Monday, June 28, 2010
Thursday, June 3, 2010
I wish I’d posted this eight months ago, and that there was no reason to post this today, but I’m also glad I saved this interview before switching digital recorders and that I was able to retrieve it off an old computer.
This is a Q&A with Joe Gardi that I conducted at halftime of the Dutchmen’s upset win over James Madison last Oct. 3. The interview was conducted with the idea of writing a series of stories on the 1994 team, an idea that kind of withered on the vine through my own procrastination and some bad timing. I was supposed to speak to Carlos Garay and Wayne Chrebet the afternoon of Dec. 3, but, well, that got postponed and was never rescheduled.
This was fun, if a bit sad, to listen to and transcribe. Gardi was more relaxed than in his coaching days—he was munching on a hero as we spoke—but all it took was my opening question about the New Hampshire game for the familiar underdog defiance to resurface and for him to begin recounting some of the slights administered to his program both before and after that unforgettable 1994 season. Gardi also explains the twist of fate that allowed Carlos Garay to take over as starting quarterback while also delivering another zing at familiar foe Tubby Raymond that will make any DD-era football fan laugh.
I hope you enjoy this glimpse at the legendary Hofstra coach and I also invite any of Gardi’s ex-players and ex-assistants to send their memories of Gardi to me at email@example.com. I’ll post whatever I receive.
[A question about the New Hampshire game inspired Gardi to talk about a player who chose to go to UNH instead of Hofstra]
A quarterback from Garden City, I tried to recruit him. We only had one player from Garden City in all my 17 years—Billy Deakins, who was a great linebacker for me—but when [this recruit] said he wasn’t interested in Hofstra, I said ‘Be careful, because we may beat you, may have you down 20 points at halftime if you play against us.’ Sure enough, I ran after him at halftime and he ran away from me.
They changed him from quarterback, I think, to tight end. I can’t remember his name.
On the UNH game:
For years I’ve said that I thought that was probably one of the biggest games I ever coached here at Hofstra. Another one was when we beat Montana out there [in 2000] on a last-minute field goal and then they won the national championship. Yeah, that was as good a home win as we’ve had.
Yeah, we talked about New Hampshire before the game. I said to my team ‘How many of you were recruited by New Hampshire?’ No one raised their hand. ‘Anybody get a scholarship offer from New Hampshire?’ No one raised their hand. And I remember this: I said ‘What an opportunity it is now to lay leather on an opponent that had no interest in you.’ I said ‘This is what this game’s all about.’ And it must have been a great pregame speech, because they sure played like heck.
I think we had a great season. We beat New Hampshire, who won the old Yankee Conference, and they passed us up on the playoffs. We were disappointed, we felt after beating New Hampshire, who won the Yankee and went to the playoffs, [that] we didn’t have an opportunity. I remember it like it was yesterday.
We were fighting for our life that year, to try to be accepted by whatever playoff committees [existed].
On the loss to Towson State that ended the Dutchmen’s unbeaten season:
I was talking about it when I went to visit Raheem in Tampa Bay. We scored the winning touchdown. Wayne Chrebet got called for a holding—he reached out. I thought it was a lousy call by the official and I told him that. Years later I met him and I told him that might have gotten us into the playoffs.
More thoughts on the 1994 team:
Well, going back to the opening game, we started Carlos. And I was always kind of leaning towards Kharon [Brown]. I think Kharon got hurt in training camp because someone hit him as he threw the ball, which we told our kids ‘You never do that to a quarterback.’ It was a scrimmage. Consequently, Carlos won the job, and after the opening game [at Butler]—I believe it was [the site of a] famous scene in the basketball movie [Hoosiers] at their gym, we visited the gym over there—we were up 40-something in the second quarter and it was all over. It was the Carlos Garay-Wayne Chrebet show. I thought Kharon would be our starter, but Carlos Garay had a great senior year. Probably wasn’t recognized enough because he only started for one year. But what a combination he and Wayne were. Unbelievable.
’95, we went to the playoffs. I’ll never forget, a reporter said to me after the [Marshall] game—they killed us in the newspaper, they had a three-page spread ‘Who’s Hofstra?’—at the end of the game, the reporter from Marshall apologized and said ‘Oh my God,’ he said ‘Coach, you’ve got class, every time we beat Tubby Raymond at Delaware, Tubby always bitches about the officiating.’ I think they beat us on a last-minute touchdown. Kharon Brown ran a quarterback draw inside the five and it worked. It was an interesting game.
On the final minutes of the 41-41 tie with Delaware in the 1994 season finale:
They tried to block a punt with a defensive tackle and he roughed our kicker. After the game, they said ‘What did you think of that call?’ I said ‘I’ll be honest with you’—I was always too honest—‘I said to my son, who was on the sideline, ‘Who was the idiot who made that punt block call?’ not knowing it was Tubby. And he killed me in the newspapers after that game. [Raymond said] ‘Well, I never coached in the pros.’
From the moment he began recruiting a player to Hofstra, Joe Gardi was about motivation. After Gardi lured someone to campus with the idea of beating the schools that didn’t offer him a scholarship, he’d unleash him on those programs that deemed him not good enough—but not before the player’s fire was further stoked by Gardi’s well-timed tweaks.
“For me, he kept screwing up my name—I think I was a sophomore and he was calling me the wrong name all the time,” former Hofstra defensive tackle Jim Shannon said Wednesday night. “I think part of my drive was to make him remember [his name].”
Even with the football program gone at Hofstra, there’s no forgetting the legacy built over 16 seasons by Gardi, who died Wednesday at the age of 71 of complications from a stroke he suffered last week. Gardi is survived by his wife, Audrey, children Joanne and David, daughter-in-law Michele and four grandchildren.
“What he did was he took chances on guys like myself, like Pat Clark, like Gene McAleer—guys a little slower, maybe a little more undersized, maybe a little taller but not big enough, maybe a guy who had some issues in high school,” Shannon said. “What he did was he collected those people and he said ‘You guys are here to build something and you’re here to prove people wrong.’
“From ’91, ’92, he really started bringing in guys [and said] ‘Listen, you didn’t get a scholarship, so why not come here, we’re going to beat those scholarship teams eventually.’ It took a year to do that. And then we started kicking the [stuff] out of them, started killing those teams.”
Gardi, who arrived at Hofstra in 1990 and led the Flying Dutchmen to the national semifinals in their final year at Division III, oversaw the program’s move to Division I-AA and directed Hofstra to the playoffs five times in a seven-season span from 1995 through 2001. He went 119-62-2 and ranks second in school history in both wins and winning percentage. Gardi-coached teams broke or tied more than 90 school school records as well as four NCAA records and seven ECAC records.
Dozens of Gardi’s former players and coaches went on to play or coach professionally. The last two Super Bowl champions have featured former Flying Dutchmen (Willie Colon and Marques Colston) and Raheem Morris, who starred for and coached under Gardi, is entering his second season as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But Gardi’s crowning achievement was the 1994 season, during which he took a program that had no scholarship players and no conference affiliation and was playing a full I-AA schedule for only the second year and almost steered it into the playoffs.
The Dutchmen finished 8-1-1 and were ranked 22nd in the season’s final poll. A 7-0 start was highlighted by a resounding 28-6 Homecoming win over nationally ranked New Hampshire, which went on to win the Yankee Conference.
The only blemishes on the Dutchmen’s record were a 24-21 loss to Towson State in October in which the Dutchmen scored twice in the fourth quarter and had the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute called back due to a questionable holding call on Chrebet and the epic 41-41 tie with Delaware in the season finale in which David Ettinger missed a long field goal just before the end of regulation.
Fifteen years later, the Dutchmen’s exclusion from the Division I-AA playoffs still gnawed at Gardi. “We were disappointed, we felt after beating New Hampshire, who won the Yankee Conference and went to the playoffs, [that] we didn’t have an opportunity,” Gardi said at halftime of the Dutchmen’s upset win over James Madison last October. “I remember it like it was yesterday. We were fighting for our life that year to try to be accepted by whatever playoff committees [existed].”
Hofstra added scholarships in 1995, signifying the beginning of the program’s emergence from outsider to part of the I-AA establishment. But Gardi never stopped feeling like the underdog and never ran out of ways to motivate players into taking the field every Saturday with an us-against-the-world rage.
“He was a guy that, if he was on your side, you loved him to death—and he wasn’t on a lot of people’s side, he challenged a lot of people,” Shannon said. “But for me, personally, he was definitely a father figure. He was definitely just a guy that you wanted to go to battle for. That’s the type of coach he was. Just a tremendous, tremendous man.”
