By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
John Brennan Jr. remembers his father, John Sr., coming home from work every night. His dad’s work boots were often caked with mud and concrete after 16 hours of heavy highway construction as a Local 57 laborer. His massive, vice-grip hands were gnarled and calloused. Dog tired, eyes sitting half-mast, John Sr. still wheeled out the basketball court in the driveway after dinner catching the last glint of sun to coach up his three sons and the neighborhood kids.
The Brennans were the rare white family in the predominantly Black city of Chester. They saw no difference in their surroundings and their neighbors saw no difference in them.
John Sr.’s hands went to work 60 hours a week so his boys wouldn’t have to toil like he did.
N-G assistant John Brennan is entering his fifth season with the Saints. (Photo: HH Visions)
This coming season, John Brennan Jr. will be entering his fifth year as an assistant coach under Neumann-Goretti’s legendary Carl Arrigale.
Brennan is the Catholic League’s Renaissance coach, a guy from a hardscrabble past who could equally relate to the pinky-out tea crowd of higher academia to an inner-city kid in dire need of stability. He possesses a doctorate in higher education and leadership (Ed.D.) from Widener University, after receiving his undergraduate degree from Temple in sports and recreation management, and his master’s in education from La Salle.
Considering how and where Brennan was raised—he had no choice: He was going to get an education, whether he liked it or not. Fortunately, Brennan, the first in his family to go or graduate college, embraced learning.
“I was raised to appreciate how education can change your circumstances,” said Brennan, 36, a 2003 Cardinal O’Hara graduate who began coaching when he was 19. “It’s what I try to instill in my guys now. No matter what you’re brought into, education can change it. Obviously, my parents cared enough about my education to send me to Catholic school, and my parents made a huge sacrifice for my brothers and I to make it happen.
“My parents wanted me to go to college. Because neither of my parents went to college, they didn’t fully understand what the value a college education brought, but they understood holistically going to college was the right thing to do so you weren’t breaking your back for the rest of your life. My father was determined that we wouldn’t grow up working with calloused hands.”
His uncle Albert founded Produce Junction. His mother Sharon worked 30 years there in Eddystone, on her feet from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. His father worked one job, but easily worked 60 hours a week.
Brennan works for the School District of Philadelphia in the office of Climate and Culture. Although he lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Stephanie, who’s expecting the couple’s first child, a daughter, Maeve, Chester is very much a part of him and his two brothers, Rory, who lives in Los Angeles and works as a graphic designer, and youngest brother Eric, a Rowan assistant coach who formerly starred at West Catholic and was a two-time all-PSAC selection at Kutztown.
Unfortunately for the oldest, John, his basketball genes plateaued at the high school level, playing at O’Hara under the late legendary Buddy Gardler. Through Eric, John was introduced to former West Catholic head coach Bill Ludlow, who retired in 2010 after 17 years guiding the Burrs.
“I knew I was never going to play in college, and I loved sports, and I wanted that type of curriculum, so it’s why I chose Temple sports management,” John recalled. “I also knew that I wanted to coach and be around the game. I got to know coach Ludlow through my brother, and I jumped right in.”
The value of education hit him around seventh grade.
“I started to see kids from Chester didn’t have the same opportunities as kids from other areas, and sometime between seventh and ninth grade, I knew that I wanted to continue my education to the highest level,” Brennan said. “Now, what that looked like as a teenager, I had no idea. I didn’t have it defined in my mind, but there was something in me that said education is an agent for change. There was also something in my mind that said I want to be able to do this regardless of where I’m from.
“It was important for me to knock my education out consecutively. I took no breaks. I went straight through because I knew life happens. I knew if I stopped, that would probably be it, right? I knew one day looking up and seeing those degrees on the wall would be something to be proud of. It’s a message of perseverance that no matter where you’re from, you can still achieve your goals if you put your mind to it.”
Brennan, right, poses with former N-G and St. Joe's star Jordan Hall. (Photo: HH Visions)
Brennan put more than his mind to it. His back was involved, too.
The second semester of his senior year at Temple, Brennan did not have enough money in his financial aid package to continue his classes. He explained his dilemma to each teacher, promising them he would raise the $4,900 in the months ahead to pay his bill by the end of the semester. It meant taking menial jobs landscaping, in catering, delivering food, working extra hours at Produce Junction, anything he could do to pocket $25 or $50.
Sleeping about four hours a night, he faced the daily anxiety to graduate on time.
“There wasn’t a lot of sleep those days, but I got through it and made the money,” he said.
