After talking about how he got his start at Babson and the early success he enjoyed as a head coach in part one of our feature with head men's basketball coach Stephen Brennan, part two focuses on the most successful period in program history. Following a return to the NCAA Tournament in 2014, Brennan guided the Beavers to their first Division III Final Four appearance in 2015 and the program's first national championship in 2017. We talked about the path to get there and his memories of the final moments of that thrilling title game.
The 2012-13 season was both challenging and rewarding with a small team that struggled through some tough losses and injuries…how did winning a NEWMAC quarterfinal at Clark and nearly knocking off WPI help prepare some of the younger guys to win over the next couple of seasons?
"I think David Mack's '15 injury was a big part of that and he ended up coming back (at the end of the year). Getting him back was really important because it gave us that depth on the inside. And we were definitely an inside presence team, first and foremost. I think that it was the beginning of that group's decision that we're going to win. We're done with this losing stuff and we're going to be committed in and out of season to winning. And I think the maturation of (John) Wickey '15 and Dave Mack was obviously a huge and instrumental piece of that. And then we're fortunate enough to, again, get a transfer in Kenny Ross '14. I mean, to have that guard who can break the defense down and get other people shots."
You recorded the first of four straight 20-win seasons in 2014 and returned to the NCAA Tournament—did the loss to Gordon in the first round help fuel the 2015 Final Four run?
"Gordon obviously was a well-coached team. They had a big inside and they had two or three seniors that weren't ready to lose. And I always feel like at the end of the year if you have talented seniors who are kind of in the refuse to lose mode it's always tough to beat them. I think (our) group was not as together as maybe it could have been, but all the individual parts really wanted it. Kenny really wanted it, Wickey and Mack and those guys (wanted it), and assimilating Eric Dean '15 with his toughness into the mix and Joey (Flannery) '17 being a freshman. I just think it was a very transitional year and we needed a little more maturity at the top in order to maximize his ability and then fit everybody together. You have to hate when you have to go through losing to learn how to win. But maybe that was a piece of it."
The 2015 team won 29 games and hosted four games inside Staake Gymnasium on the way to advancing to Salem, Va.—was there a moment during the season that you started to think you could make a run in the postseason?
"It happened before the season. I think the experience for me in 2002 when we went to the Sweet 16 of going to a sectional and seeing three other programs and what those teams look like and what a Final Four team looks like was important. Just as far as their make-up, their size, the depth of talent, the ability to have guys that could start coming off the bench. And I told that (2015) group from the beginning of the year that we are a Final Four team. I said I've seen them, I've coached against them and this is a Final Four team. And I said look, I know there's a bunch of different arguments for and against, but my belief is when New England teams have gone to the Final Four, they hosted both weekends. That's not always true, but it's true enough. And I said the only way you do that is to win every single game, you have to be locked in to win every single game. And they bought in.
"The other thing and it's so funny, here it is, the beginning of the Steph Curry era and the beginning of the three-point shooting craze and I told our guys for the first two weeks (of practice), if you shoot the three, you'll have a penalty and that we're going to play 15 feet and in and we're going to dominate the paint and we're going to make more free throws than the other team attempts. And I tell you, they bought in. Mack and Wickey and Eric Dean they were just tough kids. Joey became a good post player. They were phenomenal on defense. And their confidence was really high. They never believed they were going to lose, even when we were down and there were numerous comebacks that year.
"So I really believe their toughness was just so ingrained. It was a bunch of guys who had great belief and conviction, but that could back it up with their size and length, and we could shrink the floor. And so here we are, we're shooting two's and free throws and everyone else is shooting three's because Steph Curry is changing the world. And we actually beat WPI (59-55) without making a three-pointer and having only three guys score."
You trailed Westfield State by 10 in the second half of the NCAA first round game and were down 65-58 to Trinity with less than three minutes to go in the national quarterfinals—what do you remember about rallying in these games?
"I think we put ourselves in so many holes. I mean, I'd love to go back and look at the halftime scores because we were down so much and we weren't scared of being behind. And usually it took us a half and very, very similar to the 2001-02 team when they were the best defensive team efficiency-wise in the country, we kind of figured out teams by halftime and then we could make the two adjustments and lock people down."
