Sean O’Regan’s office is full of surprises.
A slick black desk and chair complement the matte black wall on the far side, which displays words that are important to O'Regan. It’s no coincidence that “Trust” is the largest.
To the right of his desk is a glass table not even knee-high. On it sits what one would expect to find in an office — framed pictures of loved ones, newspaper clippings and handwritten notes — as well as an unexpected tribute to the man and mentor that O’Regan aspires to be like.
It's a bobblehead of Kenny Brooks.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to prove myself to him,” O’Regan said. “As a manager, you’re trying to prove yourself to him … as an assistant for nine years, every day. I joked when I first got the job that I wanted the Kenny Brooks bobblehead behind me because I want him watching what I’m doing.”
The current JMU women’s basketball head coach handed the winningest coach in program history a 70-66 loss Thursday as Virginia Tech fell to JMU in the third round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament. In a highly anticipated game filled with tension and emotion from start to finish, few knew what to expect.
“It was surreal,” O’Regan said. “I really tried not to look down [to the visitors’ bench]. My brain really couldn’t figure out, I couldn’t really connect who’s down there. Once we got through the greeting, I thought that was like, ‘Ok, now I can actually just totally focus on the game.’”
With seasons on the line, the game was an emotional rollercoaster for players and coaches alike. Brooks began to answer the first question of the postgame press conference, but first needed 10 seconds of silence — which felt like an eternity — to gather his thoughts and hold the tears back. He said he knew the hardest thing he’d have to do after he left the program he coached at from 2003-16 was come back.
“I never thought in a million years [the reception] would be like that,” Brooks said. “JMU Nation — they’re loyal, they’re faithful, they’re knowledgeable and I knew they were going to cheer hard for the Dukes, but I didn’t know they were going to give the reception they gave before, during and after the game, and that means the world to me.”
Brooks returned to the place he grew up, the place he played college basketball, the place he became an assistant coach for the men’s and women’s teams, the place he led to national prominence and five CAA championships and the place he fell in love, both on and off the court. Brooks was married on JMU’s campus.
All those memories and connections made it incredibly difficult for Brooks to leave the program he helped build for a bigger job at Virginia Tech. He talked about laying a foundation and how he created a culture that eventually unseated Old Dominion, a team that won the conference tournament 17 times in a row.
“Coaching against kids I brought in here, that I always root for, and trying to coach against them was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Brooks said. “I know a lot of people won’t understand this, and nobody can understand it, but when you compete against something that you helped build, it’s very hard. It’s very hard. I didn’t know whether to clap or be mad when [senior guard] Aneah [Young] hit a jump shot.”
Brooks said JMU holds a special place in his heart and that he may attend Sunday’s game in the Convocation Center against Georgetown in the WNIT quarterfinals. He said he’s very disappointed his team lost but said he’s happy about how the homecoming went.
It wasn’t all nostalgia for Brooks — he had jokes, too.
“It’s a good thing they’re building a new Convo, because the locker room situation over here on the other side is really bad,” Brooks said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been in that locker room.”
Brooks said he kept a bit of healthy distance from the team out of respect for O’Regan, who wanted to leave his own mark on the program. The Virginia Tech coach said Thursday was the first time he’s seen senior guard Logan Reynolds — who scored nine points in the win — since she left his office after hearing as a freshman that she'd no longer play for the coach that recruited her.
“I always wanted to play for Kenny, that’s why I came to JMU,” Reynolds said. “I idolized him … he was very point-guard oriented, so we developed a really close relationship. Nothing but love and respect for him, but we’re on to bigger and better things.”
Brooks said after announcing the news that he was leaving to his team, they stared at him — stunned and silent. He told them if they didn’t have any questions, they could leave. They filed out from the locker room in silence. Later, he met with the members of the team one-on-one where he says he “cried like a baby.”
“Logan’s probably hit me the hardest,” Brooks said. “She and I spent a lot of time together. She was the last one to come into my office. I could tell she’d been thinking about it, and she said, ‘It’s really hard for me, ’cause I envisioned me being able to walk out to you on Senior Night.’”
Though Brooks’ heart broke, he recognized the two programs had to move on. O’Regan continued the streak of 20-plus win seasons, which is now at 14 in a row dating back to 2004-05. Meanwhile, Brooks carried over the 20-plus win magic from Harrisonburg to a Virginia Tech team that previously hadn’t achieved the feat since 2005-06. The two are busy leading their teams, but catch up occasionally.
“We don’t talk as much as we used to,” Brooks said. “Heck, I used to talk to him more than I talked to my wife! … I shot him a text after they lost to Hofstra and told him, ‘You have to go through these moments to enjoy the championships.’”
So far, the titles haven’t come for JMU under O’Regan. After a pair of injuries to key starting junior guards Kamiah Smalls and Lexie Barrier, the Dukes fell in the CAA quarterfinals to No. 9 Hofstra, a loss that could continue to sting until next March rolls around.
It’s likely JMU will enter the 2019-20 season as the favorite to win the conference for the seventh season in a row. When JMU women’s basketball does finally get over the hump, it’ll be just another step O’Regan will take toward solidifying his own legacy as a legend someday.
And O’Regan knows that — like that bobblehead on his desk — Brooks will be there: silent, but always watching and smiling.
Contact James Faris at email@example.com. For more basketball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.