The 956th game of Bob McKillop’s coaching career was unlike any other, one which McKillop approached in the most detached of terms—preferring not to look at the jerseys worn by the opposing players or at the coach standing a few dozen feet to his right, because to do so would have made everything too weird, too difficult, too emotional.
Too funny, too, because had McKillop locked eyes with Tom Pecora, he would have seen not the well-dressed, well-coiffed, smooth-looking head coach of his alma mater but the freshman coach at Long Island Lutheran who wore off-the-rack clothes, sported glasses and a decidedly unhip haircut and had the narrow waistband and rapid metabolism of someone in his mid-20s.
“[He’s] put on some weight,” McKillop, a 1972 graduate of Hofstra and a three-year member of the Flying Dutchmen basketball team, said with a smile after Davidson beat Hofstra, 61-52, in the consolation game of the Holiday Festival last Monday. “He never wore that stuff in his hair that he’s been wearing for the last 10 or 11 years. His clothes have gotten better.”
So, too, has the paycheck. “My salary was $300 for the season,” Pecora said at his office Dec. 19.
Then he grinned. “I think they still owe me $250.”
The reunion between Pecora, McKillop and Hofstra director of basketball operations John Corso—a former player and assistant under McKillop who introduced him to Pecora—was far easier and more enjoyable before and after the game than during it. The easy chemistry generated by intertwined friendships that have lasted decades was obvious, even in several separate interviews with the men.
“I was kidding around with someone before the game,” Pecora said at his post-game press conference last Monday. “Bob and I played together a lot after college in leagues and stuff like that, and I said ‘He looks like an altar boy, but he’s probably the dirtiest player I ever played with!’”
Such fondness for one another is what made the two hours Monday night so uncomfortable, and why, despite the uncanny twists of fate that have conspired to place Hofstra and Davidson on alternately intersecting and parallel paths, the Holiday Festival game marked the first game between the schools since the 1988-89 season—and, if McKillop and Pecora have any say in the matter, the last for quite some time.
“This is why we don’t schedule Davidson, we don’t schedule Villanova, we don’t schedule Columbia—the places where I’m very close with the coaches,” Pecora said. “Because if you win, it’s bittersweet.”
“I try not to look at Tom during the course of the game, I try not to look at Hofstra, because both are dear to me,” McKillop said. “I look at home and guest. I saw us as the guest and I like the number on the guest side.”
“You don’t try to schedule your friends,” Corso said. “I think that’s pretty much what this falls into every year.”
Nobody found the Holiday Festival consolation any more awkward than Corso, who has deep ties with both men and both schools. Upon his graduation from Hofstra, McKillop was named the head boys basketball coach at Holy Trinity in Hicksville, where Corso became the first 1,000-point scorer in school history in 1978.
Corso went to Davidson and played there two years before transferring to Adelphi, where he became fast friends with his new teammate Pecora. After Corso earned his master’s degree from Adelphi, he re-joined McKillop at Long Island Lutheran, where McKillop also ran a popular summer basketball camp. When McKillop needed an instructor in 1984, Corso recommended Pecora, who had just graduated from Adelphi and was hoping to enter coaching.
“And then, because of the quality of work that he did, we asked him if he would take the freshman job at Long Island Lutheran,” Corso said. “And we’ve gone from there obviously…it just naturally progressed. We all seemed to really be on the same page.”
Pecora spent three seasons on McKillop’s staff before he accepted an assistant coach position at Nassau Community College in 1987. Two seasons later, he was named the head coach at SUNY-Farmingdale. Even as he climbed the ladder, Pecora returned to Long Island Lutheran every summer to work with McKillop at the camp, which is where Pecora met hungry Bucknell graduate Jay Wright.
McKillop led Long Island Lutheran to a 182-51 record in 11 seasons and earned interviews for the open head coaching positions at Marist and Hofstra before being offered the top job at Davidson in 1989. Corso accompanied him to his alma mater for one season. A few years later, McKillop interviewed Pecora for a vacancy on his staff.
“One of the toughest decisions of my life,” Pecora said. “At the same time, Coach [Rollie] Massimino had called me and I chose to go with Coach Mass [to UNLV]. And Bob understood. Rollie had just won a national championship and Jay was there with me, so that was part of the connection.”
In 1994, Butch van Breda Kolff—who got the job over McKillop in 1988—retired and was replaced by Wright, who brought Pecora back east as his top assistant to help rebuild a program that had spent two of the previous three seasons in the East Coast Conference, which had no automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, and one year as an independent.
