Saturday, March 27, 2010

For Pecora, the goodbyes are as familiar as the hellos

TP says goodbye, TP says hello.

Tom Pecora’s last day at Hofstra was a lot like his first. There were movements shrouded in secrecy, and usually loose lips sealed tight, as the school tried to keep some explosive news under wraps.

The difference, of course, was this time Pecora was walking into the University Club Wednesday night to say goodbye instead of hello, unlike the sun-splashed Thursday morning he and Jay Wright were introduced Apr. 14, 1994. There were also two schools trying to keep a lid on a pot of boiling hot news, and mostly failing thanks to the instant news cycle that didn’t exist back when Al Gore had just invented the Internet.

It can’t be a coincidence that Pecora and his wife, Mary Beth, walked into the University Club for the men’s basketball banquet at 6:19, a mere eight minutes after Fordham sent out an email announcing the Thursday afternoon press conference introducing Pecora as its new head coach. The end was here for Pecora, and unlike at the beginning, there was no pomp and circumstance—no television cameras, no overflow crowd squeezing into the U-Club, no school president beaming at the front of the room.

Yet what could have been an awkward and somber evening instead turned equal parts frank, festive and familial, an appropriate coda to a remarkable 16-year run and, particularly, a season that defined a man and his tenure as head coach.

The Dutchmen’s season was much more compelling than their 19-15 record would indicate, with the high hopes of November and a red-hot stretch run in February bookending a brutal stretch in which they seemed ready to fall apart.

At the banquet, Pecora lauded seniors Miklos Szabo and Cornelius Vines—both of whom lost their starting jobs earlier in the season and spent much of the year in Pecora’s doghouse—for not quitting on the team, even though the end of their careers were on the horizon and there didn’t seem to be much chance of turning their senior seasons around.

Yet Pecora, even more so than Szabo or Vines, could have just as easily mailed in the rest of the season once the Dutchmen suffered that five-game losing streak in January to fall to 9-12. Given the swiftness with which Fordham hired Pecora—and the fact the school didn’t interview any other outside candidates, not even Fordham alum and red-hot Robert Morris coach Mike Rice—it’s naïve to think Pecora didn’t have an inkling for weeks or months that a job offer from the Rams could be forthcoming.

The Dutchmen finishing the season on a 10-3 tear sure didn’t hurt Pecora’s career. But, again, Fordham was so high on Pecora that he’d probably be in the Bronx right now as long as he didn’t steer the 2009-10 Dutchmen into an iceberg. Finishing 15-18 would have been enough to punch his ticket to the Atlantic 10.

He worked with Szabo and Vines to salvage their seasons, even though it would have been easy to bench them in favor of freshmen and spin the Dutchmen’s poor finish as a matter of looking towards the future. He rebuilt the psyche of a shattered team and coaxed out of it an unprecedented second half run. He fought, angrily and passionately, on behalf of Brad Kelleher.

“We always said ‘Just give yourself up to the program and believe that we’re going to do everything right for you,’” Pecora said after the Senior Day win over Georgia State.

Even in the waning hours of his tenure, Pecora was still doing right by the Dutchmen and providing his players the type of commitment and investment he asked of them. After meeting with Fordham officials and accepting the job offer Wednesday afternoon, Pecora called Hofstra athletic director Jack Hayes.

“I said ‘Jack, I can’t do it,’ and he knew I didn’t mean the banquet,” Pecora said at Fordham Thursday. “I couldn’t go in and lie to them and say nothing’s happened yet and then bring them into an 8 o’clock meeting [Thursday]. I’ve never lied to them before. One of the expressions I use all the time [is] ‘The greatest gift I can give you is the truth.’

“We talk all the time about the responsibilities that come with being a legitimate man, being an adult. And I had to make some hard decision, but for me and my family at this time, it was a no-brainer, and for that reason I was moving on. We all embraced, we went over and we had a pretty nice banquet.”

