One of the bleakest days in the history of Hofstra athletics wasn’t without a shred of optimism.
“The last thing I want to say to you is that this in no way diminishes the fact that we believe a robust athletic program is extremely important to Hofstra University,” Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz said as he announced his decision to eliminate football Dec. 3. “In fact, we want to play at the highest national level. So we are keeping and have no plans to drop any other sports. We are keeping our 17 teams which don’t play in a low Division I-A, as football does.”
Nothing would ever make up for the clandestine way football was executed after a “two-year study,” especially for the hundreds of alumni who donned the helmets and shoulder pads for the Flying Dutchmen. But the truth was that through nearly a decade of organized organizational neglect, football had become a shell of its former self at Hofstra. As much as we’d rather see non-scholarship football at Hofstra than nothing at all, if dropping the sport encouraged Hofstra to concentrate its resources and attention on other sports, well, at least we wouldn’t have to worry about those other sports ever suffering a similar fate.
This was the belief I parroted for months, even as other observers of the Flying Dutchmen warned the death of football was just the first domino to fall in the demise of Hofstra sports. I shrugged off the Tom Pecora to Fordham rumors, feeling confident that men’s basketball was now the centerpiece sport at Hofstra and reminding myself that Rabinowitz expressed his high hopes and expectations for the program by declaring “George Mason should have been us” in 2006.
With that kind of support, why would Pecora—who often spoke of how it would take a unique opportunity for him to consider leaving Hofstra—bolt an imperfect yet reasonably thriving program he’d spent 16 years building for the mother of all rebuilding jobs in the Bronx? Except the whispers got louder and louder, peaking, of course, last week, when Pecora met with Fordham officials and agreed to a six-year contract with the school in a whirlwind 24-hour span.
Now, with Pecora plying his trade in the shadow of the Bronx Zoo, I’m no longer sure that those who were the loudest and angriest following the execution of football were so crazy after all. If I’m not ducking for cover from a falling sky, I am gazing tentatively upward, wondering what’s next.
The only person who can soothe the nerves of the Flying Dutchmen faithful—all seven of us!—is the same person who uttered the words that had us optimistic that the death of football was an isolated thing and not the beginning of the end of athletics as we know them at Hofstra.
Rabinowitz can let his athletic director do his job, and approve whomever Jack Hayes recommends as Pecora’s replacement, and sit in between Hayes and the new coach at a press conference and declare that this hire—whether it’s an established Division I coach, a highly touted assistant from a BCS conference or a hot up-and-comer in the Jay Wright vein—is proof Hofstra is not beginning its descent to the fringe of Division I, where it resided before Wright took over, or worse.
Because right now, it’s hard to believe Pecora's departure wasn't a link in a chain of events that began with the execution of football.
Hey, maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe this was a matter of perfect timing, of Pecora growing increasingly frustrated with the CAA and getting an offer he couldn’t refuse to go join the Atlantic 10, the conference he has long believed is the perfect home for Hofstra. Pecora will pull down a reported $650,000 a year at Fordham, a salary that is well beyond the means of a program that plays in obscurity. Maybe, as I wrote last week, this was destined to happen—Pecora parlaying his success at Hofstra into a higher-profile opportunity.
Or maybe Pecora knew something we don’t, knew that the events of Dec. 3 doomed Hofstra to an indefinite stay in conference purgatory. Dropping football ruined any negotiating power the school possessed. With football in the fold, Hofstra would have looked like a better fit with the CAA—nowhere near perfect, but at least still a school with similar aspirations as the league in which it resides—as it tried to negotiate its way into the A-10 or maybe even the MAAC via backroom dealings.
But getting rid of football declared, in very public and irreversible fashion, "GET US OUT OF HERE!!" And no conference is going to rush to make room for a school that is so desperate to leave its current league—especially the A-10, which has seven schools playing or planning to play I-AA football and another, Temple, in I-A.
If more than half the league can play football, why can’t Hofstra? Even if there was a vacancy and/or the A-10 was willing to expand, why would it rush to invite a school that isn’t wholly committed to all sports?
And, honestly, don’t you think it’s just a little too convenient that Fordham fired Dereck Whittenberg mere hours after Hofstra dropped football? Perhaps Fordham was sending Pecora a message that afternoon. And maybe, 112 days later, Pecora was sending a message to his former employer when he said that the job of the men’s basketball team and the athletic department is “…to be the front porch of the university.”
Rabinowitz’ actions, almost from the day he arrived in 2001, indicate he considers athletics the back yard trees, or maybe even the fort behind the trees, of the university. He’s never gone to the CAA tournament in Richmond, not even when the Flying Dutchmen made the championship game in 2006. He rarely appears at the Arena, and when he does, it’s usually for some kind of grip-and-grin ceremony before the game or at halftime. Nor, reportedly, did he show up to either of the last two open Pride Club meetings.
Rabinowitz fancies Hofstra as a premier academic institution, which is pretty funny to those of us who have actually attended class there. To paraphrase Winston Wolf from Pulp Fiction: “Just because you charge like you are Yale doesn’t mean you are Yale.”
There are those on campus who think the only sport Rabinowitz really likes is lacrosse, which fits in with the elitist air he tries to project, and that every other sport is flotsam and/or jetsam. There are also people who are authentically worried about the long-term future of ALL sports at the University. Nothing even close to imminent, mind you, but there are perfectly lucid folks in the 11550 who wonder if there will come a day when Hofstra either de-emphasizes athletics or drops them entirely.
Sounds inconceivable, doesn’t it? But at some point in the last year, so did the idea that football would no longer be played at Hofstra and that Pecora would leave the Flying Dutchmen for a program that went 2-26 this season and has recorded one winning record in the last 15 years.
We’ll get a good idea of where Hofstra is headed as an athletic department with this hire. And the rumors of an imminent agreement between Hofstra and former Iona and Providence coach Tim Welsh are an encouraging sign. While I think Pecora’s longtime top assistant, Van Macon, should get a shot at the top job, Welsh would bring to the sidelines plenty of credibility as well as an experienced tri-state recruiter.
But you’ll have to pardon me if I’m not jump-starting the welcome wagon quite yet. While I have plenty of faith in Hayes’ ability to find a good replacement for Pecora, I’m also quite curious to see what happens when he goes to the office of the president for final approval. After all, Hayes ended up at Hofstra only after Rabinowitz declined the choice of the search committee he hired to find a new athletic director in 2004.
And we won’t really know if the commitment to men’s basketball was the same post-Pecora as it was pre-Pecora for years. Don’t forget Rabinowitz spoke of winning national championships in I-AA when Dave Cohen was hired to replace Joe Gardi following the 2005 season.
It’ll take a while to know if this next hire was the next step in maintaining and building what Wright and Pecora constructed, or a cosmetic move intended to delay or hasten the inevitable. But in the meantime, Rabinowitz can make us feel a whole lot better about the future by getting out of the way and allowing Hayes to do his job—and then by exiting his ivory tower and showing up for the press conference.