Collector's items, one year later.
One year ago today, Hofstra announced that, after fielding a football team for 69 years and sending dozens of players to the pros, it was ending the program so that it could “…reinvest those resources into new academic programs and need-based scholarships.” We thought, on the anniversary of the decision, it would be appropriate to take a look some of those most affected: The players, the former players, the administration and even the teams Hofstra used to play and the conference it left behind.
An hour or so after James Madison makes national headlines Sept. 11 by shocking Virginia Tech, 21-16, Luke Bonus—a captain on the last Flying Dutchman football team—stands outside the entrance of Jack Coffey Field at Fordham University. Forty-nine weeks earlier, Bonus collected nine tackles in helping the Dutchmen beat seventh-ranked James Madison, 24-17, at Shuart Stadium. It was the most impressive win of the Dave Cohen Era and it infused coaches and players alike with a strut rarely seen since the days of Joe Gardi.
The only player to collect more tackles than Bonus that October afternoon was Chris Edmond, who had 11 stops. He’s now playing for Rhode Island, along with Steve Probst, who shared time at quarterback in the upset over James Madison. There are three other former Dutchmen suiting up for Fordham (Carlton Koonce and Nick Talbert) or Rhode Island (Billy Morgan) and Bonus is there, along with a handful of other ex-teammates who graduated last year, to watch and support their younger ex-teammates.
He is, not surprisingly, well aware of James Madison’s upset win, and smirks at the incongruity of it all. How could a team good enough to beat James Madison—a team that is good enough to beat Virginia Tech—no longer exist? His contempt for the decision is apparent, but so, too, is his passion for the school: He and his friends are all wearing Hofstra apparel.
Is it defiance? A measure of solidarity with the players and coaches whose lives were turned upside down Dec. 3, 2009? Or an implied acknowledgment of just how complicated this all is, how hard it is to blame and loathe an entire school for actions executed by a select few?
Bonus, apparently, is not the only one wrestling with such questions. A few hours later, Probst and Edmond walk into the interview room at Fordham along with their new coach, Joe Trainor. Probst is wearing a gray Hofstra Athletics T-shirt.
The famously competitive Probst is not in much of a mood to talk, not after his fourth down pass into the end zone was broken up with one second left as Fordham escaped with a 27-25 win, but he fields a handful of questions about his transfer to Rhode Island and being back in the Long Island area.
“Offensively, coach [Chris] Pincince, he knew our offensive coordinator at Hofstra and it’s the exact same offense,” Probst said. “Coach Trainor has made the transition really easy for me and Chris.”
Probst said he saw Bonus and his ex-teammates during as he and his new teammates walked into the stadium from their locker room. “It was good,” he said. “I miss all those guys. It was really good. Anybody who plays this sport knows a team is like a second family, which is awesome.”
Probst’s patience is finally exhausted when he’s asked if, upon learning of James Madison’s win earlier in the day, he thought of Hofstra’s upset of the Dukes. “Doesn’t matter—it’s in the past, the whole Hofstra thing is in the past, and quite frankly, I’m really tired of hearing about it,” Probst said. “I’m at Rhode Island to play for Rhode Island. Yeah, I love the Hofstra guys, I love the coaches, I loved everything about Hofstra, my first school, but quite frankly, it’s over. I play for Rhode Island.”
Fordham, armed with a rich alumni base, more than a century of tradition and an aggressive administration looking to upgrade a I-AA program when so many are looking at a downgrade, was already well-positioned to survive the latest upheaval within the I-AA ranks. The parking lot across from Coffey Field was filled with tailgaters Sept. 11, and in one row of cars, the license plates read, in order from left to right: Michigan-Texas-Connecticut-Massachusetts-New Jersey-New Hampshire.
And Hofstra’s decision further benefited Fordham, both on the field and at the gate. But there was no celebration last Dec. 3 in the office of Fordham head coach Tom Masella, who, more than just about anybody else, understood the range of emotions the likes of Probst, Edmond and the rest of the former Dutchmen were experiencing.
Masella was nearing the end of his second season as the head coach at Boston University in 1997 when president John Silber announced the program would cease to exist at the conclusion of the schedule. While Silber’s contempt for football was well-known—and it is interesting to note that Stuart Rabinowitz listed Boston U. among the schools he wanted Hofstra to stand alongside during his interview with Mike Francesa last Dec. 3—the timing of the decision was shocking because Boston U. was just three years removed from the second of back-to-back appearances in the I-AA playoffs and four years removed from an unbeaten regular season.
