It seems like just yesterday when the University of Vermont was winning three consecutive America East titles and upsetting Syracuse in the 2005 NCAA first round. In real time, the days of T.J. Sorrentine, Taylor Coppenrath and Ultra-Violence Mechanism were nearly five years away. After Tom Brennan retired as UVM's bench boss after two decades, Mike Lonergan came in off the Maryland bench. Since his hiring, the new-look Cats have won 88 games, played in two conference title contests, but haven't quite made it to the promised land as of yet.
Led by two-time America East POY Marqus Blakely, Vermont came into the America East season at 9-5, despite only having played two games at home. After the Catamounts began conference play with a pullaway 73-58 win over UMBC, Coach Lonergan took some time out to talk to us in the UVM basketball offices. As a snowstorm swirled outside, we discussed the Catamounts' tough schedule, as well as the ongoing education of Mr. Blakely, who (as the commercials say) could possibly end up going pro in something else. We touched on his working relationship with Coach Brennan, the former ESPN analyst whose long and tall shadow still crosses the program. We also talked about dealing with negative fans, the persistent rumors of a move back south, and the origins of his curious nickname.
TMM:You played 10 of your first 12 on the road. You won seven of those roadies, and you were only really blown out once (at Providence), so it worked out pretty well for you guys. What was your scheduling strategy last summer?
ML: I didn't want to play quite as tough a schedule as we played last year. If you look at our schedule last year, who we played -- Maryland, Pittsburgh and Colorado -- we played a lot of teams from high-level conferences. And losing our second and third-leading scorers [Mike Trimboli and Colin McIntosh], I wanted to play teams we could compete with. At the same time, we got into a situation where we couldn't get any home games. Everyone who agreed to play us wanted to start the series at their place, because we were 24-9 and had Marqus Blakely, the two-time conference player of the year, coming back for his senior season.
I definitely didn't want to play 10 in a row on the road to start the season, but it was getting to be late July and we really had no choice. So we ended up picking up Marist and Mount Saint Mary's at the last minute, they both agreed to play us... but we had to go on the road. Lucky for us, we won both of those games. I know a lot of our fans didn't understand why we had to spend so much time on the road, or how tough scheduling is if you're a pretty good program. I'm glad it's over, and we came out of it. It definitely toughened us up a little bit.
I told my assistants that if we could just get through this, we would be in pretty good shape for 2010-11. We lose a guy who could end up as the three-time player of the year, and we'll always have to play a couple of guarantee games, but we'll end up with more home games next season. It kind of all evens out.
TMM:You mentioned Marqus, obviously he's your big drawing card this season. Tell me a little bit about him, in terms of how his career has played out over three-plus years. How has he developed?
ML: Marqus was dominant in high school and AAU because of his jumping ability. When he got here, I thought he could be an undersized power forward, but he wasn't really a basketball player. In his freshman year, he only averaged 13 minutes a game. My assistants always wanted me to play him more, but he was behind Martin Klimes, who was probably the best defensive payer I ever coached. Marqus really didn't have the intensity he has now, so he'd get a dunk every once in a while and show his talent...
TMM:I remember one dunk in particular.
ML: Yeah... after that dunk, he didn't get a rebound for the rest of the game and we lost the championship! He was a YouTube legend, but not really a great player yet. I brought him in after the season, and challenged him to put a lot more time into basketball. I told him, "Klimes is graduating, so you're going to have double minutes. You should double your stats too." And then he went and tripled his stats!
At the beginning, it seemed like every moment on the floor he was thinking of some way he could dunk it. I never thought he'd be player of the year -- I thought he might develop into an all-conference performer. But you could see his body developing, and he also matured as an athlete and a person. He started playing hard at times other than opportunities to get a breakaway dunk. But his overall game, he's improved it every year. He had double-doubles against Pittsburgh and Maryland last season, so I know he can compete at any level of college basketball. He's getting all these personal awards now, and I think I'm happier about them than he is. All he wants to do is win games and get to the NCAA Tournament.
He's definitely the best passer on the team, and we haven't shot the ball well so he's been losing two or three assists every game on missed layups. He's the only guy I've ever coached who's been the leading scorer on the team, but completely unselfish. He's one of the best ballhandlers we have, and he's a great rebounder. But there's no doubt about it, and everybody who's seen him knows this, he's not a good shooter.
