With an alumnus for a wife and a brother for an ex-player, Brent Brennan has spent his fair share of time on Arizona’s campus. But his last visit was in December 2020, for the Arizona Bowl, when he brought an undefeated San Jose State into a matchup with Ball State.
The Spartans would lose that game, doing so a week or so after Brennan was passed over for the UA opening that would go to Jedd Fisch. Little did he know that he’d be back a little more than three years later, sitting in a room under Arizona Stadium that didn’t exist during his previous trip, answering questions about his journey to becoming the Wildcats’ head coach.
“My excitement about being here is over the top,” Brennan said. “I haven’t really walked around here in a long time. A couple years ago, we were here for the bowl game, and this building had not been renovated yet. It looked then nothing like it looks now. The thing is unbelievable, I had no idea of just the commitment to facilities and the upgrades that have happened here.”
Here’s what else Brennan said at his first press conference as Arizona head coach:
On Dick Tomey: “The impact that I know that Dick and Nancy had on this university, but really on my path, it’s embarrassing little bit. I don’t think ery often in your life, when you work you think about somebody every day. But that’s what Coach Tomey has been for me. He’s been the guy that, every single day I think about, what we’re Coach T to do here, and Coach T will kill you for what just happened in this game.”
On his time as an Arizona graduate assistant in 2000: “I shared a supply closet with Dave Fipp. One of the real Tomey guys, walked on and did it the hard way. He’s now special teams coordinator for the Detroit Lions. And so I had this awesome moment. It was yesterday morning, I knew I was coming here, and I called him. I went for a walk, like five in the morning. Los Gatos, California, this little small town we live in. And he picked up the phone, he’s getting ready for a big game this week. He picked up the phone and he immediately started screaming. His choices of words I can’t repeat. We just had this incredible moment where we’re both like screaming at five in the morning in Los Gatos, which you don’t know, sometimes that can get the police on you pretty fast. But it was just an incredible moment.
“Courtney and I got married while we’re here. I think it took the job in March. It was Coach Tomey’s last season here., so it was also like a welcome to college football. Just how challenging and hard and complicated it can be. I was a graduate assistant. She was paying the bills as a high-powered pharmaceutical sales (person) was the job then. Our big date night was Wildflower. It was really fun because it was also special because at the same time my brother was playing for us. And the staff was so special. Rich Ellison and Duane Akina, Dave Fipp, Dino Babers. Rob Ianello. I think that’s such an important part, Coach Tomey was really good at that, I think we’re really good at that, is making sure the environment is someplace that everybody wants to come to work every day and be there with people that you care about and are willing to invest the amount of time and effort that it requires to be good at football. We had a great time.”
On coming back to Arizona 23 years later: “At the time my wife and I were newlyweds, and there’s just been lots of life since then. Three amazing kids. All kinds of football journey. We were with another Arizona legend, Rich Ellerson at Cal Poly for four years when we left here, and then we left Cal Poly and we were at San Jose State with Coach Tomey and Mike MacIntyre for the next six (years). And the experience of having that much time with Coach Tomey was really special. Just the toughness and the enthusiasm and so much of how I’m built is because of what he instilled in me. And really it starts with the players. It starts about loving your players and caring about your players. It’s about player first. Person first, player second, and that’s how we that’s how I built every program or every position group that I’ve ever been a part of. And then I went to Oregon State with Mike Riley. Mike was an awesome head coach and really successful head coach and I learned so much from Mike, and I was there with him for four years and Gary Anderson for two. But all these people had a real impact on my process and all my development as a coach, but none (more) than Coach Tomey. Because even when I was away from him, I always heard from him.”
On his tenure at San Jose State: “For seven years at San Jose State as the head coach, I felt great about what we did there. I was really fortunate. I had great administration. I had three presidents and they were all fantastic. I worked for good athletic directors and good ADs and they gave us a chance to build a real program there, which was really rewarding. Again, people make the place, and I’m really grateful for all those people and all those coaches that impacted my journey. But really, all the players. The amount of players that have reached out to me, current players that I coach or players (from) over the last 25 years, that’s been an overwhelming thing for me, just the people’s outpouring of love and support and excitement and this opportunity for us.”