Seven years and two America East championships later, Wright moved on to Villanova and Pecora was immediately named his successor. One of Pecora’s first moves was to create the job of director of men’s basketball operations and hire Corso—who had been in private business since his season with McKillop at Davidson—to fill it.
Every single day they step foot on to the Hofstra campus, Pecora and Corso rely on the lessons they learned under McKillop. “Bob McKillop was very disciplined, his time management was impeccable, his organizational skills—he was always very, very prepared and he was the perfect guy to work with as your first job right out of college,” Pecora said.
“I probably got more out of it when I was a player for coach McKillop,” Corso said “He’s very well-organized. Everything is dot your Is and cross your Ts. The position that I have here—you have to be very, very methodical.”
As he spoke, Corso pointed outside, where snow from the blizzard of ’09 was just beginning to fall. “I remember playing for him and there wasn’t any situation that would occur during the course of the game that we weren’t prepared for,” Corso said. “To carry that in my position now—you’ve got to prepare for crazy weather, you’ve got to prepare for hotels not having the right keys.”
Pecora has now been head coach at Hofstra longer than Wright and is 10 wins shy of surpassing McKillop’s coach, Paul Lynner, as the second-winningest coach in school history—just one more link between two men who are proud curators of the history of Hofstra basketball even though McKillop hasn’t been associated with the program since 1972 and Pecora has only been at the school for 16 seasons.
“I remember Paul Lynner, just a terrific, terrific human being,” McKillop said. “I remember two of my teammates who actually played lacrosse for Howdy Myers—Richie Burke and Jimmy Pugh. Jimmy Pugh actually played football too. It was a different time.
“I remember opening up the PFC. Ken Weprin interviewed me, he does the announcing [at Hofstra Arena as well as for the Holiday Festival games]. Ken interviewed me the day we played Rider in the opening game [in 1970, a game Hofstra lost 79-73].
“We played St. Joe’s and we had to fight our way out of the Fieldhouse one night with coach Linner leading the charge. We’d just lost to Kenny Banter. Then we played Temple with Johnny Baum and Eddie Mast and we beat Temple [74-72 in overtime during the 1970-71 season] in McGonigle Hall—we broke a 50-game winning streak there, I remember that game real fondly. Then we played LaSalle at the Garden here and we beat them [58-56 in 1971-72]. So I’ve got great memories.”
In discussing the timeline in which Hofstra and McKillop flirted with one another, Pecora, unprompted, noted that it was Joe Harrington who coached one year at Hofstra in between Roger Gaeckler and Dick Berg, a bit of trivia that might escape even the most obsessive of Flying Dutchmen historians.
Under Pecora, Hofstra moved into the CAA, where it lost 20 games in each of Pecora’s first two seasons before emerging as an annual contender. The program became the symbol of NCAA incompetence in 2006, when the Flying Dutchmen were not invited to the NCAA Tournament despite a top-30 RPI and two wins over George Mason, which received an at-large bid and became the first mid-major school to reach the Final Four in almost 30 years.
Davidson went 4-24 as an independent in McKillop’s first season but eventually joined the Southern Conference, where it has won five titles and emerged as a national power in 2008, when the Wildcats provided a glimpse at what might have been for Hofstra by reaching the Elite Eight and coming within inches of knocking off eventual national champion Kansas and erasing George Mason’s status as America’s cuddly Cinderella (Editor’s Note: DAMNIT!!!!).
Pecora, 51, appears to be following in the footsteps of the 59-year-old McKillop by resisting the urge to jump to a BCS school and instead remaining content with creating a legacy of his own at and becoming identifiable with a mid-major program.
“It took him time to build that program—Rome wasn’t built overnight,” Pecora said. “Really, when people think of Davidson, it’s Bob McKillop. Five years ago, people might tell you it’s Lefty Driesell. Not anymore.”
The links between Pecora and McKillop and between their respective programs continue to grow longer and stronger. Pecora has sent an assistant on to the head coaching ranks (Tom Parrotta at Canisius) and earlier this year opposed another McKillop disciple in Matt Matheny, who played under McKillop and spent 16 years as his assistant before becoming the head coach at Elon in March.
The deeper the ties grow, the fonder everyone grows of each other—and the more likely it is Hofstra and Davidson will go at least another 20 years before scheduling another game.
“I never think in terms of coaching trees, I just don’t,” McKillop said. “I think of brothers. I’ve got lots of brothers in this profession, and they’re the ones I stay in touch with. There are a lot of colleagues. But I’ve got brothers and that’s what I find very fortunate.”