Friday, June 8, 2012

Former UNC star Pete Brennan dies at 75

Pete Brennan (left) with his UNC coach Frank McGuire -- the two combined on a 32-0, national championship season in 1957.

Pete Brennan, the leading rebounder on North Carolina’s undefeated 1957 national championship team and the author of one of the most important shots in Tar Heel basketball history, died Friday in Chapel Hill after a battle with cancer. He was 75.

I did a couple of long interviews with Brennan a number of years ago about his career in preparation for a book I was writing. He was a joy to talk to. He told me in one of those interviews that he was one of 10 children and that ultimately he had five children of his own.

As Brennan cracked, "I’m only half the man my father was."

I'm excerpting part of a chapter I wrote about Brennan in that book below just to give those who didn't know Brennan -- or who want to remember him -- another way to do so....

Pete Brennan will go down in history as the player who pushed North Carolina to the famous final against Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas team in the first place.

In the 1957 national semifinal, the Tar Heels trailed Michigan State, 64-62, with 11 seconds remaining in the first overtime. Michigan State’s Johnny Green was at the free-throw line, shooting a one-and-one. Since there was no such thing as a three-pointer in those days, one free throw would essentially seal the game.

The Tar Heels sported a 30-0 record at the time. The Michigan State players were so confident that they would win that one of them sidled up to Tar Heel point guard Tommy Kearns before Green shot the free throw and said, somewhat cruelly: “Thirty and one!”

But Green clanked it.

The 6-6, 215-pound Brennan grabbed the rebound and, instead of firing the ball upcourt to one of the Tar Heel guards, he started dribbling upcourt on the dead run.

“It was basically a 1-on-2 fast break,” Brennan said. “I got to the foul line, and there were two Michigan State guys there. I always had great confidence in shooting a jumper from around the foul line, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ll take it, and I’ll follow my own shot if I miss.’”

Brennan rose, shot and scored. The game was tied at 64. Michigan State actually got off a last-second shot of its own, and it went in, but after the buzzer sounded.

So the two teams played a second overtime period and then a third, before North Carolina finally prevailed, 74-70.

That win got North Carolina into the final. Brennan had 11 points and a team-high 11 rebounds against Kansas in the 54-53 win, also accomplished in triple overtime.

.... When that ’57 squad returned to Chapel Hill from Kansas City, thousands of people greeted them at the airport. They were chauffeured to the governor’s mansion for a banquet and signed autographs for fellow students.

“It all sort of blew my mind a little bit,” Brennan said.

Why did all that happen? It wasn’t just the championship.

It was television.

Those two Final Four thrillers in 1957 permanently married basketball and television in North Carolina. Enthralled by the Tar Heels’ undefeated record entering the Final Four, TV pioneer C.D. Chesley had put together a five-station network in North Carolina to televise the games back home.

In a single week, Chesley paid a rights fee to the NCAA, found sponsors, hired broadcasters and bought equipment.

When the Tar Heels won both games in triple OT, the folks who had TVs in the 1950s were absolutely captivated. Those telecasts set the stage for the huge TV packages the ACC can boast of today.

Brennan was a part of all that. He was another of the New Yorkers in Frank McGuire’s pipeline, just as all the starters on the ’57 squad were.

Brennan truly was one of 10 kids – he had six brothers and three sisters. He grew up in Brooklyn. His father, John Brennan, was a motorman for the local subway and also drove a newspaper truck. His mother, Una, raised the children.

“For 32 of his 38 years at work, my father worked two full-time jobs,” Brennan said. “So school was a very important thing to him – he wanted his kids to have an education. When report card day came, he checked everybody’s very closely.”

The leading scorer in Brooklyn as a senior at St. Augustine’s High, Brennan had a number of scholarship offers and thought seriously about Notre Dame. “Joe Quigg was already down in Chapel Hill and told me how great it was, though,” Brennan said. “He really helped me make my decision.”

Before Brennan, Kearns and Quigg joined the Tar Heel varsity as sophomores (freshmen were ineligible), Rosenbluth and his teammates struggled. In the 1954-55 season, Rosenbluth scored 25.5 a game but the Tar Heels only went 10-11.

In 1955-56, the Brennan-Kearns-Rosenbluth-Quigg quartet first came together as the centerpiece class of Frank McGuire’s reverse underground railroad. The Tar Heels improved to 18-5. But they lost to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament and thus didn’t qualify for the NCAAs.

Then came 1956-57. McGuire knew he had something special, and he spent most of the Tar Heels’ practices letting the players hone their skills in competitive situations.