Brennan is currently in a win-win situation. He loves his job, and he loves working with Arrigale. Brennan realizes being a high school basketball coach is part of his identity. He bounced as an assistant from West Catholic to O’Hara, then under current St. Joe’s Prep coach Jason Harrigan. He has no timetable as to when he would like to become a head coach. He takes great pride in developing former Neumann-Goretti players like Temple point guard Hysier Miller and former St. Joe’s star Jordan Hall, who’s with the San Antonio Spurs.
“Growing up in the Chester Biddy League, you grew up with basketball in your blood,” said Brennan, who within a five-block radius of his home grew up around athletes like Kevin Jones, the all-time great O’Hara running back who went on to become a first-round pick of the Detroit Lions, and former Archbishop Carroll star DJ Irving, now an assistant coach at Miami. “Basketball was just a part of my blood. I remember watching Jameer Nelson growing up in the Chester Biddy League, watching all those guys growing up.
“We would pull out the basketball court at my house and being the rare white family that grew up in a predominantly Black area was great. It’s something that I lean on today as a coach. I grew up with those guys and those guys are all my brothers. It didn’t matter what skin color you were. It allows me to reach kids today. They learn about my background, and I remember seeing kids today like Hysier Miller and Jordan Hall, and I can relate to those guys. Those guys are family, like sons to me. My background and upbringing in Chester lend itself to see and cope with young people who come from urban settings—because I did.”
This summer, Hall has been working out with the Spurs and he’s either going to be with San Antonio this coming season or playing with the Spurs’ G League team. If not for Brennan, he says, he might not be anywhere.
“Coach Brennan has been a huge part of my life,” Hall said. “But he is more than a coach to me, he is like a big brother, 100-percent. My sophomore year I was going to a New Jersey high school and that summer, I was playing for Team Final Black. I thought about moving to Philly with my aunt, and I wound up transferring to Cardinal O’Hara. We made it work out going to Neumann and it really worked out.
“John’s more than a coach to me. I didn’t apply myself the way I should have. John held me accountable from the jump. John stepped up driving me back and forth and he really stuck up for me. John’s been with me through life problems because there weren’t a lot of people I trusted in my life. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.”
Arrigale, who’s 56 and has been at Neumann-Goretti for 30 years, 25 as head coach, loved Brennan’s energy right away since coming from O’Hara. The Saints’ coach admires Brennan’s seemingly bottomless reservoir of energy and how he relates to the players and how he works them out. He’s certainly taken some stress off Arrigale’s considerable plate. When asked if he can see himself coaching another 10 years, Arrigale laughed. Each season takes a little out of him, he admits, but before each season, he recharges.
“John really cares about the kids, as do all of the guys on my staff,” said Arrigale, the most successful coach in Philadelphia Catholic League history with a record 12 PCL championships and nine PIAA state championships since the PCL joined the PIAA in 2008-2009, and five years in which the Saints were PCL and PIAA state champs (2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2022). “John is a special guy. I trust him. He coaches our kids during the summer. I remember when John first approached me after the staff just got let go at O’Hara. The timing was perfect. I needed someone who could be there every day and that was really appealing. I saw right away how much he loves the game and the kids.
“John prepares the guys, and he has input. I’m getting older and he’s younger. I’m not the guy who makes the decision as to who’s going to follow me (at Neumann-Goretti), but any one of my guys is worthy of it, and if I have input, they would all be worthy considerations.”
Brennan, who credits the late Jack Klotz in helping him gain a service perspective as a youth, is willing to wait. He realizes his life will be taking a major course redirection with his daughter arriving. He likes to use the mantra “keep on jabbing.” He didn’t even attend his master’s degree graduation ceremony, opting to work that May afternoon at the Eddystone Produce Junction. He received a text from a classmate asking where he was when his name was called.
John Sr. got to witness John graduate Temple. It’s the first time he ever saw his father in a suit and tie, the proud union laborer watching his son walk in a cap and gown on stage being handed his college degree. Sadly, Brennan’s father passed away in 2011 and was not able to witness his ongoing academic journey.
“Seeing him in the Liacouras Center, and my dad was a big Big 5 guy and a big John Chaney fan, was a proud moment; but the Brennans aren’t emotional people,” John said. “I got a big handshake and a hug. It was a bigger moment for him than it was for me. One of my dad’s greatest achievements was graduating John Bartram High School with the senior class award for perseverance. It’s something he always talked to me and my brothers about. You need perseverance to get through any situation no matter what is thrown your way.”
John’s voice wavered a moment when he concluded, “That graduation spoke to that moment.”
The degrees adorn Brennan’s office walls. An infant’s cries will soon fill his house. One day, when Maeve is old enough, he’ll point to the degrees and tell her about the man with the gnarled, calloused hands who persevered and cultivated his love for basketball and education.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.