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Fordham Basketball: Views of the Program from Two Longtime Fans

As fans of the A10, we get lost with the big basketball programs of the conference, like Dayton and VCU.  We often forget about the programs that are not as successful every year.  I am talking about the Fordham Rams, a program who entered the A10 in 1995 after many years of being in the Patriot League where their school identity put them out of place with the rest of the league.  As some of you might know, Fordham is in the Bronx in New York City.  It is actually a large school with a 90+ acre campus with a rich history of notable alumni such as Vince Lombardi and Denzel Washington.  Donald Trump also went there for a brief time before transferring elsewhere.  Its campus has been home to many sets of films such as The Exorcist and A Beautiful Mind.  The gym that the basketball teams call home is known as Rose Hill Gym, which is the oldest active gym still used in Division I basketball.  For me as a history lover, that is really cool.  Rose Hill Gym has this updated modern look on the inside but still has the accents of the original structure.  I hope to visit it when the A10 tournament comes around in March.

The Fordham men’s basketball program has been through some tough times over the years.  They routinely finish either in last or the bottom 4 of the conference, have many promising recruits leave after their first or second years in the program, and struggle to find an identity in the ever growing A10.  However, the women’s program has been the complete opposite.  They have made the NCAA tournament 3 times and have finished in the top half of the A10 over the past few years.  The focus is on the men’s program now to match what the women are doing.

In all seriousness, we hope that Fordham becomes a successful program in the A10.  Some have called for Fordham to leave the conference, which is a very complicated topic.  Personally, I would like Fordham men’s basketball to succeed.  First, it would improve the quality of the conference, and second, every fanbase should see their team have a winning culture.  Fordham is no different.  Their fans have seen too many losing seasons in the last 25 years of being in the A10 that it’s about time their fans got to see success.

I decided to interview two Fordham faithful, both on the fan side and the administrative side.  Both of these gentlemen are Fordham alumni and have been through different experiences as a Fordham basketball fans.

My first interviewee is Fordham season ticket holder, Joe Sullivan.  Joe is a 1958 graduate of Fordham University and has remained a loyal follower of the university for the past 62 years.  Joe was in the Air Force ROTC program while at Fordham and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the US Air Force.  After a successful business career, at age 62, he volunteered to coach the Fordham Sailing Team for one season and stayed for 16 years.  At the 2017 ICSA Coed National Championships, Fordham Sailing finished 1st among 180+  Club teams in the country, and placed 7th among all Varsity and Club teams. Joe is an avid Fordham Basketball fan and a season ticket holder for 20 years. As such, he is one of a minority of fans who have remained faithful to the men’s program. You might even catch him in the stands while watching Fordham basketball on TV.

My second interviewee is North Callahan, who is a former football player while at Fordham.  North has been a sports marketing executive at many levels such as the NFL, NHL, NBA, Olympics, and NBC Sports.  He was instrumental in the movement from Fordham to the A10 back in the 90s.  He provides a lot of insight and professional advice to the university, and he continues to be an active supporter of the program and university.

Some of the questions I asked them tailor to one or the other, and sometimes both. Enjoy:

 

Tell me a bit about Fordham. What are they best known for?

Joe:  Fordham is “The Jesuit University of New York City,” which Pope John-Paul called the Capitol of the World. And the Jesuits are known as terrific and caring educators. Fordham alumni and alumnae have excelled in business, finance, law, the arts, government, education, media and professional sports. Notre Dame has Knute Rockne. Fordham has Vince Lombardi! Fordham’s 90+ acre, Rose Hill campus in the Bronx is one of the most beautiful college campuses in the country, as evidenced by the scores of motion pictures which have been filmed. In addition, its campus at Lincoln Center in midtown Manhattan, a short two-block walk to Central Park, is another jewel in Fordham’s crown.

 

What is the culture like at Fordham?

Joe:  Academics are taken seriously by most students and because of its location, it’s very difficult to spend four years at Fordham and not obtain a well-rounded education in life skills, as well. As the song goes, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,” absolutely fits going to school at Fordham in New York City. Most Fordham graduates have “street smarts,” and I include in that a competitive drive to excel. I became aware of that trait twice at a young age.

 

Why did Fordham move to the A10, how did you become involved in that?

North:  As a sports marketing executive, and having watched the basketball program take a steep dive after the ill-advised move to the Patriot League in 1990, I had been thinking in 1995 about league options and had come to the conclusion that the A-10 made sense, since Fordham fit the league from an institutional standpoint and the A-10 was lacking a New York member, missing out on the world’s top media market. As a former football player at Fordham, I had been an active supporter of the program and knew the President well. One afternoon after a meeting at ABC Sports, I mentioned the idea to the A-10 Commissioner, who said he would have to think about it. Two weeks later he called me and said he had discussed it with other league officials and they were interested. I arranged a meeting for him with Fordham’s president, and after the A-10 presented an extensive evaluation as to the benefits of joining the league, six months later Fordham announced its membership at a packed press conference in New York City.  At that point, the Vice President of Development at Fordham and the head coach asked me to become the President of the Rebounders Club, which is the alumni support group for basketball, and I held that position for five years.

