Friday, April 2, 2010

Five thoughts on the Welsh presser

I always wanted to cover a press conference in the days of black-and-white. This will have to suffice!

Lots of material to sift through following the Tim Welsh press conference—45 minutes of Welsh, Stuart Rabinowitz and Jack Hayes at the podium followed by more than half an hour of group and individual interviews—so it’s probably easier to take the bullet point approach to the day rather than trying to absorb it in one giant feature story. Plus, there will be plenty left over to discuss next week. Enjoy your Easter weekend!

1.) Hofstra didn’t just win the press conference, it dominated it. We’re talking historic dominance here: Reagan over Mondale, the 49ers over the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX, the 1992 Dream Team over the rest of the world. This is no surprise, of course: If there’s anything Hofstra is really good at, and has been really good at since long before I could find Hempstead on a map, it’s winning press conferences. Of course, that should happen when a school is run by people obsessed with the tone of the publicity it receives.

Anyway, as expected, Hofstra did everything right Thursday. Rabinowitz was front and center, delivering the buzzword-filled message that Hofstra remains fully committed to athletics.

“Jack said ‘It’s going to cost more money, probably, to get such a person,’” Rabinowitz said. “I said ‘The University is willing and able to make strategic investments and enhance contributions to those athletic programs in such a manner that we can improve them and reach national acclaim.’”

He dropped a little hoops knowledge on the crowd, correcting himself when he said he hoped the team would make multiple NCAA or NIT appearances. “There won’t be an NIT anymore,” Rabinowitz said.

He even tugged at the heartstrings by noting this press conference was for a much happier occasion than the last one. “The last time we had a press conference here was a very sad day,” Rabinowitz said. “My stomach was turning many different ways.”

Did I imagine Rabinowitz reciting the letters “NIT, NIT, NIT” to himself as he stepped to the podium? Sure. Did he look as if he’d rather be someplace else? Sure. But when doesn’t Rabinowitz look as if he’d rather be someplace else?

Unlike Dec. 3, Rabinowitz hung around and mingled after the press conference. My favorite sight of the day was that of Hofstra staffers rushing to introduce Rabinowitz to Charles Jenkins and Nathaniel Lester and setting up photos between the president and the basketball players. I’ll bet my meager fortune that those photos find their way into multiple media guides and all sorts of Hofstra literature next year. LOOK AT US WE LIKE SPORTS!!!!

2.) Hofstra certainly conducted itself like a vibrant athletic program in searching for and finding Welsh. Hofstra dropped plenty of names Thursday—Hayes and Rabinowitz said the school consulted the likes of ex-coach Jay Wright, ex-Hofstra stars Bob McKillop and Speedy Claxton and Florida coach Billy Donovan during the search while Welsh said he talked with or heard from big-timers such as Jim Calhoun, Geno Auriemma and Mike Brey—and not once did it sound like an extra on Entourage. It never sounded as if the school was trying to angle itself with people with whom it did not belong.

Consulting the elite in finding a head coach who has led multiple schools to the NCAA Tournament: Not bad for a school that, two weeks shy of 16 years ago, was among the bottom 10 programs in the country and entrusting its future to a 32-year-old with a headline-happy last name.

3.) Part of winning the press conference is having a winning personality to introduce. To the surprise of nobody, Welsh—an experienced coach who spent the last two years as an analyst on ESPN—was comfortable, personable, confident and savvy in front of the crowd. He pointed out reporters he recognized and said he was looking forward to getting to know the rest of the media corps (we’ll see what he’s saying after I begin annoying him).

He was funny, declaring that he was impressed so many Flying Dutchmen made it to the press conference even though the school is on spring break. “If somebody called me when I was on spring break back in the ‘80s and said ‘You’ve got to come to a press conference,’ I wouldn’t have answered my phone,” Welsh said. “I would have been in Florida.”