The NBA, they're looking at him, and I talk to scouts all the time. They know he doesn't have a jump shot. I wish he'd get into the gym and shoot 300 jumpers every day, but he's not that kind of guy. What I try to sell the scouts on is that he could develop into a great defensive role player at the next level, be the lockdown guy. Marqus is a legitimate 6-5 and has a seven-foot wingspan, and he could definitely become the guy who comes in and guards Gilbert Arenas for three minutes, or Kobe Bryant for three minutes. If he wanted to do that, I think he'd have a chance. He's as atheltic as anyone in college basketball.
The other thing is that I'm good friends with Mark Murphy, the president of the Green Bay Packers. He was my boss at Colgate when I was an assistant there. I'm trying to get Marqus an NFL tryout, maybe he could take the [former Kent State Elite Eighter] Antonio Gates route. He didn't play a down of college football, but he's an All-Pro tight end now. Marqus doesn't play football, and we don't have it here at Vermont, but put him in a combine? He'd be top 10 percent, no problem. I don't know if Marqus wants that, but I know he's tough enough.
TMM:Your immediate predecessor, Tom Brennan, is back in town a lot more now as a result of having been let loose by ESPN (sadly, we can relate). He's back sitting under the basket in his seat of honor, just like back in 2005-06 when you first started here at Vermont. How has that relationship developed over the last five years?
ML: Coach Brennan is a good friend, he's become one of my very best friends in town. I can trust him, he has no hidden agendas, and he's always there for me. He's developed into a real mentor for me because my own coaching mentor, Jack Bruen, passed on. It's so good for me that now, there's a guy like that in my life again. Coach Brennan calls me after every game on the road on the bus, and he comes in the locker room before home games. We'll go out and have a beer somewhere, and we'll have lunch every couple of weeks when we're at home. He really cares about the program and our kids. When he started doing work in Bristol, he would commute from Burlington -- he didn't move there. That said a lot to me.
He's an ambassador for the program, and he's a big supporter. I'm sad that he doesn't work for ESPN anymore -- it was always good for recruiting when he'd give us a little plug on the air, and I really think he was getting better and better at his job. But like he tells me, they just don't care enough about mid-majors. I disagree with that, it gets old talking about the same teams over and over. I find it hard to believe that their ratings would go down because Tom Brennan mentioned that Vermont beat Boston College, the number 14 team in the country. I think it's bad for college basketball that he's not there.
But selfishly, for me, it's great. He's around more now, he's back on the radio doing his show, and he has a better feel for our team. He makes suggestions, and I always listen to what he says. He always brings me up when I'm down, and he always gets me in a good mood. He knows how seriously I take this, and his presence is good for me because he never took it too seriously. There are few people I've known -- other than Coach Bruen and my friend Jimmy Patsos at Loyola -- who truly enjoy life to the fullest. As Coach Bruen always told me, "I'm not here for a long time, I'm here for a good time." That's Coach Brennan's life in a nutshell, too. And I can always go to him, because he knows how tough this job is. He's been through it all here.
TMM:Folks remember the 13-over-4 upset of Syracuse and the three straight America East championships, but Coach Brennan had a lot of tough times here as head coach. You're already closing in on 100 wins as Vermont head coach in your fifth season... it took him nine years to get to that milestone.
ML: He understands how difficult recruiting can be, and how hard it is to get teams to come all the way to Burlington and play us. And I'm very proud of what we've done, and the legacy we inherited. Coach Brennan always tells me, "Mike, you and I are just bearers of the torch."
I call him Head Coach Emeritus. I think that at some point, the University of Vermont should officially name him that. If we ever get a new arena, they should build him an office and put "Head Coach Emeritus" over the door.
TMM:How about the rest of the town? Has Burlington fully embraced you yet? I know, as someone who's lived in New England a lot, how difficult it can be for "outsiders" to fit in.
ML: Vermont basketball is a big deal in this community. You saw today after the game, the players had a shootaround with the children, signing autographs, and everybody loved it. We have a poster day, and there are trading cards every year... we'd have that kind of stuff at Maryland, but it's rare to see that at this level. The players are treated like rock stars in this town.
For the most part, our fans are wonderful. And I know that the true Vermonters don't like change. There was the same coach for 19 years, and he'd come out to that Van Morrison song, you know [laughs]... and now here comes this other guy. A lot of people, at first, thought I was some know-it-all hot-shot assistant from the University of Maryland, coming to town to show them how to really play the game basketball. But I was only at Maryland for only a year... I always thought of myself as a Division III coach who paid his dues. And Coach Brennan always said, "Don't try to be me, be yourself." He really helped me through that transition period.
