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Marcus: Hofstra's irony --- football is gone and now it's all up to basketball

Dropping football at Hofstra left the university - and not just the athletic department - with an identity crisis. Repairing it will not be easy. The onus falls on men's basketball and, to a lesser extent, lacrosse.

What little storied history Hofstra has in athletics is owed to basketball. Basketball became a captivating sport in the late 1990s when coach Jay Wright (with then-assistant Tom Pecora recruiting the star players) positioned the program toward the NCAA Tournament for what would become the first time in more than 20 years.

It all came together in the 1999-2000 season when a Speedy Claxton-led team beat Delaware for the America East title and Hofstra's first trip to the NCAAs since the 1976-77 season. The newly opened Hofstra Arena was packed, replete with WFAN's Mike and the Mad Dog broadcasting the game at courtside.

The scene was repeated the following season. But not since.

Hofstra's next run at basketball glory occurred in the 2005-06 season. It beat Colonial Athletic Association foe George Mason twice down the stretch - including the CAA Tournament - which turned out to be a huge story for two reasons:

Mason was controversially selected over Hofstra as an at-large entry to the NCAA Tournament, causing outrage from Hofstra and its fans, and then became the Cinderella team of the tournament, advancing to the Final Four. Hofstra was continually mentioned as the team that beat Mason twice and did not make the tournament.

Hofstra may have been cheated by the selection committee but, truth be told, its administration ate up the attendant publicity.

Last month, when he announced the demise of the football program, Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz reminded himself of that basketball run as he said in an apropos malaprop: "George Mason should have been us.''

In reality, Hofstra basketball's absence from the NCAA Tournament was tied more to the decision to elevate the now-defunct football program. Most of Hofstra's teams were flourishing in the America East Conference, but football was not aligned with any conference. That rankled then-Hofstra president James Shuart, who played the sport at Hofstra.

In 2000, the CAA was wooing schools from the America East. Led by Delaware, Hofstra announced its intention to leave and entered the CAA to begin the 2001-02 season. The overwhelming reason was the guarantee that Hofstra's football team would be accepted into the Atlantic 10, where many of the football-playing schools of the CAA already were based.

It never really worked out for football, which had much better success as a non-scholarship and independent program. Attendance, as Rabinowitz keynoted, was underwhelming, and publicity (aside from local media) was largely non-existent.

Now football is gone and basketball, in many ways, still reels from that long-ago decision to leave the America East. Those involved in the basketball program have often wondered how many titles would have been won and appearances in the NCAAs would have been earned had Hofstra remained in the America East.

Hofstra has been competitive in the CAA, but the conference has not fulfilled the multi-bid promise that Hofstra's former administration predicted. With the conference tournament played every March in Richmond, Va., no former America East basketball team (Delaware, Northeastern, Towson, Drexel or Hofstra) has won the CAA title.

Rabinowitz also said he expects lacrosse to fill the void at Shuart Stadium now that football is gone. He pointed to big crowds during the hosting of quarterfinal games, and he is correct - but Hofstra lacrosse was not among the competitors last season. It failed to qualify.

Rabinowitz believes the university's lacrosse team can make it to the Final Four. That is a lofty though achievable goal. But even then, we're talking about a sport that, while growing, still has something of a cult following. It is in the national psyche only on Memorial Day weekend. For Hofstra to operate a 13,000-seat stadium, lacrosse had better be successful.

The great irony is that Hofstra's identity never relied on a boost from football. Now, without the sport, its image is suffering.


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