After 30 years with the Saint Ignatius Soccer program, legendary JV Head Coach Jim Brennan ’85 is hanging up the whistle and retiring from coaching. Brennan was brought on to the soccer staff in 1993 and took over as head coach of JV in 1998. In his 25 years at the helm, Brennan achieved an impressive record of 338-29-31 and was a part of the coaching staff that earned 12 OHSAA State Championships and seven NSCAA National Championships.
“It certainly wasn’t easy. It has been a great run with amazing kids and coaches, but it was just time; my son recently graduated college and it allows me to visit him at any time,” says Brennan. “It wasn’t just one factor; it is hard to explain. But I will still be around the program and helping Mike whenever.”
Brennan has been a staple of the Saint Ignatius Soccer program that has seen a record number of State Championships in Ohio. “I am beyond grateful for everything Jim has given the soccer program; he has been one of my right-hand men for the last 25 years,” explains Head Soccer Coach Mike McLaughlin, ’85. “Jim can motivate and get the best out of every kid and is at the center of everything we have accomplished over the decades.”
There have been amazing athletes that have graced the pitch at Saint Ignatius High School, showcasing their skills on Wasmer Field since Brennan joined the staff in 1993. For most of them, their high school career started with Brennan at the JV level.
“Jim had a tremendous impact on my career at Saint Ignatius. He is a player's coach. It wasn’t as much about the tactics with Jim as it was about getting the best out of each of his players,” says Barry Rice ’06. “Jim made you believe that you could do anything on the field and that’s what great coaches do the best.”
The passion for his players and students makes Brennan one of the best coaches that has come through Saint Ignatius. Brennan brought the fun into the sport and for Athletic Hall of Fame member Mark Blades ’06, that jump-started his high school success.
“His attitude and demeanor were infectious and he taught me to enjoy the game of soccer again. I am not sure I ever had more fun playing than when I played for Jim,” Blades says. “I am forever grateful to Jim for reminding me that soccer is supposed to be fun and something that brings joy to you and your teammates.”
Brennan's overall record is quite impressive; he has had more draws in his career than losses and, through 25 years, has been victorious in 338 games. “I had to teach myself how to handle a loss. I hate losing. I believe a big part of it is recognizing on the JV level that we’re looking towards a bigger goal,” explains Brennan. “To begin each season, I always tell the kids, no one came to Saint Ignatius to play for me; they are preparing to play for Mike. Each loss is a learning experience.”
“Every first- and second-year high school student wants to be on varsity; there may be kids who were on varsity at other schools but are on JV when they come to Saint Ignatius. Jim was able to help the kids understand the importance of the learning process they were going through,” McLaughlin says. “Everything Jim did was getting the JV kids ready for varsity. The transformative change you would see within three months from the beginning of the season to the end was life-changing.”
That motivated Brennan in his coaching career, witnessing the progression of boys becoming men through soccer. “Seeing the kids' growth from JV to varsity is the goal at the end of the day and every coach buys into this; we are building men. Soccer is a way of doing that. There are games, whether it's JV or varsity, where the kids are down or tied and it's a character win; you have to believe and fight for each other,” says Brennan. “When the dust settles, you tell the kids this is what it's about; surround yourself with good people with a common goal and you can accomplish anything. Watching that happen over the years and seeing their success as adults is the best thing in the world.”
What the student-athletes remember the most from Brennan is his pregame pep talks before games. “His pregame speeches were quite legendary. I wish they all could be recorded because they would go viral for how motivating they are for his players,” explains Rice. “I‘ll never forget one of the last things he said to us before the State Final in 2005: “Tonight is the night you become legends” and after that, nothing stopped us from winning that game. I still get goosebumps thinking about it almost 20 years later.”
“Jim's pregame speeches still stick with me to this day. I was lucky enough to be a part of the first two state title teams and Jim's speeches directly impacted our championship runs,” says Blades. “They were an integral part of our success and I believe they were an extra X factor that allowed us to get over that hump in 2004. Without Jim and his speeches/overall impact, those titles don't happen.”
Brennan notes that his speeches began as a gimmick, but he always wanted to motivate the guys. As time passed, Brennan’s speeches became a staple for student–athletes to look forward to for match days. “The pregame speeches started as a joke. Tom Healey ’77, Joe Popelka ’84 and I would talk philosophy during the playoffs and one year, we said we should talk philosophy with these guys before games,” explains Brennan. “Where else but Saint Ignatius can you talk about deontology with a bunch of 15-year-olds and understand it.”
Brennan continues, “Sometimes I draw inspiration from history, sometimes it's what is going on in the world, but one of the tougher ones to get through is when Dale Gabor ’66 passed away,” Brennan says. “I told the guys how good of a man Dale was for our program and the men of Saint Ignatius and that when you fight, you’re fighting for each other and something bigger than that.”
As a coach, Brennan will be missed within the program, but he will still play an active role in the classroom within Saint Ignatius, continuing to teach theology. Brennan will also take over Lessons From Loyola as Healey passed the torch to his colleague. Whether in the classroom or on the field, Brennan brings the best out of a high school student.
“There is a genuine honesty about Jim and anyone who has had him in class or coached you know how much he cares for you. Secondly, you know how much he cares about soccer and theology,” explains McLaughlin. “He loves his players and students and his craft. He has put so much into it over the years that you can’t help but live your experience when you are on his team or the classroom.”
“I had Jim in the classroom and his coaching style mirrored his teaching style, which I loved. He was laid back but also passionate about what he was doing and teaching,” says Blades. “I found that very engaging and looked forward to his class daily. It was just a great environment and I felt lucky to have him as a teacher and a coach.”
With the retirement from coaching comes the reminiscing of what the program achieved over 30 years with Brennan. The Soccer program has gone on to win 12 State and seven National titles, with many student-athletes playing at the collegiate level and a handful at the professional level. “If you would have asked me in 1988 if our program would be this successful, I would have said no and the reason I say that is we came so close many times and we would lose foolishly,” Brennan explains. “There was a pivotal moment and it shows the fraternal relationship of soccer coaches. Mike grew up in North Olmsted, where legendary Chris Marsh was a coach. After a loss to North Olmsted, Marsh tells Mike that he will win a lot of championships and when we won that first one, we knew we had to do it again.”
Despite the departure of Brennan from the staff, the JV A program will be in great hands under Darren Keefe ’87. “I don’t think we are going to miss a beat; we are a program,” says McLaughlin. “Darren played for and coached in the program and is an amazing coach and teacher. The boys will continue to get a great experience at the JV level.”
Brennan was humble and sincere when reflecting on the accomplishments over the years and credits a fantastic coaching staff he has worked with at Saint Ignatius. “The best thing I did as a coach was when I realized I had guys around me that knew way more than what I know about the game of soccer,” says Brennan. “Jon Jarc ’93 was a problem solver; I never saw anyone work as hard as him. Then I got to work with Popelka, who knew which players to plug in. And now the JV A program will be even better under Darren.”
Brennan’s contributions to Saint Ignatius High School and the soccer program will never be forgotten as he goes down as one of the all-time coaches for Wildcat Athletics. Brennan shows what it means to be a Man For Others and will continue his coaching in the classroom.
- Joe Mertens '15