There are some devout devotees of Rose Hill who’ve at last grown weary of constantly looking back to the magical winter of 1971. Pining for the past is the surest sign of a bleak present, and when it comes to Fordham basketball, those truths have never been starker.
Fifty years ago, February of ’71, Fordham enjoyed the most glorious month of its basketball history. On consecutive Thursday nights, it beat Notre Dame and lost an OT thriller to unbeaten Marquette, arguably Al McGuire’s best team. Both games sold out Madison Square Garden.
“That,” McGuire said in the quiet of his exhausted locker room, “is the best-coached team I’ve ever seen.”
“We were the princes of the city,” is how the coach in question, Digger Phelps, termed it to me a few months ago, “at a time when being princes of this city was a better thing than being the King of England.”
Now, Rose Hill Gym lies silent, stilled by an extended pause due to COVID-19 and by the 2-11 season that preceded the shutdown, a campaign that already cost embattled coach Jeff Neubauer his job and guaranteed that for the 27th time in 29 years the Rams will finish without a winning record.
Fifty years ago this week, Fordham cracked the Top 10 for the second and last time in school history. March would bring its lone NCAA Tournament win; by April, Phelps was gone to South Bend.
And while there would be spasms of prosperity under Tom Penders and Nick Macarchuk, and a stolen promise of rebirth under Tom Pecora, the Rams never delivered what February 1971 portended: Fordham as a legit second college basketball presence in town, flanking St. John’s.
“I want the basketball program to be a source of pride and school spirit,” says Ed Kull, the athletic director who last week had the “interim” removed from his title and who’s first duty in the AD chair is a critical one: make what may well be the most important hire in the history of a program that dates to 1902.
“I want it to be an engagement tool to get alumni back to The Bronx and back on campus. We know how much frustration there’s been, we know how important it is to get this right. It’s more than important. It’s essential.”
There have been so many missteps along the way across these last 50 years. The Rams never should have abandoned the MAAC for the Patriot League as they did in 1990. That mistake was compounded when Fordham grew weary of that non-scholarship conference after five years and took a blind leap into the Atlantic 10, a jump that would’ve made a lot more sense coming from the MAAC.
Pecora recruited back-to-back A-10 rookies of the year and a wealth of fresh talent, including Eric Paschall, and seemed primed to make a breakthrough before being knee-capped by Kull’s overmatched predecessor. That sparked an endless wave of players fleeing Fordham under Neubauer.
If this isn’t rock bottom, you can sure see it from here.
“This isn’t just rebuilding,” Kull says. “This is a brand-new creation to build a real infrastructure, a genuine culture, an environment of what success and winning needs to look like and be. That’s a pretty rare opportunity for a new coach.”
The identity of that coach will be known in the coming weeks (nobody asked, but my first call would be to Saint Peter’s Shaheen Holloway) and there is little question Fordham could — should — be competitive in the A-10. The Rams have had notable success in softball and soccer.
The women’s hoops team, led by the excellent Stephanie Gaitley, made the NCAAs two years ago, regularly sits among the league’s elite, and is 8-2 (11-3 overall) heading into its restart at the A-10 Tournament. There are calling cards for competitiveness all over the athletic department.
“All you have to do is hire the right person,” said Phelps, who was the right person once upon a time, who 50 years ago left behind a blueprint of precisely what is possible if that right person is identified. And hired.