Years before he would hone his craft under a future hall of fame coach, convince a Texan with a funky name to study in Laramie, Wyoming, and turn the men’s basketball team at that state’s flagship university from perennial punching bag to NCAA Tournament darlings, Jim Brandenburg was finished with coaching.
After 11 years leading successful high school programs in Texas and Colorado, he was ready to trade the rigors of coaching for a lifetime as an academic, beginning work on a doctoral degree and raising his young family.
Then one day in 1969, Brandenburg’s phone rang. Fledgling Flathead Valley Community College wanted the 34-year-old to start up its new men’s basketball program.
Brandenburg politely declined.
“They had offered me several salaries that I didn’t think I wanted to have to deal with and finally they asked if I would come up and take a look at Kalispell and see what I thought,” Brandenburg recalled from his home in Austin, Texas, earlier this month.
“I went up there and it was just a wonderful, quaint community. When I got there, they talked me into it.”
And Brandenburg is thankful they did, because that job in Kalispell kick-started a 17-year coaching career filled with remarkable achievements.
He replaced his boss, College Basketball Hall of Famer Jud Heathcote, and won a Big Sky Conference championship in his second year as the coach at the University of Montana. He posted an unprecedented nine consecutive winning seasons at the University of Wyoming, reversing a losing trend that spanned seven of the eight prior years. And behind Fennis Dembo, a 6-foot-5 dynamo from San Antonio, Texas, he led the 12th-seeded Cowboys past Virginia and UCLA and into the Sweet 16 of the 1987 NCAA Tournament.
But the most remarkable thing — the most unlikely, the most frenetic, the most fleeting thing he ever did — happened in his 10 months as the men’s basketball coach at FVCC.
There, first-time college coach Brandenburg took a program without a schedule, a gym or a roster and turned it into a mixed-race powerhouse filled with players from coast-to-coast that went 23-4 before he, and the program, left town after one season and never came back.
DR. HERMAN “Chet” Ross, a veterinarian in Kalispell, gets most of the credit for bringing college basketball to the Flathead Valley.
Ross was the first chairman of the board at FVCC and helped push through the idea of bringing intercollegiate athletics to the school. It was Ross, a Colorado State graduate and booster, who first set the ball rolling to bring Brandenburg to Kalispell.
But when Brandenburg arrived in the summer of 1969, most of the nation’s top high school basketball players had already committed to other schools. To make things worse, just about every other college in the country had already assembled its 1969-70 schedule. And Brandenburg, the man responsible for fixing both problems, had never scheduled a game or recruited a player.
He started with the schedule.
“I had to do a lot of talking but I tell you, I had an advantage,” Brandenburg said. “We were a brand new program and so there were a bunch of (coaches) who thought this would be an easy ‘W’ for them.
“When they found out it wasn’t an easy win and they got an ‘L’ it really ticked them off.”
The Mountaineers, as the school’s men’s teams were called, blasted through the 27-game slate. They won 18 of their last 20, beating top junior college teams from throughout the Northwest and battling the freshman and junior varsity teams of some four-year colleges, including Montana, Montana State, Gonzaga and Eastern Washington. They even challenged a Czech school — Slavia Bratislava University — in an exhibition in Kalispell.
The residents of Kalispell didn’t take long to catch on. A Daily Inter Lake story in 1974 claimed the Mountaineers drew between 2,500 and 3,000 fans at home games, which were played at Flathead High School. The team’s fast-breaking style also won over crowds, highlighted by a wild 103-100 win against Montana State’s freshmen.
“That was a compliment to coach Brandenburg,” Eddie Trail, a starting guard who averaged 19 points per game, said of the team’s aggressive style. “If you have the right mix of players, a fast-break game is really a lot of fun.”
RECRUITING a roster full of players from far and wide took a little ingenuity — and a boatload of miles — from the head coach.
In a Nov. 5, 1974 article recalling his tenure, Brandenburg said of his early recruiting ventures, “I didn’t just get turned down, I got laughed at, I really did.”
Fortunately for the young coach, not all recruiting visits went so poorly.
“I took one trip back to Ohio and I had been talking to a coach back there and he had two very good players that were not going to Division I schools at the time,” he added. “So I went back there and we hit it off and he had two players, Eddie Trail and Dexter Holloway, and then, you know, some of the other guys just started to form and we ended up having a basketball team.”
Trail and Holloway, from Toledo, were joined by Robert Jackson (New York City), Kris Shelton (Aurora, Colorado), Mike Vernon (Oakland, California), Tom Booth (Geneva, Ohio), Carnail Banks (Chicago) and a handful of Montana natives.
