One last chance to dance for Brown, Gothic Knights

While school looks to leave NJAC, legendary coach wants one last piece of glory

Charlie Brown knows that he’s approaching a milestone that would be near and dear to his heart, becoming the all-time winningest coach in the proud history of the New Jersey Athletic Conference.

In the process, Brown, the long-time men’s basketball coach at New Jersey City University, would pass the mark set by his long-time friend and former coach Ollie Gelston, who won 429 games during his storied coaching career, first at Jersey City State (where he coached Brown) and then at Montclair State, from 1959 through 1991. “It would really mean a lot to me,” Brown said. “We’re going to come real close.”

However, close might be all that Brown has.

You see, NJCU will leave the NJAC at the end of this season. The school’s administration has decided to leave the league, where it was one of the charter schools back in 1965, in order to allow the school’s other athletic programs the chance to be more competitive.

Brown now has 418 victories during his 22 years at NJCU, formerly known as Jersey City State College. It leaves him just 11 wins shy of the New Jersey Athletic Conference record for coaching victories, established by Gelston.

But unless the Gothic Knights go on to play deep into the NCAA Division III tournament in March, Brown will more than likely come a few wins short of passing his friend and mentor on the NJAC win list.

Citing that the school could no longer fairly compete in the NJAC, New Jersey City University officials decided to leave the NJAC last September and pursue another conference where they could fair better.

All of NJCU’s athletic teams will compete as independents in 2004-05.

This move comes at a time when the men’s basketball team at the school is enjoying its finest season since 1999. The Gothic Knights are currently 14-4 overall and in first place in the NJAC’s Blue Division with a 5-1 record, two games ahead of William Paterson, which was supposed to face NJCU Wednesday night, but the game was postponed until Feb. 7 because of the snowstorm that blanketed the area.

“It is ironic, because we are playing so well,” said Brown, whose team won five straight games before dropping its homecoming game to Rutgers-Newark last Saturday night. “Actually, it’s a shame.”

It’s a move that has deeply angered Brown, who is also an assistant athletic director at the school.

“I’m totally against it,” Brown said. “At first, I was trying to be a true team player and not say anything, but it’s really going to hurt our program in terms of recruiting, in terms of the level of players we will get. I’m extremely disappointed by it.”

In fact, Brown is angry at one person for this move – himself.

“I’m upset with myself because I didn’t speak up sooner,” Brown said. “I should have said something, but I thought I was doing the right thing by not saying anything. I don’t know what kind of influence I would have had if I said something. I’m angered, annoyed and disappointed, mostly at myself. We can’t blame the school president (Dr. Carlos Hernandez), because we did what he asked us to do. It’s a done deal now.”

Brown said that the men’s basketball program, along with the men’s soccer program and the track and field programs (the school’s most successful programs) asked the NJAC to be given affiliate status for those sports, meaning that they could still compete in NJAC play.

“But the conference turned that down,” Brown said. “They basically said it’s all or nothing.”

NJCU has already withstood its share of athletic difficulties in the past year, having discontinued its football program before the start of the 2003 season.

Brown said that he has strong emotional ties to the NJAC, even more than reaching the prestigious milestone as the league’s most successful coach ever.

“It’s been a part of me for three years as a player and 22 years as a coach,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of history and tradition there. We are the history of that league, one of the founding members. We won more league titles than anyone else. It’s going to be very difficult to leave. It’s just not going to be the same.”

During his tenure as coach, Brown has guided the Gothic Knights to four NJAC titles (1986, 1990, 1992 and 1995). He’s taken 10 teams to the NCAA Division III tournament, reaching the Final Four in 1986 and 1992.

“I’m going to miss the rivalries with the teams in the league,” said Brown, who has already scheduled independent dates with league members Ramapo, William Paterson, Kean and Rutgers-Newark for next season. “I’m trying to maintain some of the rivalries, but it won’t be the same.”

Brown said that NJCU has applied for entrance into the Skyline Conference, another local Division III league that features schools like Stevens Tech, Yeshiva and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy at Kings Point, but there hasn’t been any ruling on that application.

“I honestly don’t think that we’re going to be accepted,” Brown said. “I don’t think they’re going to want to add another team coming from a great conference.”

The Gothic Knights are led by 6-7 senior swingman Samar Battle, who is averaging 20.7 points and 8.2 rebounds. Brown feels that the East Orange native and former Clifford Scott standout is the premier performer in the NJAC.

“Battle does a little bit of everything,” Brown said. “We have him playing the two-guard (shooting guard) and he leads us in rebounding. He’s very versatile. He also blocks shots as well.”

Sophomore forward Mark Washington, another East Orange product, is averaging 15.1 points per game. Local product Abraham Williams of Jersey City, a Lincoln High School graduate, contributes 10.4 points per game. Another key performer and starter is 6-7 senior Harold Williams, a former standout at St. Aloysius High School in Jersey City, who contributes 3.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.

So considering it is the final go-round in the NJAC, Brown has approached this season as a last chance. The Gothic Knights are using their final season in the league as a battle cry.

“No question, we talk about that all the time,” said Brown, who was inducted into the Coaching Legends Hall of Fame at the New Jersey Sportswriters’ Association’s annual banquet at the Pines Manor in Edison last Sunday. “We want to go out as winners. If we have to leave, we want to leave in style.”

So it’s a swan song for the Gothic Knights in the NJAC. So far, it’s been a good one and it’s shaping up to be a memorable one. Whether there are good memories or bad memories remains to be seen.

“I’d really like it to be a fitting farewell,” Brown said. “I think we’ve all realized that we made a mistake in leaving. We can still ask to re-apply. But for now, it’s a done deal.”

And one that will leave Brown just a few wins shy of making history.


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