“It’s a devastating day, for a lot of reasons,” Masella said. “In my case, I thought I was going to be at BU for a long, long time. And when you feel the rug’s been pulled out from underneath you, it hurts. It hurts personally, but it hurts because you recruited some kids under the assumption that they were going to be playing football and getting a great education. So it’s a painful thing.
“I-AA football is something that has to be supported by the alumni and it has to be supported by the administration. And fortunately here at Fordham, both do. And that’s a good thing.”
Masella recognized that trying to woo players who figured their recruitment days were complete the moment they committed to Hofstra was a delicate procedure. “I was very sensitive to it, because I had been through it,” Masella said. “I think you have to give players space. It’s hard to recruit. You’re selling them on your program and they’re still hung up on where they are and saying ‘Well, I already made this decision once.’ So you understand what kids go through.
“We ended up getting two Hofstra guys, and it took a long time, and I don’t know if they are comfortable being a part of it. Hopefully, one day they will and will say ‘You know what? It worked out for us.’”
Two weeks later, on an warm night in Stony Brook, former Hofstra wide receiver Anthony Nelson is walking out of the visitors locker room after catching six passes for a team-high 97 yards in helping his new school, UMass, to a hard-earned 26-21 win over the upstart Seawolves, whose roster features former Hofstra backfield mates Brock Jackolski and Miguel Maysonet.
Opposing former teammates—Nelson, Jackolski and Maysonet all embraced at midfield after the game—and donning the uniform of the team Hofstra beat in its last football game was a bit weird for Nelson, but he’s gotten over the uncertainty and the anger he felt following the demise of football at Hofstra. Well, most of it, anyway.
“At first I was extremely bitter, just because of, I guess, the way the message was delivered to us,” Nelson said. “I wish they could have gone about it in a different way. I wish they could have been a little bit more honest with us. I still don’t think to this day that they are 100 percent honest.
“If you look at the Division I level schools, there are 119, and I think only about 17 turn a profit. So everyone’s taking a loss. And [Hofstra] want[s] to say it’s for a financial issue. I wish the head guy over there would have just said ‘Hey, look, we just don’t want football.’”
Also wishing he could have an audience with Rabinowitz is Vin Pisano.
For every Wayne Chrebet or Marques Colston there are hundreds of Vin Pisanos—very good players who toiled in anonymity at Hofstra and whose post-career aspirations never included professional football, but whose experiences at Hofstra were just as shaped and defined by their days on the gridiron as their more famous ex-teammates.
Few people had a better vantage point of the surrealistic climb of Hofstra football in the early 1990s than Pisano, a two-year starter at defensive tackle whose 1994 media guide biography identified him as the strongest player on the Flying Dutchmen roster.
“I learned what it means to be committed to something, to put your heart and soul into something and to literally, when I was there, build something from the ground floor up,” Pisano said at halftime of the Stony Brook-UMass game.
He was a freshman backup in 1990, when the Dutchmen opened their final season of Division III play with 12 straight wins before falling in the national semifinals. He was a redshirt sophomore on that long flight home from Montana after the Dutchmen ended their second season at Division I-AA with a 50-6 loss to the most powerful program in the land. And Pisano played in his final game Nov. 12, 1994, when Chrebet caught five touchdown passes from Carlos Garay as the Dutchmen—who finished the season ranked 22nd in the country—saw their unlikely pursuit of a I-AA playoff berth ended with a 41-41 tie in a game that ranks as one of the greatest Hofstra has ever played in any sport.
“My work ethic, everything I put into practice as a professional today, I learned through football,” Pisano said. “I learned the discipline. I learned the hard work. I got a great education from Hofstra—I’ve always said that, always been happy about the education that I got—but I can honestly tell you the things I learned on the football field and from the guys around me and from the coaches, that’s the stuff that has really carried me through my life and really made me who I am today.”
After graduation, Pisano got his master’s at the University of San Diego (another Division I-AA school) before returning to the Island and becoming the director of guidance in the Harborfields School District. He also turned into perhaps the most publicly passionate of the Hofstra football alumni: Pisano bought season tickets at Hofstra, embarked upon numerous road trips per season and posted about the team and the program on message boards devoted to Hofstra, the CAA and Division I-AA football.
Like many football alumni and fans, Pisano had an uneasy feeling about the future of the program over the final few seasons, when publicity for the program seemed to be at an all-time low and Rabinowitz’ passion for football, or lack thereof, became ever more apparent. But he was still shocked to get the call a year ago today from his former position coach, Bryant defensive coordinator Greg Gigantino, who learned the news just minutes after he left Harborfields following a recruiting visit.
