ALBANY — Will Brown chuckled on the other end of the phone line.
“In this business, it’s rare for people to stay at one place for a long time. You either take a job to enhance your career, or you get … fired.”
No, this wasn’t on Monday. It was a few weeks ago, and we were talking about the college basketball coaching profession in general, in light of the death of one of his former assistants, Patrick Filien.
“UAlbany Head Men’s Basketball Coach Will Brown and UAlbany Athletics Agree to Mutually Part Ways,” was the headline on the press release Monday morning, and I have to believe the word “mutually” is doing a lot of work there.
Brown was in the fifth and final year of a contract extension that pushed his total to 19 full seasons as the Great Danes’ head coach. There had been rumblings over the years that he might leave for another job, but somehow Brown managed to stay in Albany, managed to keep the program humming over a span of time in which UAlbany’s crosstown rival, Siena, has had six head coaches.
But this is college basketball, and if you’re looking for a better example of the cold, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately reality of this job, good luck.
The Will Brown era officially ended with an 83-77 loss to Hartford in the America East quarterfinals on Sunday, finishing the Great Danes’ third straight losing season.
Although the press release begins straight off with this quote from Brown, this was a firing, plain and simple:
“After nearly 20 years coaching at UAlbany, I have decided that it is time for me to seek a new challenge and after meeting with Mark Benson, we have agreed to mutually part ways.
“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.”
I keep going back to that conversation we had about Pat Filien in February, because much of Brown’s insight had a prescience to it, in light of Monday’s news.
“The coaching profession is hectic,” he said. “When you think you’re doing things the right way, it’s just a tough business. It’s more about who you know than, really, how good you are.
“That’s just the way it is as far as head coaches go, and it’s similar with assistants. It’s a tough business over the long haul. It’s perseverance. Then it’s tough when you’re with a family and you’re constantly on the move.
“It’s not an easy profession.”
Brown, a Long Island native, and his wife, Jamie, have deep roots in the Capital Region.
They helped start the Albany chapter of “Coaches vs. Cancer” 15 years ago, and received the organization’s Champion Award last year in honor of their work.
Both of their sons, Jackson and Landon, were born after Will Brown became the Great Danes’ interim head coach upon the firing of Scott Beeten during the 2001-02 season. Jackson, who starred at Catholic Central High School, walked on as a freshman on his father’s team this school year.
If you had told Will Brown in 2001 that he’d still be here in 2021, I don’t think he would’ve believed it.
His teams went to the NCAA Tournament five times from 2006 to 2015, scaring the hell out of No. 1 seed UConn in 2006 with a 12-point lead, as a No. 16 seed, midway through the second half before losing 72-59.
Over the last three seasons, his teams were a combined 33-47 (.413)
Maybe it all just got stale, but not because of complacency on Brown’s part.
As attractive as many other jobs may have been, Brown, the son of a coach, had a deep appreciation for his longevity here. He told me a story about a friend of his father’s — “without mentioning any names, he’s a high-level, successful college coach right now” — who sat Will down at the end of his college playing days and laid out the roadmap he would be facing if he wanted to be a college coach, too.
“One of the first questions he asked me when I sat down with him was, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘Do you expect that to be long-term?’ and I’m like, ‘Ahhh, as of now, probably yeah.’
“He goes, ‘That’s going to be difficult. The amount of hours that you’re going to need to put in, the amount of traveling, you really need to consume yourself with this job if you want to get anywhere in this profession. It’s a difficult profession.’
“You see a lot of movement, a lot of challenges,” Brown said. “You know … it’s tough. It’s not easy. For me, once I got to Albany, I’ve been very fortunate, very lucky, that I haven’t had to deal with the constant movement and uprooting a family. My situation is definitely the minority, not the majority.”
Going back to the opening line — “You either take a job to enhance your career, or you get … fired” — the chuckle came after “fired.”