Graduate School of Journalism- Columbia University- Class of 2009
Life at the bottom
Fordham University’s struggle between basketball prominence and academic success
Copyright Jake Sherman 2009
Adviser: Professor Sandy Padwe
By 9 a.m. on a cold morning in early January Dereck Whittenburg was already hours into his day on Fordham’s campus in the central Bronx.
Wearing a black fleece under a heavy Fordham basketball jacket, Whittenburg had been at work since before 6 a.m., having driven the eight miles to the university from his Pelham, N.Y., home.
By the time most of the campus was waking up in the gothic buildings that dominate the grounds of the college, he had already met his basketball team for a two-hour practice and had an impromptu meeting with his coaches on the leather couches that line the walls in his office. Then he sat at his neat, Formica desk trying, methodically, to explain his failures up until then – 12 losses in 14 games against beatable basketball teams.
In that office, on the first floor of the Rose Hill Gymnasium, there is only one picture that catches a visitor’s eye. The framed photograph hangs behind his desk in a corner of the room. It immortalizes a moment 25 years ago during a different time and a different era for Whittenburg.
It is a scene of clear, unabashed joy that few athletes or coaches ever experience. There he is in Albuquerque, N.M., a younger, thinner and certainly happier Dereck Whittenburg smothering his coach Jim Valvano seconds after his North Carolina State team shocked the University of Houston to win the 1983 national championship.
The play that set up that immortal hug was as shocking as the upset. With three seconds left, Whittenburg threw up a prayer from 30 feet. Now, he calls it a pass, not a shot. Whatever it was, it landed in the hands of Lorenzo Charles, who was on the side of the basket, and Charles dunked it as time expired.
Game over. 54-52. It made Whittenburg a legend.
Twenty-five years change a lot. Valvano died in 1993 from the cancer that first ate at his spine, then slowly conquered the rest of his body. Charles runs a bus company in Raleigh, N.C. And Whittenburg sits in Rose Hill Gymnasium, which seats 3,470, thinking about whether it is possible to improve an Atlantic 10 conference basketball program at a Jesuit university that deeply reveres academics and understands its priorities when it comes to athletics.
“The commitment for basketball speaks for itself,” Whittenburg, now 48, says of Fordham’s program, his frustration obvious. “What they didn’t understand is what they want to be.”
At N.C. State, everyone knew what needed to be done. When Valvano lost to the University of North Carolina twice in a row, someone sent him a letter saying if he lost to them again, his dog would be shot. He returned the letter telling the fan that he didn’t have one. The next day, he got a UPS delivery with a dog and a note saying, ‘Don’t get too attached.’
When Whittenburg wins big games at Fordham, as he did a few years ago at the University of Virginia, he says he doesn’t get as much as a pat on the back from people like Vice President Jeffrey Gray and Director of Athletics Frank McLaughlin. He wonders if members of the administration even realize that the N.C. State championship team never won at Virginia. When Whittenburg loses at Fordham, he doesn’t hear anything. No one comes and tells him that he should be winning some of these games.
“What are they going to say, ‘You should be (winning)?” Whittenburg says. “I’m going to say ‘Why?’”
The expectations are clear: there really are none. Father Joseph McShane, the president of Fordham, met with Whittenburg at the beginning of the coach’s tenure. According to Whittenburg and other athletic department sources, McShane laid out three things that were expected of his men’s basketball team: a competitive program, a clean program and a program that graduates every player.
“But at the same time,” Whittenburg said on that cold January morning, “when we’re going through this, I’m sure he’s thinking ‘what’s going wrong?’”
Whittenburg was forewarned of the struggles he would face at Fordham. Most of his friends, he said, thought he was crazy to take this job. Mike Krzyzewski, the Hall of Fame coach of Duke University, and Tubby Smith who coaches at the University of Minnesota, told him to not to take it. “They don’t think this is a very good job,” Whittenburg said.
Now he is beginning to realize that. Fordham finished .500 once and 18-12 another time, and Whittenburg coached both teams.
How he arrived here is typical for college basketball coaches not quite good enough to play professional ball. He held assistant coaching posts at George Mason University, N.C. State, the University of Colorado, Long Beach State, West Virginia University and Georgia Tech. He stayed at Georgia Tech, an ACC powerhouse, until 1999 when Wagner College, a small school on Staten Island, was looking for a head coach.
He accepted the job and his arrival brought a basketball renaissance. Whittenburg turned the program around and brought the school to its first and only National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament berth in 2003.
Whittenburg, however, wanted out. He told himself and alumni that he knew that was as far as he could take Wagner. Expectations were too high. Alumni expected that next season, he could win 25 games. Looking to a bigger conference, he took Fordham’s head coaching job.
He thought that he was going to take control and make the program better through staunch discipline. He was aware of the hurdles he would have to jump. Since Bob Hill, a former NBA coach, got a 10-year deal worth $2.5 million guaranteed and he was a complete failure, Whittenburg realized he would have to succeed with much less.
“I understood that,” he said. “I took what we had. Our program was [one of the worst in the nation], it was the laughing stock of the country.”
And he slowly improved. During his first year in the Bronx, he only won six games. The second year, he improved and his squad won 13 and won its first A-10 tournament game. The next year, the Rams went .500, winning 16 games and nine in the conference. And in 2006-2007, Fordham went 18-12 and won 10 conference games. Now, he says he realizes winning 18 games at Fordham, with all of its constraints, is “almost a miracle.”
