By Clayton Collier
The University at Albany Great Danes have only been a Division I men’s basketball program since 1999, but their accomplishments in the past decade are not short-lived.
Miller Place native Will Brown Jr., who recently completed his 14th season at the helm of the men’s hoops team, has taken the program from a team initially accustomed to the lower portion of the America East standings, to one with three-straight NCAA Tournament berths and five within the last decade — the most recent of which came on the strength of a miracle, last-second 3-pointer by junior guard Peter Hooley to punch the Great Danes’ ticket to the Big Dance.
Becoming a regular in March Madness is no small task for a mid-major program like Albany, but then again, Brown is not one to balk in the face of a challenge.
Before Brown was a coach, the 43-year-old was a standout basketball player at Miller Place High School. Coached by his father, Bill Sr., Brown was never mistaken for getting preferential treatment. In fact, it was made clear that Brown was to be held to a higher standard than his teammates.
“It’s hard when you’re in tenth grade and your dad kicks you out of practice and you have to call your mom to pick you up,” Brown said.
The coach said it wasn’t until he began leading his own team that he fully understood that his father was pushing him in order to reach his max potential.
“Bill Brown was an amazing coach,” Miller Place athletic director Lisa Lally, who coached girls’ basketball while Bill Brown was the boys’ head coach, and taught Will Brown when he attended the school, said. “He knew what his son was capable of, what potential he had, and I think he pushed Will. I think there were probably some very interesting times around that dinner table after practice.”
To prevent such interesting times, Brown’s mother Diane implemented a house policy: leave the arguments from practice in the gym.
“We weren’t allowed to talk hoops, that was mom’s rule,” Brown said. “But very rarely did we pay attention to that rule.”
As Brown progressed in high school, he began to see recruiting interest from major college programs like the University of Notre Dame and Seton Hall University. At the end of his sophomore year however, Brown found himself laboring more and more to continue to complete practices that once came easier to him. He began losing weight dramatically — something was wrong.
Brown was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the beginning of his junior year of high school, at one point causing him to miss six or seven weeks of school. The fluctuation in weight wreaked havoc on Brown’s energy level and subsequently, his ability to practice.
Per doctor’s orders, Brown sat out of soccer season for his junior and senior years and committed himself to getting his weight up in order to be able to participate in basketball.
Brown Sr. said he found himself in a difficult situation, as he was hesitant to push his son, given his condition.
“It’s almost like you’re walking on eggshells; it was hard as a parent,” Brown Sr. said. “You want to push him, but you don’t want to push him. I had to use him as a guide. I listened to what he told me.”
Brown told his father he wanted to get to work.
“When he said ‘dad can we go up to the gym?’ that’s when we went. I would never say ‘Hey Will, let’s go and work out;’ I let him come to me,” Brown Sr. said. “I would say ‘let’s call it quits’ and he would say ‘no, let’s do a little more.’”
Brown committed to the University of Pennsylvania to play basketball, but transferred to Dowling College to be closer to home after another bout with Crohn’s disease. Brown continued to work diligently to maintain his weight and finished his collegiate career with more than 1,000 points and 500 assists.
Upon graduation, Brown’s parents assumed he would get a regular, nine-to-five job. Instead, Brown followed in his father’s footsteps and entered the world of coaching, and shot rapidly up the ranks. Beginning as an assistant coach at the College of Saint Rose, Brown moved on to his first head coaching job at Sullivan County Community College, where he compiled a 90-10 record in three seasons.
Soon thereafter, Brown was hired as an assistant on Scott Beeten’s coaching staff at Albany. Beeten would be reassigned from the head coaching position just before conference play in December of 2001. The University named Brown, at just 29 years old, interim head coach for the remainder of the season.
“I thought I had it all figured out, I never understood why coaches weren’t successful,” he said. “I quickly learned when you’re an assistant, it’s easy to make suggestions. When you move one seat over, you have to make the decisions.”
Now, 14 seasons later, Brown has made Albany a nationally recognized name. Five NCAA tournament berths and 215 wins later, Brown has taken his “baby” to never before seen heights.
This past season was one to remember, in particular, for Brown’s Great Danes. Conference season began with the tragic news that Peter Hooley’s mother, Sue, had taken a turn for the worse in her battle with cancer.
Hooley flew home to his native Australia to be with his mother in her final moments, missing nearly a month of the basketball season. Upon his return following her passing, coach Brown found himself experiencing a similar dilemma to his father many years ago, although his and Hooley’s situations were vastly different, in terms of reintroducing a star player back into basketball following hardship.
“The tough part for me was that I like to ride my captains and my better players pretty hard. I get after them; I challenge them. Peter is no different,” Brown said. “But I did find myself kind of trying to lay off Peter a little bit, give him some space and some time.”
Hooley said Brown allowing him to work at his own pace was helpful in allowing him to get himself refocused on basketball.
“He’s been a father figure over here in every way,” he said. “I think coming in he knew what I was dealing with back home and he checked in on me every single day. He almost knows what it is like to be in that situation. It certainly helps me to keep going.”
Albany went 8-0 in Hooley’s absence. In the conference tournament, with Hooley back on the court, the Great Danes found themselves in a familiar location — the America East championship game against Stony Brook University.
Down by two with seconds to go and Stony Brook out of timeouts, the Great Danes had the ball. Hooley drained a 3-point basket to win the game for Albany, 51-50, off an offensive rebound, and punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Hooley, who pointed to the sky after the buzzer sounded, said he had his mother to thank for the ball reaching the net in the final moments.
“That ball shouldn’t have been kicked to me,” he said. “There’s no way that that should’ve fell to me; there’s no way they should have had no time-outs; there’s no way that ball should have made it to me to get a shot off. Everything was set up perfectly and what mum would’ve wanted.”
With their season completed following a 69-60 loss to the University of Oklahoma in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Brown and the Great Danes set their sights on next year. With so much success, one could see Brown as a larger than life figure, but his father still fondly remembers those early days in the gym.
“Just to be there when these arenas are owned with 15-20,000 people, and you have all the glitz and the glamour, and you have all the national news there,” Brown Sr. said of seeing his son coach in the Big Dance. “As a father you sit back, and to this day, I look down, I see Will, and I still see a kid from Miller Place.”