“I literally—my heart sunk down to the bottom of my chest,” Pisano said.
Pisano stopped writing checks to Hofstra and made no secret of his disgust on the message boards. He switched allegiances to Stony Brook and purchased season tickets at LaValle Stadium, where he sits in the second deck at midfield—a perfect vantage point for a former player.
“It’s just a lot of fun to come out and look at the strategy—you watch things a little bit differently than the casual fan,” Pisano said. “You see some of the smaller things: The line play, the guy that holds up the blocks rather than the guy making the tackles. It’s exciting. It’s a great level of football. You see a lot of great talent. It’s just fun to come out and see the pads popping and kind of wish you were back out there.”
That annual melancholy was compounded this fall, when Pisano tried but couldn’t generate the same passion for Stony Brook, where he has done some post-graduate work, as he had for Hofstra.
“It’s different—I mean, it’s nice, it gives me my football fill, I get to see some of the Hofstra guys that were kind of left orphaned after Hofstra killed their program,” Pisano said. “I’ve gotten a professional degree from here, so it’s kind of interesting to root as kind of an alumni. But it’s not the same. I didn’t put the same heart and passion into wearing Stony Brook colors, like I did when I suited up every Saturday wearing the Hofstra blue and gold.”
CAA commissioner Tom Yeager is sitting in an airport Thursday afternoon, in a weird sort of purgatory that only a commissioner could really understand. He is on his way to the Villanova-Stephen F. Austin playoff game in Texas, one of four games featuring CAA schools, yet he is discussing the imminent departure of at least one CAA member and the possibility that the best I-AA conference in the land is headed for more tumult.
Rhode Island, which is a member of the CAA only in football, announced Nov. 22 it would leave the CAA in 2013 for the Northeast Conference, where the maximum amount of scholarships is 40. Fellow northern-based and football-only members UMass and Villanova, meanwhile, are pondering moves to Division I-A and the Mid-American Conference and the Big East, respectively.
The possibility of losing multiple members, while not one Yeager enjoys, is less traumatic now than a year ago, when there was an element of shock to the decisions at Northeastern and, particularly, Hofstra. In addition, the fledgling programs at Old Dominion and Georgia State will begin CAA play in the next two years.
“We have been through it before last year,” Yeager said. “You have a little more experience in what you need to do and to kind of sit down and sort that stuff out.”
But Yeager also knows the dominoes have not finished falling. Should UMass and Villanova follow Rhode Island out the door, the only CAA football schools north of Delaware would be New Hampshire and Maine. Given the rapid demise of I-AA football in the northeast—Northeastern and Hofstra were the ninth and 10th schools in the region to drop I-AA programs this century—it is not too early to wonder about the long-term survival of the sport in the area and, conceivably, the sport in the CAA as well. Might the best I-AA football league in the land soon be fighting for its survival, much like the entire conference was before it lured Hofstra, Delaware, Drexel and Towson from the America East in 2001?
“It’s the biggest challenge this week,” Yeager said with a chuckle, referring to the football issues. “I think any commissioner would tell you that membership issues are always difficult. The things that are going on nationally around conference membership keeps all of us on our toes and up at night, scribbling scenarios one, two, three four and five kind of things.
“But that’s an occupational hazard that’s become part of the commissioner’s job responsibilities in the last decade and probably will continue to be for a while. I don’t think it’s over.”
As the athletic director at Hofstra, Jack Hayes has absorbed his share of criticism over the past year. He understands it is part of the job as the most visible symbol of Hofstra athletics and takes little of it personally.
He doesn’t argue that last year wasn’t a great year for Hofstra athletics and that the departure of Tom Pecora, the second-winningest coach in program history, for 2-26 Fordham—which, in what may or may not be a wild coincidence, fired Dereck Whittenberg mere hours after Hofstra dropped football—followed by the Tim Welsh debacle and the dual departures of Halil Kanacevic and Chaz Williams further fueled the frustrations of a fan base already reeling from the football decision.
However, the one thing with which he takes umbrage is the idea the demise of football at Hofstra marked the beginning of the end of athletics at the school. “I can understand the frustration,” Hayes said yesterday. “But to then assume or make statements that it’s going to lead to other things—first of all, it’s very unfair to the coaches and the student-athletes of those 17 sports. But beyond that, it’s totally inaccurate.”
