Tom Pecora was exultant when he reached the postgame press conference following Fordham's 84-81 upset of St. John's Saturday night at Rose Hill Gym in the Bronx. And who could blame him? It was a signature victory for a program that was 5-51 over the past two seasons, and the Rams came from 21 points behind in the last 16 minutes to pull it off.
Someone handed Pecora a box score as he sat down, and the coach said, "I don't need to look at the stats. I know what the final score was. You saw the resiliency and the toughness of this group."
Truly, it looked as though the Red Storm (5-3) was going to run the Rams (5-4) out of their own gym. But at the end, it was the Johnnies who had to hustle off the court to avoid getting trampled by onrushing Fordham students who mobbed their suddenly lovable team at center court.
Pecora (pictured with Fordham president Fr. Joseph McShane) noted that it was the fourth time in his last five meetings with St. John's that his team has won, including four games while he was coaching at Hofstra and this one. It would appear Pecora has St. John's number. But when former Red Storm coach Norm Roberts was let go last spring, St. John's lost Pecora's number. He never got a call before Steve Lavin was hired away from ESPN.
So far, Lavin has made his biggest splash on the national recruiting front, signing what most rating services regard as a top-three class for the 2011 season. It includes players from all over the country, including Maurice Harkless from Queens. Pecora's new program doesn't have a high national profile. He's concentrating his efforts in the metropolitan area, much as he did at Hofstra, and fortunately for him, there was a group of Fordham recruits in the building to see the Rams beat the big kid on the block from the Big East.
"It will help," Pecora said of what a win like this one could mean to his recruiting.
Senior Brenton Butler, who led four double-figures scorers for the Rams with 22 points, was asked what exactly Pecora has done to produce some positive results so quickly at a school that has been down and way out for some time. "If I had to pick one thing, it's his confidence in what he could do for us," Brenton said of the new coach. "He was coming in to win. Not just four games and call it a wrap. He was adamant that we could win way more than four games and that we could beat good teams.
"It's been a blessing to have coach Pecora, and it's been fun."
Spectators in the packed house in Rose Hill Gym certainly enjoyed themselves, and Pecora said the atmosphere matched his vision of what it could be like at Fordham, the vision he sold the administration when he was hired. No doubt, it was a tough spot for St. John's to play, but not so tough the Red Storm should have blown a 21-point lead with a team featuring 10 seniors.
In Pecora's view, St. John's of the Big East and Fordham of the Atlantic-10 should play every year as a way to promote college basketball locally. He noted the two teams are going to meet next season at Madison Square Garden, and with a knowing laugh, Pecora added, "And that better not be the last time we play."
Of course, Pecora knows Fordham is the school with everything to gain in this local rivalry, while St. John's has a lot more to lose. But if you look around the country, you see a lot of neighboring schools have heated rivalries that help promote the college game. For instance Xavier of the A-10 and Cincinnati of the Big East have a storied rivalry.
If Pecora can restore Fordham to a competitive level on a consistent basis to challenge St. John's in a good, old-fashioned New York turf war, it would be a great step toward boosting the college game's popularity again in these parts. No doubt, Lavin will be looking forward to the rematch next year at the Garden after the arrival of his new recruiting class. And maybe Pecora will add a few locals who decided to sign up and help Pecora fulfill his vision after becoming believers Saturday night.