A vast majority of junior varsity coaches see the position as a waystation on the way to a spot on the varsity coaching staff.
That might be true at most schools, and most soccer programs. But then again, Saint Ignatius is not an average soccer program, and Jim Brennan is not an average coach.
For the last 24 seasons, Jim Brennan '85 has served as the head coach of the Saint Ignatius JV A soccer team. During that span, he's impacted the lives of countless Ignatians, both in his role as JV coach and as a Theology teacher.
This fall, Brennan hit a milestone – 300 victories as the JV coach. This is an exceptional accomplishment, and the number of wins is certainly great, but the milestone serves only as an excuse to talk about a man who's become an institution at Saint Ignatius. And after all, Brennan will tell you that the wins and losses really don't matter too much in the long run.
Not long after graduating from the University of Notre Dame, the Parma native returned to his Alma Mater at West 30th and Lorain in 1989. In the 31 school years since, Brennan has taught theology to countless Ignatian men.
A few years later, Brennan joined the soccer program in 1993. Brennan began his coaching career as a JV coach with Tom Healey '77, his fellow Theology teacher. In 1996, Brennan assumed the reins as the head JV coach.
Ever since, Brennan has enjoyed an unprecedented run of success.
In his first few years, his charges lost a few games per season before something clicked in the early-2000's. The program trended upward, starting with the JV Cats. One year before the school's first soccer state title in 2004, Brennan began an unbelievable stretch of five straight undefeated seasons (a 75-match streak). He enjoyed another lengthy stretch without a loss from 2013-16. This fall, Brennan coached his 10th undefeated team.
In his 24 seasons as JV A coach, Brennan has never experienced a losing season. In total, Brennan has a 302-26-28 record. That's a winning percentage of .848 and a non-losing percentage of .927. Another fun fact? Brennan has never lost to St. Edward or to any team from his hometown of Parma.
"To win 300 games is an incredible accomplishment. The majority of varsity coaches in this state haven't won 300 games," said Head Coach Mike McLaughlin, who reached 400 wins last fall. "We're lucky to have the stability in him for the JV program. I don't know of any other school that's had a JV coach for as long as Jim has been here."
Varsity assistant coach and team historian Joe Popelka '84 avows that Brennan's coaching record is mind-boggling.
"It's difficult because you're not playing for things – there's no JV state championship. To have that stretch of success is pretty incredible," said Popelka. "To win 300 games is very rare. Typically, JV coaches are trying to get a varsity job. They don't view themselves as a JV coach, they view themselves as a JV coach in waiting. There's no way to check it, but I would be shocked if there's another soccer coach with 300 JV wins."
In high school soccer, the JV game is often played before the varsity game. So, a win in the JV game can give the varsity team a psychological advantage, too, besides a JV win.
"He's the best opening band in the business," Popelka said. "He gets the show started right. That's important psychologically. If we play a team, and their JV team hasn't lost, and we beat them 3-0, that matters."
The wins are nice, but Brennan's job is much more than coaching the JV program to wins.
Even with 8 state championships and 4 national championships, the Saint Ignatius soccer program does not often produce professional soccer players. Much more often, the program produces doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and other successful men. So a big part of Brennan's position is to develop young men on the JV squad.
"It's more important to help them become good men, because that's what they're all going to do. That is Jim's wheelhouse," says Popelka. "Some players don't make it to varsity, but they all love him. They're happy that they played for him."
And Brennan's job doesn't end with the completion of the JV regular season.
As the Saint Ignatius soccer program has evolved into a powerhouse with annual runs deep into the postseason, plenty of traditions have developed. One of the most beloved is the pregame Brennan speech.
Always fiery and inspirational, the speeches often reference historical figures, past players, or bonds a team shares. Brennan's speeches have become stuff of legend.
"He doesn't get credit in the stats for this, but what he does in the playoffs for us, the pregame speeches, is great. He should get credit for some of those wins, too," said Matthew McLaughlin. "A Mr. Brennan speech will make us realize how much we love our teammates. The ending of every speech goes along the lines of, 'We're going to win today because we are champions. We're going to play like champions, fight like champions, and love like champions. Be State Champions. Get it done.'"
When alumni return to visit Brennan, they often reference a locker room speech Brennan gave. Saint Ignatius soccer players never forget his words of inspiration given with his booming voice, always filled with passion and sometimes a history lesson.
"When players come back, they still remember the speeches. They are so inspiring, because he's such a good speaker, but he's working in things like some 14th Century general from Rome said," Popelka said. "That's the other piece to it. When you're coaching high school players, they're high school boys and young men, so the soccer part of it is one piece. Equally important is the ability to understand how to motivate them. That's what he does so well. He's able to form relationships with these kids."
Brennan's passion and wisdom is seen just as often, if not moreso, in the classroom.
Thousands of young men have passed through his classroom on the second floor of Loyola Hall. You'd be hard-pressed to find an alumnus who didn't enjoy Brennan's class.
So what makes him a great teacher, in addition to a successful coach?
"He's a great storyteller," explains Matthew McLaughlin, who has had Brennan as a teacher for three semesters. "His classes are really fun. He opens up to his students and tells some personal stories, which are fun to listen to, and easy to relate to."
If you're still not convinced, take it from another prominent Irishman – Brennan is a legendary storyteller.
"Over the years, you meet Irish characters that go beyond and have abilities to tell stories, and to bring joy and passion and wisdom into everything they do," said Coach McLaughlin. "Jim is one of these characters. He's a wonderful human being."
Part of the reason that Saint Ignatius is such a great place is because of the people.
The school is filled with wonderful people who truly make a difference. Brennan is among them. He's a person that many students call a second father figure and confidant. After graduation, many are proud to call him a friend.
"He's a man who loves coming to Saint Ignatius every day and working with the students. Jim is so well-loved by his former players and students," said Mike McLaughlin. "I don't know if there's anybody at the school who gets more alums to come back to visit. This program has been blessed to have Jim on the sidelines for so many years."
In our culture, we often talk about a person's impact on the world after their death. Too often, we don't recognize a person's achievements while they are alive. A common phrase you hear at wakes is, "If we had more people like [X person], the world would be a better place."
Well, that phrase doesn't really apply here. Why is that? Well, the words "would be" aren't accurate. The world is already a better place because of the impact Jim has had on countless Ignatians.
Joe Popelka said it best: "So many people are better men because they encountered Jim."
Congrats on 300 wins, Jim. Thank you for all that you do.