What was the first experience like taking on Augustana in the national semifinals at the Salem Civic Center?
"The mistake we made was we didn't think we could win the national championship because we never talked about it. And even with Eric's injury and Wickey having maybe the toughest game of his career, if we play even close to what we're capable of I think we had a shot to win. But that's what everyone says when they lose. I remember it vividly going ahead on Joey's layup (with less than seven minutes to go) and thinking 'we can get this done.' I think (Augustana) hit back-to-back three's and the deficit was six or seven and that was too much back then. I also remember it seemed like a big arena and really different and then the second time (2017) it didn't seem that big."
You got back to the Sweet 16 in 2016 despite Joey (Flannery) suffering an ankle injury in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. When you consider you lost to both Amherst and Tufts in OT in December and the fact you'd won every game since mid-January, do you think you get back to the Final Four if he is healthy entering the second weekend of the tournament?
"If you're a Babson fan, you say for sure if you're an Amherst or Tufts guy, you say no way. I truly believe we were the best team in the pod. Against Amherst, when Joey played in the first half, we got on a roll and led. He was on a mission and he knew he was the best player (on the floor). And we had the revenge factor going on so I felt good. When he went down we certainly lost a lot of wind out of our sails and we just needed a couple of buckets here and there. Obviously Amherst was a good team and they go to the Final Four that year, but we thought we were every bit as good as if not better."
For as long as there is basketball at Babson, 2016-17 will be hard to top—going 14-0 in NEWMAC play, being ranked No. 1 throughout January and February, and of course winning a national championship. Was there any concern about the injuries that had popped up late in the year as you entered the NCAA Tournament?
"I think that senior group and their belief and their ability to sacrifice everything towards winning was so unique and so strong and so tough. And they had lived through injuries. They lived through being down at halftime in monster situations. I don't think there was anything until the championship game that ever made them waiver in their belief. They also just (had an attitude that) 'we're winning it.'
"So I think with Bradley (Jacks) '18, obviously he had a great year and was just such a tough match up for people, but Charlie (Rice) '17 really stepped up and was just incredible. I think the key was (Chris) Lowry '18. He and (Sam) Bohmiller '17 were just complete opposite players. Lowry just set the table for guys, a great passer and Bohmiller was the consummate space the floor three-point shooter. The good news is we didn't run a lot of plays that year, so it wasn't like we had to figure out where to put Lowry. After the first game of the NEWMAC Tournament, Lowry and I met and he was pretty shaken up and freaked out with the magnitude of everything. And we had a great talk up here in the office and I think he started to believe and bought in.
"We ended up losing to MIT in the championship game. It was tough to lose to them, but I think it was the same as the Amherst loss in double overtime (in December), it refocused us. It was something we needed, a shot in the arm and a reminder that you have to earn everything. Stop reading your press clippings, we need to have a great week of practice and win this first weekend of (NCAA) games."
Just as in 2015 you played four home games to reach the Final Four—I'm not sure I've seen a bigger crowd than the Sweet 16 game against Tufts, but talk about the atmosphere inside Staake during the run?
"It was really special. I just remember there was certain kinds of rituals that (the guys) had based on the first run in 2015. And they believed that they were supposed to be hosting and they believed there was a great advantage and there was no way we're going to lose. We had just a lot of firepower and answers with that group. And obviously, we thought we had the best player on the floor in Joey and beyond that, we thought we had the best shooter in (Nick) Comenale '18, and probably the best big in Isaiah (Nelsen) '17. Those three guys are really elite players and the fact that Joey and Comenale had so much synergy and that we had guys who didn't need the ball, like (Matt) Droney '17 and Charlie. They were just going to do whatever was needed to do to help us win."
Unlike two years earlier against Trinity, you led comfortably against Keene State late in the national quarterfinals—were you able to take a minute or two to soak it all in?
"I think it was the perfect setup. Keene State had lost to Christopher Newport the year before in the exact same game (sectional semifinals). So I think all of their emotion and energy went into that game and it's hard to win two emotionally invested, elite games in a row. That's why it's so hard to repeat or to get to the Final Four because you're going to do it six times. They had a great scorer and they had a big kid who hurt us a little bit inside, but it was one of those things where our guys were just so hyped. I mean, we could have played 60 minutes, 70 minutes and it wouldn't have mattered because of the energy that they brought, and then let's be honest, the execution on both ends. It was over with 10 minutes to go. And the crowd was just eating it up and it was really a crescendo of celebration and excitement.
