Tuesday, May 4, 2010

At Hofstra, the fates are always pulling a Lucy Van Pelt

Yeah I'm cranking this one up again.

I spent some time late Monday afternoon with the Googles, trying to figure out if Hofstra was setting a precedent here by having an incoming basketball coach “resign” before he coached a game. I didn’t count the Dana Altman or Bobby Cremins incidents, since those coaches a.) chose to leave and b.) had someplace else to go, unlike Tim Welsh.

It took me a little while and one lightning bolt realization to figure out the answer was right at my feet, in a blue bound book that holds together yellowed copies of the Hofstra student newspaper, The Chronicle. Quaint, right?

Anyway, I suddenly remembered—and may or may not have slapped myself in the head for forgetting this—precedent for a school losing a new coach to a sudden and unpleasant resignation had been set by, I am not kidding here, HOFSTRA.

Honest to freaking God: In 1993, the first year of the Defiantly Dutch Era, new women’s basketball coach Margaret McKeon resigned after three months over a dispute over the lack of a full-time assistant coach.

If TWO basketball coaches leaving before their first game isn’t symbolic of the absurdly awful luck that has dogged Hofstra sports for decades, then what is? Hofstra is the Charlie Brown of Division I, forever getting close to the prize—whether it be an NCAA bid or a national championship or some type of sustained success—only to have it yanked away by the fates at the last possible second.

Take, for example, the most successful men’s basketball team in school history—the 1959-60 squad, which went 23-1. The lone loss was by two points to Wagner. Yet there was no postseason play for the Flying Dutchmen. I couldn’t even blame it on George Mason, since the school was only three years old!

The Dutchmen went Division I in the late ‘60s and had just one winning season until 1975-76, when they won their final six games—including three in the East Coast Conference tournament—to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time. The Dutchmen played UConn in Rhode Island and surged out to a 13-point halftime lead, but the Huskies crawled back and edged Hofstra in overtime. Hofstra went back to the NCAA Tournament the next year, where a furious second half comeback against Notre Dame fell short as the Dutchmen fell by four.

Hofstra seemed primed for a long run atop the ECC, but the budget crisis that ensnared the school made it difficult to recruit and impossible to build on the back-to-back tournament runs. Roger Gaeckler departed after consecutive 8-19 seasons and the Flying Dutchmen would come within one game of the NCAA Tournament just once over the next two decades.

Gaeckler was replaced by one of the hottest young coaches in the land, Joe Harrington, but he left for—again, I am not making this up—George Mason after just one season. Under Dick Berg, the Flying Dutchmen suffered five losses by five points or less in the ECC Tournament over a eight-year span, including a four-point defeat at the hands of Drexel in the 1986 title game.

Butch van Breda Kolff returned in 1988—chosen, supposedly, over Hofstra alum Bob McKillop—but his best/most charmed teams had the misfortune of contending for a title when the ECC no longer had an automatic bid. So the 1991-92 team was fighting for a long-shot NIT bid when it fell to Towson State in the championship game and the 1993-94 team—and its 9-20 record—didn’t get to become the most unlikely NCAA Tournament team in history when it beat Northeastern Illinois to win the final ECC crown.

Jay Wright finally brought some stability and good mojo to the program and directed it to the NCAA Tournament in 2000 and 2001. His departure was as clean and as amicable as possible, with Tom Pecora taking over a day after Wright left for Villanova, and Pecora recovered from a 20-41 start in his first two years to turn the Dutchmen into an NIT team in his fourth year and an NCAA team in his fifth…oh wait. While George Mason went to the Final Four in 2006 (griping seat tightly, hoping the sedatives take effect), Hofstra reached the quarterfinals of the NIT, where it was knocked out by CAA rival Old Dominion.

The 2006-07 team was a top 25 pick in some circles, but was knocked out of the CAA Tournament in the quarterfinals by, yeah, George Mason. The 2007-08 squad had the program’s all-time leading scorer and his likely successor (I say likely, because the way things are going, Charles Jenkins is going to declare any day now that he’s bypassing his senior season to play pro ball in Lichtenstein), and went 12-18. Pecora’s last two teams lost in heartbreaking, last-second fashion in the quarterfinals of the CAA Tournament.

If only the hex was limited to men’s basketball. The football team lost two or fewer games six times in seven years from 1983 through 1989. Its record in the playoffs over that span: 0-6.