After that season, Whittenburg was convinced things would start happening for him. He thought the university’s administration would see his success – as minimal as it was – and make a serious commitment to winning basketball games. “Fordham was the laughing stock of the country and in four years, look what we’ve done,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m their guy now, they believe in me and we are going to build a new arena and add more money.’”
They added a little bit to the budget but Xavier, an Atlantic 10 opponent, flies on private jets to games. Fordham practices at 6 a.m. to make commercial flights to obscure locations. They enter hotels with $150,000 of video equipment for the players to do homework on their opponent.
“We go in a room with a video machine, two beds and a video,” Whittenburg said.
Aside from money, there are radical differences between how Fordham and other teams compete. Take Duquesne, also a Catholic school. The team was at the bottom of the conference not too long ago. The coach, Danny Nee, recruited players of the highest academic caliber, and the Dukes were unsuccessful on the basketball court. They fired Nee and brought in Ron Everhart, an old friend of Whittenburg’s who also was an assistant at Georgia Tech. Everhart recruited out of junior colleges and prep schools; they finished the 2008-09 season 18-11 with a win over Charlotte, a ranked Xavier team, and it had a competitive contest with Duke. In the conference tournament, Duquesne upset Dayton before losing in the championship game.
“Duquesne is supposed to be like us but Duquesne changed,” Whittenburg said. “…St. Bonaventure changed, they went out and got junior college kids.”
Dave Saba, a spokesperson for Duquesne, said that the university’s academic requirements have not changed for student-athletes and “it would be inaccurate to attribute the recent success of the men’s basketball team to lowered academic standards.”
Pat Pierson, a spokesperson for the St. Bonaventure basketball team, said in an e-mail, “Any allegations about academic requirements being lowered for our student-athletes are completely false.”
The top talent, Whittenburg said, is simply impossible for him to attract. Why would a student-athlete come to Fordham, where the facilities are sub-par, academic standards are rigid and winning is seemingly secondary? He said recruits are more attracted to schools such as Richmond and Xavier where the arenas are spectacular.
Whittenburg tries to sell recruits on the academics but most parents simply do not care, he said. They want their sons to be part of a winning program. And then, there are the alumni.
“[They] want to be like St. John’s and those but they don’t want to hear the reality. They just want you to win. They don’t understand,” Whittenburg said. “Then you have the administration and they’re just not interested in having sports. It’s almost like, we gotta have sports.”
Whittenburg feels alone. Nobody has asked him what he needs to be successful. The Christmas cards poured in from alumni over the past few years. This year? None.
“I’m lucky this is not a war,” Whittenburg said of his alumni. “If we had to be in the foxhole a lot of you would be running out of the foxhole getting killed. We all would be getting killed because you didn’t want to stay in the foxhole and fight.”
Whittenburg said he wont give up. He said it’s too easy to go around complaining about his budget and small gym. He wants to succeed. And he vows to but remains relatively skeptical about the reality.
“As long as we understand what we are, we’ll be ok. The situation is what it is. Whether I’m the coach here, or the next coach will be here, same gym is going to be here, same budget is going to be here, same people will be here.”
Later on that cold day, Whittenburg’s team flew from New York to Dayton. The next night, the team lost to the NCAA-tournament bound Flyers by one point after leading all game.
Those early morning practices were beginning to feel like time wasted.
Along with Dayton, Duquesne and St. Bonaventure, Fordham plays in the Atlantic 10, a conference comprised of mostly middle-range academic institutions with athletic programs of similar stature. Many of the conference’s teams – except for Fordham and its Jesuit brothers La Salle and Xavier – play in gyms that seat between 5,000 and 10,000 people.
The conferences’ top teams – Xavier, Temple and Dayton – typically win a smattering of games every few years against a top-ranked team, but rarely have long-term success against the nation’s best. For the moment, Xavier seems to be changing that, and it has been ranked in the top 25 for parts of the last three seasons. George Washington University, the conference’s top academic institution according to U.S. News and World Report, is a perfect example of the struggles of an A-10 team to remain strong. The Colonials lost just one regular-season game during the 2006-2007 season and the team was considered by coaches and journalists alike as one of the top 10 in the country. Last season, they lost nearly 20 games and failed to qualify for the conference’s 12-team championship. This year they missed the conference tournament again. Teams in this conference fall hard and fall quick.
The pinnacle of success in college basketball is the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s national championship. In order to qualify for the tournament that produces the champion, a Division I basketball team must win its conference tournament or be voted as an at-large team by a panel of athletic administrators of the NCAA’s choosing. The tournament accepts 65 teams and culminates with Final Four weekend. To illustrate the conference’s status on the national spectrum, no A-10 team has won the national championship since La Salle did in 1955 when skin-tight short shorts were the style and long before there was an A-10. The only teams to qualify for the Final Four in the past half-century have been Temple (1956 and 1958) and the University of Massachusetts (1996). Since 2004, just Xavier and St. Joseph’s – both Jesuit institutions – have reached the quarterfinals, known as the Elite Eight. Yet no team has achieved a level of consistent national prominence.