"I think that you're just so excited for a group that has guys that you get close to because of how far you go in these tournaments. It's very emotional. And so much of it is how you come together and that you stay together in every adverse situation. Knowing how much time and effort and sacrifice they put in, you just feel so good for them. There's a piece of you going, 'Wow, we're going back.' This was always a dream when I was an assistant with Serge (DeBari), we'd always say we wanted to get to the Final Four. He had been in his own career to four regional finals but never went (to the Final Four). To be able to go to two Final Fours in three years, I hadn't really had a lot of time to ever just stop and reflect because you're always looking for the next class… there are just great feelings. It's euphoric, but the job's not done. And we had gone down there (Salem, Va.) and lost (in 2015)."
Everyone talks about the 25-point deficit against Whitman in the first half of the national semifinals but after pulling within two they extended their lead back to 12 before Joey keyed a 21-2 run—was there any concern that you had expended so much energy getting back into the game early that you would run out of gas?
"With that group, we had faced deficits and even though we called timeout it was a multiple-possession game and we were going to get our chance. Fortunately, we were able to refocus and do it. I remember at halftime our guys being jacked that they had cut the lead to four. And I think that as much as (Whitman) tried to punch us in the mouth and big-time us, our team just wasn't going to allow that."
The national championship game was a rematch of the 2015 semifinal that saw Augustana pull away late—how excited were the kids to get another shot at them?
"Because it was two years prior I don't remember talking about it a lot. You're in a national championship game, what do we need to do to win? And the confidence, again, was just supreme. I remember the shootaround earlier in the day, I'm still trying to watch film and cram for the game because of the quick turnaround. We didn't walk through anything. We were going to do it later in the hotel. And (the guys) were so loose. I mean, they were taking a half-court shots and some trying to make three-quarter court shots. And then they came over to me say, 'hey, we've always wanted to see you guys run down the court and have a race.' So all of a sudden we're having a coach's race down the floor and (assistant coach) Dorian Bryant is picking them up and putting them down. They were so whacky. We had the Sexy Friday practices. We got dressed up every Friday and Saturday's for the Boys and all that stuff.
"And the key moment that they told me later was that they're getting ready to go out and they felt a little nervous for the first time right before going out for warmups. Dorian was with them and he just lit into them and said, 'we didn't come this far to sit here and be nervous. We're here to win this game.' And everyone to a man said that that was a huge moment for the group."
Down the stretch you missed a few FTs and they made a little run to get back in the game—in the seconds leading up to Joey's block what is going through your mind?
"I was ticked off we're not making the free throws, especially because I think we had three seniors in a row go to the line. I think it was Charlie, Droney and Joey. And when Joey misses and (Nolan) Ebel gets the ball at half court up and in front, that was the first time I thought about losing. I remember he had been shredding us off the bounce and every time we're supposed to trap him on a baseline bounce situation, he's splitting it. And I'm like, wow, we're going to hand this over. I'm watching this unfold in slow motion. I didn't see Joey in my picture. All I could see was Ebel going up. And he had split us, just like he had the whole game. And Joey comes out of nowhere and pins it. It was just such an incredible play. But there was still one more play after that, I think that's what was so crazy about it."
The horn goes off following their desperation pass and you've won it all—what's the first thing that goes through your mind?
"I'm watching it and have seen it a 1,000 times over my 20-plus years and it gets deflected and then the confetti is coming down and it was like, 'wow, we actually did this.' You're always pushing towards the moment, but you never think it's going to happen because you can't let yourself think it's going to happen. And then probably the coolest thing was (Augustana coach) Grey Giovanine when he shook my hand he said, 'I'm really happy for you.' And I was kind of blown away with that because in that moment, I thought that took a lot for him to say, and I forever will appreciate that moment as a coach. It just resonated and always has. Ultimately, I feel blessed that I got to coach in two Final Fours three years apart and go to a championship game and win. We all aspire to coach on that last weekend and win a title and so few have the opportunity. (I am) absolutely blessed and thankful for that group and their talent, unity and toughness."