Hofstra football coach Joe Gardi enjoyed the challenge and affirmation of taking unheralded high school players and building them into championship-caliber athletes. He often talked more about his players than his accomplishments, which included a 16-year record of 119-62-2 and six appearances in the NCAA playoffs.
Wide receiver Wayne Chrebet received no scholarship offers out of his high school in New Jersey and landed at then-Division III Hofstra in 1991. He blossomed under Gardi and later became a star with the Jets.
"He was all about giving people opportunities, he gave me an opportunity,'' Chrebet said by phone Thursday after learning of the death of Gardi, 71, from complications of a stroke. "He believed in me and helped me to the career I ended up having.''
Gardi never credited himself with discovering Chrebet. "No, it was all about the school,'' Chrebet said. "It was about setting a legacy for the program. He was that kind of coach.''
James Shannon, a 6-foot defensive tackle in 1992, said, "One of the things that made coach so great was that he would just stockpile what I would call misfits. [Other coaches] would say, 'You are too short, you're too slow, you're too tall and lanky.' Coach Gardi would say, 'UNH didn't want you, UMass didn't want you, Delaware didn't want you, we want you.' ''
Shannon became an All-American and captained Hofstra in his senior year.
"He brought guys in that simply were overlooked by other schools,'' said Eugene McAleer, a 5-11 tackle who graduated in 1996. "He didn't just go by the 'look test.' He looked at your character.''
Gardi recast players, instilling them with confidence. He nursed them through painful building blocks. Lopsided losses to James Madison and Montana in 1992 gave pause to the idea of upgrading from what had been a successful Division III program, but Gardi plowed ahead. By 1998, he beat JMU as Hofstra made the top 20 in Division I-AA. And in 2000, Hofstra beat Montana, a perennial I-AA power, in a benchmark game that brought the program full circle.
When Hofstra moved into the scholarship arena, Gardi continued to look for players beneath the radar.
"He still kept the attitude that we were little old Hofstra,'' said offensive lineman Jeff Prisby, a senior on Gardi's last team in 2005. "He would tell us of going to New Hampshire when Hofstra didn't have scholarships and kicking their butts.''
Defensive lineman Joe Akabalu of Brentwood, a freshman in 2005, may be the last of the many Gardi-coached players to make the pros. Akabalu has a tryout with Edmonton in the CFL.
"He meant everything,'' Akabalu said. "Everyone on Long Island knew if you weren't able to go to the big schools like Syracuse or Penn State, it was a pleasure and an honor to play for coach Gardi. He was the face of Long Island.''
Shannon spoke with Gardi shortly after Hofstra dropped football last November.
"He was saddened that all the hard work that he - and by extension others - had done, was wasted,'' Shannon said. "He gave a bunch of kids a chance. He had faith in them and he built a very successful program in an area where college football is really an afterthought.''
McAleer added, "We lost Hofstra football. Now we've lost coach Gardi, who was Hofstra football.''