Money certainly plays a part – as it does in every facet of higher education ranging from literary scholarship to scientific research. Next to football, basketball is college athletics’ most expensive sport. Department of Education reports show that Fordham spent $1,907,189 on its basketball program in the 2007-2008 season. In addition to athletic wear and travel expenses for the team, this figure includes scholarships, which 13 players on the team receive at a per-person amount of around $36,000 per year. It also includes coaching salaries. According to non-profit tax filings that Fordham submits to the Internal Revenue Service, Whittenburg made $400,319 in 2007 – which made him the university’s highest paid employee. Syracuse University spends upwards of $6 million each year on its program, Department of Education records show. The Orange fly private aircraft to games and attract 20,000 or more fans for each home game.
Fordham’s low expenditures place it in a precarious position in the A-10. The University of Massachusetts spends $2.9 million on its basketball program, federal records show, but each scholarship costs around $17,000. At a public school with low tuition, $2.9 million goes much further.
Alumni at Fordham are clamoring for more wins but don’t want to face the reality that to attract good players, sacrifices may have to be made – financially but, even more so, academically. Fans are getting frustrated, but decisions are being made that would keep the program at its same level of basketball mediocrity.
January 7, 2009 – days before Whittenburg was reflecting on his poor beginning to the season – was also a cold and rainy night on Fordham’s campus. St. Bonaventure was warming up on the basketball floor to rap music blaring from the ceiling speakers. The Rose Hill gym, with its vaulted white ceilings and one concession stand, was still more than half empty yet there was slight panic among those scurrying about; the shot clock above one of the baskets had short-circuited. The public address announcer would have to simulate the 35-second shot clock in 10-second intervals over the PA system. Strange and irritating for Division I college basketball? Certainly. A microcosm of a problematic basketball program where what can go wrong will? Absolutely.
There was confusion in a lounge downstairs: didn’t anyone check the equipment? The building’s maintenance men had no answer so this Division I college basketball game would be played with one shot clock.
These problems would bother some teams but Whittenburg has adopted a coach’s mentality – we will eventually get this right. The team looked at the two-game home stand against St. Bonaventure and league powerhouse Xavier as a new beginning – a chance at a much-needed fresh start.
Fans and many members of the administration at Fordham expected that the 2008-2009 season would be particularly difficult. The team lost 70 percent of its offensive productivity with the graduation of the 2008 class – one of the many facts that doubled as excuses. The players returning for the new season averaged a total of 19.9 points last year.
Whittenburg and others had high expectations for this year’s incoming class. Jio Fontan and Alberto Estwick, teammates on the legendary St. Anthony’s high school team in New Jersey, would see ample time in the backcourt. Fontan and Estwick are lean but quick guards who learned the game from Bobby Hurley, the Naismith Hall of Fame high school coach. Trey Blue, a Chicago-bred guard, would also get playing time. In his first game in a Rams uniform, he scored 24 points – the most in school history for a freshman – but he went cold as the season went on. The Rams would also welcome back Chris Bethel, a senior forward from the Bronx. Bethel played on some of the more successful Fordham teams of years past, so Whittenburg expected him to step up during his last year in college.
Injuries would also plague this Fordham team. Brenton Butler, a junior guard, was expected to provide productivity and leadership but he went down early in the season with an ankle injury. Bethel would be out for most of the season with knee problems, ending his career on a sad note.
This made the already challenging A-10 even more difficult. Other teams were constantly improving by accepting transfers and bringing in junior college players –philosophically difficult if not impossible at Fordham. Fans were bracing for the worst, but they thought they could expect more than a few wins.
Bonaventure, from Olean, N.Y., near Buffalo, was a team certainly beatable in past years –they were one of the conference’s worst teams less than five years ago. Fordham had beaten the Bonnies in the previous seven contests dating back to 2004. Eventually, academic missteps put the Bonnies on probation, seriously damaging their recruiting prowess and leaving them helpless in a conference with improving teams. The school brought in Mark Schmidt, a former Xavier assistant who turned the Bonnies into a stronger team.
On that cold and rainy night, Fordham hung in with the Bonnies for a bit. Fontan led a late-game comeback but Bonaventure’s height and experience down the stretch trumped the Rams’ effort. Fontan’s 22 points were not enough to propel Fordham past the visiting Bonnies, who won 78-65. Next up would be a game that was enough to change a season: 16th-ranked Xavier.
Whittenburg looked tired after his team lost to the Bonnies. He rubbed his temples and took big gulps from a plastic cup full of Sprite. He knew beating Xavier was a long shot, but he had been the underdog before.
“I told [the players] it’s a ranked team,” Whittenburg said after the St. Bonventure game. “We will be well prepared. The job of the coach is to put them in position. I know what to do. I’m going to have the right scheme. If they will pay attention, we’ll have a chance. I know that sounds crazy to you but I know what to do.”
Fordham’s problems, again, started before the game even tipped off. Inexplicably, a lack of balls prevented the Rams from warming up. Xavier got the proper shoot-around while Fordham settled for stretching exercises on the gym’s floor.
Even though they couldn’t prepare physically, the Rams seemed to be ready mentally. The scheme had been drilled into the players’ heads in the days leading up to the Sunday game. The Rams would try to disrupt the pace of Xavier’s play with pesky defense. They’d press the team in the backcourt to try to force quick and sloppy passes. There it was, Whittenburg told them all week: the recipe for what would be the biggest win in program history against a team Whittenburg told his team was “designed to succeed.”
