In the third and final part of our On the Sidelines feature with head men's basketball coach Stephen Brennan, we hit on a number of topics including the formation of the New England Big 4 Challenge, some memorable games from over the years, and changes in both New England basketball and the recruiting landscape. He also talks about being named NABC Division III Coach of the Year in 2017, reaching 400 wins in 2019 and some of the relationships he's built in his three-plus decades at Babson.
You've coached a number of 1,000-point scorers and some of the top players in school history while also helping so many of them find success off the court—what does this mean to you?
"It is exciting and satisfying to be able to help all of our student-athletes in their respective internship and job searches. My secondary vocation is to help advance our players as people and successful professionals. We have a terrific alumni council and mentoring program in place to help create an edge for our players in their internship and career pursuit. Creating this network connecting our past players with the present is a terrific value-added addition to our program and I'm always happy for our guys when they accept an offer. It complements the mission of Babson College and is an important reason recruits choose to matriculate to Babson.
"In addition, the opportunity to reengage everybody around the championship was incredible. It's terrific to get all the different generations of guys and have them feel connected to us. I remember telling stories to the guys in 2015, 2016, 2017 about our alums and then they got to meet them and they really connected the generations."
In 1996 you averaged nearly 94 points per game…six years later you gave up less than 57—how did your style of play change over your first few years as a head coach?
"That was my first year as head coach and the group we had was pretty talented. That group (of upperclassmen) had grown up together the previous 2-3 years and they were a phenomenal pressing group and awesome when they ran. They were already in a style and I wasn't going to fix what wasn't broken.
"The problem was we didn't feel like we could win a championship (playing) that way so as time went on we started to morph into a better defensive team with less pressing. Ultimately, we knew we had the talent to win championships so that's why we changed."
You've been at Babson for two major shifts in New England basketball, the first was the NESCAC being allowed to starting competing in NCAA Championships in the mid-90s and then the transition from the CAC to the NEWMAC in 1998—how did these two things shape the next couple of decades?
"The first shift came in 1994 when the NESCACs became eligible for the NCAA Tournament. Then the CAC (Constitution Athletic Conference), which had eight schools, merged with the NEWMAC and we lost Norwich and Western New England and had to figure out how to have enough schools to get an automatic bid to the (NCAA Championship). The shift was significant because it changed who we played. And all of a sudden the ECAC Tournament lost its luster because the NESCAC teams and some NEWMAC teams no longer played.
"I think another part of it is how the NCAA Championship has been determined. (The tournament) used to have a New England Regional Championship. When I first started as an assistant in 1988, there was a regional championship and it was pretty awesome. You'd have the top eight teams, not necessarily conference champions, it was the best eight teams. But at the point, the NESCACs weren't in that grouping and I think Colby had a couple of teams that could have contended to win a national title but the best they could do was try to win the ECAC Tournament. Back then UMass Dartmouth went to the Final Four and it was the height of Clark basketball."
The Big 4 Challenge has been played since 2009 and includes Tufts, Brandeis and Salem State. Although the first few years weren't a success for Babson how has the tournament-style setting helped prepare your teams for conference play and even the postseason?
"I think it's something that all four teams get pretty excited about and I think it's created some rivalries between the schools. When the (event) first started we didn't win, but the cool thing is it kind of prepares you for the NCAA Tournament with the back-to-back games and you're playing two good teams that are always good at the end of the year. Tufts has had some good runs the last few years, Salem State is always at the top of their conference and Brandeis, which was the best team when we started in 2009, and now with the coaching change is going to be pretty good. I think it's a great opportunity to play against really good teams in the region and get some good regional wins if you're having a good season. "
Over the years Babson has been a place where many good players transfer to and become very successful on the court, why is that?
"When student-athletes transfer they're not as caught up in being recruited, they aren't being recruited by 20 schools and are much more in control of the process and have a better idea of what their criteria is. I think the draw of Babson is that we've had success with transfers because they know they're going to get a job in 2-3 years and develop different skill sets (academically).
"It goes hand-in-hand with basketball, we've never made the NCAA Tournament without a transfer. We've had some really talented transfers, Matt Miller '93 is in the (Babson) Hall of Fame), CJ Enere '05 was a 1,000-point scorer, and (Matt) Droney '17 and Isaiah (Nelsen) '17 were integral parts of the national title run."
There are a number of coaches in the NEWMAC and across New England that have been at their current institutions for two decades or more—who have you enjoyed coaching against during your time at Babson?
