At Colgate, late coach's lessons still instructive Team dedicates season to Bruen, who taught 'courage, compassion'

January 10, 1998|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

When Colgate men's basketball coach Jack Bruen died three weeks ago, he left a legacy for his staff, players and friends that far exceeded his ability to draw X's and O's and turn losing programs into winners.

The season was only seven games old when Bruen, a beet-faced bear of man with a bulging belt line and a biting wit, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 48.

But the lessons in life he taught to longtime assistant Paul Aiello, who replaced him, and to his players, past and present, won't soon be forgotten.

"Jack and I were like brothers," said Aiello, who brings the Red Raiders to Annapolis today for a Patriot League contest with Navy. "He's the best person I've known in my life.

"We both grew up in New York City. I first heard about him when he was a guard at Power Memorial playing with Lew Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar]. We've known each other for almost a quarter of a century, going back to working basketball camps for [DeMatha's] Morgan Wootten.

"When Jack got the head coaching job at Colgate in 1989, I was an assistant at Wagner College. He asked me to help him turn around a struggling program. I was honored by the offer.

"Jack was a throwback to the coaches of the '50s. He wasn't into ego or shoe contracts. He really cared about his players, made sure they got jobs after graduating and treated them like family."

In late October, Bruen knew his time was short. He called Aiello to his house and never mentioned how sick he was. His only concern was making sure the coaching transition would be smooth.

The way he carried himself during practice and games in his last few months left an indelible impression on his players.

"Coach Bruen taught us great lessons in courage and compassion," said senior guard and team scoring leader Seth Schaeffer. "He never tried to draw sympathy for himself.

"The two-hour practices were his escape from all the pain. If anything, he'd make light of his illness. But he could still yell when he saw a mistake, and that made us know he still cared."

No one took the loss of Bruen harder than Tucker Neale, Colgate's all-time scoring leader. Neale was one of a number of former players who made the pilgrimage to snow-covered Hamilton, N.Y., to see the Red Raiders play Marist in what many anticipated would be his final game.

Neale remembered how Bruen was always there to counsel him through difficult times. When Tucker's roommate was stabbed to death, Bruen tearfully recalled how one of his old neighborhood buddies from New York had been killed.

"Besides my father," Neale said, "Jack's is the only shoulder I'd ever cried on."

But Bruen never got maudlin. He all but turned his fight against an incurable disease into a celebration of life and the game he so dearly loved.

As he told the Washington Post in one of his last interviews, "When you get sick, only two things can happen. Either you get better or worse. If you get better, no problem. If you get worse, only two things can happen: you live or die. If you live, no problem. If you die, two things can happen: heaven or hell. If you go to heaven, no problem. If you go to hell, all your friends are there."

Even in his last days, he never lost his zest for teaching basketball.

"If I was tending bar or digging graves, I'd work hard at it," he said. "But I'd also have fun. Coaching is my job. I want to win every game, but I don't ever want to become one of those guys who forgets where he came from. I mean, I'm a glorified gym teacher when you look at it. How can I take that too seriously."

Schaeffer and his teammates have dedicated the rest of the season to his memory.

In two of the last three years, with All-America center Adonal Foyle as its centerpiece, Colgate made it to the NCAA tournament. One of those rare blue-chippers who finds his way to the Patriot League, Foyle skipped his senior year to join the NBA and the Golden State Warriors as a high first-round draft choice.

But the Red Raiders (5-7) are a much more balanced team this season. After pushing Syracuse and St. John's down to the closing minutes earlier this season, Colgate scored an upset of Bucknell on Wednesday night.

"We're playing more like a team now," Schaeffer said. "I know wherever Coach Bruen is watching, he's got to be feeling proud."

Pub Date: 1/10/98

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