It even worked for a few minutes.
Good play again from Fontan, with help from Trey Blue, brought Fordham to within one point in the second half. Xavier called time out and, perhaps fittingly, Aerosmith’s song “Dream On” played. The Musketeers woke up and quickly wiped the Rams away, 86-60.
The loss to Xavier dropped the Rams to 0-2 in the Atlantic 10 and 2-12 overall for the season. In some bizarre way, the fashion in which they lost was emblematic of much more. With those two losses – two losses Whittenburg seemed to covet more than others – fans and administrators bore a sense of hopelessness.
The Xavier loss and the team’s record clearly began focusing the question of basketball’s place in a school that prized its excellent academic reputation.
The question was flashing like the neon signs in the windows of the bars across the street on East Fordham Road. Can Fordham make that jump to a higher level in basketball? Should it? It wasn’t too long ago that Xavier was not as successful as it is now. Also a Jesuit university, Xavier made the conscious effort to be good. The school built a new arena, hired high-profile coaches and gave them resources such as more money and reportedly more lenient admission standards.
Although sticking to academics and investing little in basketball may be laudable, Fordham has resigned itself to indefinite frustration in the A-10. Administrators even admit this.
Frank X. McLaughlin, the school’s athletic director, has his office on the second floor of Rose Hill Gymnasium directly above one of the court’s two basketball hoops. Memorabilia reflecting his successes as a player, coach and athletic director at Fordham line the walls, the shelves and even cover the floors. For guests, he has cushioned metal chairs, the kind the basketball team uses as the players sit on the sideline. A Coca-Cola refrigerator, the type found in locker rooms, is in the corner humming.
McLaughlin is Irish, as if it isn’t evident. A bust of John F. Kennedy is on a table behind his desk, and there are a number of photos of the Kennedy family scattered on his walls.
McLaughlin played at Fordham in the late 1960s and was drafted by the New York Knicks of the National Basketball Association in 1969. He never made it as a professional player, and he decided to coach. McLaughlin spent a year as an assistant at Holy Cross in Massachusetts right after he graduated. During the 1970-1971 season, he returned to the Bronx to coach the Rams as an assistant to Digger Phelps. That season the team reached the NCAA tournament, was ranked ninth nationally and Phelps bolted for the head-coaching job at Notre Dame. (Phelps is now known as one of the greatest coaches in Notre Dame’s history.) McLaughlin followed him to South Bend and served as one of Phelps’ assistants. After five years, McLaughlin wanted a gig of his own.
He landed at Harvard as head coach. It had a small high school like gym, rigorous academic standards and a less-than-supportive administration. For eight seasons, he said, he watched other Ivy League schools take players Harvard would not admit, and they trounced the Crimson on the court. He had a 99-107 record in eight seasons as head coach.
In 1985, he headed back to the Bronx. “I’m a frustrated Fordham alumnus,” McLaughlin told the New York Times upon his hiring in 1985. He said he wanted to restore the “serious commitment to have athletics done the right way here.” He told The Times it was to be his “last move.”
McLaughlin, now 61, still has an athletic build. He is about 6-foot-4 and walks with the halting gait of someone with battered knees and a painful back. A few times a week, he works out at the athletic department’s gym, trying to keep in shape. His stomach, though, protrudes over his pleated khaki pants; he wears a sweater – sometimes v-neck, other times a cardigan – over a button-down shirt and a tie, but it is obvious that he would rather be on the basketball court, launching hook shots from the right block of the paint.
Instead, he sits in an office, in charge of this confused department. Basketball and football take up most of McLaughlin’s time – but he’s really a hardwood guy.
Fordham was once too a hardwood school. Basketball began in Rose Hill in 1902, when the Rams bested Westerleigh Collegiate 14-7. Through the early part of the 20th century, the Rams became a formidable opponent, beating Boston College 46-16 in Rose Hill Gym’s first game in 1925. Two years later, the Rams went 20-2 and set a school record by attracting 6,000 people to a game against the City College of New York at Rose Hill.
The Rams have been part of a fair share of basketball history. In 1940, they lost to the University of Pittsburgh in the first televised contest on NBC. The 1950s and 1960s brought success with berths in the National Invitational Tournament, then still a highly respected post-season event. In 1971, Fordham had its best season ever at 26-3. McLaughlin was that team’s assistant coach.
Since his hiring more than two decades ago as athletic director, McLaughlin has seen his share of controversy. He inherited another finalist for his AD job in basketball coach Tom Penders, who was later the head coach at the University of Texas and is now the coach of the University of Houston. In 1999, McLaughlin hired Bob Hill, an NBA coach whose tenure turned into a college coaching debacle, recruiting what the school’s vice president called morally and academically inferior players and compiling an embarrassing 38-76 record. (Hill did not respond to requests for comment by e-mail with his basketball camp and on a telephone answering machine.)
McLaughlin and other administrators vowed to never lower standards in favor of winning again. Hill’s tenure “strengthened their resolve” about not abandoning the school’s core admission values. When McLaughlin looked to improve the program after Hill’s departure, he found Whittenburg on Staten Island. Whittenburg had done impressive things with little means at Wagner College. He was the answer to everything McLaughlin did wrong with Hill – a former NBA head coach with the San Antonio Spurs, the New York Knicks and Seattle SuperSonics. Media reports and McLaughlin say that Fordham gave Hill a 10-year deal worth $2.5 million and made promises about money and recruits it could not keep. McLaughlin said he never expected Hill to stay the entire decade, but expected immediate success followed by a quick departure for the pros.