At the beginning, I really took things personally. There's are always small groups that can be vocal, they can get on some message board and say stuff. After my first season here, I called Coach Brennan one time and met him for lunch, and I brought him this letter from some guy who said he was a fan. This letter was ripping me left and right, talking about what a horrible coach I was. I had one returning starter from the 2005 team, had a losing record but made the league championship game. And this guy wanted me fired!
Coach took one look at it and said, "That guy wrote me a letter every year." After the first one, he didn't open them and wrote "Return to Sender" on the envelope. Then he dropped them back in the mail, just to piss the guy off. So I felt better after that. Nowadays, I don't even read the internet anymore.
Hey, Coach Brennan was from New Jersey! And all my relatives live in Connecticut and Massachusetts. I was the youngest of six kids, I was the only kid in my family not born in Massachusetts. My mom's from Hartford, my dad's from Webster, Mass. and went to Holy Cross. He's lived in Maryland for 40 years, but still doesn't pronounce his "R"'s. My first coaching job was at AIC in Springfield, Mass., and I was at Colgate at three years. So I wasn't some southern guy! I might not be a Vermonter, but I sure hope they like me, because I'm not planning on going anywhere.
TMM:There have always been rumors every summer that you're angling for some Capital Region job or other. In terms of the span of your life, how does Maryland fit in? Is it a place where you lived once, a second home? Do you want to go back?
ML: Maryland is where I grew up. I really liked it there, and that's where I'm from, but Burlington is the best place I've ever lived. I miss Maryland, because my Dad and my sisters live there. And I like playing teams like Mount Saint Mary's because I want to recruit that area... but for selfish reasons, I like going down there to see my family. But this is my home, and two of my four children were born in Vermont. My kids have never complained about the cold. I'm actually shocked about that. I asked one of my daughters recently, "Would you ever want to move south?" And she said, in no uncertain terms: no!
When I go down to Maryland to see my family, it's always so stressful dealing with the 24-hour traffic jams in the D.C. area. I do miss going to Redskins games, things like that. I miss football. But I'm just getting my house situated, and even though it's my fifth year, it feels like my second year. I couldn't be happier. During the summers, there are always activities for the kids, always something to do... any evening, my wife and I can go down to Church Street and watch the street performers. I feel like I live in a rural neighborhood, but I'm 3.5 miles from work and five miles from a really cool downtown. You read about how Burlington is always being named to "Best Places to Live" lists. It's a great place to raise kids. The crime is low, there's no traffic. I'm not trying to do an infomercial or anything, but I really love this place.
TMM:One last one for you. Every time I talk to Jimmy Patsos, he always says, "Been up at Vermont lately? You tell Fresh I say hello, okay? How's Fresh doin'?" Now that I have you on the spot, where did that nickname come from?
ML: Funny, because Gary Williams called me Fresh. I played my high school ball at Archbishop Carroll in D.C., pretty high level, we were 18th in the country. In our league, it was DeMatha and us. They were great, we were very good. When I went to Catholic University, I was the only freshman on the varsity team. At the time, I was coming from Archbishop Carroll and I was the only white kid on the basketball team... and that included the managers, coaches, everything. So we listened to a lot of black music, I guess you could call it.
There was a guy back then, Doug E. Fresh, and "fresh" was a word that meant "cool" back then. I don't know what word they would use now. The other thing was that my roommate in college worked at a Foot Locker, so I was always in sneakers. I had Nike Air Force Ones in about 12 colors. If I wore jeans and a white shirt with a green stripe, I'd wear the green sneakers. Everything had to match. And one of my teammates would always say, "Oh, you look fresh today."
So there was no one reason, it all came together. It just kind of stuck. People would call me Doug E. Fresh, or just Fresh. I was a freshman, trying to look fresh. Then when I got into coaching, people didn't really know my name, but then when I started at Catholic U. as a coach, some people kind of knew, and some people started calling me Fresh again. People up here in Burlington didn't know, until Patsos came up here to play us and started in with, "Hey Fresh! What's up, Fresh?" I don't mind it, but I really wish he hadn't done that!
Coming from Carroll, if you didn't look good, people would get all over you. I was a little white dude, and I had to earn respect as a player, and I tried my best to look "fresh." Little did I know that the nickname would follow me around to this day.
Coach Fresh and his Fightin' Catamounts continue their America East schedule with -- wait for it -- another road trip. Vermont will play at Maine and Albany next week before returning home for three games in five days against Boston University, Hartford and Stony Brook.