Tom Pecora was at a loss for words following Fordham's loss to UMass Lowell, a sign that Rams' fifth-year coach may have reached end of his rope at Rose Hill. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)
Eighty-seven times before, Tom Pecora had done his best to explain a Fordham loss, an occurrence that happened frequently even before his arrival from Hofstra nearly five years ago. Usually, these setbacks were defended with a number of rebuttals, ranging from the youth of the Ram roster to what he cited as "residue of losing" following a late-season loss to VCU last year.
The Rams' most recent defeat, an empty-handed 64-57 decision against a UMass Lowell program just two years removed from making the jump to Division I that served as the 88th notation of the letter "L" on the Fordham ledger in the coach's four-plus-year regime, may have been his most devastating.
"Well, guys, that was embarrassing," Pecora disgustedly offered upon his entrance into the Rose Hill Gym media room. "This is not a good one, I'm not going to lie to you."
One thing Pecora has almost always been in nearly five years of covering him, aside from being more accessible than other coaches at programs of equal or greater prestige in the area, is up front to those who cover him. When asked a hard question, he will give an honest answer whenever he can, something that has always been appreciated.
When it comes to realizing whether he may have bitten off more than he could chew upon coming to Fordham, however, Pecora has been hard-pressed to find an explanation as he searches; not yet in vain, but sometimes desperately, to turn the fortunes of a program that has been seemingly moribund for decades in a positive direction once and for all. The Rams have gone through the wringer in almost every way possible, from back-to-back 44-point losses in Pecora's second season; which also included a 34-point thrashing against a Manhattan team in its first season under Steve Masiello, to the inexplicable bloodletting on the road against Dayton and La Salle the following year, to the 46-point massacre at Madison Square Garden against St. John's last December. This does not include the numerous close losses against teams such as Butler, Saint Joseph's, Richmond, and George Washington. Nor does it take into consideration last November's letdown, ironically one year to the day of the UMass Lowell deflation, against a Sacred Heart team that entered winless and was not expected to do much under a rookie head coach in Anthony Latina.
While the talent level at Rose Hill has progressively risen with the signings of players such as Chris Gaston and Branden Frazier, who helped shepherd Pecora's transition from the chaos that was rampant following the firing of Dereck Whittenburg, to more recent coups in Jon Severe and Eric Paschall; not to mention diamonds in the rough the likes of Mandell Thomas and Ryan Rhoomes, the anticipated improvement in Fordham's bottom line has not. Some may credit the stagnant win-loss record to the coach specifically, but in Pecora's defense, that is only part of the issue. A confluence of factors stemming from an Atlantic 10 that has been stronger than ever before and the perceived criticism of Fordham's facilities, something the coach has openly admitted works against him in recruiting on multiple occasions, even back in 2012 when the Rams played at Barclays Center for the first time, are just as much contributing factors as what some view as a stubborn unwillingness on the part of Pecora to adapt his three-guard system predicated on moving ball screens to better suit his talent, as Gary Moore chronicled in this piece for The College Hardwood last season.
Fordham's most rabid supporters have been vocal and critical of Pecora for years now, and in the aftermath of the Rams' latest near-miss Sunday night, flooded the basketball message board with calls for his head, with the majority of fans calling for none other than Mike Rice. Yes, THAT Mike Rice, the same Mike Rice who threw basketballs at his players at Rutgers while at the same time verbally abusing them, to be the interim replacement. Rice has not yet earned the right to return to the coaching ranks, and an institution such as Fordham would probably consider several other candidates before him despite Rice's standing as an alumnus, but the fact that there is a group out there vocally clamoring for him to save the Rams' season should be a haunting indicator of Pecora's future.
Watching Pecora closely on Sunday, it seemed as though he was resigned to his fate a little more than he may have been in past games and past seasons. Through most of the second half of Sunday's loss, he remained stationary at the edge of the Fordham bench, with his body language suggesting he was powerless to stop what was proceeding in front of him. In addition, sophomore guard Jon Severe's start to the season has been enough to land the Rams' second-leading scorer from last season on the proverbial milk carton, only scoring five points in 39 minutes through three games after being suspended for the season opener against Division II foe NYIT.
Over the past two seasons of covering Fordham basketball and watching the cries to the Fordham administration for a change of direction, Pecora could be let off the hook after a while for most of the losses that caused his approval rating among fans and boosters to slide to the George W. Bush-esque lows that were seen in the waning moments of the former President's second term in the White House. This past Sunday looks to be the straw that broke the camel's back. While Fordham will most likely wait until the end of the season to make a decision on the course of leadership for its men's basketball program, the fair and right thing to do seeing as how a midseason coaching change would only torpedo the standing of the program in the eyes of recruits, media and competitors alike. However, their most recent impression may just be the beginning of the end for Tom Pecora, who is running out of chances to get the turnaround he was hired to skipper.