Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In which I once again butt into matters that are none of my business by begging Tom Pecora to stay at Hofstra

I'll do almost anything to keep Tom Pecora from moving to Albuquerque--err, the Bronx, Queens or South Orange, that is.

It’s days like these I wish I was a disc jockey, or that I was unafraid of heights, or that I could go more than six hours without the local Dunkin Donuts luring me in with their delicious coffee rolls (I don’t even drink coffee!). Because then I’d climb a billboard high above one of our local parkways or highways or embark upon a hunger strike, and I wouldn’t come back to solid ground or eat a single piece of solid food until Tom Pecora announced he was staying at Hofstra, forever and ever and ever and ever, or at least until football comes back.

Alas, since I’m in the one career (snort) with a brighter outlook than radio, and since I’m a “few” pounds overweight and get woozy looking out the window of my second-story apartment, all I can do is pound away on a keyboard. And I just can’t bring myself to write terribly libelous things about Pecora that will send Seton Hall, Fordham and St. John’s looking elsewhere for a new head coach, so all I can do is bellow the following:


Part of my passionate begging is rooted in selfishness. I enjoy being able to walk into the office of a Division I head coach and conduct an interview at a moment’s notice. I also find it really neat that a link to my college days is still occupying the big office at Hofstra.

I see Pecora and I think of being 20 again, of the carefree days of youth when life revolved around drinking beers at Bogart’s and Fezziwigs and watching basketball games at the Physical Fitness Center and football games at Hofstra Stadium. And how awesome would it be if Pecora stayed at Hofstra long enough to surpass Butch van Breda Kolff, whom I covered in his last year as head coach, as the winningest coach in program history?

For crying out loud, I’ve known Pecora longer than I’ve known my wife. Cue Michelle: “And you like him more, too!”

Of course, overexposure to me is a pretty good reason for Pecora to look for an exit. I can guess there are others, too, even though Pecora has been vocal in the past in declaring it would take a unique job to leave the Dutchmen and neither Seton Hall nor Fordham strike me as such.

Maybe it’s just a matter of timing, with the three local schools seeking coaches as Pecora, 52, nears the point in his life where he’s running out of time to make a jump to a higher level.

Or maybe he’s tired of coaching a school where the basketball program remains a rumor among the student body and community, even after more than a decade of sustained success. The sight of “952” fans for the CBI game last week had to make him cringe.

It’s human nature to want to perform on a bigger stage and have your work appreciated by a larger audience. All three gigs offer Pecora a higher profile and the chance to enjoy the accompanying juicy rewards. Imagine if he returns St. John’s to glory, or turns water into wine at Fordham, or turns Seton Hall from punch line to powerhouse.

Or maybe it’s because he’s wondering about the long-term future of sports at Hofstra after football was executed. I’m not one of those people who thinks the death of football was step one in destroying Hofstra athletics. But I’m also not a head coach at another high-profile program on a campus where the president is indifferent at best to sports.

There’s no conjecture about this: Pecora does not like the CAA. We joke about southern bias. He doesn’t. And the multiple NCAA Tournament bids that were used as bait to lure Hofstra away from the America East have never really materialized (twice in nine years). Just because he is more mature than me in discussing how the best team he ever coached was screwed out of a berth in 2006 doesn’t mean he’s gotten over it, or the fact it was perpetuated from inside the conference.

Or maybe he just wants another challenge. Pecora has been here 16 years as an assistant or head coach, which is almost surely a Hofstra record and an epoch in a restless profession (I think Larry Brown has coached all 30 NBA teams and six colleges since 1994).

And if he chooses to leave, we will salute him, after an appropriate six-to-eight month period of mourning, and speak as well of him as he toils in South Orange, Queens or Rose Hill as we would if he was still right off Hempstead Turnpike. We’ll buy the swag of his new school, begin blogging about it and hope his SID doesn’t big-time me when I call for an interview several years down the road (extreme inside joke there).

But with all that said, it must be asked: Would the present and future for Pecora be any better at a new school and in a new league?

None of the schools pursuing Pecora are on the radar of the average New York sports fan. Seton Hall and St. John’s ranked 13th and 14th in attendance in the 16-team Big East Conference this season. Seton Hall, which doesn’t play any home games on its South Orange campus, averaged just 7,103 fans per game at the 18,500-seat Prudential Center in Newark and drew only 1,829 to the NIT game against Texas Tech.

St. John’s didn’t draw a single sellout at its on-campus gym, the 6,008-seat Carnesecca Arena, and averaged just 3,719 fans per game there. Nor did the Red Storm come close to a sellout in any of its eight games at the 20,000-seat Madison Square Garden, where the average crowd was 8,392.

Fordham played 11 of its 13 home games at Rose Hill Gym, a facility so outdated it makes the Physical Fitness Center look modern in comparison. The Rams averaged 1,983 fans in the 3,200-seat building and didn’t come close to drawing 10,000 fans in either or their “home” games at the Izod Center or MSG. Fordham has no plans to replace the ancient Rose Hill Gym, reportedly planning instead to play more games in the future at Izod Center.