On and off the field, Hayes believes the athletic department is positioned for success. The men’s and women’s basketball teams each advanced to postseason tournaments last year and are picked to finish in the top half of the CAA this year. The administration is thrilled with enthusiastic new coach Mo Cassara, who has inked what appears to be a promising freshman class for next year.
The men’s lacrosse team earned an at-large bid to the CAA Tournament and the women’s lacrosse team lost in the CAA finals. This fall, the women’s soccer team won a school-record 18 straight games, earned the first national ranking in school history and received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, where it beat UConn in the first round. And the men’s soccer team, which was 11th in the CAA shortly after the midway point of the season, reached the conference finals.
In October, Hofstra entered a corporate partnership—the largest of its kind in school history—with Capital One Bank and Hayes said another lucrative agreement is in the works. Renovations continue taking place at Hofstra Arena, where the Basketball Traditions Project was just unveiled this week, and the locker rooms and workout facilities around campus—including inside the former football home at Margiotta Hall—have been upgraded.
The Pride Club did take a hit when football donors pulled their support, but Hayes said that since that money went to a program that no longer exists, the bottom line is not affected.
“Certainly, we anticipated that those who had contributed to football and supported football would no longer be engaged in our athletic program,” Hayes said. “We anticipated that. But the support for the remaining 17 sports has been outstanding and contributions for capital projects continue to come in at high levels.”
Still, there has been an undeniable effort by Hofstra to try and soften the anger created by the football decision. New Pride Club president E. David Woycik’s slogan for the next two years is “THE PAST IS THEN AND THE FUTURE IS NOW.”
“All we could ever say to those individuals is that we understand their disappointment but we hope that they will support Hofstra,” Hayes said. “And if that takes time, then hopefully during that time they will continue to see winning programs, they will continue to see men and women graduate from Hofstra who participated in athletics that are outstanding representatives of this university. Hopefully those will be the types of things that bring people back in the long-term.”
There also appears to be an image makeover underway for Rabinowitz, whose lack of attendance at Hofstra sporting events is noted by fans of all teams. The men’s basketball media guide features a photo of Rabinowitz with Cassara in the Arena. The photo of Pecora and Rabinowitz in last year’s media guide was the same one that appeared in the 2001 edition—the first year at the school for both men.
In addition, the news release announcing the naming of Charles Jenkins, Greg Washington and Nathaniel Lester as team captains was accompanied by a photo of the three seniors, Cassara and Rabinowitz in which Rabinowitz was holding a basketball.
“Stuart Rabinowitz loves sports,” Cassara said during his appearance on WFAN yesterday. “He’s checking on every sport and every score.”
But there is also a sense, inside and outside the school, that there won’t be any football scores to check on as long as Rabinowitz is in office. After a flurry of activity last December and January, the Save Hofstra Football project has been dormant. Said one prominent former football player yesterday: “I have heard nothing behind the scenes. Sorry, I wish I had better news.”
“I think a lot of us feel like nothing’s going to happen until Rabinowitz is gone,” Pisano said.
For now, fans and alumni are left to ponder what was, and think about what could have been at a time of year that was once synonymous with playoff football. The I-AA playoffs this year feature four teams that either did not play football or were not in a lower division when Hofstra made the playoffs for the first time in 1995.
While UMass, the last team Hofstra beat, might be moving to Division I-A, UConn, whom Hofstra beat 56-17 in front of the biggest crowd in Shuart Stadium history Sept. 4, 1999, will clinch the Big East and a BCS berth with a win Saturday over South Florida, whom Hofstra beat by the combined score of 92-53 in a pair of games in 1998 and 1999.
With Hofstra’s facilities remaining intact, it is also worth wondering: If Hofstra was still playing football, and given the issues the other northern-based CAA football schools are experiencing, might there have been an opportunity for Hofstra to align itself with Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine in trying to find a better, less costly alternative to the CAA?
“That’s an interesting question,” Hayes said. “I don’t know if that would have been any different if this was a decision that we were being faced with in December of 2010 as opposed to December of 2009. If some of these other steps or recommendations that schools have recently made had taken place during our decision making process, I don’t know if it really would have had an impact.”
Shortly thereafter, the question is posed to Hayes: Is there any chance Hofstra will reconsider the decision in the next few years? Throughout a half-hour interview, Hayes has been talkative and expansive. But his answer here—while not delivered with any sort of curtness—is notable in its brevity.
“I do not see that decision changing in the near future.”