Warren Caruso wasn’t sure he was fully prepared to be a head coach when Bruce MacGregor took a sabbatical from his leadership of the Husson University men’s basketball program for the 1994-95 season.
Caruso’s sudden ascension from the assistant coaching ranks went well, as the team won the Maine Athletic Conference title championship and qualified for the NAIA tournament en route to a 23-9 record.
When MacGregor retired from the post the following June, Caruso became the team’s permanent coach and not only has remained a fixture on the Bangor campus for the past quarter-century, but he is a prominent face on the Maine small-college basketball scene.
“I didn’t know I was ready, but I think [MacGregor] knew and wanted to give me an opportunity to be a head coach and run the program,” said Caruso, who earned his 500th coaching victory last Saturday when No. 3 Husson defeated No. 6 Northern Vermont-Johnson 70-61 in a North Atlantic Conference quarterfinal at Newman Gymnasium.
“Looking back at it now that sabbatical year was a test. I didn’t know I was ready at 28 years old, but it fell into place.”
Caruso has earned nine coach of the year honors during his 26-year tenure as Husson’s head coach. His teams have won 14 regular-season titles and 13 conference championships with 13 national tournament appearances.
“We work really hard at it,” he said. “I think every coach does, but we’ve worked really hard and had the right student-athletes and some very good assistant coaches who have made a difference in our program.
“I’ve also been blessed that through the years for the most part we’ve had an administration that believes in having a successful athletic program and basketball being a big part of it.”
While the 54-year-old Caruso recalls many notable coaching moments from his 500-238 head coaching tenure, his most powerful memories involve those he has worked with and coached.
“There certainly have been some championship runs and losses, but if you asked me to recount 10 games in my head I’m not sure I could do it,” Caruso said. “I can tell you about the student-athletes we’ve had who have graduated, where they are now and how many kids they have.
“That’s what coaching to me is about, the educational process and the relationships you build.”
Caruso played his high school basketball at Bangor, helping the Rams reach the Eastern Maine Class A final as a junior before making the move across Broadway where he continued to play the sport as a guard under MacGregor at Husson.
By his senior year at 1 College Circle, he was scouting future opponents and filing reports with MacGregor.
“I think coaching was always in my mind and came more into focus when I got to college and started theorizing what I might do,” said Caruso, who at the time also was busy with the family business, two Dana’s Grill seasonal restaurants.
“I had five classes left to take after my senior year and coach MacGregor asked if I wanted to help coach. That next year  we went 35-2, it was a really special year and from that point I was hooked.”
MacGregor, who won 540 games as Husson’s men’s basketball coach, remains one of Caruso’s closest friends.
“I often say I’m not sure where my thought begins and his ends, so to speak,” he said. “It’s a really special relationship and I think everyone should want a relationship like he and I have. It just makes me a better person, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. I remind him of that and thank him every time I get a chance.”
Other major influences on Caruso include Neil Waterman, his junior high school and junior varsity coach as well as a former assistant on MacGregor’s staff, and longtime Husson women’s basketball coach Kissy Walker.
“Kissy and I have been together here for 28 years, and with all the bus rides we’ve taken it’s been a real pleasure alongside her and the women’s program,” he said. “We’re close and our teams get close and it’s one of those things that makes it all special. Hopefully it will be special for a few years to come.”
Caruso also is joined on his team’s bus rides these days by son Nate, a student assistant coach with the Eagles for the past two years while pursuing his doctoral degree in physical therapy at Husson.
“I can’t thank my family enough for the support they’ve given me,” Caruso said. “A coach’s life is different than other jobs, but [wife] Nicole and [sons] Luke and Nate have all embraced what we do.
“Now having Nate sitting next to me on the bench and at practice every day, it’s been really special and a lot of fun for both of us.”
The Carusos and the rest of the Husson coaching staff are busy this week trying to make the most out of what has been a trying season.
The Eagles enter Friday’s NAC semifinal against No. 2 SUNY-Canton with a injury- and illness-riddled 12-14 record, with the program in jeopardy in having its first sub-.500 season since Caruso arrived on campus as a freshman student 36 years ago.
“It’s been one of those years we’ve never had before,” Caruso said. “We’ve been blessed to be for the most part healthy over the years and haven’t had a lot of those things that can disrupt a season.
“Now here we are at 12-14 but playing our best basketball of the season. One thing about this group is that it’s been incredibly resilient, they continue to believe that we can make a run at a championship.”