Last October, almost 15 years to the day of the seismic New Hampshire win that he called the biggest home win he ever enjoyed, Gardi smiled at recalling the David vs. Goliath storyline he delivered to the Dutchmen during his pregame speech.
“I said to my team ‘How many of you were recruited by New Hampshire?’” Gardi said. “No one raised their hand. ‘Anybody get a scholarship offer from New Hampshire?’ No one raised their hand.
“And I remember this: I said ‘What an opportunity it is now to lay leather on an opponent that had no interest in you.’ I said ‘This is what this game’s all about.’
“And it must have been a great pregame speech, because they sure played like heck.”
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
The last image of the season for the Flying Dutchmen baseball team was anything but the lasting one. Indeed, it seemed a bit cruel that the year ended with Matt Prokopowicz flying out for the final out of a 9-4 loss to Old Dominion May 23 that capped a season-ending three-game sweep at the hands of the Monarchs.
Few players in Hofstra history made outs as irregularly as Prokopowicz, who hit .431 this year (third in the CAA), finished his career with a .376 average and owns the school record for hits in a season (82 as a freshman in 2007) and career (271).
And despite the quiet ending to the 2010 campaign that dropped the Dutchmen into eighth place in the CAA, no team in the CAA exceeded expectations quite like Hofstra, which finished last each of the previous three seasons and was a unanimous pick to finish last in the league in the preseason.
The Dutchmen recovered from an 0-10 start—including three losses apiece to Florida State, Troy and Maryland—and a six-game losing streak early in the CAA schedule to go 9-1-1 in a span of 11 late-season games and remain in contention for one of the four CAA playoff berths until the final Friday of the year. The last weekend might have turned out much differently if the CAA hadn’t reduced the number of teams in the baseball tournament from six to four (SOUTHERN BIAS!!!) this season.
All that with a roster that features 19 freshmen and a handful of promising players who were redshirted this season. “Obviously, we want more, but to be honest with you, we’re very happy with the progression,” second-year coach Patrick Anderson said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel. We’re excited about [the] direction [the program] is going.”
Anderson is the one coach on campus for whom the geography of the CAA presents an obvious disadvantage. Seven of the 11 baseball schools in the CAA are located in Virginia or points further south and no team north of Virginia has ever won the championship (Delaware and Towson have lost twice apiece in the championship game). Ten CAA alumni began the season on a Major League Baseball roster, including former Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander and reigning AL home run champion Carlos Pena.
The path to contention in the CAA seems particularly challenging for Hofstra, which hasn’t finished with a winning conference record since it was in the piecemeal ECC in the early ‘90s. But in Anderson, a former minor league instructor with the Kansas City Royals, the Dutchmen seem to have the stability and legitimacy the program has lacked since Rich Martin—the winningest coach in school history—was forced out after the 1996 season.
“I played ball down south, so I know the deal—it’s warmer weather, that’s it,” Anderson said. “When we get kids who are going to be able to grind and bust their tail in a cold weather area like this, I think we can win. Look at UConn, they’re doing a pretty good job. So I really feel that we’ll be able to do something. The proof’s in the pudding—the next couple years, we’ll find out.”
Anderson’s rebuilding efforts could get another boost during next week’s Major League Baseball draft. Just two Hofstra players have been drafted in the last 25 years, but Prokopowicz and fellow senior Ethan Paquette, who transferred to Hofstra after Vermont dropped its baseball program and broke the Hofstra record with 70 RBI in his lone season for the Dutchmen, each worked out for the Mets Sunday.
Prokopowicz, who has received interest from at least four other teams, seems certain to get a phone call from somebody during the 50-round draft. “Someone’s going to give him a chance—he deserves a chance,” Anderson said. “The kid came out of the womb and [could] hit. He’s just one of these kids that just gets up there and hits.”
If Prokopowicz goes pro, it may delay his plans to check in on a program for whom he wishes he could play one more season. “The past three years, we never had a shot [at] trying to make the playoffs,” Prokopowicz said. “This program is going to be turning around in the next couple years and I can’t wait to come back and watch them play.
“I’m gonna miss it, I really am,” Prokopowicz said. “I didn’t know how much I was going to miss it until I went out for the top of the ninth inning and said ‘This is my last time out on this field.’ It was my last time, my last at-bat and I got emotional I’m going to miss it, I really am.”