Legendary University of Wyoming men’s basketball coach Jim Brandenburg died Sunday. He was 87.
Brandenburg is the third winningest coach in Wyoming men’s basketball history, earning 176 victories during his nine seasons at the helm of the program. He led Wyoming to three conference titles and the same number of NCAA Tournament appearances.
His best run came during his last season in 1987, when Brandenburg led the Pokes to the Sweet 16. During that run, the 12th-seeded Cowboys upset Virginia and UCLA.
“He just had so much success,” said Cowboy State Daily columnist Dave Walsh, who was the voice of UW sports for 38 years.
Brandenburg recruited Wyoming greats like Fennis Dembo, Eric Leckner, Charles Bradley, Sean Dent, Mark Wrapp, Mike Jackson, Jonathan Sommers, Dwight McClendon.
He Brought Intensity
Sportswriter Tracy Ringolsby told Cowboy State Daily that Brandenburg brought a high level of intensity to the court and strong competitive fire.
“When you took the court with Brandenburg, you better bring focus and play hard or you were going to be gone,” he said.
Walsh said Brandenburg was a defensive specialist, implementing a stout 2-3 zone defense.
“They were very tough and physical on defense,” Walsh said.
Brandenburg also was known for his recruiting chops, facilitating his many connections in the Denver area where he recruited some of UW’s best players. He had played at Colorado State and coached high school basketball in Denver.
Brandenburg came to UW in 1978 after two seasons coaching at the University of Montana. He immediately turned the program around, leading the Cowboys to a winning season after the team had suffered seven losing seasons of their previous eight.
Brandenburg surprised many when he left UW after the 1987 season to accept a coaching job at San Diego State University. According to a 2008 Denver Post story, that team was mostly underclassmen and its prospects for reaching the Final Four the next season were good.
Very, Very Special
Longtime Cowboys color commentator Kevin McKinney said what Brandenburg did for the University of Wyoming was "very special."
He was a perfect fit here, "McKinney told the University of Wyoming's GoWyo Sports. "He was a tough-minded guy and recruited guys who would fit in his style of play. Jim was an excellent recruiter and many of the players he brought into the program were under-recruited guys. He developed them into the best players they could be, and he built a program that emphasized defense and rebounding."
"His era of Cowboy basketball will go down as one of the greatest in Wyoming history," McKinney said. "Jim was an outstanding technical coach, who was incredibly passionate. He was as precise in how he went about preparing his teams as any coach I've worked with. He coached in an era of great coaches in the Western Athletic Conference, including the likes of Don Haskins at UTEP and great coaches at BYU, New Mexico and Utah and Jim was as good as any of them."
Ringolsby said Brandenburg felt underappreciated by leadership in the Wyoming athletic department over what he felt was a financial disparity between how much money the football program was receiving compared to his basketball team.
The coach also was known to have a short fuse, he said.
The decision to leave the Cowboys did not pay off for Brandenburg, who led the Aztecs to five losing seasons. It was his last coaching stop.
Ringolsby said Brandenburg regretted the move, calling it “the biggest mistake” of his life.
“Many of the factors that made the San Diego State job tempting turned out to be flawed,” Brandenburg told The Denver Post. “I felt it was time to leave. Was it the right decision? No. But I left the program in far better shape than I found it.”
Ringolsby and Walsh said Brandenburg brought a level of consistent success that UW had never seen before.
Both said the men’s basketball program is where it’s at today because of the expectations and standards raised under the Brandenburg era, a level the team’s fan base still expects the program to perform at today.
“He put pressure on anybody that came after him,” Ringolsby said. “He made it so you could look at Wyoming and say, ‘You know what? I can win there.’”
Brandenburg was inducted into the Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame in 2000.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.