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Wednesday, August 18, 2010
New Faces, New Places: Tom Pecora

By Dana O'Neil

During the Friday night of this season's Big East tournament, Tom Pecora attended a dinner with his wife at Madison Square Garden.

He hadn’t so much as had a conversation with Fordham administrators about their job opening and was pretty convinced if they called, he wouldn’t listen.

Pecora
Tom Pecora is excited about his new challenge at Fordham.
“Some 70-year-old guy walks up and says, ