Go east, young man: OBW interviews former Catamount and Kansas native Rob Zin

In order right to left: Former Catamounts Bart Donovan, Rob Hamlin, Chris Kappas and Rob Zin prepare for a feast at the legendary Henry's Diner in Burlington.
In order right to left: Former Catamounts Bart Donovan, Rob Hamlin, Chris Kappas and Rob Zin prepare for a feast at the legendary Henry’s Diner in Burlington.

Way before this year’s Midwest-heavy recruiting class, Rob Zin, a Kansas native, went east and played some stellar ball for the Cats. He was a team captain and also served as an assistant coach after graduation. He took a time out to talk Sorrentine From The Parking Lot, Mama Gooch and TB’s special meal at HoJo’s.

OBW: How do you feel about the Cats recruiting the Midwest hard?

Rob Zin: Increased recruiting in the Midwest will only help the Cats. I highly encourage it.

So before UVM, what was your life like? You mentioned Kansas.

That’s where I was born and raised.

Could you talk about your background?

I was always a Jayhawk fan. I still am a Jayhawk fan. I came to UVM in 1985.

Did the Jayhawks recruit you?

They did to an extent. There was no scholarship involved out of high school.

So there was a chance to walk on perhaps?

Yeah. It was interesting because it was a chance to walk on with two other people: another gentleman that I played high school basketball with, Chris Piper and another guy that I played high school basketball against, Mark Turgin, who is now the head coach at Wichita State. He went on to become the starting point guard at Kansas for a number of years. And Chris Piper. They redshirted him and then he played pretty frequently his junior and senior years. He was the captain his senior year with Danny Manning in 1988 when they won the national championship. And so it was really nice from my point of view to watch two close friends, who decided to take that chance and go ahead and walk on to have that type of success, because that is very unusual at a university of that caliber. It was fun to watch.

What were your options other than trying to walk on at Kansas?

I was looking at a number of different places. I was looking at Penn State. I was looking at Dartmouth. I was looking at the University of Wyoming. I was looking at Boise State.

So you were pretty widely recruited?

Yeah, there were a number of different things. Just through all the time I spent playing with the Kansas basketball team, a call was made to Bill Whitmore (Vermont’s head coach) that I was interested in the school. They ended up taking a look at me.

Was Larry Brown (Kansas’s head coach at the time) behind UVM hoops back then?

No, nothing like that. It was a favor to me, a phone call. ‘Here’s a good kid. You should take a look at him.’ That was probably the extent of it.

Where did you learn to shoot?

{Laughs] Hours and hours of repetition. I was always a gym rat. I was always a sports junkie in all different areas.

Did Bill Whitmore come out to recruit you?

No, no.They didn’t know I existed. I brought myself to them.

They were sold immediately? Did you have to show them tape? How does that work?

I was actually out there. I basically played for them. Put it that way.

Why UVM? Was it the school? Was it the program?

[It was] The reputation of the school academically [and] the setting. I wanted to go to school in New England. I had been in Kansas for a long time. I loved Kansas — still do, always will — but I wanted to leave there. I did not want to go to college there. I had come to Burlington and fell in love with the town and the school and it was a pretty easy decision after that.

Describe the basketball program when you enter the picture?

Pretty bare bones. And also bare bones when Coach Brennan came aboard my senior year.

What is your first impression of Coach Brennan. I think he was a little younger than you are now.

He was 36 when he took the job.

What do you think of him?

Just that he was the absolute antithesis of what Coach Whitmore was, his approach to the game, his approach to the relationship with the players; the importance of the sport to the school and the community.

Describe Coach Brennan, “TB.”

He was awesome. You instantly admired and respected him and wanted to work for him. His enthusiasm and attitude is infectious, not only with the people that he meets that don’t play for him but ten to twenty fold for the people that do play for him.

Could you give some examples of how Coach Brennan inspired such devotion?

The core of it really is his day-to-day attitude of optimism. For him, optimism is just essential to achievement. He had to have a helluva lot of optimism over the long course of those years when we were winning five, six, seven, eight games a year. To continually bring that attitude into the gym and to the game floor on a daily basis, that alone is inspiring.

