have him on to help with the sports sometime.

Three days into it, Cormier knew he wanted Brennan on the air the whole show, from 5:30 to 9 a.m.

"Chemistry is a big deal in radio," Cormier said. "I could tell from Day One we had great chemistry. We'd never met before, but we hit it off and were just rolling."

It makes for what would seem like a grueling double life for Brennan, who knows most people are fortunate if they get up and have a job they can't wait to go do.

He has two of them.

"This is probably the only place in America I could do it," said Brennan, who until recently made more money from his radio gig than his coaching job at Vermont, where he is in his 18th season.

"I'm up at 4:15, at the station at quarter to five, on the air from 5:30 on to nine, then to the health club and in the office at 10.

"Two nights a week we practice at 7. That's the only problem, when you don't get home until 10:30 and you're wired from practice."

He usually skips the show when he is on the road.

At home, he has a secret. Naps.

"Usually from 12 to 1:15 in my office," he said. "You can't get near me. We're very guarded, we turn off the phones.... Hey, don't be putting ideas in people's minds if you don't mind!"

On the air, Brennan and Cormier talk about their lives, their wives, the news, whatever comes to mind.

Amid the call-in contests and other shtick, Brennan sometimes pens impromptu poetry, such as these verses after the Yankees beat the Red Sox in the American League playoffs.

You hope someday to change things

But you know it ain't gonna happen

You're really feeling like a wishbone

That's how close you are to snappin'

And how about ol' Grady Little

You wonder how he can be so bad

Then you remember

Oh yeah, he's a New Hampshire grad!

His life off the court is so unusual, it's easy to forget Brennan's original calling is as a coach. It took 101 seasons before Vermont won 20 games, and now the Catamounts have done it twice in a row.

Brennan, with a 217-262 record at the school, can't argue Vermont didn't have patience.

"My wife had a great line," he said. "I came in one time and said, 'This is nonsense, there's no commitment.' Lynn said, 'You were [14-68] and they didn't fire you. That's a pretty strong commitment.' "

The Green Mountain State isn't a basketball hotbed, but the Catamounts' best player, Taylor Coppenrath, is a 6-foot-9 small-town Vermont kid who has a shot at playing in the NBA.

The program's magic moment came in March in the America East title game when David Hehn made a 10-foot jumper with 5.6 seconds left to put Vermont in the NCAA tournament, sending the 16th-seeded Catamounts into a game against top-ranked Arizona.

"I was speechless," Brennan said. "By the time I figured it all out, we had lost by 29 to Arizona."

And no, Lute Olson most definitely did not get a wake-up call.

"Lute, there's just way too much dignity there. Lute is not like the rest of us," Brennan said.

This season, in addition to Coppenrath, Vermont has guard T.J. Sorrentine, who missed all of last season after breaking bones in both wrists.

That gives Vermont the last two America East players of the year, but it hasn't led to a brilliant start for the Catamounts, who are 0-2 after losses to Nevada and Iona.

It's hardly the resume of a team that could be expected to knock off the Bruins in Pauley Pavilion, even after UCLA's 10-19 season and the trouble the Bruins have had with underdogs in recent times.

Brennan is looking forward to staying in Manhattan Beach, having a good steak and seeing the Lakers play San Antonio tonight.

"We're coming out and we think we're pretty good, but the last time we played a Pac-10 school we lost by 30."

UCLA lost to Arizona by 35 and 36 in the regular season, someone reminded him.

"But they beat them at the end of the year," Brennan said.

He knows the history of UCLA's losses to San Diego and Northern Arizona at the outset of Steve Lavin's final season. But he is interested to see how the Bruins have changed as they make their debut under Howland, whose work at Pittsburgh impressed Brennan.

"I know we aren't sneaking up on him," he said. "They're going to play hard. At this point, he's not at their mercy, they're at his mercy.

"I would just prefer the other guy was still there."

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