It is difficult to discern whether McLaughlin is frustrated by his failure in making the basketball team – the school’s marquee program – remotely successful. On several occasions, when asked about the state of his program, he sat, arms linked at the top of his head, trying with difficulty to explain the constraints that kept Fordham from making even the slightest jump to sustained success.
McLaughlin seems to see winning as a byproduct of complex circumstances he can and cannot control. He has a gym – which he said he is willing to knock down, if he finds the funds for a new one – that hampers high-profile recruiting and the scheduling of big-time games. The academic restrictions that the Jesuit institution imposes on regular students do not bend very much for athletes – a mandate that Hill ignored to a point, the university’s vice president said. In some strange ways, it is like McLaughlin is back at Harvard.
Perhaps the most jarring thing about McLaughlin’s approach to basketball is his nonchalant attitude about wins. They will come eventually, he says. “This is going to sound crazy,” McLaughlin said on a Friday afternoon in December in his office. “Having coached, I’m not concerned with wins and losses, I’m more concerned about the team playing well. If the team is playing well, no matter what ability they are at, the wins and losses take care of themselves. I am really big on this. People ask me ‘How many games do you think you’re going to win.’ I just want the team to play well.”
Playing well at Fordham – as Bob Hill found and Whittenburg is beginning to find – takes more than hard work. “After the first year, I should have walked away because I realized what I was in was a place where sports were not important enough,” Hill told The Times in 2006. “They should just have club sports there.”
McLaughlin differs. He said Hill was looking for a scapegoat and blamed the institution for his shortcomings. McLaughlin will tick off things that he has done to make his program better. But there are institutional problems. First off, the coach he hires has to fit a tight list of criteria established by the athletic department and the administration; the coach has to be willing to work within the “core values” the school expects its recruits to embrace.
“When we hire somebody, we are not hiring them as a coach but as an educator,” McLaughlin said. “It’s part of the educational system at Fordham. That student athlete and basketball player will spend more time with Dereck than any professor on campus.”
And that leads to McLaughlin’s next criteria: a coach who is in lockstep with the athletic department’s goals of athletics being second to being a good citizen. McLaughlin said his biggest nightmare is driving from his home in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., and wondering “what that sonofabitch is up to” – referring to whether his head basketball coach is adhering to Fordham’s rules, though McLaughlin said he has no reason to question Whittenburg’s ethics.
McLaughlin doesn’t have goals, he said. He doesn’t sit his coach down at the beginning of the year and tell him that this year he wants to make the NCAA tournament. “We are not opposed to winning here,” McLaughlin said. “We aren’t just saying let’s stay in the bottom of the league and not care. We do care. We are supportive. The question is I don’t know how good we can be.”
By Feb.11, about three-quarters of the way through the season, Fordham’s record stood at 3-17. That night the Rams would play the University of Massachusetts, a middle-range A-10 team. It was an unseasonably warm day and Fordham was holding a career day in its student center adjacent to the Rose Hill Gymnasium. With the temperature hovering around 60 degrees, jobseekers wore suits with no overcoats and some of those not involved in the job hunt ran around the central Bronx campus in shorts and T-shirts.
Job fairs at Fordham are common and relatively successful. As a New York City school with strong area enrollment rates, Fordham has a local alumni presence that generally maintains strong ties to the institution.
Jesuit schools like Fordham tend to foster strong communal feelings among current students and alumni, McLaughlin said. Similar family and religious backgrounds, some legacy enrollment and overall strong athletics bolster the feeling of a small campus community where relationships run deep.
For Jesuits, academics run deep. Georgetown and Boston College are prime examples of the quintessentially successful Jesuit school. Largely considered the pinnacles of mainstream Catholic education, Georgetown and B.C. also have strong athletic departments. U.S. News and World Report, which publishes the most widely publicized academic ranking system, ranks Georgetown 24th and B.C. 34th in the nation. (Fordham is ranked 61st.) On the athletic front, Georgetown’s basketball team has been to five Final Fours and won the national championship in 1984. This season, Boston College beat two of the nation’s best teams: Duke and North Carolina. The Eagles have had a strong program for decades, first in the Big East and now in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
In 2007, there were seven Jesuit schools in the NCAA tournament – more than 10 percent of the total field. McLaughlin, a Fordham graduate himself, acknowledges that there are strong rivalries that exist between Jesuit schools. “Between Georgetown, B.C. and Fordham there are a lot of strong competitive juices that flow,” he said. “I’m sure it’s more one-way now. We say ‘Hey we want to be like them.’ B.C. doesn’t say, ‘What’s going on at Fordham.’”
What is going on at Fordham? As its high-profile men’s basketball team began to slip into obscurity, senior administrators began pondering why they were spending almost $3 million to lose. “It’s a big investment. To lose. And it’s killing me,” said Jeff Gray, the university’s vice president in charge of student affairs. “It’s killin’ us. It’s killin’ us all,” Gray said.
If Fordham were just moderately bad, it could be chalked up as a streak of bad luck or simply a bad season. But on that warm winter day, Fordham stood 319th of the 344 teams that play Division I college basketball, according to the Ranking Percentage Index, one of the most accepted barometers of college basketball teams. They finished the season in a similar place.
