The merry-go-round most of us know sparkles with color, and jangles and tinkles with whimsical music as kids glide up and down and around in the saddles of jaunty steeds.
You can smell the butter on the popcorn.
If you’re lucky enough to get your hand on the brass ring, you squeeze it tight, because it comes with a prize.
The job-after-job merry-go-round that college basketball coaches ride is vastly different. You make countless spins without seeing your family, and they don’t see you. While trampled popcorn kernels are being swept off the concrete arena aisles, you’re probably eating cold room service or obsessing over a close loss on a dark bus to anywhere else.
Sometimes the most desirable object isn’t another free series of turns in the saddle, but a chance to step off.
Patrick Filien finally got off that ride, which only makes it all the more excruciating for those who mourned his passing this week.
A relentless rebounder for the College of Saint Rose with a smile to match once the game was over, Filien died at the age of 51 due to COVID-19 complications last Thursday, Feb. 4, just three short years after having walked away from the carousel.
Filien was still in his chosen profession, as the men’s head coach at Bryant & Stratton in Albany, but this job was different, affording him the opportunity to spend real time with his wife, Tiffani, and their children, Marcus and Lauren, away from the grind of the lifer assistant coach constantly changing jobs and homes.
For years, he was the epitome of that … until he wasn’t, at Bryant & Stratton. Filien was not only the men’s basketball coach there, but also the athletic director, and had made it his personal project to move the school toward NCAA Division III status. The job also brought the Queens native back to the city where he had played college ball and helped UAlbany get to two NCAA Tournaments as an assistant coach.
Albany had become the focal point of his expansive network of friends and colleagues in basketball, and at St. Pius X Church in Loudonville on Thursday afternoon, many of them remembered the player who wouldn’t let go of the ball, the coach who finally let go of the ride, and the man who embraced everyone around him, even strangers, as a friend.
“It was very unique, because he was the kind of guy who, when the game was over, he had such respect for his opponents,” said Brian Beaury, Saint Rose’s long-time head coach who retired three years ago. “And he played hard. Everything he did, he did with passion. When the game was over, he would hug his opponents, he wouldn’t shake their hands, because he really had respect for guys that could go to battle and leave it on the court.”
“He loved his lot in life, he loved being here,” legendary Vermont head coach Tom Brennan told the Burlington Free Press. “What he brought to the equation was joy. You just never saw him have a bad day.”
“I played against him in college, but then when I graduated and went to work for Brian Beaury at the College of Saint Rose, that’s really when I got to know Pat even more, just because of the Saint Rose connection,” long-time UAlbany men’s head coach Will Brown said. “One of the things about Brian Beaury and his program and his former players, to this day they’re as tight as tight can be, so you always ended up seeing Pat.
“Pat was the guy that was always upbeat, positive, always had a smile on his face. I’ve heard a lot of people reference him as a gentle giant. And I think the student-athletes that he coached and spent time with enjoyed that time because of his demeanor and his attitude and his positivity.”
Many of those players were UAlbany Great Danes.
Filien was an assistant under Brown at UAlbany for six years, during which the Great Danes went to the NCAA Tournament twice.
That stint came in the midst of a geographical whirlwind that brought Filien to Southern Vermont College; Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania; LIU-C.W. Post; Vermont (where he helped Brennan’s teams go to the NCAA Tournament twice); UAlbany; the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado; and the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
He coached both men’s and women’s teams, and has also worked at the high school level, with Brian Fruscio at Albany Academy. It was his good friend Fruscio who delivered the eulogy on Thursday.
“Brian hit it out of the ballpark,” Beaury said. “He talked about how Pat would light up the room, and always seemed to add a positive energy to a space. He hit on what a kind soul he was. He never had a bad day, Patrick.”
A member of the Saint Rose Athletics Hall of Fame, Filien transferred to Saint Rose from Fashion Institute of Technology and helped the Golden Knights reach the Division II NCAA Tournament the first year Saint Rose was eligible.
He graduated in 1992 with a legacy of rebounding domination, a hungry lion, Beaury said, who saw the ball as a piece of meat.
Beaury concurred with another analogy, regarding Filien’s habit of hugging opponents after the game instead of shaking their hands: that’s what boxers do sometimes after the final bell and 12 rounds of trying to take each other’s heads off.
“I never had to encourage him,” Beaury said. “He lifted the culture in our program, particularly in practice, because he played the same way with his teammates. There were no days off. I had a group of guys that he changed as a result of his intensity and competitiveness.”
Beaury was the head coach at Saint Rose for 32 years, and Brown has been the UAlbany head coach since 2001, so with the benefit of that stability, they have a different sort of appreciation for Filien’s peripatetic career as an assistant coach.
Beaury called it “a sport that’s full of jealousy and transactional relationships, and to be frank, it’s probably one of the reasons he wasn’t coaching at a much higher level. He was so sincere, and oftentimes you’ve got to build these artificial relationships to get players. Pat Filien had none of that in him.”
“Yeah, the coaching profession is hectic,” Brown said. “Even when you think you’re doing things the right way, it’s such a tough business. It’s more about who you know than, really, how good you are.
“So I think in this business, it’s rare for people to stay in one place for a long time. You either take a job to enhance your career, or you get fired. That’s just the way it goes, for head coaches, and it’s similar for assistants, as well. It’s a tough business over the long haul. It’s about perseverance.”
Beaury said Filien called him a few years ago, tired of the merry-go-round, asking his former coach if he knew of some way to jump off, particularly if it would bring him back to Albany, his chosen home.
Coincidentally, Beaury had heard about the Bryant & Stratton job, passed the tip along to Filien and it was only matter of a short time before Filien, whose family immigrated from Haiti to find a better life, had his dream job and circumstances. His son Marcus is a sophomore on the Cornell University basketball team, and his daughter Lauren plays basketball for Columbia High School.
“He finally found something that was going to be his, that would give him something that he wanted, that would give him an opportunity to be back with his family, to participate in their careers, as opposed to following their careers,” Beaury said. “This is a guy who was going to his kids’ AAU practices and literally jumping into drills and rebounding.
“He was just … Dad, but he couldn’t help himself.”
Pat Filien had the firmest grip on life, always smiling in delight at the sheer wondrous, dizzying ferocity of the act.
It was life that lost its grip on him.