Whomever takes over the local schools will have to embark almost immediately on a rebuilding project. That’s nothing new at Fordham, which has been in such dire straits (the Rams are 5-51 the last two years, including 2-26 this season, and have had just one winning season since moving to the A-10 in 1995-96) for so long that one athletic administrator with ties to local colleges was incredulous that Pecora would even consider the job.

“Tell him to give me a call so I can ask him what the [expletive] he’s thinking,” the administrator said.

At Seton Hall, meanwhile, the athletic department is in shambles. Law school dean Patrick Hobbs was the one who fired Bobby Gonzalez, not athletic director Joe Quinlan or school president Robert Sheehan. That happened just weeks after Hobbs cut the track teams at Seton Hall despite their history of success. Hmm, a law school guy cutting sports. That sounds familiar.

Quinlan and Sheehan appear on their way out at Seton Hall, which means that unless Hobbs takes over one or both of their jobs, whomever succeeds Gonzalez will almost immediately be in the unenviable position of having been inherited by his boss. That is never good—especially for the new guy at the Hall, who, given the wreckage left by Gonzalez, may be staring at the type of start Tom Crean has endured at Indiana.

St. John’s is in better position now that Norm Roberts has cleaned up Mike Jarvis’ mess, but the Red Storm have nine—NINE!!!—seniors next season, which means there’s a lot of pressure on Roberts’ replacement to come up with a big-time Class of 2015.

Even if Pecora lifts a new school to respectability, the final step to reaching the NCAA Tournament out of the Big East or Atlantic 10 may be as tough as it is out of the CAA.

In the five years since the Big East expanded to 16 teams, the conference has received 37 bids to the NCAA Tournament. Nine schools have combined for 36 of those bids. All nine schools—the eight that got into this year’s tournament as well as UConn—have reached the tournament at least three times apiece. The only other school to crash the party? Seton Hall in 2006. And all that did was get Louis Orr fired.

The A-10 received three bids this season for the third straight year. But in the last 10 years, the conference has earned just 25 NCAA Tournament berths, all of which have been grabbed by six schools: Xavier (nine), Temple (four), St. Joseph’s (four), Dayton (three), George Washington (three) and Richmond (two). In addition, the average seed of an A-10 team in that span is eight. Only seven times has the A-10 received a seed higher than seventh.

If, four or five years from now, Pecora’s new school is still on the outside looking in, you can be sure his bosses aren’t going to care how difficult it is to break into the elite in their conference. Fordham, St. John’s and Seton Hall have had a combined 11 coaches since Pecora arrived at Hofstra. All were fired except Tommy Amaker, who bolted the Hall for Michigan after the 2000-01 season.

Meanwhile, this is what awaits Pecora at Hofstra: The conference player of the year—perhaps the best player Pecora has ever coached—returning for his senior season joined by a member of the CAA’s all-defensive team, two members of this year’s CAA All-Rookie team, three redshirts and another promising freshmen class.

The Dutchmen should be among the CAA’s top four teams next season, though actually winning the CAA will be as challenging as ever. But imagine the feeling in the pit of Pecora’s stomach if he’s sitting home after failing to reach the NCAA Tournament with Fordham, Seton Hall or St. John’s and watching Charles Jenkins cements his legacy by lifting the Dutchmen to the CAA championship under a new coach.

And if Pecora does stick around and endure a 10th straight season without an NCAA Tournament berth—or an 11th and a 12th and a 13th? The good thing about coaching at a school where the president as apathetic about sports as the student body and surrounding community is the unmatched job security. Whether he wins big, loses big or does something in the middle, Pecora never has to worry about anything other than a few posters on the CAA Zone.

The commute is unmatched too: The trek from Pecora’s office to Hofstra Arena is almost as short as his journey from his Nassau County home to campus. There are no bridges to cross, no monstrous traffic jams with which to deal. Once in a while, a 15-minute commute takes half an hour, instead of a one-hour drive taking two or three. No worries, either, about luring students to games played off-campus.

Pecora often talks of the dash—what people do in between birth and death. He’s on pace for a pretty good dash here. Five or 10 years from now, he could look back on a 20- or 25-year career at Hofstra and take—you knew this was coming—great pride in becoming the winningest coach in school history and becoming as synonymous with Hofstra as his mentor, Bob McKillop, is with Davidson.

He could reflect upon an impressive body of work in which he lifted a program from the edge of Division I extinction into a big-time conference (the impending implosion of the Division I landscape will get Hofstra out of the CAA, you can be sure of that) and, hopefully, into an NCAA Tournament or two as head coach. He could glance down from his suite at Hofstra Arena and see the Flying Dutchmen playing on Tom Pecora Court.

Pecora’s work at Hofstra is not done. Hopefully he agrees, and hopefully we look back at the final words he spoke following the loss to IUPUI Wednesday and believe they were directed only at the players who were disappointed their season ended with a loss.

“It’s not a fairy tale,” Pecora said. “It doesn’t always end the way you want.”

Hopefully, we come to realize he wasn’t talking to us, or himself.

Email Jerry at defiantlydutch@yahoo.com or follow Defiantly Dutch at http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch.

1 comment:

Damon Alexander said...

Very well done and well thought out. You make a lot of good points. You sound like you went to Hofstra around the same time I did. I graduated in 96. Keep up the great work.