Is winning just simply secondary at Fordham?
“I think that’s a question that’s being asked right now here at the institution,” McLaughlin said. “I think it’s this season, I think this season brings it more to light. You sort of say to yourself, ‘What’s the problem?’ And I think that’s good. Sometimes you go through a crisis and you have to address the issue. Whereas if you don’t go through a crisis you don’t address it as much.”
So how does Fordham address it? The consensus, after several interviews with sources in the athletic department, is that the school does not have a firm idea of how to proceed with its basketball team. “I would say this,” McLaughlin said. “Xavier, Dayton – there’s a real priority there. I’m not sure we have the same commitment as an institution. Everybody wants to win. Some do it by design, some do it by mistake.”
Fordham likely will settle for the latter. There are several things that administrators agree would make Fordham a better basketball program. The university could build a new arena, but in the poor economic climate, it seems unlikely. It could schedule higher profile games at larger area arenas, which would likely bring the team more attention on a national scale. The administrators said they are considering the higher profile approach.
Recruiting better basketball players who are academically and socially high risk is not an option. Gray, who directly oversees the athletic department, said that most people in Division I college basketball would look at him as if he has two heads when he discusses Fordham’s priorities and values. “We’re trying to sell an experience that includes an academic component,” Gray said. “It’s not an easy sell.
“We are committed to success,” he added, while leaning back in his office in Keating Hall. “But if there’s something that has to give, if the things that have to give have to do with our own core values and our integrity then they probably wont give.”
In order to keep Fordham’s values, Gray has developed a relatively simple theory for recruiting the Fordham basketball player. “We need to get kids who, first and foremost, are good people,” he said. “Good people who have strong character, who have an interest in going to class and who are going to work with us. Then they have to be good basketball players who can help us succeed. Now that’s a tough sell.”
Fordham is selling something that few recruits want to buy, Whittenburg and the administrators said. Whittenburg, Gray and McLaughlin acknowledge separately that too many recruits have shown little interest in the academic component of the university. Fordham only recruits players who want to be at the university for four years, have interest in obtaining a diploma and want to contribute to the academic community. One slip up, one disciplinary action and a player could be expelled from the basketball team and likely could face expulsion from the university.
“If you have no academic interests and you’re not serious about that piece and you’re not cut from the right fabric and you’re a screw up, you’ll never make it to the basketball court here,” Gray said. “You will not make it academically, you will not make it socially and our coaches understand to get a successful basketball kid on the court, it’s the same thing that contributes to success off the court. Attitude and effort flow from character. And if you have it, you can work with it on the court.”
With those criteria, Gray acknowledges that winning is a, “Daunting task, isn’t it?”
Considering that question, why have Georgetown and B.C. been successful? McLaughlin, who said he is friendly with people at both institutions, added that, “I admire them for what they do because obviously those kids are graduating,” he said. “I think everybody knows they bring in some high-risk academic kids. They are successful with them, which I think they deserve a lot of credit for. We don’t bring in a lot of high-risk kids. Maybe we should bring them in.” Georgetown and B.C. did not respond to inquiries for comment.
McLaughlin seems resigned. The frustrated Fordham alumnus who took this job more than two decades ago seems completely defeated.
“What happens is when you’re an employee you’re hired and you accept certain things,” he said. “There are a lot of plusses of working at Fordham and there are some minuses. Are there things I would do differently? Absolutely. But, again, I can become an advocate and try to work through those things.”
A grey folder with stacks of “basketball planning documents” sit on both McLaughlin’s and Gray’s desks. Inside are plans for a new arena, new academic support and games with high profile teams from out of the conference. Concerns are real. Solutions, however, seem far off.
That night, as the temperature dropped and students filed into the libraries and dorms, the Fordham would lose to UMass 91-68 for its 18th loss of the year. The university said 1,900 fans were at the game, but the crowd seemed thinner, as it seemed to be all season in comparison the packed houses Whittenburg saw early in his Fordham tenure.
Gray, as he always does these days, stood next to the bench watching the Rams get obliterated at home. Once again.
When asked if he was at all surprised about what is going on this year, he said:
“I think, in a lot of ways, we’re getting what we pay for.”
Because of those costs, Fordham is always far from a stacked team. The Rams started at least two freshmen each game and struggled to find rhythm. Whittenburg said sometimes he felt like he was talking to ghosts in the locker room. Nobody listened.
Except for Luke Devine.
Speak to most people involved with basketball on Fordham’s campus and there is a chorus of praises for the 6-foot-10 Devine.
The well-spoken 23-year-old is a South Kingston, R.I., native who bounced from Loomis Chaffee, a boarding school in Connecticut, to Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia. When he looked for colleges, he didn’t look to the nearby ACC or Big East. Instead he wanted a school with strong academics. Devine chose Fordham over Colgate because a Hargrave coach told him if he wanted to play for a winner, Whittenburg was his man.
Although Devine struggled on the court – he averaged 2.3 points and 20 minutes per game – Devine managed to be heard. When he wasn’t in, he was on his feet barking orders at the players on the floor. When he got in the game, he wanted to make an impression so he dived after loose balls and made sure he grabbed rebounds. Whittenburg always said that Fordham needed more Luke Devines.