"I start with the Big 4 Challenge (coaches) because we were all friends before we started it and it's made for a lot of fun. Those guys have always been good to me. (Dave) Hixon, who just retired at Amherst, was always good to me and I feel like we have a good relationship. Within the league, getting to know Charlie Brock (at Springfield)…he's so different than the persona he puts out on game day and I have tremendous respect for all of what he does off the court for the NABC and the Division III Congress.
"Chris Bartley was an assistant in our program the two years prior to taking over at WPI (1999-2001) and we have always been friendly due to that time together. I've always had a good relationship with Brian Walmsley down at Wheaton and both Pete Barry and Kevin (Jaskiewicz) down at Coast Guard have been really good to me too. I'm probably leaving people out too."
Recruiting has become a 365-day a year job at Division III with top programs scouring the country for good players—is this the biggest change you've seen since arriving at Babson?
"When I first started as an assistant we had both varsity and JV teams and were in a volume-recruiting situation. And now, we're fortunate that our admissions office allows us to pre-screen (prospects) so that we don't waste time on kids we wouldn't be able to get in. I think we've pushed a lot more towards early decision because Babson has become very selective. And you add in going to two final fours and making the NCAA Tournament five of the last seven years and those two pieces have been a great combination for us.
"We've started to do a lot more nationally and I think having the help of our volunteer assistants (Dorian Bryant and David Lang) has been invaluable, along with having (Matt) Droney, who is a Babson grad. The landscape has changed, and with the pandemic, it has changed us again. Now as a staff we're watching 2-4 games on every kid, which when you're normally out trying to cover all the AAU tournaments you may not be able to see full games. So I think it's helped actually for us to hone in a little bit."
You were selected as the NABC Division III Coach of the Year after winning the national title in 2017—what does this award mean to you?
"To be recognized that way validates all of your hard work, but again, it just comes down to you and a group clicked and you're able to win the last game of the season. As you're going through it you're not thinking about anything except the next game or next weekend and I haven't had a lot of time to reflect back on it, but certainly, it's a rare recognition that validates that you're doing a good job."
You beat Harvard 100-80 as an assistant coach in 1991 – what was that win like?
"It was pretty amazing because that was a really special group too. That was a group that we talked about playing for a national title with and they were ranked in the top five in the country for part of the year and Jim Pierakkos '92 was a first-team All-American.
"The thing that is vivid about that game is that early on we're playing back and forth and Scott Leip '93, who was also a transfer, dominated (Harvard's) freshman point guard. He went on to be a really good player but wasn't ready and Scott was a senior. I remember at one point in the second half Scott had gotten into this guy's grill and was under his skin like only he could do. And he came over to the bench and kicked down five chairs and said 'these guys are not good, we are going to crush them. Let's go!' Now looking back you're in a Division I gym kicking down chairs, that seems pretty crazy.
"I also remember at halftime Serge (DeBari) looking at the group and saying 'we're supposed to win this game, this isn't going to be an upset.' The two lasting memories are (Erik) Dellasanta '93, he banged a three-pointer with very little time left to give us 100 points, and back then to be on the ESPN ticker was a big deal because there was no D3hoops.com or the internet. It was a very exciting moment in time."
In 1999 you defeated Wheaton in a 5OT thriller 115-107 that included Mike Kmiec scoring a school-record 54 points. What do you remember about the game?
"There was an FME exam the next day and Evan Carlson '02, who was a freshman, looked at me after the first overtime and said, 'coach, I'm going to fail my exam.' I also remember one of the Wheaton kids said something to Kmiec after he made a free throw and later in the game that same kid had a breakaway layup and Kmiec stepped him off from half court and spiked it off the backboard.
"It was just crazy because five overtimes is more than a half. It was definitely a unique affair to say the least."
You recorded your 400th win in February 2019 with a victory over Emerson - what does achieving this milestone mean to you?
"Getting to 400, people always say you're old, number one. Number two, it makes you think about all the different guys you've coached and the good and the challenging times every coach experiences. When I first started, we had one bus ride a year to Norwich and we were taking vans everywhere; those van rides gave me the opportunity to get to know our guys and interact a great deal, which looking back made it all worth it. In addition, it makes you think of all the assistant coaches you've had and all of the people who have been a part of every season because you're never doing any of this by yourself. I feel fortunate that I've had the opportunity to win 400 games and ultimately it's about the people you share the journey with each season, that is the greatest blessing."