On Sunday afternoon, the George Washington men’s basketball team will board Metro at the Foggy Bottom station and ride to Verizon Center for its game against Virginia Commonwealth in the BB&T Classic. While it is unusual for a team to take public transportation to a game, it is not unheard of to travel this way. When he was the coach at Colgate, Jack Bruen took his team on the New York City subway to a game at Madison Square Garden.
It is because of Bruen that GW will ride Metro. The subway trip is just another way for Colonials Coach Mike Lonergan to pay tribute to his former coach and mentor.
“I always say that Coach Bruen is like a second father to me,” Lonergan said. “I love Jack Bruen. . . . He was an awesome man.”
Bruen grew up in New York and played point guard at Power Memorial High School alongside Lew Alcindor but spent most of his adult life in Washington. After graduating from Catholic University in 1972, he was an assistant to Morgan Wootten at DeMatha before becoming the head coach of Carroll High School.
Lonergan had hoped Bruen would coach him at Carroll, but Bruen returned to his alma mater before Lonergan’s junior year of high school. Lonergan finally got his chance to play for Bruen two years later when he followed him to Catholic.
The relationship had a rocky start. Bruen was a yeller and a screamer, and for most of Lonergan’s four years, Bruen’s yelling and screaming was directed at him. Coaches expect more from point guards than froms player at other positions, and Bruen, a former point guard himself, was merciless toward Lonergan.
“He would go nuts on me,” Lonergan said. “I was scared to death of Bruen. . . . We went a year without even talking. I say looking back he pushed all the right buttons. I feel like he got a lot out of a little from me. He was very demanding, but you got a friend for life.”
As Lonergan would come to realize later, the reason Bruen made his life so difficult was because he knew he could take it.
“Mike got yelled at the most on our team by Jack,” said Loyola Coach Jimmy Patsos, Lonergan’s former teammate and roommate at Catholic. “Jack Bruen had a great saying: ‘It’s when I’m not yelling at you, you better worry.’ He yelled at Mike the most, meaning he cared about him the most.”
Loyola assistant Luke D’Alessio was Bruen’s assistant at Catholic for two of Lonergan’s years there.
“Mike was actually Jack’s kind of person,” Luke D’Alessio said. “Jack liked fighters, feisty players who have a lot of heart and who play really hard, and Mike always did that.”
Lonergan had known since eighth grade he wanted to become a coach, and Bruen was instrumental in helping him reach that goal. Through Bruen, he worked at the Metropolitan Area Basketball School, where he got to know camp directors Wootten and Joe Gallagher as well as Mike Brey and Pete Strickland.
“Mike was his guy,” said Strickland, now a GW assistant. “Jack had a lot of protégés, but [Lonergan] was certainly special to Jack because he was his point guard.”
After college, Lonergan worked as a graduate assistant at Division II American International College for a year before joining Bruen’s staff at Colgate. He spent three years as Bruen’s assistant and then went to Catholic as the Cardinals head coach. He left to join Gary Williams’s staff at Maryland in 2004 and became Vermont’s coach one year later. He returned home this past spring to coach GW.
From the drills he uses in practice to the plays he runs to how he relates to his players, Lonergan borrows liberally from the coaches he has been around. His mom, Maureen Lonergan, the former coach and athletic director at Elizabeth Seton High School who died of breast cancer in 1995, was his earliest influence.
“She was like Pat Summitt,” he said.
Watch Lonergan during a practice or at a game and you’ll notice bits of Gallagher or Jim Phelan, Williams or Brey. But much of who he is as a coach goes back to Bruen.
“The basketball piece is almost a carbon copy [of Bruen], which is probably still 90 percent Morgan,” Strickland said.
When Bruen died of pancreatic cancer in 1997, Lonergan had patches made for Catholic’s uniforms. He carried one in his pocket to every game he coached until he misplaced it. Lonergan’s eldest son Jack who was born two years after Bruen died is named in part for his father and in part for Bruen.
Lonergan keeps a photo of Bruen tucked in a calendar on his desk, one of the many pictures of him in his GW office. And at each game, before he jots down his instructions to the team on the white board in the locker room, Lonergan writes ML and JB in a corner, his way of keeping his mother and his mentor close by.
“It just kind of keeps me grounded,” he said. “It makes me feel like [his mother and Bruen] are looking down on me. I feel like I’m kind of carrying their legacies, especially Coach Bruen because he’s not a household name. I feel like I’m kind of carrying on his legacy.”