What’s it like during those times? I imagine [the losing] can get you down.

Of course it does. It gets you down. It’s the old adage: You play Each one as the one. There’s no looking forward and no looking back. We lost a lot of close games. We knew we were much better than our record indicated.

Sure, it gets tough. You’re four and twenty and you’re getting on the bus to drive seven hours to Canisius [Laughs] in the middle of January. Yeah, it’s tough to get the oil pumping and warm and the fires going. But if you’re an athlete and you’re passionate about it and you love the game, you can always get up for it.

Did you guys almost beat ‘Nova at Patrick?

That was the year when I was coaching there as an assistant in ’90-91 with Kenny White, Rahim Huland-El, Kevin Roberson, Matty Johnson and that crew.

You mentioned that you came close in many games. What is the near upset or the actual upset that you can talk about?

We played Northeastern at Patrick when they had Reggie Lewis. I believe it was down to a minute left in the game and I think we were down by two or three points. I can’t remember how much we ended up losing by, but it was one of those games that went wire-to-wire the entire game. I remember that was a heartbreaker. Back in those days, Northeastern was the perennial powerhouse, those four years that Reggie Lewis played for them.

Do you have a funny TB story or two?

Here’s something from the onset of the TB era? Thanksgiving my senior year: Nobody went anywhere for Thanksgiving. A few of the people that lived close by had gone home. Coach Brennan was up there. His family wasn’t there. It was just him, so we were basically his family. We were very, very close.

You gotta’ realize the season starts in August and it goes for seven months. And you’re together almost every single day of those seven months. You’re close when you’re having a winning season. But there’s a closeness when you’re trying to stick together and keep each other motivated when you’re having a losing season. It was coach’s first year. He was new to the area. He didn’t know a lot of people; a lot of people didn’t know him. So we were his boys, not saying any more or less than any of the other teams he ever coached. But we were the first.

There’s always something about the first group of guys that you coach at a school. Back then, you didn’t have all the trappings and all the bells and whistles and all the community involvement. We didn’t have all the people at the games. It was just us. We needed to be tight. If we were afraid, it would have been complete disaster. I don’t think there’s anyone that you could talk to from that season, his first season, ’86-87, that doesn’t look back on it fondly, even though we only won five games.

That first season, coach splurged. He took us all out for Thanksgiving dinner, and we had dinner at Hojo’s [Laughs]. It was big! I think it was Bart Donovan, Chris Kappas, coach and I. I don’t know if Mike Lubas was with us or if it was just the four of us. Calavita and Hamlin lived in Middlebury, so they went home [Laughs]. I made a comment to coach. ‘You know I was remembering that. It was a fun day. We didn’t have practice. We just went to Hojo’s for Thanksgiving dinner.’ I asked him how long it had been since he took his players out on the town to Hojo’s.

Since we’re talking about it, favorite Mama Gooch dish?

Lasagna and canolis at her house.

What lessons did TB teach you that you used later in life?

Just the absolute importance of attitude. It is basically, when we break it down, the only thing we really have any control over. Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it. If you react to it with a bad attitude, it is going to turn out negative. But if you approach every day with a very positive attitude, it has endless power. I will always remember that from him.

You mentioned that you were an assistant coach. Could you talk about the players that were coming in?

They were all very special guys. They were a very close group of guys too. They were fun to coach, fun to be with. I was still young enough at the time. Even though I was a graduate assistant, there was more of a friendly, companion type relationship with a lot of the guys on the team.

What do you remember about Kevin Roberson?

He was just relentless. He did what he needed to do everyday. He was a smart, smart player. He did not know what the word quit meant. Kenny White was the same way. When you break it right down, he’s not the most gifted guy on the floor. But Kenny started almost every game for four years. Just look at that stat alone. He took great care of himself. He was in great shape, and he was a smart player. He was a very heady player, kind of like Tom O’Shea. He wasn’t the greatest athlete but boy he was as tough as nails. He was there to play every single minute.

TJ’s shot: Where are you? Who are you with?

