Now 5-12 more than halfway through his fifth season, Tom Pecora faces a hotter seat than ever before at Fordham. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)
It has been said that things have to get worse in some cases before they can get better.
Through four different coaches and a program that has not seen an NCAA Tournament in over two decades, Fordham University is experiencing the rigors of that old adage firsthand.
The Rams' latest setback, a 79-59 loss to George Washington Thursday evening on a night marked by the celebration of Rose Hill Gym's 90th year of existence and the return of ESPN personality Tony Reali to his alma mater, was the sixth straight for Fordham, who had won their last two nonconference games just to get to one game under .500 in a non-league schedule the Rams had no business completing with a losing record, yet inexcusable home losses to UMass Lowell; in just its second year at the Division I level, and Maryland Eastern Shore, veered the ship off course. Now winless in six attempts in Atlantic 10 play, which continues on Wednesday when the Rams host Dan Hurley's Rhode Island team that has aspirations of crashing a postseason party the likes of which the only members of the Fordham fan base are familiar with are those born before the Reagan administration, the questions for the administration and head coach begin to multiply, and justifiably so after dropping to 5-12 on the year.
At 39-97 since arriving from Hofstra in 2010, Tom Pecora, a very affable and personable man on and off the basketball court to any and all who both cover him and simply know him, has done little; at least on paper, to rectify what had been a blazing fire burning before he came over the Whitestone Bridge and into the Bronx. To make matters worse, the already steep slope in the A-10 has only become more slippery for Fordham. While nearly everyone else in the conference, including newcomer Davidson; just six months removed from their status as Southern Conference emigres, has made strides to bolster their standing in one of the nation's best conferences on an annual basis, the Rams have fell backward, in essence, furthering what has amounted to a bottomless pit from which the program could not recover under Pecora's predecessors, Dereck Whittenburg and Bob Hill. What was viewed as a two or three-alarm conflagration on Fordham Road and Third Avenue has now become a colossal inferno, with Pecora's stubbornness to adapt to his new talent now bordering on negligence that lies scattered among the rubble.
"It was nice to be in here," Pecora said when recounting how Fordham rallied in vain to draw closer to George Washington. "We need a crowd supporting us and making some noise, and us getting a homecourt advantage."
Fordham has had crowds like the one Pecora described Thursday night, and has drawn such galleries on several occasions, win or lose. In addition to the high-profile meetings with St. John's and Butler over the years at Rose Hill, the Rams have also attracted sellout crowds for tilts with A-10 rivals Dayton and Massachusetts, even geographic adversary Manhattan for the annual Battle of the Bronx. Yet, Pecora, and to a lesser extent, assistant coach Tom Parrotta, have taken fans to task for not showing up, both in press conferences and even on the Rams' flagship radio station, WFUV.
However, impassioned speeches can only go so far when relied upon as motivators. Eventually, some measured success that can resonate outside the program, in terms of wins and losses, will be what defines fan support. Look no further than Seton Hall. Left seemingly for dead by its fan base and the media following the dismissal of Bobby Gonzalez in 2010, Kevin Willard struggled to bring the program back to the forefront of national attention, and attendance at the Prudential Center suffered as a result, but wins over local programs such as St. John's and Rutgers, not to mention a thrilling overtime victory against fifth-ranked Villanova and a 10-2 record going into Big East play, have swelled the number of patrons in Newark to well over 7,000, with the aforementioned Villanova game drawing a count of 10,701. Of course, the argument for a larger arena and greater fan base will ultimately win out, but the point here is this, like "Field of Dreams" advised so eloquently 26 years ago: If you build it, it will come. Pecora has the foundation in talent such as Eric Paschall, Jon Severe, Mandell Thomas, Ryan Rhoomes and Christian Sengfelder, but has lacked the ability to apply the finishing touches.
"I just thought we were outclassed," Pecora went on to add Thursday night, mentioning how George Washington's John Kopriva; who took a visit to Fordham while he was being recruited, "killed our big guys, and that was unacceptable."
What is unacceptable is not taking advantage of a dynamic forward who could be an all-conference player for four years and giving him the green light to take ill-advised three-pointers more often than a player of Paschall's caliber should. What is unacceptable is finding ways to lose on a schedule loaded with mounds of opportunities to win early and build momentum for conference play, only for the slate to later be categorized as "brutal." What is unacceptable is throwing upperclassmen under the bus for not motivating younger talent as much as the head coach is compensated to do, something that occurred way too often with Branden Frazier when the Brooklyn guard; who will go down in Fordham history as perhaps one of the more underappreciated players in its storied annals, did not deserve to be lambasted for his Herculean efforts in attempting to raise the Titanic. What is unacceptable is a once-proud athletic and academic institution becoming a revolving door of a basketball program, with more transfers out in the current coach's tenure than the team has road Atlantic 10 wins in the same five-season span.
"In this league, the seventh-ranked league in America," Pecora intimated Thursday night, "you cannot go out and just go through the motions. If you don't bring your game, and you're not mentally and physically prepared to go after it on the highest level, then youth is not an excuse anymore. I have to get them old, and I have to get them wise."
Sadly, "going through the motions" might just be the most accurate description of Fordham basketball over the past few months. Those who cover Pecora regularly can see that his coaching has evolved, particularly between the end of last season and beginning of the current year, from an effort to salvage a talent-laden roster and build upon it, to a man who sees the writing on the wall, one who is perhaps just starting to realize that the game and its shortcuts to success are beginning to put him a lap down on the racetrack that is college basketball.
Tom Pecora is a person who, by all accounts, deserves the respect to be addressed and evaluated fairly, and he has been in this space for the duration of his five years at Fordham. What is fair is that he defends himself, maybe not always with the most appealing expectations, to any questions he has been asked over the years, of which there are enough to rival the O.J. Simpson trial. However, what is not fair is what those who actually do pay to see and support this program are being subjected to, with no guarantee that things will change in the foreseeable future. What is not fair is players who have legitimate futures in basketball, whether in this country or not, and players who are among the best in their conference, being deprived of the chance to win because they are playing for a coach who has not made a strong enough effort to. What is not fair for Pecora is that any success this program benefits from will be too little, too late, but that problem is one of the coach's own creation.
Things have gotten worse for Fordham compared to even two and three years ago. If results and scenes such as those of the Rams' last six losses are any indication, then it might be time for a change. Nothing against Tom Pecora as a person, but as a coach, it seems as though he has reached the end of his road.
In order for things to begin getting better, maybe the first step would be to make a change in leadership. That would at least be a start.