BY CHRIS McMANES — Twenty years after his death, Jack Bruen is still having a profound effect on those he coached and mentored.
Take Notre Dame head men’s basketball coach Mike Brey. Bruen was an assistant coach at DeMatha when Brey was playing on the team. He also taught Brey U.S. history.
“Jack was like a big brother to me,” Brey said. “He really was a great mentor to me as I was a young high school coach, thinking about ‘do I get into college [coaching], do I do this?’ Just a fabulous man. We lost him way too early.”
Mike Lonergan played for Bruen at Catholic University and coached under him at Colgate. He said he thinks about him every day.
“Coach Bruen had a huge impact on my personal and professional life,” Lonergan said. “I was very fortunate to have him as my coach, boss, mentor and friend. He was a great man who touched many lives, and his legacy lives on.”
Bruen coached under Morgan Wootten and taught history at DeMatha from 1972-79. For the next three years, he was head coach at Archbishop Carroll. He then began a seven-year stretch as head coach at Catholic. From there he went to Colgate, where he remained until his death on Dec. 19, 1997.
“He did a great job everywhere he went,” said Wootten, who coached the Stags from 1956-2002 and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “If the Lord hadn’t called him home early, we would be looking at a major Division I championship coach. No question.”
DeMatha enjoyed prodigious success during Bruen’s tenure. The Stags went 196-23 (.895 winning percentage), won six Washington Metropolitan Athletic Conference titles and finished No. 1 in the area three times. The 1977-78 squad went 28-0 and was declared national champions.
Among the DeMatha players Bruen played a role in developing were Adrian Dantley, Kenny Carr, Hawkeye Whitney, Sidney Lowe and Adrian Branch, all future NBA players. At Carroll, he coached Joe Howard, Jeff Baxter and Derrick Lewis and led the Lions to a three-year record of 62-28.
“Jack had a great knowledge of the game,” Wootten said. “He had an uncanny ability to teach it, to get his point across. He had a great relationship with the players. They really respected him and admired him. Down through the years, I was blessed with many, many great coaches that worked with me at DeMatha, but none finer than Jack Bruen.”
John Francis Bruen was born in New York City on March 25, 1949. He played CYO basketball with Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bruen was a sophomore on the JV team at Power Memorial Academy in 1964-65 when Alcindor was a senior. DeMatha lost to Power in 1964 and won in ’65.
Bruen eventually ventured south to attend The Catholic University of America, where he was a three-year starting point guard (1969-72) and two-time captain. He set the school record for assists in a season (216) and best season assist average (8.0). He had 17 assists against American University alone. Bruen graduated from Catholic with a degree in American history.
Moving to the college ranks
Bruen returned to his collegiate alma mater in 1982, taking over a program that had not posted a winning season in 12 years. In his first season, he guided the Cardinals to a 13-12 record and a victory at Roanoke, the nation’s top-ranked Division III team. He was named Old Dominion Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.
In 1985-86, Bruen led Catholic to a 19-8 record – then a program best for victories – and its first national ranking (No. 16). The Cardinals also won their first postseason title in 22 years when they captured the ECAC South Region Tournament championship. Lonergan was a sophomore on that team. Like Bruen, he was a point guard.
“Coach Bruen had a great feel for the game and the different personalities of his players,” Lonergan said. “He could teach fundamentals as well as any coach at any level, but he also had the ability to motivate his players and inspire them to reach their full potential. He would tear us down but also build us up.”
Lonergan has stayed in close contact with several of his Catholic teammates. One, Jimmy Patsos, is now head coach at Siena College.
“Whenever my former teammates and I get together, we always talk about the great memories we had playing for Coach Bruen,” Lonergan said. “He pushed us and held us accountable, but he also provided tough love. That’s why almost all his players achieved great success after their playing days were over.”
Lonergan has been head coach at Vermont, George Washington, and Catholic. He is the only coach in college basketball history to win the Postseason NIT (2016 at GW) and Division III national championship (2001 at Catholic).