Hofstra was the favorite to win the national title in its final season in Division III in 1990, when it overcame the shooting death of assistant coach Joe Healy to win its first 12 games and outscore the opposition 462-70 in the process. But star quarterback Rhory Moss failed a steroid test in the week before the national semifinal and sat out the game, which Hofstra lost 20-10.

The move to I-AA seemed to turn the Flying Dutchmen into destiny’s darlings: It took Joe Gardi just four seasons to get the Dutchmen into the top 25 and five seasons to reach the playoffs with only 15 scholarship players. Turned out heartbreak would be pretty common: The Dutchmen made five trips to the I-AA playoffs from 1995 through 2001 but won just two games and never got farther than the quarterfinals. Of course, getting to the playoffs and losing sure beats not even having a chance to compete, doesn’t it?

Then there’s the men’s lacrosse team, which made the NCAA Tournament eight times under John Danowski but won just four games and also never got beyond the quarterfinals. The 2006 team won a remarkable 17 in a row after a season-opening loss to UMass, yet with a trip to the Final Four on the line, blew a five-goal fourth quarter lead to that same UMass squad and lost in overtime at Stony Brook. The 2002 team finished the season on a nine-game winning streak, during which it beat four ranked opponents, and was ranked as high as sixth in the country yet was left out of the tournament.

You get the point.

The easy thing to do is to declare Hofstra is cursed by its original and rightful nickname. Shortly after Hofstra was founded, a gym teacher ironically bestowed the nickname “Flying Dutchman” on a particularly slow basketball player. And in folklore, a Flying Dutchman is a doomed ghost ship.

But the truth is Hofstra has also hurt itself over the years with questionable decision-making and long-term planning. According to a Newsday article about McKeon’s departure in October 1993, every school in the Patriot League—which was, at the time, one of the two conferences Hofstra was angling to join—had at least one full-time assistant women’s basketball coach. To not have a full-time assistant women’s basketball coach in 1993 sounds an awful lot like dropping football while trying to join the Atlantic 10—which has eight schools that either play football or are planning to do so—in 2009: Not exactly the way to impress a potential suitor.

Hofstra finally turned out the lights on the ECC in 1994 and caught up with former ECC rivals Delaware, Drexel and Towson in the North Atlantic Conference. Seven years later, consumed with finding a home for the football program, Hofstra led the America East/ECC schools into the CAA.

Which would have been fine and dandy, if Hofstra didn’t almost immediately thereafter replace James Shuart with Stuart Rabinowitz, who loathes football as much as Shuart loves it. How could Hofstra invest so much in the football program and the accompanying infrastructure and then hand the reins over to someone who almost immediately set upon killing football and rendering Hofstra a poor fit in its new athletic home?

And dropping football set off the domino effect that leads us to today. Rabinowitz wielded the ax on Dec. 3. Hours later, Fordham fired Dereck Whittenberg, and 112 days after that, Tom Pecora—who had spoken for years about how it would take a unique opportunity for him to leave Hofstra—departed for the Bronx and a program with five wins in its last 56 games. Think that’s a coincidence?

Welsh seemed like a great hire five weeks ago, and he dove into the job with passion and hired what look to be an incredible staff. He could have had a long and successful run here had he given the keys to someone else Thursday night.

But still, now that Welsh is gong before he could even decorate his office, will we someday look back and wonder what might have been if Hofstra had gone with Tim Cluess instead? Cluess, like McKillop two decades earlier, was a former Hofstra player and up-and-coming coaching prospect who had already enjoyed great success on Long Island. Will Cluess become to Iona what McKillop is to Davidson while Hofstra continues to drift aimlessly at sea?

Someone whose opinion I respect a great deal expressed optimism at the men’s lacrosse game Saturday, saying that maybe the Flying Dutchmen—who missed the CAA Tournament yet are ranked among the top 15 in the RPI—can earn an unlikely at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and make a nice run to bury the memories of this nightmarish year and inspire hope that the recovery has begun and that better and less tumultuous days are ahead.

I hope he’s right. But I doubt it. I’ve seen this movie before. I know how it ends.

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


Chuck B '92 said...

Don't forget that the team that eliminated you in the ECC tournament in 1985 was Lehigh, who ended up winning the tourney and becoming the first team with a losing record to ever make it into the NCAA tournament. By all rights that should have been your bid.

The Icepick said...

Sail on, Flying Dutchmen. You know I love that nickname.