On his new team: “This is just an amazing moment for me. I’m trying to get to know the team. I absolutely believe we can build a consistent winner here. We have everything you need to do that. And as I’m getting to know the kids, and I’ve been in the weight room and the locker room and in the dining hall and in the indoor (practice facility) ... these players love this place, and they’re really committed to each other. And so I have to be ultimately committed to them, but also putting a great staff around them, which I’m in the process of doing. That’s one of the more complicated things of taking the job. But I promise that we’re going to have great leaders, mentors and developers of talent in the building to help them get where they want to go and elevate our program as high as we possibly can. I think lots of schools talk about family, and I think it’s a cliche thing in the football world. I don’t think anybody did a better than Coach Tomey here. When I’m seeing all these former players. My brother was a former player. And how they still interact and the outpouring of love that I’ve gotten from them since this has all gone down. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do. We’re going to double down on family, double down on loving each other and caring about each other, and we will build something you can all be proud of.”
On his message to Arizona players when meeting them Tuesday: “I was just really honest with them. That’s how I operate you know. I get it, like they’re a little bit hurt. And the reason I can say that is because I just did that to a team yesterday. Yesterday morning before I got on the plane to come down here I had to meet with the team at San Jose State. It was really, really hard, really emotional. And if you do build it right, and if your team is connected on a level that gives you a chance to be successful on Saturdays in the fall, they’re going to be super connected. So when a piece of it leaves, there’s gonna be some fallout, right? And so I was just honest with them, I just asked them to give me a chance to earn their trust, to treat each other with respect and that trust will be earned over time, and then I promised them I’d surround them with a great coaching staff and people that care about their development and who they are as men.”
On his staff: “I’m still working on that. The one thing that I’m most excited about is I do think I have a decent commitment from Duane Akina to continue to be part of this, which is exciting. Just the teacher he is, the person he is, the leader he is. I’m excited about that. And so the other pieces are are still moving. I do think that my priority since I’ve gotten here is a balance of trying to get to know this team and spend some time around the team and meeting one on one with some of the players, and then also meeting with some groups of players, because I’m just trying to get to know them. But more importantly, I’m trying to give them a chance to get to know me. Because, like I mentioned, they’re kind of in a tough spot. And with the way the rules are now, right, like anyone can leave at any time. And so that’s just the nature of college football. So how quickly can I start to get to know them, how they can get to know me and start to build a connection. I believe that the best way to move forward is right here at the University of Arizona.”
On not getting the UA job in 2020: “When we were here 23 years ago, we really liked it. We knew it was a special place, kind of a place you always hope to could get back to somehow. Don’t always know how that works and you don’t always know if you’re gonna have a chance to in our profession. But three years ago was a tricky one. I was certainly disappointed. There was disappointment but there was also ... it was the middle of COVID, I had to get a team ready for a bowl game (in Tucson). We were laughing about it last night, it was a really messy like week, for in terms of like our team, San Jose, all those things. But the truth of the matter is, I think I was at a great place and I had a great job. And this was a great place that I was interested in that I had a chance to interview for. And you want to talk about Coach Tomey, the harder it gets the better you play. Okay, I didn’t get it, but I need to keep doing a good job at San Jose State so that some point down the road, I might have a chance to go back there. And that’s what I thought.”
On if he’s had that ‘this is really happening’ moment: “I had it this morning. I was walking in with Ben Thienes, who is coming over here with me from San Jose. And we got off the elevator at the wrong place in the building. And so we ended up outside, and we walked out on the concourse there. And on the Jumbotron, it was that picture and it says Welcome Brennan, head coach, and I’m just looking at the stadium and the sun was kind of coming up. It was this awesome moment. And yes, that was it. I was like, oh my god. Let’s go! That was kind of that moment for me. Even though the picture is funny. When I see this picture looks like I’m upset about something. I actually smile quite a bit when I coach. This looks like it’s the end of the game and we’re getting our butts kicked. I’m trying to figure out the scenario there.”
