When Mark Fox’s father passed away the day after Georgia played its final nonconference game in early January, Tom Brennan reached out to Fox by phone to let him know he had been there before.
“He’s somebody who had lived it,” the Bulldogs’ men’s basketball coach said Tuesday. “It was nice to hear someone else who had gone through it because that was a hard time.”
The former Georgia player and current Sirius XM radio host was in the national spotlight when his Vermont team upset Syracuse in the 2005 NCAA tournament, but it was early in his head coaching career in 1984 when his father, Joseph, lost his life during an in-season automobile accident.
“I said, ‘My heart aches for you and there’s not too many people that know this but my Dad died when I was at Yale and we played Penn and Princeton on a weekend,’ ” Brennan said about his talk with Fox. “When it happened to Mark, I feel like it kind of made us soul mates to a point.”
Fox’s Georgia team, at 6-6 overall, didn’t look anything like one that would earn a postseason tournament berth when his father, Raymond Lewis Fox, passed away on Jan. 4 of lung disease, just hours after the Bulldogs lost at George Washington.
Georgia (19-13) found its identity in Southeastern Conference play with improved defense and rebounding. It all started with an emotional win at No. 21 Missouri which left Fox sobbing on the bench as the game ended. Fox coached the night after returning home to Kansas for a service for his father.
The Bulldogs ended up exceeding expectations by tying for second with Kentucky with a 12-6 league record.
“I was so thrilled that they turned that thing around,” Brennan said. “I was happy for him.”
“We found our success a little bit later,” junior forward Nemanja Djurisic said, “and when we did find it, we tried to make the most out of it. It’s a great opportunity to play in the postseason. It’s my first year playing.”
Now, Vermont (22-10), the team Brennan coached for 19 seasons before retiring in 2005, comes to Stegeman Coliseum tonight for a first round National Invitation Tournament game at 8 p.m. Brennan hitched a ride with the Vermont charter plane to Athens for the game matching the program he built against the program where he jokes the position he played was “bench.” (It was actually small forward).
The Phillipsburg, N.J., native played at Georgia from 1969-71 and was a graduate assistant at Georgia under coach Ken Rosemond in 1972-73. It was while he was at his first head coaching job at Yale that Brennan’s father died early on a Saturday morning after Yale’s game against Penn. He was en route to see Tom’s sister play for Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
Brennan told his mother he was going to come home and not coach against Princeton that night.
“’No, no, no, he would want you to coach,’” Brennan said she told him. “I really felt bad about it and I didn’t know what to do and I did coach because she asked me to and she knew best, but it was hard. It was really, really hard. So I know how emotional that night was for him because it was just like a blur for me.”
Brennan’s Vermont teams played against Nevada twice when Fox was an assistant and then head coach there.
“When he was at Nevada, we got to be boys and I really love him, he’s a really, really good guy,” Brennan said. “We had the Bracket Buster games. We went out there and played and he was the coach and then they came back the next year, but I had retired by then.”
Said Fox: “He took me to his favorite little place and we just developed a friendship. Every time he’s been back in Athens we’ve spent time together.”
They spent time together in Nashville when Brennan was Georgia’s “SEC legend” and Brennan said he was invited back to Fox’s house late one night during a football weekend visit to Athens.
“He just showed up ringing the doorbell,” Fox said. “I think 11 o’clock at night is being kind. It might have been later than that.”
Brennan calls himself a proud UGA alum. He’s heard this week from Bulldog teammates Herb White, Lanny Taylor and Barry Cohen about the game. His allegiance, though, is at the school he coached at and where he still lives at a home overlooking what this week was a frozen Lake Champlain.
“There’s 1 and 2 and then there’s the rest of the world,” Brennan said. “I loved going to Georgia and that’s my alma mater, but Vermont is kind of my school now.”