Friday, February 19, 2010

Rider reunion provides reminder of relaxed rivalry

Hofstra, left, and Rider (or is it Rider, left, and Hofstra?) pose for a picture in advance of their reunion at the Bracket Buster tomorrow.

The Flying Dutchmen’s Bracket Buster game tomorrow against Rider also serves as a reunion of sorts between two long-ago, long-forgotten East Coast Conference rivals. But no matter how it turns out, neither Tom Pecora nor Rider head coach Tommy Dempsey should have to worry about it setting off a chain of events that ends with him serving as the commissioner of a doomed conference.

Despite the proximity of the two schools to one another (Rider is located just outside of Trenton, about 70 miles south of Hofstra) and the competitiveness of the series, there were few unforgettable duels between the Dutchmen and the Broncs. In fact, the most memorable game between the schools made an indelible impression for all the wrong reasons.

On Jan. 18, 1989—41 days before Charles Jenkins was born—John Carpenter, the longest-tenured head coach in Rider history, basically got himself fired by taking college basketball back to the pre-shot clock era as the Broncs fell, 48-34, at the Physical Fitness Center. The 34 points remain the fewest allowed by Hofstra since the school moved up to Division I and it would be another 20 years—until last Dec. 9, when the Dutchmen edged Manhattan 44-39—before an opponent scored fewer than 40.

“He would just hold the ball until there were like 10 seconds on the clock the entire game,” said Rider sports information director Bud Focht, who has been at the school for 28 years. “The players didn’t want to do it, it was the first game we tried it and the only game we tried it. The game before, we scored in the 80s. And then that game he did that. And it was just bad. We were bad that year. I guess he figured he couldn’t win a 40-minute game, but maybe a 20-minute game.

“There was such an uproar after that game. All the players were upset, the players’ parents were upset, the alums were upset. It was a major uproar and that was the end of Carpenter.”

Carpenter, who was also Rider’s athletic director. was replaced after the season by local up-and-comer Kevin Bannon. But Carpenter and Bannon didn’t get along and so Carpenter left his AD post after Bannon’s first year to become…the commissioner of the ECC. Carpenter remained in that position even after Rider left the league following the 1991-92 season and tried multiple times to keep the ECC afloat before it finally folded for good after the 1993-94 school year.

The horror show of that game in January 1989—which took place during the last season in which the Dutchmen climbed back to .500 in conference after falling at least four games under, a ha, it all ties together!!—ran counter to the normalcy that accompanied most Hofstra-Rider games.

Indeed, if, among the alumni of the ECC, Hofstra and Delaware are the one-time inseparable best buddies who have irreparably grown apart and have nothing in common, then Hofstra and Rider were the equivalent of the high school kids who shared a bunch of classes and whose paths were always crossing yet who never really had any sustained interactions.

Hofstra and Rider first met during the 1942-43 season and have split 34 meetings all-time. The two schools played each other at least twice a season for nine straight years from 1983-84 through 1991-92, after which the ECC (which was down to just seven schools and just three—Hofstra, Rider and Towson State—with more than two years of league membership) disbanded for the first time.

At that point, the Dutchmen had played just two schools more often than Rider—Wagner (49) and Manhattan (44). Even today, Rider still ranks as Hofstra’s ninth-most frequent opponent.

The games between the teams were almost always competitive: Fourteen of the final 19 games were decided by 10 points or less, including seven that were either settled by three points or less or in overtime.

Yet there were no real classic duels, either. Neither program was a powerhouse—Hofstra failed to win a title in the final 15 years of the conference, though of course it won the one-off ECC reboot in 1994, while Rider won just one crown (1984) in 19 seasons in the league—and the two schools met in the ECC Tournament just once. The Dutchmen won a first-round game, 77-68, in 1986.

The longtime friendly strangers probably won’t recognize one another any more now than they did then, even though the schools have had plenty in common and have remained intertwined since graduation, err, the splintering apart of the ECC.

Both schools made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances after leaving the ECC (Rider won the Northeast Conference in 1993 and 1994, Hofstra won the America East in 2000 and 2001). The coaches who directed those tourney teams parlayed their success into Big East gigs (Bannon went to Rutgers in 1997 while Jay Wright, of course, left for Villanova in 2001).

Neither school made its first post-ECC home a permanent one: Rider was in the NEC for five years before it joined the MAAC in 1997. Hofstra, after a year as an independent and a year in the threadbare 2.0 version of the ECC, was accepted into the North Atlantic Conference for the 1994-95 season and bolted along with former ECC foes Delaware, Drexel and Towson to the CAA after the 2000-01 school year.

Even this year, the two teams are traveling similar paths: As Jeremy Kniffin notes in the press release accompanying the game notes, both teams are 15-13 overall and 8-8 in conference play.

Still, there remains at least one major difference between the schools: Just like the last time the two met on Feb. 15, 1992, Hofstra will get to see in Rider—which had already agreed to join the NEC—a school with the type of secure and satisfying conference fit it can only wish it had. Rider is firmly ensconced in the MAAC while Hofstra is unhappy in the CAA and still looking for a permanent home, nearly 20 years after the initial disbanding of the ECC.

“I think we’re pretty much set in the MAAC now—I don’t think there’s any place for us to go,” Focht said. “The MAAC is a perfect fit for us. I don’t think we can go bigger and we definitely wouldn’t want to go smaller. Geographically, it works. We have Loyola to our south [in Maryland] and everyone else to our north, but not all that far. Two to three hours [away], the teams in Buffalo are the only far trip. It’s a perfect fit for Rider.”

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