Devine considers himself lucky. After Hargrave, he was prepared to succeed at Fordham. “I was conditioned coming in here,” he said one February afternoon after the Rams lost their 21st game of the season to Rhode Island. “If you’re a true freshman coming in here…”
True freshmen, Devine said, completing his thought, have a tough time handling what Fordham requires of its student athletes. A typical day in a Fordham basketball player’s life is even taxing on someone from a military school.
Before the season begins, players wake up at 5:30 a.m. for conditioning and weight lifting. Freshmen shower, and head straight to the cafeteria for a quick meal and then rush to class. There may be an hour break between classes but at 3:30 p.m., practice begins. After three grueling hours, study hall begins sans computers and with an academic adviser hovering over students’ shoulders. That lasts for two hours. “But two hours isn’t enough time to do homework, really,” Devine says. “That’s for sure, especially here.” By the time study hall is done, it’s 8:30 p.m. and the players are exhausted and face the same routine within what seems like a matter of hours.
Devine has seen his fair share of people fold under this program.
“Oh, yeah. Oh my God,” he said when asked if people collapse under the pressure. “Some guys who didn’t have that regimented schedule. Most of those guys are 18 and this is the real deal. You’re not going to go home. You’re going to be here 50 out of 52 weeks a year.”
Sure, the A-10 is improving around him and he said he understands that Fordham is in a precarious position, given how much emphasis is put on academics over athletics. Devine is certainly frustrated, he said. But there’s some solace.
“I have seen a lot of players cycle through those schools,” Devine says of his opposition. “The roster isn’t the same when I play them. Every four years, there’s only a couple of guys returning. Coach prides himself on sticking with his guys when they get here. We have a little roster change, but not much.”
Most of Devine’s high school teammates chose the more popular path: big-named Big East schools. He played with West Virginia star Joe Alexander, now a guard on the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA. Sam Young, a high school teammate and a friend, told Devine that at Pitt, he doesn’t have nearly as much work.
“Coach, I’m not going to lie, he makes sure when you’re done after four years you’re conditioned with the full package,” Devine said. “You have to have time management. You need to balance school and basketball. School always comes first, then basketball. Your social life really goes on the backburner.”
Devine came to Fordham wanting to play professionally. As time wore on, and his knees became continually sore and his lower back started to bark, he thought otherwise.
He has a few things in mind for when he graduates in May. As a finance major, he’s hoping that he’ll get a job in the battered investment banking industry. Kevin Anderson, a player who graduated in 2008, got a job at Merrill Lynch through basketball connections.
If Devine doesn’t get a job in finance, he is considering graduate school and becoming a coach at Fordham or elsewhere. “I have so much basketball knowledge and I have played my whole life and I would love to in some way, shape or form, keep basketball going,” he said.
Jio Fontan has confidence he’ll keep basketball going for a while. Throughout the season, coaches from Xavier’s Sean Miller to Duquesne’s Ron Everhart praised the New York native, some even calling him one of the top freshman guards in the nation. He has serious aspirations of playing professionally and with some added muscle and three more years experience, coaches say this is certainly feasible.
Fontan is about six feet and is as slight as he is tall. He has a mustache and some stubble below his chin. Off the court, Fontan is a sneaker head, collecting Nike Dunks as if they were baseball cards.
His basketball pedigree is not too dissimilar from Whittenburg’s. He attended St. Anthony’s High School in New Jersey, where his team lost one game in four years. His best friends went on to play at Rutgers, Pitt and Kansas.
Fontan, however, was looking at lesser schools. Fairfield, St. John’s, Fordham and George Mason all made offers. But in March 2007, Fontan signed a letter of intent to attend Fordham. He was excited, as was Whittenburg, that he would have the immediate opportunity to make an impact.
For Fontan, the celebration didn’t last long. There was a major Adidas-sponsored AAU tournament that weekend in which his team was scheduled to compete. Although far from the favorite, his team advanced to the championship game. As the starting point guard, Fontan dropped 41 points, his team won and he was voted the tournament’s most valuable player.
Then the offers then started. Tennessee, Oklahoma and Texas all made contact with Fontan, but he had given Whittenburg his word he would be in the Bronx. And Fontan isn’t one to renege.
“I never think twice,” Fontan said while sitting in an empty Rose Hill Gymnasium on a Friday night. As Fordham’s losing season continued, Fontan seemed to be the ox that dragged the team through. He helped orchestrate and carry out offensive schemes. Late in the season, during a road game in Cincinnati against Xavier, Fontan seriously strained the muscles around his shoulder – an injury that should have kept him out for two months. He stayed with the team, even playing more physically than he had before.
In the A-10 – and furthermore at Fordham – it is typical for freshmen to play major roles on teams. So in some strange way, Fontan says, he is happy this losing season happened. “It’s a definitely a tough introduction but it’s been a great learning experience,” Fontan said. “And as funny as it sounds, its something you cant really experience anywhere else. I’ve learned a lot from the situation as a person and as a player. I’ve never been through something like this before.”
Will it continue for Fordham? Fontan hopes not – he said he thinks the “sky is the limit” for his team. Next year, they will welcome three recruits, two of whom are Fontan’s friends.
Fontan really cannot give a definitive explanation on what happened this season. Sure, Fordham had some young players but he doesn’t think that’s to blame. His team didn’t make shots, he said. It’s as simple as that.