He was smart, lauding and mentioning Charles Jenkins multiple times. As close as he was and is with Tom Pecora, Jenkins is too mature and too much of a professional to make Welsh beg for his approval, but Welsh had nothing to lose and a lot to gain by making Jenkins feel wanted and appreciated.

He sounded hungrier than ever after two years on the sideline, talking about how he missed the “winning and the misery” of coaching that Pat Riley has so often spoke about. He mentioned the joy of Iona fans and faithful when he coached the Gaels to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years in 1998 and how much he wanted to bring that experience to Hofstra.

Most importantly, Welsh paid homage to his predecessors and the tradition Wright and Pecora established while also declaring he was ready to stamp the program with his own identity. “This place has been there, it has been close and the foundation has been set,” Welsh said. “It’s not like we’ve got to come in here and blow up the game plan.”

Welsh noted his New York credentials—“I have an EZ Pass, I didn’t have to get one, I know how to get to the beach, I know how to get to the AAU gyms, I know how to get to the high school gyms, I know how to get on the train”—but also said he was willing to go into the CAA heartland to get players. Pecora’s recruiting philosophy was pretty well-known—metro-area high schoolers, European high schoolers and JUCO players from Florida—and had become the subject of some criticism by Dutchmen fans.

Welsh also dismissed the idea it’s impossible for a northern school to win the CAA. Pecora, of course, made no secret of his disdain for the southern-dominated CAA and how he thought the Virginia-based schools had an unfair advantage.

“I had a good 20-minute fight yesterday with Mad Dog Russo,” Welsh said. “He was trying to tell me Hofstra can’t win in a southern league. I’m like ‘Chris, that’s a ridiculous statement. I don’t know why you’d say that. Just because they haven’t won before means they can’t do it? It’s like saying Louisville and West Virginia can’t win the Big East [tournament] because it’s in New York City. It’s kind of the same, isn’t it? I don’t get it.

“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard—so stop with that, whoever said that. Games are played between the lines. Ten guys on the court, two coaches and three referees. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Richmond, or next door at the Coliseum—doesn’t matter where it is—or in Italy…[the southern nature of the CAA] can’t be used as a crutch.”

Hmm, think the powers that be were happy to hear Welsh’s words on that topic?

4.) Welsh did pretty well for himself Thursday, financially and professionally, but the biggest winner of all was Jack Hayes, whose power and influence as athletic director were called into question after the football debacle.

Hayes looks pretty secure and authoritative after this. Indeed, the fashion in which Hayes landed Welsh is going to get him his next job.

While most of Hofstra’s neighbors and rivals continued to mess up their coaching searches (I’m pretty sure I was next on the list at St. John’s, and I’m beginning to think UNC Wilmington isn’t going to hire someone before Midnight Madness), Hayes quickly, efficiently and secretly identified Welsh, interviewed him and locked him up, all within a week of Pecora’s official departure. Is it ironic, in that it’s not ironic at all, that the only two local gigs to be filled seamlessly thus far are the jobs that Pecora left and the one he took?

5.) Hofstra declared itself ready to compete for championships by making Welsh the highest-paid coach in the CAA (that’s right, more, apparently, than Jim Larranaga—again, do you REALLY think it was a coincidence George Mason announced Larranaga’s latest extension when it did?).

But did Hofstra also make it more clear than ever that it wants out? I found it very interesting that Hofstra has retained Mike Tranghese to, in the words of yesterday’s press release, “…to assist in the development of a strategic plan for the Hofstra Athletics program.”

Tranghese, of course, is the former commissioner of the Big East. He’s not here to tell Hofstra to go back to the America East. Wouldn’t forcing the rest of the CAA to pay more for its head men’s basketball coaches be quite a present for Hofstra to leave on its way out the door?

I’ll have more on this next week, but with NCAA Tournament expansion all but inevitable and the BCS schools likely to set off a chain of conference realignment and maybe even reformation, wouldn’t it be something if, once the dust settles, Hofstra is in a conference similar to or better than the Atlantic 10? What if Pecora didn’t have to leave Hofstra to eventually get out of the CAA?

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