 

How have you been involved in the program?

North:   I am friends with many of the great players from the team that was coached by Digger Phelps in the 70’s that went to the Sweet 16 and finished ranked 9th in the nation. Ken Charles, Charlie Yelverton, Tommy Sullivan, PJ Carlesimo, et al. Many of the great players who know how good Fordham can be are spread out across the country, and in some ways I feel like I’m representing them to an extent in supporting the program. As a long time sports and entertainment executive that has managed marketing for NBC Sports, worked with the Olympics, World Cup Soccer, and all of the professional sports leagues, I have a unique vantage point to understand the potential for Fordham Basketball and how to address challenges. I have been and continue to offer my expertise to help make the program a success. You will see substantial changes at Fordham in the not too distant future as we position the program for success.

Is there a big following at Fordham?  Do you consider yourself a Fordham”Superfan”?

Joe:  I’ve been a Fordham Basketball fan since stepping on-campus in the fall of 1954, and a season-ticket holder for decades. I’m one of the few, who remain, and thus in addition to being a Fordham “Superfan”, I’m also a huge fan of Fordham Basketball, both Men’s and Women’s. Once the problem is addressed and successfully resolved, Fordham fans will return. It may take a year or two as they will have to believe again, but the potential Fan base is huge, and they will return!

 

What has caused the downfall of the basketball program?

Joe:  There are many theories, and in recent years, fingers have been pointed in multiple directions. My own personal opinion is that a less-than-desirable management situation exists, which must be addressed, and once it is addressed successfully, Fordham Men’s Basketball will again become competitive at the highest level of the A-10 conference.

North:  The Fordham president at the time the university joined the A-10 was very focused on men’s basketball success in the league, and Fordham was in the midst of a transition from a regional to a national university. This necessitated a concentration on expanding student housing and building a new library as the university engaged in an expansive building program with the addition of 1.1 million square feet of new academic and residential space, and the renovation of more than 1 million square feet of existing facilities. A new president arrived in 2003 and was presented with the need to fully “build out” the Lincoln Center and Rose Hill campuses with a new law school, a new business school, more new dorms, and expanded, enhanced academic facilities. Paying for all of this was a challenge, and resulted in incremental increases in the athletic budget over time that has ultimately resulted in the sixth largest budget in the A-10 (the last time I looked). At the same time, several ill-advised head coaching hires kept the program from improving.

 

Has the school/athletic department tried anything to fix the program?

North:  Yes, the Board of Trustees has been very focused in the last two years on addressing the basketball situation and continues to do so. A top college sports consulting firm was hired last year to review, research and evaluate the program, and presented their recommendations. The initial result of that report is the addition of 36,000 square feet of new sports training and medicine facilities that will directly benefit the basketball program, and more improvements are on the way.

Why do so many highly rated recruits leave?

North:  The reason for this is the current player wanderlust that all programs are facing combined with several coaching changes. Recruiting is a different game now for all Division l college basketball coaches.

What are your thoughts on Neubauer?

Joe:   Changing the coach will not, by itself, address the situation.
North:  When Coach Neubauer arrived five years ago, his staff focused on recruiting primarily foreign players, and this has not been successful. The focus is now entirely on recruiting players from the US, and he has replaced two former assistant coaches with two highly regarded former head coaches, one of whom won an SEC championship. Jeff Neubauer is a very professional, hard working guy who really wants to get it done. I hope he succeeds in this next phase of the program.

What do Fordham fans want to see happen for the program?

Joe:  The fans want to see the problems of the program identified and addressed.
North:  Fordham fans are like any other fans – they want to win. As soon as possible. The other is an upgrade to facilities that can match the other schools of the A10.

Has Fordham ever considered changing conferences?

North:  No, Fordham is not going anywhere.  Fordham is committed to the A-10 and coming changes will have Fordham headed in the right direction.  It’s hard to say when Fordham Men’s Basketball will be competing at a high level in the A10, but in the coming years, enhancements to the program will surely put us in a position to be successful.

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Thanks for this. Interesting to hear the admin guy say there's big changes on the way. Improving the training facilities is a good and necessary first step, which looks to be part of the McGinley Center renovations they're doing. The next logical step would be some kind of Rose Hill expansion or just a straight up brand new arena. And I suppose some kind of re-brand might help. The Fordham logo for instance could use an update.

Don't get me wrong. Rose Hill is such a cool and unique venue, but it's just so small. And I don't know how they can expand it since it's connected to other parts of the school. It would be great if the program was healthy and fans were packing Rose Hill, then it would be fine. But with this chicken-and-egg situation, I think the administration needs to make the first move by using money to build a new arena.
 
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Big Changes Coming to Fordham | A10 Talk

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[…] Last time I wrote about Fordham, it was back in the new year when this year’s team was still struggling mightily, only having one win in A10 play.  I talked to two longtime fans of the program who gave me insight on their perspective of the team as well as their insider information on where the program is headed.  If you want to read more about that, read my last article on Fordham here. […]