It was a year ago at the Barclays Center and prior to what was known as COVID-19. The Fordham Men’s basketball team played their best basketball of the season and got a commanding opening A-10 tournament round win over George Washington.
Then coach Jeff Neubauer was enthused. An hour later, the Barclays Center was cleared and the NCAA began the process of cancelling conference championships across the board. The Coronavirus became our new norm.
After that win, there was a buzz around Fordham. There was talk of being the underdog with intentions to move on in the tournament. But the setbacks continued as the Rams tried to adjust around the NCAA protocols and their 2020-21 season was put on pause as the pandemic closed the Rose Hill campus up in the Bronx.
Months later, Jeff Neubauer was dismissed as head coach after six years of trying to build a program that could not compete with elite schools in the Atlantic 10 Conference. Fordham, with an abbreviated schedule, could not get over the hump.
Neubauer managed to get a win before his dismissal and the Rams looked like a winning team when they defeated Dayton 55-54 at home, an upset against one of the elite in the A-10.
Mike DePaoli, the interim coach, despite the circumstances of disruptions and losing, got another win as the Rams showed their ability to score and defend. In the end, though, DePaoli saw the Rams deal with adversity as they tried to salvage the remainder of another losing season up at Rose Hill.
Wednesday, it came to an end. Fordham lost their opening round conference championship game 53-49 to George Washington down in Richmond Va. Again, they fought until the end as the Colonials scored the last six points.
So the Rams had another dismal season. The 2-12 record does not reflect the adversity of dealing with the disruptions from COVID and a sudden change with their head coach, but there is also a reality, often questioned.
Are the Rams out of their league in the A-10?
It has been fifty years since they saw success in February at Madison Square Garden with a win over Notre Dame and losing in overtime to undefeated Marquette with coach Digger Phelps.
Yes, a long time ago the Rams were a top 10 team in the nation. Under coach Tom Penders, when they were in the MAAC Conference in the early 1980’s, Fordham would be a part of the NIT Tournament finals at Madison Square Garden.
That was then and this is now. Fordham is once again in that rebuilding process and the national search for a new coach is ongoing. It starts from scratch and that could mean more than one player seeking transfers to another school.
Again, though, this does not diminish the strengths and attempts that Neubauer and his predecessors brought to the table. It does not mean that DePaoli was not the right choice as the interim guy. Fordham once employed former NBA coach Bob Hill as their leader and that gave prestige to their program
Hill could get a name or two because of his name and background. Fordham was competing in the New York market with St. John’s and the Big East, so they needed to restore that prestige and saw the A-10 as the vehicle to do so.
But the A-10 hasn’t worked for the Rams. St. John’s, Hofstra, and others have succeeded in other conferences and been a part of “March Madness” over the past 20 years.
There are no indications that Fordham will change direction. The A-10 is prestigious with national television exposure and that accounts for a good portion of revenue that is divided among the schools in the conference.
So no matter what, or whoever assumes head coaching responsibilities, the Rams are not envisioned for a return to the MAAC Conference or Patriot League.
The next coach has a tough hill to climb. DePaoli, in his limited time as the interim, got his team to play and a win Wednesday would have justified every consideration.
Fordham, though, is looking for a bigger name that has a good track record with recruitment and of course, winning. The coach also has to identify with a strong alumni base that pumps a significant amount of money into men’s basketball and Fordham Athletics.
Fordham could follow the model of Iona College up the road in New Rochelle. Iona, once a Fordham rival in the MAAC Conference, hired Rick Pitino, the successful and scandal-scarred NCAA coach.
“We need to get a coach that has a reputation of recruitment and success to get this program where it was fifty years ago,” said a prominent Fordham alumnus who has not missed a game up at Rose Hill since that Digger Phelps era.
Good coaches with those credentials are difficult to find and that will be determined in the coming weeks and prior to a crucial time when recruitment begins. With the ongoing pandemic, the process is more difficult as face-to-face visits are difficult to arrange. However, there is a commitment to win up at Rose Hill. Athletic Director Ed Kull says he wants men’s basketball to invoke pride and school spirit and that opportunity will be a challenge for the new coach.
The reality is Fordham and the Atlantic-10 Conference has not been a good match. Another losing season and early exit from the conference championship should be enough to say the Rams are overmatched.
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