Alumnus Michael McConeghy wants answers to questions being asked by many followers of Hofstra athletics. Still fending off criticism for dropping its football program, Hofstra took another hit last week with Tom Pecora's departure to Fordham.
"I was full of pride when Jay Wright left to go to Villanova,'' McConeghy said of the coach whom Pecora succeeded. "Here, I'm just confused. What does Tom Pecora know about the future direction of the university's athletics department? What does this say to any recruit looking at Hofstra for basketball, or any other sport for that matter?''
Pecora first discussed the economics of his decision, saying that when he told Hofstra he was leaving, "There was no counter-offer. I didn't expect there to be. First and foremost is my responsibility to my family.'' He will earn $650,000 at Fordham. He made about $400,000 at Hofstra.
Of equal importance, Pecora said, was the chance to get to the NCAA Tournament in the multi-bid Atlantic 10 Conference. That was a strong repudiation of Hofstra's membership in the Colonial Athletic Association. Hofstra joined the CAA in Pecora's first season, and he coached for nine seasons, four with at least 20 victories, without an NCAA Tournament appearance.
"Obviously, the level is higher,'' he said of Fordham, "and the opportunity to coach in a league that is multi-bid - it would be silly not to take that opportunity.''
Another Hofstra graduate, restaurateur Chris Cocozziello, sees distress signals, saying, "I think that Hofstra feels like athletics is not that important in the big scheme. Fordham has committed a lot of resources. If you are looking to move a step forward, you commit resources to build an athletic identity because it's part of the fabric of a successful university. Hofstra is headed in the exact opposite direction.''
Fellow alumnus Brad Gerstman, an attorney and strong advocate for returning football to Hofstra, agreed. "We lost football, we lost a wonderful basketball coach,'' he said. "I'm also concerned about recruiting for all the sports programs. You just don't know where Hofstra is headed.''
Some supporters have stopped making donations. "I gave a lot of money,'' Cocozziello said. "Not anymore.''
Hofstra Pride club president Bob Bernstein said the organization has raised about $1 million annually in the last three years. "Losing football, losing Pecora, it has to have an impact,'' he said. "But my job is to get past that and move forward. We support the Hofstra student-athletes. We have athletes from 17 other teams that need our help.''
Hofstra athletic director Jack Hayes sees no relationship between dropping football and Pecora's departure, saying, "Do you think Tom's decision was impacted by the elimination of the football program? I do not. If colleges are going to come after our coaches, you've got to feel that they recognize our coaches have been successful.''
Hofstra had three coaches leave after the 2005-06 season, but it was in the aftermath of Pecora's best season, when Hofstra gained national attention for beating Final Four-bound George Mason twice late in the season and not making the NCAAs. Women's basketball coach Felicia Leggette-Jack went to Indiana, wrestling coach Tom Ryan left for Ohio State and lacrosse coach John Danowski was hired at Duke. And Pecora turned down Seton Hall.
But Pecora's departure to a 2-26 program is unsettling to Hofstra fans, and Hayes acknowledged that by saying, "Is the perception the same as the other three leaving? Probably not.''
On the hot-button issue of conference affiliation, Hayes first addressed the notion - espoused at times by Pecora - that Hofstra could have captured several more NCAA bids in the America East Conference, where it won consecutive titles and earned automatic berths in the NCAA Tournament in 1999-2000 and 2000-01. "It's always a crapshoot to sit here and say we would have done that,'' Hayes said.
Hayes also said that trying to jump to the A-10, as Pecora wanted Hofstra to do, is not a slam-dunk decision. "I think every school, particularly right now, will look at conference affiliation and begin to look at where is their best position,'' he said. Hayes mentioned the rumored upheaval of movement in the major conferences (the Big East and Big Ten) and that a move now could produce a deleterious effect on the entire program.
Hayes sees no reason for "damage control'' with Pecora's move. "The last two coaches here in 16 years had seven 20- win seasons [plus two 19-win seasons],'' he said of Wright and Pecora. "And four NIT bids and two NCAA Tournaments. Finding qualified candidates absolutely will not be a problem.''
Former Northeastern, DePaul and Virginia coach Dave Leitao could be on the short list. Van Macon, Pecora's top assistant, also is under consideration.
Regarding concern about Hofstra's athletic future, Hayes said alumni need not worry. "When they say the diminishing of the athletics program, I guess I don't know what they are referring to,'' he said. "Women's basketball won 20 games, men's basketball 19. Women's lacrosse, men's lacrosse and softball are all nationally ranked. Baseball has seen progress. I struggle with what the facts are of saying 'diminishing.'
"The only way to get away from the perception on the football [issue] is to continue to be successful in the other sports. The best way to get beyond the vacancy that exists now in basketball is for me not to get tied up in why it occurred, but to go find the right coach. If we find the right coach, that will send a message that this isn't about diminishing, this isn't about a lack of commitment to athletics.''