Just 21 months after coming to Fordham, Tom Pecora already has Rams moving up; not just in competition, but respect as well. (Photo courtesy of New York Post)
It may be one of New York City's lesser populated neighborhoods, but the Bronx has had more than its share of contributions to the intricate landscape of the Big Apple. The New York Yankees, Bronx Zoo, City Island, and Jennifer Lopez are some of the many people, places and things with their roots in the northernmost of the quintet of boroughs that comprise the largest city in the United States. The Bronx is also home to two Division I college basketball programs; one of which (Manhattan College) has already surpassed last season's win total, and the other a perennial institution of positive academic repute that has struggled in recent years to resurrect its hardwood image after decades of mediocrity: A school that has produced great broadcasters the likes of Vin Scully, Mike Breen, John Andariese, Bob Papa and Chris Carrino; but for most of the immediate past, a basketball program left for dead by an apathetic general public until a coaching change ushered in a new era. This era has already seen its share of highs and lows, but one look at the team on the court will leave you with the impression that the best truly is yet to come at Fordham University.
Just two seasons ago, the Rams were mired in one of their more forgettable campaigns in recent memory, a 2-26 campaign that gave temporary rise to the youngest head coach in the nation when then 29-year-old Jared Grasso moved up from the assistant coach's seat to replace Dereck Whittenburg midway through the season. Despite showing a marked improvement in his brief tenure at the helm, Grasso was not retained after the season; and ultimately moved to New Rochelle once hired by Iona coach Tim Cluess as his top assistant. The man who replaced him was seen as a rather surprising choice considering Fordham's past track record and the interest he received from several other high-major programs. It was a hire that, despite the belief that the new guy may have settled, has still paid off far greater than one would imagine when looking at Fordham's record on paper.
Two years ago, Tom Pecora could have had any job he wanted. A recognizable face in New York college hoops for parts of two decades as an assistant at Hofstra University before being promoted to coach the Pride after Jay Wright departed for Villanova, Pecora had earned a reputation as a recruiter during his time as one of Wright's deputies before continuing the tradition of success on Long Island during the 2000s, guiding Hofstra to three consecutive NIT appearances over his nine seasons in charge. After a lackluster final season on Hempstead Turnpike, Pecora's resume was still impressive enough to merit consideration for the openings at Big East programs Seton Hall and St. John's. A product of Queens Village, Pecora seemed like a natural fit for the Red Storm once Norm Roberts was dismissed after six years on the corner of Union and Utopia; and had he been pursued stronger by the university, would have done the exact same thing for the Red Storm he had for Hofstra: Build the program back to relevance while simultaneously maintaining his affable image. Said my colleague Marc Ernay, a Hofstra alum who got to know Pecora quite well through his work for 1010 WINS, on many an occasion: "He would walk here (to St. John's) from Hempstead" if given the job. Personally, I have said several times that I would have paid for his cab fare from Nassau to Queens had Steve Lavin not come along, for reasons I will detail later. On the same day Lavin was introduced in a whirlwind press conference, Seton Hall brought Kevin Willard down from Iona to replace Bobby Gonzalez; but Pecora was already off the market six days before, taking over at Fordham University and injecting some much needed enthusiasm into Rose Hill in a decision that made even the most grizzled of media veterans go for a second look after he was introduced.
Through just 38 games, Pecora is 11-27 at the helm of Fordham. However, he has already eclipsed the win total from the two seasons prior to his arrival, and doubled it while adding one for good measure. For those not mathematically inclined, (at least not on the fly) the Rams amassed just five victories between November 2008 and March 2010; and Pecora is doing it the same way he did it at Hofstra, coaching unheralded recruits up to the point where they become deceptively talented players over their four years on a team that flies under the radar in an Atlantic 10 conference dominated by the likes of Xavier and Temple, as well as a city in which St. John's gets the bulk of the media attention. When the Rams overcame a 21-point deficit with two 16-0 runs in the second half to post a monumental upset against Lavin's Red Storm, it seemed for a fleeting moment that Fordham was on top of the world. One year later, Pecora's squad nearly made lightning strike twice in an effort where the Rams gave St. John's all they could handle in the first half before falling 56-50 in the second game of the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden. When I asked Pecora how he felt about his team following the game, (and their previous effort, a 74-59 win against Siena) he seemed very pleased to say the following:
"We're moving in the right direction. I think there will be more games that we'll compete in more this year." - Tom Pecora on Fordham's upward mobilityPecora hit all the right notes in his press conference as he usually does, but the true reason to appreciate him came after the media dispersed back to their computers. This is where the mention to me offering to foot the bill for Pecora's car service had he been hired by my alma mater comes into play. You see, Pecora is a typical Italian-American, a humble man with a charismatic and magnetic personality that he is not afraid to reveal to anyone at any time. I was fortunate to be introduced to it last year at Rose Hill when Pecora took the time to personally introduce myself to me, and got to see it firsthand again when he stopped to chat with myself and two other friends of mine: NYCHoops.net writer John Miciotta and former St. John's alum/New York basketball superfan Tony Giacobbe, who I had known for several years before; as he had been an administrator at my junior high school back when Pecora was an assistant to Wright at Hofstra. Seeing Pecora take so much time out of his schedule to engage three regular guys is something not every coach is inclined to do, and it becomes even more refreshing when you can see just how much the coach enjoys it. This display of human kindness and schmoozing is enough to make even the most casual of fans want to root for a person of Pecora's nature; one who, much like his mentor Jay Wright, is a guy you could easily see yourself having a light-hearted conversation with at a bar or restaurant.
Fordham is still a long way from being regarded as one of the nation's elite programs, but their respectability and popularity are steadily climbing the ladder in a relentless attempt to catch up to some of the more established programs in their backyard. Following this past Saturday's loss to St. John's, Tom Pecora also reminded those in attendance at his press conference that "Rome wasn't built in a day."
Slowly but surely, Pecora is building a winner at Fordham. The hire that seemed puzzling at first now looks like a match made in heaven with each passing day, and it truly could not have happened to a nicer guy.