But is it on them? Does the administration provide enough support?
“I don’t think I should answer,” Fontan said.
On March 7, a Saturday afternoon, Fordham played Saint Joseph’s at Rose Hill in the final game of the 2008-2009 season. Predictably, Fordham lost 71-54 finishing with a 3-25 record. The Rams were last in the A-10 and in the bottom 10 percent of college basketball. It was the worst season in the school’s history.
Whittenburg understands that programs go through rough patches. He has been at the top of the college basketball world – he won a national championship as a player in 1983 – and now, he is at the bottom, he said. He certainly didn’t show it. After the loss to the Hawks, Whittenburg’s routine was unshakable. After talking to his players in the locker room, he came downstairs to address reporters in a lounge that doubles as a media room on game days. The security guard at the door of the room handed him a cup filled with ice and Sprite, he patted some employees on the back and took a seat at a table in front of a half-dozen reporters.
Wearing a black suit, he glanced at the sheet of team statistics as a television with the Kentucky-Florida game blaring in the background.
Whittenburg’s rhetoric was familiar. The Rams were simply outmatched by an older, stronger team. As in many of the other 25 losses, the game got away from them in the first half, and Fordham never could put together a run that would get the Rams close.
“This is probably the roughest year I’ve had in my whole playing and coaching career,” Whittenburg told the reporters who still showed up 74 days after the team’s last home win against the University of New Hampshire.
The rough patch, he told his team in the locker room, had now ended. It was time to look forward.
When it was all over – when the media guides were lying in a box in the hallway for the fans’ taking and the students were outside enjoying the warn late-winter day – Whittenburg stood in a corner of the media room talking to a couple reporters. He thrives in settings like this, often taking conversations off the record and peppering his deep booming voice with loud bits of laughter. He was certainly disappointed with the outcome of the season, staying on the record, and adding that he definitely was not drained by what had happened.
“You know what? I thought I would be,” he said, when asked how tired he was. “But that’s part of my maturity. I have to look at things differently. I’m the head of the program. I have responsibility. I have to think about how we’re going to get better.”
Whittenburg even said he would skip the Final Four, an event most coaches attend and one he had been at for the past 26 years. He said he would begin recruiting immediately, looking for the best players with high academic hopes, strong moral character and a desire to go to college in the Bronx.
“I’m going to take what we have I’m not going to complain,” he said. “I’m going to roll up my sleeves and get after this.”
Whittenburg knows what has to be done. He has that picture of that unforgettable moment in 1983 in his office to remind himself of a basketball world that exists beyond the Bronx.
The question he has to ask himself, though, is can he get even close to his North Carolina State days. And the bigger question he must ask and rationalize is whether a university can succeed academically as well as in athletics.
And in the end, which is worth more – success on a court or success on graduation day?
That question became even more relevant 10 days after the last game, suddenly making Fordham’s basketball future even murkier for Whittenburg and for the administration.
On March 17 the university announced that Trey Blue, the freshman guard from suburban Chicago, would transfer because of personal reasons. Less than three weeks later, another news release said that Mike Moore, a sophomore guard from New Haven, Conn., would also leave the program.
And during the Final Four in early April, potentially shocking news appeared on the basketball blog of the New York Daily News: Jio Fontan, the team’s leading scorer at 15.3 points per game, would asked to be released from his scholarship so he could transfer to Rutgers. Many programs had overlooked Fontan until he committed to Fordham and, soon thereafter, dominated an AAU tournament. Mike Rosario, Fontan’s backcourt mate in high school, was already a guard at the New Jersey school. Rutgers is in the Big East, a large conference where there are few questions about the commitment to the major sports. A Rutgers spokesperson referred all questions to Fordham but Joe DiBari,
Fordham’s sports information director, declined comment.
Fordham fans were angry. Messages on two prominent Fordham Internet message boards repeatedly called for Whittenburg and McLaughlin’s firing.
On April 15, the university issued yet another news release, this time stating it was “committed to the Atlantic 10, its men’s and women’s basketball programs and to Dereck Whittenburg and Cathy Andruzzi.”
If any of this news concerned Whittenburg, he certainly wasn’t showing it publicly. In a telephone interview on April 16, he said that since the season ended, he had been recruiting constantly. He skipped the Final Four for the first time in two and a half decades so he could catch up on some work in his office and spend time with his wife.
Moore and Blue’s departures were a big loss, but they could be replaced. Moore averaged 12.8 points per game and Blue 8.2 – partially inflated from his first-game scoring explosion. Whittenburg said that in Division I college basketball, there are more than 200 transfers each year.
“It’s part of our culture,” Whittenburg said of transfers. “Some guys leave because they aren’t happy about their playing time. Everybody looks and says ‘they don’t like the coach’ and look at it like its negative. It’s not always negative. It may be best for the program.”
But if Fontan were to transfer, few fans would argue that Whittenburg’s program would be inches from disarray. Throughout the 2008-2009 season, it was obvious Fontan was the player around whom Fordham would build its basketball resurgence. Fontan was Whittenburg’s hope.
“I don’t know nothing about that,” Whittenburg said of Fontan’s plans, his tone turning gruff. “That’s just rumors. He’s not transferring. He’s with Fordham.”
Then, he added, “Right now.”
Suddenly the 2009-2010 season was hanging on those two words.