I’m back from a week-long hiatus across the pond feeling refreshed, optimistic and ready to tackle a subject near and dear to my heart: Fordham stinking shit up in our conference for over two decades. With the Flyers week off before The Cup, and the latest drubbing of the A10 bottom-dweller in the rear view, it felt like an opportune time to finally dive in to the epic futility that is Fordham Rams basketball.
Anyone who follows me in any capacity (on here, on twitter, etc), knows that I have been fairly vocal over the past few years advocating for Fordham to finally exit the A10, stage right. As such, this piece has been long overdue. I think its necessary to preface this article in saying this is not a hit-piece on the lowly A10 program from the Bronx, nor is it a sweeping indictment of the conference office which, as you know, was gracious enough to set up an interview with the commissioner Bernadette McGlade for our podcast earlier this season. The line can often get blurred between vitriol and objective criticism, and I want to be sure readers understand that pointing out inconvenient realities in a factual manner is different than dragging another program through mud, which I am more than happy to do for VCU whenever given the opportunity.
To understand the current situation, is to understand the history. Allow me to walk you down memory lane briefly to set the foundation of how we got here:
In the early 90s, the Atlantic 10 was one of the premier basketball conferences in the country, often ranked among the Big East, Pac10, SEC and Big 8 (current Big 12) in the top five. UMass was in the middle of a dynasty led by John Calipari, Temple was in the midst of 11 straight NCAA appearances under legendary coach John Chaney, while GW and URI would take turns making tournament trips as well. However, by the 1994 season, the A10 found itself at a crossroads. West Virginia and Rutgers were expected to depart the 9-team league, and Temple was understood to not be far behind (although they would end up sticking around for another decade or so). The commissioner resigned, and left the dirty work of reshaping the conference to his successor. If the A10 dropped down to six teams, they would be left ineligible for an auto-bid to the tournament, an absolute catastrophe that needed to be avoided at all costs.
So after Temple decided to stay while they further investigated the next move; Dayton, Xavier, Virginia Tech, LaSalle and Fordham were added to get the league to 12 teams, splitting into East and West divisions, which they would hold until 2005 when SLU and Charlotte were added to get to 14 teams (save for one season when VaTech left, until Richmond joined the following year in 2001). Still with me? This piece is about Fordham, I know, we’re getting there.
At the time of the acquisition, things were looking up for the A10, and frankly, they were in line to become the #1 league outside of the power conferences. As you well know being a fan of college basketball in 2020, that didn’t happen, and Fordham is a huge (but not only) reason why.
On paper, the Fordham addition could be justified, even if it was realistically a bit of a stretch. Simply put, they have always fit the “profile” of an Atlantic 10 school. Small, private, high academic standards, well funded, with an historic gym in the heart of the Bronx. That definitely sounds like a school that SHOULD fit into this conference. Hell, Fordham even has an alumni that’s the President of the United States! (EDIT: a bunch of extra soft Fordham fans are getting cranky about this sentence that’s very clearly a joke. Trump went to Fordham and transferred out, I know you don’t care, but like four dudes do) The basketball program was only three years removed from an NCAA tournament berth (their last one to date) when they were scooped up, they had seen relative success in the Patriot, and when a better conference comes calling, you would be objectively silly to say “no”. This particular situation was rooted in the school wanting to get back to a scholarship-based conference, even though the MAAC would’ve taken them back, but you get the point.
This was a quote from inside the program about joining the conference in 1994:
What has happened since the first day of the 1995 season has been anything but successful, in fact, it would be completely fair to call it a fucking disaster that has now spiraled completely out of control. This season is Fordham’s 25th anniversary in the A10 conference, and as of this writing, have won 99 conference games. To put that into perspective, VCU is currently sitting at 95 wins…and they joined the conference 17 years later. In the same time frame, Temple won twice as many conference games, and they haven’t been in the A10 for 8 years.
So how did we get here?
When Fordham entered the league, sentiment from alumni was that they could become a power alongside UMass and Temple, the class of the conference at that time. Out of the gate, Fordham struggled mightily, winning only 16 games total in the first 3 years under coach Nick Macarchuk, five coming in A10 play. Then, in the fourth year, things seemed to be looking up. Macarchuk went 12-15 (5-11) and INEXPLICABLY won the Conference Coach of the Year. No I’m not kidding, look it up.
However, shortly after the 1999 season, Macarchuk resigned, with two years remaining on his contract, to take a paycheck twice the size from STONY BROOK – a program who was just making the jump to Division 1. In the pantheon of Fordham basketball history, this has to be right up there as the Fordhamest thing that could’ve ever happened. Can you imagine, in 2020, an A10 coach getting double his paycheck to bring Merrimack into D1? It’s inconceivable! But nonetheless, Fordham made no effort to match the offer from Stony Brook, Macarchuk walked, and in came the disastrous tenure of Bob Hill in late 1999.
For my money, this was the definitive turning point for Fordham basketball from which they have never fully recovered. Fordham put together an extensive coaching search that included the coaches from Lafayette and Fairfield, as well as Siena head coach, Paul Hewitt, and a 38-year-old up-and-coming coach from Hofstra named Jay Wright. I often think about how different of a situation this conference would be in (not to mention the Fordham program) if Jay Wright had accepted a job to coach on Rose Hill before he landed at Villanova. In the world of college basketball, these very small details are often what shape history. Like what would have happened if Digger Phelps didn’t leave Fordham for Notre Dame in 1971 after reaching the Sweet 16? Only questions without answers.