To supplement his income, Bruen began bartending during his final season at DeMatha. He continued doing so through his time at Catholic. During the summers, he, Brey, and two other former Stags – Pete Strickland and Rod Balanis – worked together at the Metropolitan Area Basketball School, a summer camp founded in 1961 by Wooten and former St. John’s coach Joe Gallagher. It was there that Balanis really got to know Bruen.
“He developed a special interest in me and would help me work on a few things,” Balanis said. “I’m totally indebted to him. I keep in touch with his daughter (Kristen) and son (Danny) … I’m really still tight with all of them.”
Balanis said that during his final two years at DeMatha (1986-88), he would head over to Catholic during preseason and Bruen would work him out.
“I would go down in September and October, and he would spend some time with me after school – maybe 45 minutes – to work on my game,” said Balanis, who played at Georgia Tech and professionally in Greece.
At the end of each season, Bruen would hand-write a personal note to each player, thanking him for playing and wishing him well after graduation. Bruen could be hard on guys during their playing careers, but they respected him for helping to mold them into better players and men.
“We would give 100 percent for Coach Bruen and our teammates because of the loyalty and respect we had for one another,” Lonergan said. “He was all about commitment, loyalty and family. Our basketball program was a true family, from the managers, players, staff and coaches. We loved each other and have a bond that will never be broken.
“That’s a testament to our leader, Jack Bruen.”
Following his fifth consecutive winning season at Catholic in 1988-89, Bruen took his first Division I job, at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. Lonergan joined him on his coaching staff and stayed for three years. The Raiders had not won more than six games in any of the previous seven seasons. That would soon change.
By his third year, Colgate had won 14 games. The next season (1992-93), Bruen led the Raiders to a school-record 18 victories, a mark that has been tied but not eclipsed. The next three years, Colgate shared the conference regular-season title.
In 1994, Bruen recruited the greatest player in Raiders history, Adonal Foyle. During his first two seasons, Colgate captured the Patriot League tournament championship and advanced to consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Colgate’s consecutive NCAA tournament runs remain the only two NCAA playoff appearances in school history.
In all, Bruen was twice named Patriot League Coach of the Year (1992, ’96). He coached the conference Player of the Year three times: Tucker Neale in 1994, and Foyle in 1996 and 1997. After averaging 24.4 points, 13.1 rebounds and 6.4 blocks, Foyle was chosen eighth overall by the Golden State Warriors in the 1997 NBA Draft.
“He’s probably the best coach most people have never heard of,” Lonergan said. “A lot of people don’t realize he got Colgate to the [Patriot] championship game before Adonal Foyle came. He did a remarkable job.”
Bruen gave Balanis his first coaching opportunity when he hired him at Colgate in 1996. Balanis was there when Bruen coached his final game, an 80-69 victory over Marist on Dec. 13, 1997. Six days later, Bruen took his last breath. He was only 48.
“He’s a guy who’s near and dear to me,” said Balanis, who has been on Brey’s Notre Dame staff since 2000. “We lost him, but he always has a special place in my heart.”
Balanis recalled one of the last games Bruen coached, on Nov. 30, 1997.
“I remember when Jack was sick. We played Syracuse in the [Carrier] Dome [like] we always did every year,” he said. “It was about three weeks before he died, and you could tell he was a shell of himself. We were up by like 13 points at halftime. They came storming back, and it ended up being close at the end. It was like a one-possession game with about a minute to go, and they made some free throws and won [78-74].”
“It would have been an unbelievable night to beat Syracuse at the dome,” Balanis continued. “The kids played their hearts out, but we couldn’t hold on and pull it off. It would have been a great end for coach.”
Bruen’s wife, Joan, gave Balanis many of her husband’s basketball books, notes, and tapes. He also has a folder (“JB 1997”) with several articles about him. He still looks at it on occasion.
“It’s hard because he was a great human being,” Balanis said. “He cared a lot more for others than himself.”
Franny Murray, who served as Catholic’s equipment manager for 69 years until his death in August 2016, remembered Bruen from his coaching and playing days.
“He was a very good coach and the kids loved him,” Murray said in 2010. “He was the kind of guy who would do anything in the world for you. He died too young.”
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) met Jack Bruen at the Metropolitan Area Basketball School and worked with him at Catholic University.