In case St. John’s was looking for a silver lining to take from its 84-81 defeat at the hands of the suddenly rejuvenated Fordham Rams in the Bronx Dec. 11, Frank McLaughlin was willing to provide one. Of course, McLaughlin, Fordham’s executive athletic director, was admittedly looking at it through Rose Hill-colored glasses.
“I really respect St. John’s, there’s no question—their long tradition and success. We have great admiration for them,” McLaughlin said. “But I think there’s a benefit to St. John’s, too. We’re trying to rejuvenate college basketball in New York. So, a St. John’s (Fordham) rivalry would create a lot of interest.”
The significance of the victory and the way it came about—storming back from a 21-point, second-half deficit, including two 16-0 runs, to win before a packed-to-the-rafters Rose Hill Gym and a local television audience—says something. After a long spell wandering in the Atlantic 10 Conference wilderness, Fordham basketball, which has a winning tradition of its own, is on the way back.
“It was a statement game, there’s no question about it,” McLaughlin told CNY in his comfortably lived-in office a floor above the Rose Hill hardwood where new coach Tom Pecora was putting his players through a morning practice.
“There were times where St. John’s had a really big lead and they could have won decisively,” he said. “If they had won by 25 or 30 points, it would have said St. John’s is the only game in town. By us coming back and winning, it said that Fordham is serious about being good. I think it’s a great rivalry.”
Fordham took a major step on the road to relevance last spring when it hired Tom Pecora from Hofstra University to coach. Pecora, with a 155-126 record at Hofstra, is known as an excellent evaluator and recruiter of talent with a native sense of New York.
“The plan was we wanted to hire a competent coach. I think we have over-achieved in that area,” McLaughlin said. “We had a lengthy search and we were fortunate to come up with Tom Pecora. We were very confident that he was going to be successful, but I think the fact of his knowledge of New York and the respect that people have for him has accelerated the process.”
Fordham, which finished 2-26 last year, is 6-4 this season after defeating Kennesaw State, 80-63, on Dec. 22. The early success has ignited excitement both on campus and among Fordham’s 100,000-plus local alumni who McLaughlin says have stuck by Fordham through thick and, in recent years, mostly thin.
“There is no question it was an emotional game for our supporters,” said McLaughlin of the victory over St. John’s. “We’ve been trying to be good for a long time. But we’re in a very tough league, the Atlantic 10, and we’ve struggled. So these people have been through a lot. It was great for them to see, not only a terrific victory, but hopefully a sense of where the program is going and the potential we have.”
The basketball resurgence is being reflected in other Fordham sports as well. Facilities have been refurbished, and Fordham athletes are competitive across a range of sporting disciplines. At the Fordham Classic Christmas indoor track meet in the Lombardi Center the same weekend as the big basketball upset, Fordham women and men won three events each.
In 2010 the university introduced merit-based athletic scholarships for its football program. Scholarships were last offered in 1954. In making the announcement, Fordham president Father Joseph M. McShane, S.J., described the move as “a real sea change for Fordham athletics.”
“These scholarships will allow more athletes to participate in Fordham football and make the team much more competitive in Patriot League and non-league play,” he said. The move also allows Fordham to enhance its schedule and renew rivalries with past opponents such as Army and Villanova and other higher profile programs.
McLaughlin says the school’s high academic standards will not be compromised. “People have tremendous respect for Fordham as an academic institution,” he said. “We’re not an athletic factory. Do we want kids to go on and have a pro career? That would be nice but that’s not our number one objective.
“Our number one objective is to prepare them to be successful in life and give back to the community,” McLaughlin said. “But athletics is a window into the school. We’re committed to fielding a competitive football team without sacrificing high academic standards.”