Hill, an NBA journeyman of sorts, accepted a ludicrous TEN YEAR contract in July 1999 and would inherit a program with 8 consecutive losing seasons, however, what was to come was far, far worse.
Hill was only allotted four years of that ten year deal, and was let go in April 2003. He had this to say about the program after the firing:
In the same NY Times article, their Athletic Director grabbed his own nuts, firmly, and seriously said this out loud to a journalist in response:
If I was a fan of this program, this would have been my last day.
In came Dereck Whittenburg, you remember him, right? Sure you do!
The NC State hero was fresh off an NCAA tournament appearance in his fourth year building the hoops program at Wagner, and surely such a recognizable face could revive a program left for dead right? Not so much. Whittenburg actually had the program humming in the right direction at one point: going 8-8, 9-7, and then topping out at 10-6 in conference play in 2007 (seasons 2, 3, and 4). This would be Fordham’s best season in the A10 to date, and would mark the start of their program being a feeder system of transfers for the next decade until present day.
The list goes on and on:
Jio Fontan (15.3ppg at Fordham) to USC
Mike Moore (12.8ppg) to Hofstra
Eric Pashall (15.9ppg) to Villanova (where he won a national championship)
Christian Sengfelder (grad transfer) to Boise State
Nick Honor (15.3ppg) to Clemson
I know there are many more, these are just the list of guys at the top of the scoring list who chose to move onto greener pastures over the years.
After that high-water mark, Fordham would slip to 12-17 (6-10) in 2008, and then Whittenburg would win only 3 games in the 2009 campaign, being hurt by transfers and the list of things that generally plagues Fordham: facilities, recruiting, support. In April 2009, Fordham’s president and AD would, again, publicly state they supported the basketball program and the head coach…Whittenburg would be fired before the end of that calendar year, and the cycle would repeat itself once again. The 2010 team would finish 0-16 in conference, and remains the only A10 team to go winless in conference play since St. Bonaventure in 1993. A most prestigious accolade that stands in 2020.
After that 2010 season, the same doofus athletic director announced the university would be injecting more money into the basketball program, and to this day, Fordham remains one of the more well-funded programs in the conference. Where that money goes? I have no earthly idea. I mean, look at the quotes from this bozo! (circa 2010)
Later in the same article, McLaughlin would say “a lack of institutional commitment” was the biggest issue Fordham was facing to return to relevance. This was, of course, a direct contradiction to the quote I posted above from seven years earlier. This could possibly be where the phrase “He doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground” comes from, but what do I know? It goes on to say this…
“They are in the wrong conference,” said Tom Konchalski, an alumnus who publishes High School Basketball Illustrated, which evaluates recruits. “They should have stayed and become the MAAC’s flagship, but now they would be behind Siena and Fairfield. Kids choose levels, not schools.”
Amidst these challenges, Fordham would hire Tom Pecora in 2010, and his tenure was somehow more forgettable than everyone who came before him: never winning more than 10 games in a season, and tallying only 13 conference wins in 5 seasons on Rose Hill, his final record was 44-106. A truly impressive feat of futility. The firing would come three seasons after Fordham replaced their athletic director, one of the first steps in the correct direction that they have ever taken in the entire period being described in this article.
This article from the NY Post in 2015 is one of the best ever written about Fordham basketball. It states simply this: Fordham was precisely where they belonged in the MAAC in the early 90’s, and the powers that be played themselves out of the perfect situation, and should be blamed for the state of the program today. When the opportunity was there to move back to the MAAC from the Patriot, they came here, to the A10, and 25 years later (five years after this article was written) the decision is still the wrong one.
So that brings us to present day, and the current coach, Jeff Neubauer, who is currently in the midst of his fifth season. After winning 15 games in the A10 in his first two years and finishing a respectable 8th in the conference, the Rams are back in the comfortable basement where all their furniture resides: winners of 7 conference games over the past two seasons, and destined for a last place finish if St. Joe’s wasn’t in the midst of a total rebuild.
When Neubauer took the job in 2015, he naturally said all the right things. He talked the talk, downplayed the obvious challenges Fordham has at recruiting and (more importantly) keeping talent on campus. He mentioned he wanted to install a defensive mentality at Fordham, which he has, but that doesn’t mean much when his last four teams couldn’t manage to score more than 66 points per game. And so here we are again, 7-14 overall, 1-8 in the A10, destined for the same crash course that countless other Fordham teams have faced since joining this league 25 years ago. He also dismissed talk in 2015 that Fordham was considering moving conferences:
In quite possibly the most loose interpretation of the word “competing” my eyes have ever seen, when does the talk of moving conferences become less “ridiculous”? I tried to find Fordham fan sites, they were all inactive. Fordham used to have a simplistic fan forum online as well, when you go there today, it’s shut down by the moderator. The fans are gone. The ones who stuck around this long deserve better. They deserve competitive basketball again, which they’re being robbed of out of pride, maybe ignorance, or possibly both. I started by saying this wasn’t a hit piece, and whether you give a rat’s ass about Fordham sucking or not, all fans/alumni deserve a competitive program…at least every once in a while.
So whether you want to blame the tiny gym they play in, the competitive recruiting landscape of NYC, the decades of mismanagement by the athletic department, or the transfer market for making it easier to escape this hell than ever before, one thing is for sure:
Fordham doesn’t belong here anymore, and quite possibly never did. Twenty five years is a long enough time to see that not only will the A10 be in a better place without Fordham, Fordham will be in a better place without the A10.