The banquet served as a testament to the bonds created by the program. Pecora often spoke of how Hofstra basketball is a family. Such quotes make for great sound bites, and supporting images are easy to produce when there are thousands (OK, fine, hundreds) of people watching.

The truth is revealed when only a few dozen people are watching, like Wednesday, when those in attendance at the University Club heard Pecora relate his morning conversations with Terry Ryan, the director of the Hofstra summer basketball camps. Actually, these weren’t conversations at all: Ryan would walk into Pecora’s office upon arriving on campus, sit down, have a cup of coffee, never exchange a word with Pecora, get up and leave. Yet it would still be, for Pecora, his most productive and enjoyable meeting of the day.

Pecora also spoke of long-time basketball secretary Clarice Smith, who seemed to be laughing through the tears as Pecora told of how Smith could, with a single withering look or a stern word, bring to a screeching halt the office shenanigans of the coaching staff.

The true feelings between players and coaches—and teammates—were obvious, as well, in the sound of David Duke’s voice cracking just a bit as the assistant coach presented the Butch van Breda Kolff award for team play to Kelleher and the sight of the Dutchmen rising and giving Kelleher a standing ovation.

And at the end of the night, when Pecora broke down in tears in delivering his closing comments, the first player to step forward and hug the coach was Our Man Corny.

As inspiring as Wednesday night was, it’s still weird, and a little bit of a bummer, to see the words “Ex-Hofstra coach Pecora” in a headline. The idea of walking into the Arena and not seeing Pecora will take some getting used to. He was on the sidelines through 16 years and two buildings and served as the head coach here for nine seasons, one year shy of tying Paul Lynner—whom he surpassed on the all-time win list in February—for the longest continuous tenure at the helm. I’ll always wish he could have achieved his goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament with the Dutchmen, and that he could have been to Hofstra what his mentor Bob McKillop is to Davidson.

Yet maybe it SHOULD be this way. There was something inspiringly cyclical about what happened Wednesday and Thursday—the penning of a new chapter equal parts familiar and unknown and the next step in timeless evolutionary process that began 16 years earlier.

This is what coaches do: They proceed from hip, hot young assistant coaches to hip, hot head coaches to experienced mainstays who move on to bigger and more visible jobs. Along the way, they develop the next generation of hip, hot young assistants and prepare them for the opportunity to take over a program.

There was something natural about Wright leaving for Villanova on March 27, 2001 and Pecora becoming the Hofstra head coach the next day. The Wright coaching tree is one of the most fruitful in college basketball and Pecora’s tree has branches, too, with Tom Parrotta at Canisius.

And now Pecora moves on to Fordham, where he got the type of reception at a packed Duane Library that Wright received at the University Club a mere 5,823 days earlier. When Wright was hired, then-Hofstra president James Shuart spoke of how he expected the school to win in the North Atlantic Conference, which accepted it as a member the same day Wright was hired. On Thursday, Fordham president Father Joseph McShane said he looked forward to Pecora lifting the Rams “…to frightening glory—and I do mean frightening.”

Pecora called Fordham a “sleeping giant,” the exact phrase Wright used to describe Hofstra in 1994. Like Wright, Pecora immediately put on the charm with reporters—especially the ones from the student newspaper, from whom he promptly requested help and assistance.

“You guys gonna get students to the games this year?” Pecora said. “Tell me what dorms I have to visit.”

At 3 p.m., two hours after the press conference began, Pecora finally exited Duane Library, surrounded by family and Fordham staffers. Pecora was headed to a meeting with his new players, where he’d begin the process of building a foundation and relationships and delivering his core messages to a new audience. But I imagine, as the sights and sounds of a college campus filled the air—with students sunning themselves on an expansive green lawn and the ping of aluminum bats in the distance—it all felt invigoratingly familiar to Pecora.

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1 comment:

Phoenix Rising said...

Very well written. Top notch stuff. I don't always agree with everything you say in this blog, but this was most definitely a solid read. Cheers mate.