ALBANY — Jamar Wilson’s immediate reaction to Monday’s development that Will Brown was no longer the head coach of the UAlbany men’s basketball program was telling.
“The first initial thought was, ‘How is the basketball program going to run?’” Wilson, the former UAlbany star who is currently playing for Kataja Basket in Finland, said Monday during an interview with The Daily Gazette.
Brown had become that synonymous with UAlbany basketball, and with the Capital Region’s overall basketball landscape, since he first started coaching at UAlbany in 2001. He won five America East Conference championships and more than 300 games in two decades at one mid-major school in a sport that churns through coaches, and became deeply involved with multiple community organizations during his run with the Great Danes.
That tenure ended Monday without ceremony.
Less than 16 hours after UAlbany’s 2020-21 season — its third-consecutive one with a losing mark — closed Sunday with a defeat in the America East Conference quarterfinals at Hartford, news broke that Brown was no longer the leader of the Great Danes. WNYT Sports Director Rodger Wyland, the play-by-play announcer for UAlbany basketball and football, first reported news of Brown’s dismissal. A couple hours later, the school’s athletic department followed with a five-paragraph press release that confirmed the divorce between Brown and UAlbany.
Brown was credited in the press release as saying that he had “decided that it is time for me to seek a new challenge and after meeting with [athletic director] Mark Benson, we have agreed to mutually part ways,” while Benson was quoted as saying that the university was “grateful for all that Will has done for UAlbany” during his many years representing the school.
Brown, though, was in the final year of his most-recent contract extension. Both Benson and Brown declined last week to comment on the future status of Brown with the school’s men’s basketball program, a pair of non-statements that were more revealing than anything either likely could have said. On Monday, Brown and Benson did not respond to requests for further comment beyond the statement issued through the school’s athletic department.
“Anyone who knows me knows this decision was extraordinarily difficult. But I leave the University at Albany with an enormous sense of pride in the positive impact that my staff, my family and, most important, the student athletes I had the honor of coaching, have had on UAlbany basketball and the greater Albany community,” UAlbany’s statement quoted Brown as saying.
At 49 years old and with the resume he possesses, Brown will coach again — and likely soon, if that’s what he wants. But, for one reason or another, Brown seemed to be on his way out of UAlbany for this last year, perhaps barring a run to this year’s NCAA tournament that could save the coach his job.
Coming off back-to-back losing seasons after the program was rocked with the departures of star guards Joe Cremo and David Nichols after the 2017-18 season — the program’s seventh consecutive winning season, at that point — Brown worked the 2020-21 season as a lame-duck coach with no years left on a deal that paid him $402,224 in total pay for 2019, the most-recent year accessible in the database at seethroughny.net.
The school promised Monday to conduct a national search for Brown’s replacement as steward of UAlbany’s men’s basketball program, which is currently being led by former associate head coach Jon Iati — who also played for Brown — as its interim head coach.
While Brown’s recent records and the lack of a contract that extended beyond the season suggested an ending was possible, if not likely, Monday’s development left many connected to the program stunned.
“I think being shocked, like a lot of people, was my initial thought,” said Peter Hooley, a 2016 graduate who was one of several Australian players to become a star at UAlbany during Brown’s coaching run. “But I was also disappointed because I know how much he means to the community of Albany and what he’s done for so many people. Not just the players he coached, but there’s a lot of people he affected away from basketball.”
“It was shocking,” said Ahmad Clark, who starred as a senior on UAlbany’s 2019-20 team. “He won five championships there. He’s done a lot for the school and the program. UAlbany basketball isn’t UAlbany basketball without Will Brown.”
“He’s been at the program for so long. He’s a legend,” said Wilson, a 2007 graduate who led UAlbany to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. “He’s done so much for our program — and he was so young when he got there, so he has a lot of years ahead of him and a lot of good coaching left in him.”
The longest-tenured coach in the America East before his dismissal, Brown provided UAlbany with uncommon stability for a mid-major program. His final record at UAlbany of 315-295 put him only 20 games above .500, but he took over from Scott Beeten midway through UAlbany’s third Division I season and compiled a 19-57 mark in his season as interim head coach and the two that followed immediately after he was named the program’s 15th head coach.
