Wouldn’t you think an old horse would learn some new tricks? More than 20 years ago, I was fooled. Of course, I have been fooled more than once, but this time I was really fooled. I was a high school basketball coach. Your athletic director is an important person in whether you have success or not. Don’t get me wrong – the coach is responsible for making the team go, but for teams to reach their maximum potential, the AD plays a role when it comes to dotting your Is and crossing your Ts.
The school was hiring a new AD, and they said they had some good candidates. Then one day, the assistant principal told me who the hire was. I didn’t know the new AD, but I said, “Who’s that?”
The response was, “He’s an art aide here at the school.” I hope I didn’t show the disappointment in my face or my body language, but I was yelling loudly inside, “What do you mean you hired an art aide as the AD? What are you doing? You are killing me.”
Well to begin, I should have believed in that assistant principal because he was a basketball man through and through. Secondly, that new AD in the end was at the very least tied for first place as the best AD I can remember in the school’s history.
I should have learned from that experience. Well, actually I did, but I still had an overreaction last week.
I more than hesitated when Marty Testo, Leland & Gray athletic director, told me he hired a music teacher as the next Leland & Gray boys’ basketball coach. My first thought was, “They must not have had much of a pool of candidates.” After hearing the rest of the story, I should volunteer myself to serve on the AD funding dunking tank seat.
James Pecsok is the new Leland & Gray boys’ basketball coach. He served as the school’s junior varsity coach the past two seasons. What does he really know about basketball? I am not the first one to have asked that question.
Pecsok recently worked the Leland & Gray Skills Basketball Camp, which was named the Russell Hussle Camp this summer in a tribute to the long-time director of the camp, Tom Russell, who had passed the reins of the camp to Rebel girls’ coach Terry Merrow. After watching Pecsok work the camp, Merrow told me, “For a young kid, he has the passion to be really good at this. I was really impressed.”
There is a whole lot more to this story though. Vermont’s most esteemed men’s college basketball coach and a long-time women’s basketball coach at Middlebury College will get to chime in before we are through.
Noreen Pecsok is the winningest women’s basketball coach in Middlebury College history, and she just happens to be James’ mother. James told me, “I went to a lot of my mom’s practices. I don’t remember much about when she was at Franklin and Marshall, but when she came to Middlebury I went to a lot of practices. I am not sure that I had any other choice, but if I had had a choice, I would not have had it any other way.”
He may have started out very young, but he found a way to be useful. “He grew into helping out,” Noreen told me. “As time went on, he started keeping track of fouls and stats and the things we needed, and he ended up doing a better job than any manager I ever had.”
Despite James’ involvement at practices with the team, mom never really noticed any deep love of the game developing. “My focus was as a mom. I knew he was pretty passionate about his music, and he is an accomplished musician, proficient as a saxophonist and a vocalist, even performed an National Anthem at a UVM men’s basketball game, but I never really saw an interest in basketball outside of playing it.”
As a player at Middlebury High School, James was in a perfect position to take in what is needed to prepare to become a coach. He didn’t start, but he certainly contributed. He came off the bench as a role player and saw important minutes. He focused on the big picture, learning what it’s like to not be the epicenter of what was going on. Noreen said, “I was really happy he was able to get a job right away. When he called me and said he was thinking about a JV boys’ basketball opening at the school, I said don’t do it. I was really surprised that was what he wanted, but really I have been impressed with what I saw him do. I have found a good route from Middlebury to Townshend to go see him coach.”
Now on to the gentleman who put Vermont in the national spotlight of college basketball. If you are not sure of whom I am speaking about yet, you are thinking too hard. The answer is a simple one: Tom Brennan.
How does he come into the picture? He just happens to be the oldest brother in a family of seven Brennan children from a household in Phillipsburg, N.J., which includes Noreen as the youngest. Not only was Brennan a strong coach, but he has a gift of gab, which has also brought him to national prominence on sports radio.
His gift got carried away when I called him because, in addition to giving me the rundown on the relationship between Noreen and himself, he listed all the successes of the rest of the family one by one, which he is so proud of. What he said about Noreen is important though.
For anyone who saw Brennan coach, he was active on the sideline. He could be a congenial cheerleader who seconds later could be in aggressive rage. He was able to get the most out of his players. He was successful. But he wishes he could have been different.
He said of Noreen, “She was really my hero. I wish I could have been like her. I’d watch her and something would go wrong, and she would keep calm and go on to coach the next play. That was very special.”
Well Tom, what about James as a coach? “I’m excited for him, but I didn’t know he wanted to really coach. He’s kept that a secret from me. I knew he has had success with his music and I’m glad about that, but he’s never asked me anything about coaching.”
However, James was at his mother’s side at a young age, celebrating Uncle Tom’s successes. Brennan’s first conference championship near the turn of the century had been the first one for UVM in almost 50 years. James remembers the games and the venues. Mom was surprise about her son’s recently expressed interest in coaching. When I asked where it came from, suggesting it was osmosis, she said, “I guess so.”
“I used to love to go to those UVM games,” James says. “I was excited to be there. I always thought I might want to coach, but I knew I wasn’t a good enough player to play in college so I didn’t give it much thought. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t interested.”
Brennan was direct in one regard with his nephew. “I will tell you one thing. He is a doer. He gets things done.”
Immediately I think about the fact James already has introduced Leland & Gray to a track program, instituting that in his first year as a teacher.
Speaking to James, he sounds like a coach who has been around for a while. He tells me, “I believe in doing my part in this supportive community. I see potential here, but I am interested in building the program from at least the middle school level on up. I want to teach them all the proper skills so they can play the game in a consistent way. I’ve coached most of our players already over the past two years, and I know what they are like both on and off the court. I am really interested in their personal growth and how they find success as a person.”
How does he say such mature stuff? Osmosis is my only answer. He watched, he listened, and now it is time for him to put it all to work.