I was at the game. I was by myself. I was actually sitting amidst a pretty good bevy of ‘Cuse fans, so it was even more enjoyable. I thought I was going to be out of town, so I wasn’t planning on going to the game. I didn’t have to go out of town, so I just rifled down there and scalped a ticket out front. I got into the arena about six or seven minutes into the first half.

How much did you pay for the ticket?

I think it was 80 bucks.

What did you think going into the game?

Going into the game, my thoughts were: If they can keep it close with five minutes left, they’ve got a shot. I didn’t know if they could do that. Syracuse is so long and so athletic. I also didn’t think that Germain would break out with a career game and be such an unbelievable force. He was the other key; to have someone step up in that situation and have the best game of his life right when they needed it. Everyone, especially the people on the Syracuse team, thought he would have five rebounds and two points, so he was key.

Were the Syracuse fans aware that you were a Catamount?

Absolutely. I had on a shirt. Also, my phone was ringing off the hook [Laughs].

Who was calling?

A whole bevy of UVM people from all over the country. I was getting calls from up in Kansas. I was getting calls from up and down the eastern seaboard [Laughs].

How close were you to the court?

I was on the first level up from the floor on the end where Syracuse’s bench was. I was at the end where he hit the shot.

How did you feel when they finally slayed Syracuse?

I don’t know how to put it into adjectives. It wasn’t a relief. It was shock and awe.I knew they had a great team. I knew they were tight. And they could play with pretty much anyone after watching what they did at UCLA the year before and at Kansas. I was absolutely overwhelmed and as excited as I could possibly be.

Did you do anything special afterwards?

No. I went down. I was waiting to talk to TB. I had a chance to talk to Jesse Agel for a bit. But at that time, everyone was just hugging. No one could say anything except ‘this is unbelievable.’

At that point, the game had been over for about 10 to 15 minutes. I just stuck around and made my way down to the court. At that time, there were a ton of Catamount fans in one big section and the players started to come out and everybody was cheering for them. It was just nice to sit there and watch it.

How loud was it when they were chanting UVM?

It was loud. It was much louder at the Michigan State game though. It was night and day. At the Michigan State game, maybe 80 percent of all the people in there were going for UVM. I’ve never seen anything like that, as far as the collective audience just being beside themselves.

They almost pulled that game off. I thought they played valiantly.

They did. If there would have been one other person to have another career game and if Taylor would have even been… He was having a tough time, but they deliberately made him have a tough time. They warmed up at the end. It was bodies. They were running bodies in and out. Our guys were just beat to hell.

At that time, those guys are just running on pure, pure adrenaline and they’re so excited to be where they are and so excited about what is gonna’ come next and the possibility of: ‘Hey, we win one more and we’re going to the Sweet Sixteen.’ But obviously it wasn’t meant to be. And you see the team that beat them and you see how far they went, so it was no joke. They got beat by a good team.

How closely do you follow the Cats?

I don’t miss a box score.

Do you often go to games?

I don’t go to a ton of games. I try to go when they are down here in the Boston area. It still boggles my mind to think that Patrick Gym sells out all the time [Laughs]. I think that is a great thing.

Which players do you keep in touch with?

I really keep in touch with Bart Donovan, Chris Kappas and Rob Hamlin. They are really the three from that group that I keep in touch with, primarily.

Kappas has become somewhat of a UVM hoops legend. Got a good Kappes tale?

All Kappas stories are confidential and unprintable due to a history of federal investigations stemming from his behavior at UVM.

Could you give me a good Rob Hamlin story?

None that could be printed — that’s for sure!

Could you talk about Jesse Agel?

I coached with him. Jesse is a good guy. I knew him when he was coaching high school. He’s one of the better Xs and Os guys that I’ve ever met. He’s a great scout. He’s a great real time coach as far as being able to put plays together. He’s just a student of the game, pure and simple.

What are you up to these days?

I’m an executive recruiter. I work outside of Boston. All my work is really inside Boston. I’m a headhunter for attorneys.

Last question: Were you in Boston for Hehn’s historic shot that beat BU and set the Cats to the NCAAs for the first time?

I was there.

Did you storm the court?

No. I’m too old for that.

Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures, www.manversusball.com.