On having a family-type atmosphere: “I care about the man first and that’s where it starts. I think if we help them be stabilized in their academic and personal life, the football takes care of itself. I really believe that. And lots of times when kids are disorganized academically or making bad choices socially, that creates chaos in the football life. And really, at the end of the day, like for so many of these young people, football is the drive. Football is what they care most about. So how can I help them get their stuff together, academically? How do I make sure they’re on a good path that way? How can I give them the resources, the people and the opportunities for their personal life to be stable? And then let them grow and thrive under great coaching and great support from from the head coach and from the position coaches.”
On his recruiting philosophy: “I think this place has everything you need to recruit absolutely high-level talent. I think we’ll be based developmentally and try and be smart about the portal. It’s an interesting time ... because the portal has given people like a shot at free agency. And then you combine the portal and name, image and likeness .... whoever has the most money ... it’s become transactional almost, without any guardrails from the NCAA, the world, the state, the government. It’s really an interesting time that way. My belief is that this has always been a developmental program, and that your best players are playing as they get a little bit later in their years. And that’s when you have a chance when you could build a team with some consistency and you do a good job of managing the roster, that you can actually keep a consistent, sustainable winning process, but you got to bring in the right people. And the portal is part of that, but in my mind, it’s more of a spot fill, or if it’s need-based. Shoot, we really needed this position, we better go out and get it.
“I think there’s so many things that have changed recruiting fundamentally, starting with the early signing day. Most people are done. Even at San Jose State, where we weren’t going to be able to ... have first pick, but we were still mostly done. And then philosophically there at San Jose State we also changed. We would go into spring practice and we would always save four to six scholarships, because we didn’t want to go through spring practice and say, hey, it looks like we’re not good enough at this position and so we need to go find one. Now the odds of being able tofind them are much better because you have the portal, you have junior college football and you have high school. And because people are recruiting so heavily in the portal you have a bunch of really good high school players that (are available). Right now, when we get back on the road ... the assistant coaches in January and in spring recruiting are always come back to me and they’re like, you won’t believe this kid. He’s at so and so high school and he has nothing. And then you’re watching the film. I think it’s a real opportunity to upgrade your roster because people are not recruiting high school and junior college players as heavily as they were. Everyone’s so focused on the portal.”
On if this is a better job than it was in 2020: “I think this is a great time to be here because of what Jedd and his staff did. They had a fantastic season. What these players did. That was really fun to watch. I’m married to a Wildcat alum. We watch Arizona football when I’m not coaching on Saturdays. That’s part of it. I think it’s absolutely in a great place, especially when you look at the way the facility has changed in those three years. When I walked in the locker room today to go talk to some of the players, and I was here in ‘20 for a bowl game, it’s night and day. The people that have given the money and donated and been involved on a high level to make that building so nice and so efficient. That part of it is awesome. Young people ... when they come on your campus, they just ask themselves, where am I going to spend the most time? So how does that space feel to them? So I think this is a better time to take that job because of the recent success and because of the players that are in the room. They’re so committed already. So that’s going to be a great alignment and it’s how I’m gonna want to build it.”
On developing talent: “I think it starts with recruiting the right young people. I think there’s a certain contingent of young people coming up right now that, they like getting recruited. They don’t necessarily like playing football. It’s fun to get 20,000 likes and retweets because you have a nice one-handed catch in your 7-on-7 thing. But we all know how hard it is to catch the ball one-haned. If we’re going to talk about receivers, right, you have to recruit someone who has the talent, and then also has the love of football. And then to get them to the NFL, that’s a combination of talent, scheme and development. And I think that’s one of the things over time that, in our experience at San Jose State, that we were really fortunate. We took a lot of tweeners, we took a lot of guys that were not recruited on the highest level and all sudden we’re winning the conference, we’re playing for the conference championship or we’re playing meaningful games late in November, which we hadn’t been doing the previous (years). I think when we got that we’d had three winning seasons in 30 years. The developmental piece is an everyday thing. But it also comes with recruiting the kind of player that wants to be that committed to get to that level.”
