In this year’s NCAA tournament, the Vermont Catamounts will attempt to accomplish what Vermont and its legendary coach Tom Brennan – who is often affectionately referred to as TB – actually did: Shock the world. Of course, 12 years ago, they unforgettably upset Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament.
It took Coach Brennan 19 years to pull off such a feat. When Coach Brennan arrived in Burlington, he inherited a program in disarray. Immediately, with his upbeat personality, Coach Brennan molded his Catamounts into a tough, unified core. His very first squad was the genesis of that monumental upset over Syracuse. Rob Hamlin was a tough-as-nails guard on Coach Brennan’s first Vermont squad. Rob took a few moments to recall his memories in Burlington with Coach Brennan’s and that great upset.
POPGATES: How did you come to UVM? Who recruited you?
ROB HAMLIN: I was offered a scholarship right after our high school won the Vermont Division 1 State Championship. We were 24-0. Joe Calavita was also on the team and received an offer. Bill Whitmore approached me right after the game and basically said he wanted me to play for Vermont. I had had a great game, scoring 42 points in the victory. I’m sure that had a lot to do with it.
Both Joe and I deferred our acceptance to the following year. For me it was for academic reasons. I completed a post graduate year at the Trinity Pawling School in New York. During my senior year, Stan Van Gundy, an assistant coach at the time, was keeping an eye on Joe and I. I recall seeing him at a few games, but I was never really pursued hard. But to be honest with you, I really hadn’t given college that much of a thought at the time. I was considering a career with the U.S. Forestry Department.
POPGATES: At that time, describe the state of the UVM basketball program. Who were your teammates and coaches?
ROB HAMLIN: UVM basketball wasn’t in good shape. I think they had only posted one winning season since the mid seventies. Bill Whitmore was the coach, and his assistants were Dan Theiss and Mike Evelti. Matt Thompson was our senior leader along with players like Howard Hudson, John Simko, Chris Fairchild and Tom O’Shea, to name a few. Joe and I were the only freshman.
POPGATES: What were your memories of those first few years? Lowlights? Highlights?
ROB HAMLIN: Honestly there were very few highlights. We were 18-38 during my first two years. There was a lot of tension between the players and the staff. Whitmore, in my opinion, wasn’t the kind of coach that made you feel good. Most of my motivation was in spite of him. I was a little depressed about it. His methods were to mentally and physically break you down. Add that to a losing season, and nobody was having any fun. I guess the positive side of it all was that the players stuck together. Fortunately for the program, Whitmore stepped down.
POPGATES: How was the NC State trip?
ROB HAMLIN: For a Vermont kid traveling to Raleigh to play against one of the best college teams in the country was pretty intimidating. I had played against Villanova so I kind of knew what to expect. It was Tom Brennan’s second season as head coach, and I was a senior. Looking back, it was pretty cool to have played against Coach Valvano. I didn’t really think about that at the time. I was more concerned with their full court pressure resulting in a 50 point loss.
POPGATES: When UVM was looking for a new head coach, did they confer with the players after Whitmore stepped down? Did you have a say?
ROB HAMLIN: We didn’t really have a say in who was going to replace Whitmore. I do know we had a say about Whitmore leaving. Very few people know how bad things were during the ’85-’86 season. In a nutshell: Our better players were going to transfer, and some were going to simply quit if he remained the coach. This was communicated to the university AD office and administration. For me personally, I was going to give up my scholarship but continue my academics at UVM. Ironically after his announcement, we went 4-1 in the last five games.
POPGATES: Your first impressions of TB? What does he say to you, the team?
ROB HAMLIN: He was young, 36, and energetic. He was very positive and upbeat. I know this wasn’t just a new coach blowing smoke as he is still that kind of guy today. He genuinely cared about us as individuals. I think his enthusiasm was not only contagious with the team but with the city and state as well. We weren’t very good those first couple years, but we worked hard for him. I think he was thrust into a situation where he was given damaged goods. Once he was able to get his guys in the program, look what happened.
POPGATES? A TB story or two or three?
ROB HAMLIN: There are plenty of them – that’s for sure. One of my favorites was when we played at Niagara during the ’86-’87 season. They had a big stud at the time named Joe Arlauckas. One of Niagara’s home court traditions was to throw toilet paper rolls onto the court after the first made Niagara basket. The cheerleaders would quickly rush the floor and clean it up. So we’re in the hotel about to leave for the game when Brennan instructs some of us to stuff our bags with TP from our rooms. You can see where this is going I’m sure. So the game starts. I can’t recall if we scored first or not but when we hit our first shot the guys on the bench began to fire rolls of TP out onto the floor. It was crazy, hilarious to watch. The fans didn’t know what the heck was happening, and I think a few threw their rolls as well. On cue, the cheerleaders ran out and cleaned up our mess. We played them pretty well but lost in the end. Joe Calavita had a huge night against Arlauckas.
POPGATES: How often did longtime supporter Momma Gucc (“Momma Gooch”) feed you guys? Did you go to her home?
ROB HAMLIN: Mary Anne Gucciardi is probably one of the most generous people I have ever known. Her and her husband, Richard, would feed us a holiday meal during Christmas break. While regular students were home for the holidays, we usually only got a few days to run home. She treated each and every one of us as if we were her own. You never greeted Momma Gucc without a hug. She hosted almost every team at one time or another. She has done so much for the student-athletes of UVM that the student fitness and rec center is named after her and Richard.
POPGATES: Your teammates?
ROB HAMLIN: The guys that meant the most to me were the ones that I went through the Whitmore years with. Joe Calavita, Robby Zinn, Bart Donovan, Chris Kappes and Mike Lubbas were the core guys. We endured some tough times together, and it created a lifelong bond. We rarely see each other anymore, as we are all scattered around. Joe is in San Fran, Robby in Massachusetts, Bart in Maine, Kappes in Southern California, Mike in Burlington and I’m in Idaho. Social media helps. The last time we were together was at TB’s retirement celebration. It didn’t take us five minutes to pick up right where we left off. Hopefully we can all get together again when they dedicate the floor to him.
POPGATES: Where are you for the Syracuse game?
ROB HAMLIN: Funny story, I was living in Pensacola, Florida at the time. My wife, kids and I were at a Harlem Globetrotter game with a couple of other families. Luckily for me, the arena had a TV in the lobby above our section and had the tournament games on. I spent the entire time in the lobby watching the game by myself. As the game progressed, I became more vocal. I’d run down to my seat at a commercial, give everyone an update and then run back up. My buddies ditched their families and joined me. By the end of the game, we had attracted a small crowd. There was a lot of cheering when the game ended. I felt so great for TB. He deserves a lot of credit for taking a beaten-down program and turning it into a tournament team.
POPGATES: Where does life take you after UVM?
ROB HAMLIN: After graduation, I remained in Vermont for a few years working in sales at a beverage distributor. I moved to Florida in the early 90’s, where I met my wife and started a family. In 2006, we moved to a small town outside of Boise, Idaho. I have been working for Lamar Advertising, a billboard company since 1998.
POPGATES: Final thoughts?
ROB HAMLIN: My experience playing basketball at Vermont has definitely had a huge impact on my life. I have great lifelong friends because of it. Even though I was a marginal player and we had few successes, I am very proud to have been a part of it. I hope to return to Patrick Gym when they name the court after TB. I’m sure a ton of old players will be there because of the love and respect we all have for him. Answering your questions brought me back to a great time in my life. I don’t get a chance to reflect on it as much. Today I did, and I smiled a lot. Thank you for that.