Monday, April 19, 2010

In which I complete the seventh stage of grief by finally explaining the man crush on Tom Pecora

I'm not saying I've spent the last month wailing my own version of Hall & Oates' first big hit. I'm not saying I haven't, either.

Twenty-five days ago, Fordham held a press conference introducing Tom Pecora as the new head men’s basketball coach at Fordham. When he stepped to the podium, he didn’t announce his resignation as the HC of FU.

Eighteen days ago, Hofstra held a press conference introducing Tim Welsh as its new head men’s basketball coach. It was April Fools Day, but Pecora didn’t come busting through the gohofstra.com backdrop, a la the Kool-Aid Man.

Pecora’s entire staff from Hofstra has joined him at Fordham. Former Boston College assistant Mo Cassarra has already joined Welsh’s staff, with more announcements expected this week. When Pecora appeared on AOL Fanhouse TV’s online coverage of the Final Four (yes, apparently, EVERYONE is getting jobs in sports journalism except me), he was identified as Fordham’s head coach.

So I guess it’s time to come to grips with reality: Pecora is gone, and he ain’t coming back.

I am asked three questions by people who stumble upon this blog: Why do you hate George Mason so much? Do you ever shut up? And why do you like Tom Pecora so much?

For the Cliffs Notes answer to question no. 1, click here. The answer to no. 2 should be found in there (and here!) as well.

As for my fondness for Pecora—I’m being a little over the top here, like with everything else, but I will authentically miss Pecora. Part of it is he was just about the last link to my college days. Now, if I want to remember what it’s like to be 21, I have to root for Brett Favre, who entering his second full season as the Packers’ starting quarterback when our fantasy football league began in 1994. No thanks.

But becoming re-acquainted with Pecora and covering him have been among the few highlights of the last two eminently crappy years. Writing is in my blood, but my last gig was so dehumanizing, from a management perspective, that it began to feel like a job for the first time ever. I started this blog in the summer of 2008 to stay sharp as I pursued another job (snicker snicker snort snort) and enjoy the purity of writing for myself and not a soulless, faceless corporation that viewed me as an unnecessary evil.

I never expected it to reignite my passion like it has, and much of the credit for that has to go to Pecora. His openness and accessibility made this year’s coverage, in particular, possible, and represented a welcome change from what I’d grown accustomed to in the world of professional athletics. There was no secrecy, no paranoia, no passive-aggressive games in which he spent hours making me jump through hoops for a few minutes of his time.

Nor did he spend a chunk of his time trying to control the message. Last fall, I wanted to do a story on seniors Miklos Szabo and Our Man Corny, but the two were struggling and all-world SID Jeremy Kniffin gently suggested that Pecora might not think it was the best time to interview the two. A few minutes later, he informed me the interview was a go because Pecora said it didn’t make sense to hide the players.

Unlike so many players and coaches who are unwilling to offer anything more than mind-numbing clich├ęs, Pecora’s press conferences were can’t-miss affairs. He was brutally, blissfully honest and didn’t have it in him to BS people. A lot of people got tired of his CAA bashing, but, again: Why should he get over the fact that the screw job that left his best team ever out of the NCAA Tournament was perpetuated by and benefited a team within his own conference?

It was also refreshing to deal with someone who viewed a reporter as a fellow human being, and not a form of life lower than a meter maid. Last spring, we spent some time in his office and discussed the pain of losing a parent.

And after the Bracket Buster game against Rider Feb. 20, Pecora walked out of the media room and asked if I was OK. I’d been diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy almost two weeks earlier and Pecora noticed, even from the front of the room, that my face was swollen and my speech mildly affected. I thought that was really nice of him, especially since I can think of at least one baseball executive who wouldn’t break stride if I dropped dead of a heart attack right in front of him.

Believe it or not, though, my appreciation for Pecora has much less to do with how he treated me than it does with the program he built and the philosophies he espoused. Pecora, as well as Jay Wright before him, made sure the Flying Dutchmen would remain a program a fan could be proud of, regardless of how the team fared on the court. My favorite part of my exchanges with the paste-eaters in Mason Nation was how they had to go back five or seven years to find an example of a Hofstra player with attitude and disciplinary issues.

Pecora is as much about teaching his players about life as basketball, just like Butch van Breda Kolff. I remember conducting an interview with van Breda Kolff after Wright was hired in which van Breda Kolff said he hoped he instilled important lessons in his players such as how to dress for a job interview or the value of arriving a few minutes early for appointments.

Pecora didn’t use the same verbiage, but the message was generally the same. He wanted to prepare his players for the world beyond the suspended animation of college, to remind them that whatever obstacles and adversity they faced on the court would alternately steel them for and pale in comparison to the harsh realities outside a tree- and tulip-adorned campus.

As interesting as it was to listen to Pecora talks Xs and Os, I enjoyed much more listening to him deliver these lessons. Maybe I would have felt differently two years ago, when I would have been nodding out of politeness instead of agreement. But after what I’ve experienced lately, a dose of perspective in a head coach is a wonderful thing.

“I’m not into feeling sorry for myself, I’m not into feeling sorry for them,” Pecora said after the infamous loss to Mason Jan. 19. “They’ve got scholarships here. It’s $50,000 a year to come be a college basketball player. It’s a wonderful life. And you’re asked to play hard when you get on the floor, work hard in the classroom and behave like a gentleman when you’re off the court. It’s not that much to do. There’s guys who would give their left arm to do that.

“So if they think this is tough—what are they going to do when they get into the real world and you lose a job like so many people have done already, or things happen to you in your life that send you for a tailspin? These guys can’t handle losing some close basketball games? When adversity strikes, the true man comes out.”

Pecora also delivered some life lessons in how he handled his departure, particularly how to go about a job even when you may not plan to be there much longer. As I wrote three weeks ago, the rapidity with which Fordham hired Pecora suggests the groundwork had been laid over the preceding weeks and months, but Pecora’s effort remained honest all season. He coached the final few weeks as if his legacy was at stake and presided over the greatest second half turnaround in CAA history. Earlier in the season, he fought for Brad Kelleher as if his job depended on it.

There’s a lot to be learned, too, from Pecora’s exit. The timing is not always right to take a new job, and there will be wounded feelings left behind both inside and outside the program.

Wright got to leave Hofstra after seven seniors led the Flying Dutchmen to a second straight NCAA Tournament and a near-upset of UCLA. Pecora’s last game was in something called a CBI that was played in front of “952” people—more people turned out to Wright’s first game in 1994—and he leaves behind a squad that features the CAA’s reigning player of the year and two members of the all-rookie team.

Not everybody gets the clean and happy ending. But sometimes, the money is too good to turn down, and a coach is too old to wait for another opportunity to jump to a bigger and better league.

Contrary to what you might believe after reading the preceding 1,500 or so words, I’m not declaring Pecora can walk on water. (Though I’ve never seen him NOT walk on water) I’m sure he’s demanding behind the scenes, and I’m sure he has an ego, too. I also know he knew it could only help him to embrace anyone who wanted to give his overlooked program some publicity.

I know 16 years is a long time to be in one place and that it was probably time for a change of scenery for everyone. And as both a fan and a dude with a digital recorder in his hand, Tim Welsh seems to be the perfect successor to Pecora. Still, I think I’ll keep the WELCOME BACK TOM banner in the trunk. You know, just in case.

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

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