Remembering Jim Brandenburg: ‘I’d Run Through a Wall For Him’
LARAMIE -- Charles Bradley said he was leaving. Kenneth Ollie, another promising freshman, was out, too.
The man that brought them to Wyoming, Don DeVoe, accepted the vacant head coaching job at Tennessee. Coming off a 12-15 season in 1977-78, including a 3-11 showing in conference play, those two weren't sticking around to meet the new guy.
They didn't get that option.
A "skinny white guy" showed up unannounced at Room 419 inside McIntyre Hall.
It was Jim Brandenburg.
"He did a fantastic job selling Kenny and I to stay," Bradley said Saturday afternoon, speaking in front of friends, family and fans inside Arena-Auditorium. "... Give coach credit because we weren't sold. We were done. I mean, you know what, we were used to playing hard, competing and winning. That was just not happening."
Winning. That certainly didn't happen overnight. Brandenburg warned them it wouldn't.
The Cowboys meddled around .500 the first season. The next, that win total climbed to 18.
His three-year plan, according to Bradley, meant the team would first be competitive. Then, contend. Just like Brandenburg had promised them inside that dorm room, Wyoming was a "serious contender" in Year 3, finishing 24-6 and claiming a Western Conference crown.
"He sold that," Bradley said. "So, we stayed."
Brandenburg added other intricate pieces to the roster in those early days, bringing in guys like Bill Garnett, Mike Jackson, Chris Engler and many others.
Those three guys were also in attendance Saturday at Brandenburg's memorial service in Laramie, sharing stories about the man who knocked them down, built them back up and eventually made them champions.
"He was not the easy person to play for," said Jackson, who suited up for the Cowboys from 1979-83. "At times, you would think that he just flat didn't like you ... I tell you what, that's the furthest thing from the truth. As difficult as he was to play for and as tough as he was, he had demands for you to not only be a good quality player, but a good quality person.
"... His love for his players was incredible."
No one mentioned the three NCAA Tournament Appearances. Talk of those four WAC titles in nine seasons never came up, either. Instead, the message encompassed life lessons, legendary tales -- and opportunity.
An emotional Reggie Fox took several minutes to compose himself before telling the gathered crowd about what Brandenburg's mentorship meant to him. The Muskegon Community College transfer had a familiar story -- coach was one tough customer. Fox openly wondered what he was doing more than 1,200 miles from home, getting screamed at on a daily basis.
The practices were rigorous, he recalled. Fox even told the story of sending his high school coach a two-page letter, admitting the mistake he had made in coming here.
"I told him, I don't think I can make it," a teary-eyed Fox recalled writing. "It's hard. It's really tough. I don't think I can make it. I think I'm going to quit. Coach Brandenburg is pushing me and pushing me. He pushed me to the point where he literally pushed me to the brink."
One moment changed all of that.
"He came in the room, sat on my bed, put his hand on my leg and said 'how's your family?' For a kid who thought he was broken, that showed, off the court, what kind of man he was," Fox continued. "... I'd run through a wall for him."
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Those are words that came up numerous times at this unique celebration of life. One by one, former players -- Rodney Gowens, Jon Sommers, Turk Boyd, along with the men listed above, and others -- talked about the bond that was formed in this place more than four decades ago.
Brandenburg brought most of them here. Today, he brought them back.
"It occurred to me that he never made a mistake," joked Garnett, who played for the Cowboys from 1978-82 before becoming the school's highest draft selection in history, going No. 4 overall to the Dallas Mavericks. "How lucky I was to get here and play with my teammates. We're close to this day. I mean, that was 1982, guys. We talk all the time. I think coach would be real happy about that."
Ollie, who was selected to lead this service by Brandenburg himself, told a story about Brandenburg's fiery temper. Knowing Ollie's religious convictions, the coach promised him he would "fine himself" and put money in a jar each time he uttered an expletive.
"One day, practice was not going good. I mean, it was horrible. It was terrible," Ollie said, a smile creasing his face. "He's getting heated on the sideline. He came up to me and said, 'Kenny, excuse me.' He reached in his pocket and threw a bunch of ($1 bills) on the court. He fulfilled his commitment before he went into a rage."
Jackson spoke about the weekend Wyoming knocked off BYU and Utah in the War Memorial Fieldhouse. You remember those ones. The year was 1981 and the Cougars and Utes were the only teams standing in the Cowboys' way of a conference championship.
Jackson, a 6-foot-3 guard, said Brandenburg's competitive spirit was on full display during the "most memorable weekend" in UW basketball history.
"It was getting pretty physical and we weren't backing down," Jackson said, referring to that 53-50 victory over the Utes. "During a timeout the referees gathered both coaches and told them you need to tell your players to back off. So, coach came over and told us that's what the referees told him. Coach Brandenburg said, 'you know what I told the referees? I said, the answer's not no, it's hell no.'"
Brandenburg won 176 games during his time at Wyoming. He will be forever remembered for his smirk, one-liners, tirades and that two-handed fist pump after the Cowboys knocked off Reggie Miller and the UCLA Bruins to advance to the Sweet 16 in 1987.
He brought fans Fennis Dembo, Eric Leckner and Sean Dent. He's responsible for numerous banners that circle high above the building he helped make a reality.
Brandenburg died June 18 at his home near Austin, Texas. He was 87.
"Cowboy Nation, you are part of our family," said Brandenburg's daughter, Shannon Bui. "Mom and dad loved you, and you know they loved you."
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