“I know that he had flown and driven all around the country to get this team,” Trail said. “Looking back on it, the amount of time and energy and dedication that (Brandenburg) needed to do that was pretty remarkable. He started with zip. Zero.”
By the time the season rolled around, Brandenburg, and even some of his players, started to realize the rag-tag group that had been cobbled together was nonetheless exceptionally skilled.
“There was so much talent and the bench was so deep that every guy on the team could play,” said Dave Cassan, a Flathead High School grad who played for the Mountaineers. “All of those guards, Alan (Campbell), Eddie and Carnail, they were an edge above some of the other guys and I just sucked it all in. I learned so much watching them.”
Campbell, a Laurel High School grad who Brandenburg called “quicker than greased lightning,” started alongside Trail in the backcourt and was one of several players — most of the roster, in fact — who would go on to play at four-year colleges.
THE END of the 1969-70 season not only saw the Mountaineers players scatter to programs across the country; it also brought the end of the program.
In the years since the decision was made to shutter the team, blame has been scattered, too. The truth, unsurprisingly, is somewhere in the middle, a confluence of choices and circumstances that felled the Mountaineers.
Brandenburg left in March 1970, and his decision to take an assistant coaching job at Montana was a major blow. But to hear the coach tell it, the choice to leave was more complicated than simply a step up the career ladder.
“It was a tough decision because this was really a great group of young men,” he said. “It was an opportunity for me and I really think that the cost of a program was a little bit more than the school wanted.
“I didn’t know if they were going to continue the program or not, so I had a good job opportunity and I pursued it.”
The Nov. 5, 1974, Daily Inter Lake story claimed the men’s basketball team turned a profit of $800 in its first season and Bill McClaren, one of the school’s founders and eventually the first dean of students at FVCC, agreed that basketball was a money-maker.
Despite that, the then 3-year-old school was in a precarious financial position, and Brandenburg’s departure became a logical breaking point.
“When we lost coaches it wasn’t too hard to make that decision,” McClaren said last week. “Because, again, we were almost out of money.”
“I think probably the right decisions were made,” he continued. “We decided not to continue something that might not have been as successful with different people and different coaches and different backgrounds.”
There was another factor — a much less pleasant reality in a conservative, mostly white community — that also dogged the program in those days.
The late Dr. Ross, in that same Daily Inter Lake story, put it bluntly.
“The people just didn’t know how to cope with the racial situation,” Ross said. “If we had a lily white basketball team with a 23-4 record they would have loved us.”
On Nov. 7, 1974, Archie Roe, one-time president of the FVCC athletics booster club, told the Inter Lake “We ran into animosity because of imported black ball players.”
For their part, the players contacted for this story, including the African-American Trail, downplayed any discomfort they felt in the community, chalking it up more to the era than any specific anger in the local community.
“Most of us tried not to dwell on that kind of stuff but some of it happened, unfortunately,” Degel, who is white, said. “But there were some really good people, too, in Kalispell. There were very few people that I heard say anything negative.”
“We were aware of it and the coach, of course, was aware of it,” McClaren said.
“It still, even though it was supposed to be something that would tear Kalispell apart, every game was loaded, a full house,” he added later. “It worked out really well.”
REGARDLESS OF the true cause of its demise, men’s athletics have been missing from Flathead Valley Community College for more than 40 years.
The basketball team was followed to the chopping block by track and wrestling, and despite the occasional spasm of interest from school administrators there has been no serious push to revive men’s sports.
The closest the school came was in the early 1980s when it courted Phil Jackson, the legendary NBA coach and Lakeside resident, shortly after his playing career had ended. In his 2001 book “More Than a Game,” Jackson claimed his interest in recruiting African-American players spoiled that possible marriage.
“Well, the school’s administration was liberal enough to go along with my plans, and it looked like I had a new job,” he wrote in the book. “But then I appeared at a public fundraiser, and the issue of recruiting black players was brought up again. The community was so stirred up by the comments that the administration responded by backing out of their commitment to restart the basketball program, so there was no job to be had.”
Today, those involved in the only season of Mountaineer basketball look back with a mix of sadness and appreciation, including Cassan, one of only two Kalispell-born players on the roster.
“I didn’t understand why (the program folded) other than maybe some of the things that had happened … that the school didn’t feel it could do it again,” he said, before adding “how blessed” he felt to have played there.
“The people were great in Kalispell and the faculty was really, really, really good,” Brandenburg said. “My family, we had a great experience there, we really did.”
Entertainment editor Andy Viano can be reached at (406) 758-4439 or email@example.com.