Former UW basketball coach Jim Brandenburg passes

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June 20, 2023, Press Release for the University of Wyoming

One of the greatest coaches in University of Wyoming history, Jim Brandenburg, passed away this past weekend at 87. Brandenburg coached the Cowboy Basketball team for nine seasons from 1978-79 through 1986-87. During that time, he led UW to four Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Championships, three regular-season and one WAC Tournament title; three NCAA Tournaments, including the Sweet 16 in 1987; and a runner-up finish in the 1986 NIT.

“Coach Brandenburg and his family made an enormous impact on this state and this university,” said Tom Burman, University of Wyoming Athletics Director. “He built a national brand during his time at Wyoming. He has touched so many players and staff, and our thoughts and prayers are with Shannon, Bart, and the Brandenburg family.”

Brandenburg was born on Dec. 10, 1935. He is survived by his daughter Shannon and his son Bart and was preceded in death by his wife, Jan. No information on arrangements regarding a memorial for Coach Brandenburg was immediately available.

“I was with coach for nine years and considered him a friend of mine,” said Kevin McKinney, long-time UW Athletics administrator. “What he did for the University of Wyoming was very special. He was a perfect fit here. He was a tough-minded guy and recruited guys who would fit in his style of play. Jim was an excellent recruiter, and many of the players he brought into the program were under-recruited guys. He developed them into the best players they could be, and he built a program that emphasized defense and rebounding. 

“His era of Cowboy basketball will go down as one of the greatest in Wyoming history. Jim was an outstanding technical coach who was incredibly passionate. He was as precise in how he went about preparing his teams as any coach I’ve worked with. He coached in an era of great coaches in the Western Athletic Conference, including the likes of Don Haskins at UTEP and great coaches at BYU, New Mexico, and Utah, and Jim was as good as any of them.”

“Jim was an outstanding head coach. He was a hands on head coach,” said Dave Walsh, former Voice of the Wyoming Cowboys. “As were many coaches back then, he was a tough head coach. The Cowboys had hard practices, and they learned from Jim how to play tough, physical basketball. Teams knew that when they played Wyoming, they were going to play one of the best defensive teams in the country.”

Brandenburg posted a 176-97 (.645) overall record as the Cowboys’ head coach. His winning percentage of 64.5 percent is second best in school history for coaches who coached at Wyoming for three or more seasons. Only Willard Witte’s 72.2 winning percentage (135-52 record) for nine seasons from 1930-31 to 1938-39 was better. 

Brandenburg’s three NCAA Tournament appearances with the Cowboys in 1980-81, 1981-82, and 1986-87 are the second most in school history behind only Everett Shelton, who guided Wyoming to eight NCAA Tournament bids in his 19 seasons as head coach of the Cowboys from 1939-40 to 1958-59.

 

In his third season at Wyoming in the 1980-81 season, Brandenburg guided Wyoming to a 24-6 record and 13-3 record in the WAC to tie Utah for the regular-season title. That team earned a bid to the 1981 NCAA Tournament, where the Cowboys advanced to the second round of the tournament after defeating Howard University (78-43) in the first round. UW lost a two-point heartbreaker (65-67) to Illinois in the second round, narrowly missing out on a Sweet 16 appearance. That team was led by All-WAC performers Charles Bradley and Bill Garnett. Brandenburg earned the first of his three WAC Coach of the Year awards at the conclusion of the season.

His Cowboys came back the next season in 1981-82 to win the WAC regular-season title outright with a 14-2 conference record and a 23-7 overall mark. For the second straight year, Brandenburg’s team earned an NCAA Tournament berth, defeating USC in the first round (61-58). The Pokes then faced the No. 1 seed in the West, Georgetown. The Cowboys lost an eight-point game, 51-43, to the Hoyas to once again barely miss out on advancing to the Sweet 16. 1981-82 WAC Player of the Year Garnett and All-WAC guard Mike Jackson were among the leaders of the Cowboys. For the second consecutive season, Brandenburg was named WAC Coach of the Year.

 

In the 1985-86 season, Brandenburg took a young team, featuring All-Conference sophomores Fennis Dembo and Eric Leckner, to a share of the WAC regular-season championship with UTEP and Utah. The Cowboys posted an overall record of 24-12 and a 12-4 conference mark. The Pokes lost a one-point game (64-65) to UTEP in the WAC Tournament Championship Game in a game played in Laramie. Leckner was named the WAC Tournament MVP. Wyoming was invited to the NIT where the young team gained valuable postseason experience, defeating Texas A&M, Loyola Marymount, and Clemson to earn their ticket to New York City to play for the NIT Championship in Madison Square Garden. In the semifinals, Wyoming defeated Florida and advanced to the championship game before falling to Ohio State. Brandenburg earned his third WAC Coach of the Year award.

Brandenburg welcomed back Dembo, Leckner, and the vast majority of that NIT runner-up team for the 1986-87 season. The Cowboys finished the regular season tied for third with New Mexico at 11-5 and behind first-place UTEP (13-3) and second-place BYU (12-4). But once the Cowboys hit the postseason, they would go on a five-game winning streak. 

They defeated Utah in the first round of the WAC Tournament and beat regular-season champion UTEP in the semifinals to earn their spot in the WAC Championship Game vs. New Mexico. The 1987 WAC Tournament was played in Albuquerque, so Wyoming would have to defeat the Lobos on their home floor to win the title and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Cowboys would do just that, winning a thrilling 64-62 game over the Lobos to capture Wyoming’s first WAC Tournament title and the fourth conference title under Brandenburg. 

Wyoming continued its winning streak into the NCAA Tournament, defeating Virginia (64-60) and UCLA (78-68) to finally break through and earn its way into the NCAA Sweet 16. In the West Regional Semifinals, Wyoming’s season came to an end, losing to UNLV, 92-78. For the second straight year, Leckner was named the WAC Tournament MVP. Dembo was named the 1986-87 WAC Player of the Year.  

On Sept. 15, 2000, Brandenburg was inducted into the University of Wyoming Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame. He is joined in the UW Athletics Hall of Fame by his 1980-81 WAC Championship team, 1986-87 NCAA Sweet 16 team, and former players Charles Bradley, Fennis Dembo, Sean Dent, Bill Garnett, Mike Jackson, Eric Leckner, and former basketball administrative assistant Mary Johnson. 

A total of eight of Brandenburg’s players were selected in the NBA draft: Charles Bradley (1981), Kenneth Ollie (1981), Bill Garnett (1982), Chris Engler (1982), Mike Jackson (1983), Tony Martin (1984), Eric Leckner (1988) and Fennis Dembo (1988). Bradley, Garnett, and Leckner were all selected in the first round, and Dembo was selected in the second round. 

In addition to his three WAC Coach of the Year awards, Brandenburg was named the Eastman Kodak NCAA Division I District 13 Coach of the Year in 1986. He also coached the West Team to a Gold Medal at the 1981 National Sports Festival. 

Another accomplishment that Coach Brandenburg was heavily involved with and was extremely proud of was the building of the Arena-Auditorium during his tenure as head coach. The Arena-Auditorium opened for the final regular-season game of the 1981-82 season versus Air Force — a game Wyoming won, 59-29.