Like many kids growing up in Kansas, Lawrence Brenneman had basketball on his mind.
He played the sport at Hillsboro High School and Geneva College in Pennsylvania. But he was always trying to dig deeper to learn what made the game work.
“When I played, I was a student of the game,” he said. “I liked the X’s and O’s part of it.”
Kids like that grow up to be coaches, which is exactly what Brenneman did.
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Friday night, his job as a Western Kentucky assistant coach and his Sunflower State roots cross paths in Kansas City’s Sprint Center, when the 16th-seeded Hilltoppers meet top-seed Kansas. Tipoff is 8:50 p.m.
“I always followed the Jayhawks,” said Brenneman, who moved to Hillsboro from Pennsylvania when he was in the sixth grade. “In this business, you always love the challenge of playing the top teams.”
He’s pretty much hit all levels of coaching.
There was a year as an assistant at Tabor College in Hillsboro, followed by high school coaching in the Wichita area at West and Andover. He was 5-15 in his one year as head coach at West and 81-52 at Andover from 1990-96.
He hit the junior college ranks as an assistant at Seward County Community College. During his four years with the Saints, they finished third in the national tournament in 1998.
From there, Brenneman spent eight years as an assistant at Binghamton in New York before coming to Western Kentucky as assistant in 2008.
“I’ve worked my way up,” said Brenneman, 50. “I understand what goes into it. I’ve learned something at each step.”
At Seward County, he learned about Bill Self, who was recruiting the Saints’ Tony Heard to come to Tulsa. Heard would go on to help Self and the Golden Hurricane to the Elite Eight.
Self took that watershed year and moved on to Illinois and eventually to KU.
“I’ve known Bill forever,” Brenneman said. “For him to win nine straight league titles, that’s amazing.”
He already knows first what a Jayhawk wallop feels like.
In Self’s first year at KU, the Jayhawks warmed up for what would be an Elite Eight season by pounding Binghamton 78-46 in Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 29, 2003. Brenneman was sitting on Binghamton’s bench as an assistant.
“They have a great basketball tradition at KU,” he said. “But Western Kentucky also has a rich tradition.”
The Hilltoppers, 20-15 and winners of the Sun Belt Conference’s tournament title, are in their 23rd NCAA Tournament and fourth in the last six years.
OK, maybe a little short of KU’s storied history. But Western Kentucky can claim to have defeated the Jayhawks in a Final Four — the 1971 third place game, 77-75, in Houston.
“The state of Kentucky is a lot like Kansas,” Brenneman said. “It’s all basketball. They talk basketball year round. I like being somewhere where they care about basketball.”
He’d also like to be a head coach some day. He said he’s had a couple of junior college and NCAA Division II offers.
“I want to keep striving to be a division I coach,” Brenneman said. “You strive to reach the pinnacle and run your own program at the highest level.”
He understands the Hilltoppers are long shots in Friday’s game. But he’ll also have some supportive fans in the stands.
His brother Mike, a math teacher and an assistant golf coach at Maize High, will be at the Sprint Center. So will his parents, Frank and Anne, who recently retired after working for 30 years at Tabor. Frank was a math professor and Anne ran the college’s bookstore.
“We’ve always played too far away for them to come to an NCAA tournament game,” Brenneman said, “so this will be nice for them.”
Odds are long that Western Kentucky will be able to make it a two-game stay for his family. Brenneman isn’t going there.
“We’re playing like our best basketball,” he said.
Spoken like a true coach.