At Siena College, six different men led the Saints during Brown’s years at UAlbany — and, if Carmen Maciariello’s MAAC-leading Saints win their conference championship this season, the Capital Region’s two Division I men’s basketball programs will have made the same number of trips to the NCAA tournament during the length of Brown’s career at UAlbany that briefly started with him serving as an assistant coach. Brown’s five America East championships are tied for the most of any coach in the league’s history, matching Brown with Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member Jim Calhoun.
The last of UAlbany’s NCAA tournament appearances with Brown coaching came in 2015, while UAlbany last made it to an America East championship game in 2017.
Brown’s program first made it to the NCAA tournament in 2006 and flirted that year with knocking off No. 1 UConn in the first round, then returned to the Big Dance in 2007. The Great Danes didn’t return to the NCAA tournament for several seasons, then made consecutive trips in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Hooley starred on those teams that made three consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament, and he made likely the most-memorable play in program history when he sank the game-winning shot in the 2015 America East championship game played less than two months after his mother died from cancer.
All the wins, though, weren’t what Hooley said most dominated his memories of playing for Brown. Instead, it was the importance of “accountability,” and keeping priorities in the right place.
“He taught me real-life lessons,” said Clark, echoing Hooley’s sentiments.
Wilson described Brown as a “father figure.” Brown was “extremely tough on me,” but Wilson said guidance from Brown helped turn him from a kid into an adult.
“He was the person I needed to keep me on track,” said Wilson, who is pursuing a master’s degree at Southern New Hampshire University in sports management, and listed Brown as the first reference sent along with his application. “What he did, beyond coaching, was making sure I was OK off the basketball court, which I needed at that time.”
In his decades at UAlbany, Brown was involved in a variety of community organizations. Last year, Brown received the “Coaches vs. Cancer Champion Award,” an honor to recognize the years of work his wife Jamie and he have done in support of the American Cancer Society.
Brown was set to receive that award during a ceremony at the Final Four, but the 2020 NCAA tournament was canceled because of concerns related to the novel coronavirus pandemic. On Monday night, he was formally honored for that award during a “Coaches vs. Cancer: Bigger Than The Game” special aired on WXXA-TV that was put together before Brown’s dismissal.
Anthony Marino, executive vice president of the American Cancer Society Northeast Region, remembered Monday how one of the organization’s key annual fundraising events — the “Coaches vs. Cancer Basket Ball” — started with Brown and then-Siena head coach Fran McCaffery as co-hosts, along with their respective wives. While the Siena coach who serves as a co-host has changed several times, Brown and his wife have been the constants every year.
“I can’t even imagine that event without Will and Jamie,” Marino said.
Marino, a Siena graduate, added: “They took such a great sense of pride and ownership in what we do.”
Brown started his stay at UAlbany as an assistant coach for Beeten, but became the Great Danes’ interim head coach in December of his first season at the school. Prior to heading to UAlbany, Brown was the head coach at Sullivan County Community College for three seasons. Before that, the Long Island native and Dowling College graduate spent three seasons as an assistant coach for Brian Beaury at Saint Rose.
As a head coach, only Doc Sauers has coached more games than Brown at UAlbany. Sauers won 702 games in more than 40 years of coaching at the school.
UAlbany, perhaps soon, will have a new coach. The search will provide Benson — hired in 2014 — his first chance to hire a head coach for the school’s men’s basketball program, and Brown’s successor will not have an easy task ahead of him.
The Great Danes finished with a losing record in their just-completed season, but the team’s 7-9 mark said more about all the challenges, pauses and restrictions the program faced during the pandemic-marred season than the talent level on its roster. With any coaching change, loss of players is likely, and UAlbany’s roster is sure to take a significant hit in the coming days and weeks.
Restocking the program, too, won’t be easy. The NCAA Division I Council extended the recruiting dead period through the end of May, a decision which will keep a new coach from conducting in-person recruiting through at least that time.
And, of course, there are expectations to meet of on-court success, which Brown built up. The program finished 33-47 in Brown’s final three seasons at the helm, but also achieved seven 20-win seasons during his tenure. Not counting this season since the America East has yet to crown a champion, only Vermont — with eight — made more trips to the NCAA tournament than Brown’s UAlbany program since he became the team’s official head coach; during that time, those five NCAA tournament berths UAlbany earned equaled the number of March Madness bids earned by the rest of the conference outside of Vermont and itself.
“The things that Will accomplished there are something that you can’t take away,” Wilson said, “and it all came from, not glitz and glamour, not all the skill in the world, it was a lot of hard work and extra hours that were put in.”