On producing NFL players: “We’ve been really lucky to coach a lot of NFL players over the last 25 years. But I think any coach that’s coached an NFL player would tell you that that guy was an insane worker, and then just supremely committed. And then you match that kind of high-level commitment with high-level talent, and now you’re in the top one half of 1 percent of the world.”
On building a culture: “We worked really hard at that over time. And honestly, Coach Tomey was a lot of the foundation for that, not just his ‘the team, the team, the team.’ But Coach Tomey was the first head coach I was ever around that actually did like active team building. And got like football players together in small circles and breakout sessions and talking about really intense stuff. And what it did was it built connection, guys common common ground. Over the years I’ve sat in so many of those circles. And it’s amazing because, in order to play for each other, and really put in the work to be good at football, they have to care about each other. And how do you get them to care about each other, they have to know each other on a deeper level. It can’t just be like, what’s up, dude in the locker room. It’s not enough. And so you have to get them talking about real stuff so they get to know each other. So we’ve done a bunch of team building, a lot of really fun exercises. At San Jose we’ve done them on Friday nights before a game with the team, and we’ve also done them throughout the whole offseason.”
On how he’s grown as a coach since not getting the Arizona job the first time: “At the time I wasn’t really looking at it in terms of how it would play out, the chances of another shot at Arizona. It was really trying to do better at San Jose. That year was the first winning season that we had, we won the Mountain West championship. And so then it was like how do I sustain that? How do we find a way to be sustainable at San Jose? This year, ‘22 and ‘23, this was a first back-to-back winning seasons since ‘91-’92. And so coming out of ‘20 we went 5-7, and it was a massive learning experience for us. And what I learned in that time is it, after that successful year I needed to push harder. And I thought, because we had the 6-year seniors and the COVID babies that those guys would carry the weight, and they knew what it took, but they didn’t, and so that’s something I had to fix. It was more about how do I fix ... or how do I help San Jose be better than we’ve been in the past? That’s what I got the most out of that time.”
On having better resources than at San Jose State: “If you’re taking care of your players’ fundamental needs, right? Like, are they well fed? Do they have academic support? Do they have coaches and mentors who care about them. Those things helped build just healthier young people. So many important things are in place. The consistency for those young people. when they get here, and growth, it’s all here. You’re not having to build it. Like, we just finished building a football facility at San Jose State, and it took seven years to build it. All these things are in place. And also when the recruits come to on campus, they look at where I’m going to spend the most time and like how is that? How’s it gonna be living in that building? Or how’s it gonna work being in that space? Lots of times the players, young people buy with their eyes. And so when they see a commitment to facilities like this, and they see the indoor. I’m like, indoor? When I was GAing here we were in the sun, it was hot. Every day. But when I saw that, I was like, wow, like this place is like ... it’s just everything’s here. And so I think that part of it is just really impactful for the kids who you’re trying to develop and the kids you’re trying to attract.”
On his ‘Swaggy B’ persona: “The things we do for social media. During a summer camp, two or three years ago ... there were lots of players that were coming to camp, and they didn’t look like they were ready to participate. They looked like they were like coming for like a photoshoot. So they would be at practice, like, like we’re evaluating whether we think you’re good enough or not to come play for us at that time at San Jose State, and they were showing up in pajama pants and big Viper sunglasses and like, it was like crazy. I was like, dude, you’re playing football today. Like, what are we doing? So it became this like funny play on that like, well, I’m going to coach that way. And so we kind of started out with our social media team at San Jose State, awesome people back there, and so I had a pair of like, Oakley blades. And our players thought it was the funniest thing ever, too, because they’re like, ‘Swaggy B, when you coming out?’ Maybe not today, maybe tomorrow. So it became a fun thing for the guys on our team also. I think if you put so much time and effort into this, and this is something I haven’t said enough today. Players, coaches, staff everybody, you put so much time into this, like if it’s not fun, you’re dead wrong. You have to find ways to make it fun. You have to find ways for it to be enjoyable, for the journey to be enjoyed. And so Swaggy B was part of that at San Jose State.”