“In practice, he just told us to scrimmage, and our scrimmages were very physical,” Brennan said. “He’d stop it if he saw something he didn’t like. But we never had any plays to run on offense. I mean never. We had two out-of-bounds plays. That was it.”

.... In 1957-58, Brennan was a senior and thought the Tar Heels might be able to repeat as NCAA champions. But that team was undone by several severe injuries. It finished 19-7, but lost to Maryland in the final of the ACC tournament.

Brennan was 1958 ACC Player of the Year, however, averaging 21.3 points and 11.7 rebounds, and also a first-team All-America.

Drafted by the New York Knicks in the first round of the 1958 NBA draft, Brennan played in the pros for all of one season and part of another. The Knicks tried to turn him into a guard but the experiment didn’t take. Brennan barely played.

Then a different draft took hold of his life.

“The military draft was still in at the time,” Brennan said, “and I was told I had to honor my obligation. So right after the second season, I joined the Marines.”

After that, Brennan got into the clothing business. He had his own company for awhile and also headed up a sales force out of New York for a large clothing company, selling lines like Polo, Chaps and Halston to large specialty stores. He was once contacted to see if he’d have any interest in coaching the Belmont Abbey basketball team in N.C. (Al McGuire once coached there), but Brennan said “No.”

“That was really the last time I had anything to do with basketball,” Brennan said.

.... In April 2005, he traveled to St. Louis to watch the Tar Heels win the national championship. In the semifinal, he was happy to see a bit of symmetry. In another Final Four, 48 years after Brennan’s own, a new Tar Heel team led by Sean May and Raymond Felton defeated another Michigan State squad in the national semifinal.


Anonymous said...

Those guys would oblit todays bums & 100% grad on time plus nobody left early or played the system. NBA paid 20-30k a yr if they were lucky. Most worked a 2nd job in the off season. No lucrative tv contracts to soak the public.

Anonymous said...

UNC is a complete joke!!! BAWHAHAHAH!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Pete
and Thanks, Scott.

David P. McKnight said...

In 1957 we formed a neighborhood team in Charlotte's Midwood neighborhood inspired by Pete Brennan's 1956-57 UNC championship team. We called ourselves the Truman Road Tar Heels and marked up white T-shirts in Carolina Blue letters and numerals.

Our "Truman Road Five" all had numbers matching the UNC starting five of Pete Brennan, Lennie Rosenbluth, Joe Quigg, Bob Cunningham and Tommy Kearns. My schoolmate Blake Wilson wore Brennan's No. 35, and I wore Rosenbluth's No. 10. Cameron McRae, Mike Williams and Tim Gilland also had "Tar Heel" jersey numbers, but I will have to ask them to refresh my memory as to who wore which numbers.

Recent appearances by some of those '57 Carolina stars at games and events in Chapel Hill certainly brought back fond memories for the entire generation of fans who "caught ACC fever" back during that championship run to Kansas City. Even Gov. Luther Hodges made the trip out to Missouri for the Final Four.

But Frank McGuire's players also went on to play in the NBA, earn graduate degrees, teach, go into business and continue to inspire legions of young people with their personal examples of service to community and family all through the years.

We always enjoyed listening on the radio to the distinctive pronunciation of the names of N.C. State and North Carolina players by the great Wolfpack broadcaster Ray Reeve whenever State and Carolina met in ACC play, and the 1957 title run by the Tar Heels was notable because State had won the conference tournament and championship in the first three years of the ACC going back to the academic year 1953-54.

Pete Brennan was a class act all throughout his life as his '57 Carolina teammates have been. But all the schools in what was then the "new" Atlantic Coast Conference were showing the country how sports and academics could be combined in the very best way.

Observer staffers in the late '50s such as Davis (Buzz) Merritt and Jack Claiborne became famous to some of us because their bylines were printed under the headlines for stories in the sports section about Carolina and ACC basketball games, and to this day, even if you see a key game on television, there's still nothing like "reading about it in the paper" the next morning.

To the families of Pete Brennan and Bob Cunningham, who previously passed away, so many of us wish to offer our prayers and our heartfelt thanks for memories not only of the great sport of collegiate basketball but indeed a stirring faith in celebrating the best of life itself throughout the Carolinas and the Southeast.

I'll never forget the thrill of meeting Coach Frank McGuire, "the Smiling Irishman," after a game at the old Charlotte Coliseum and like so many youngsters of that time, feeling "personally connected" to that splendid group of collegiate athletes including Pete Brennan and all the rest who came to Chapel Hill to create that dream season of yesteryear.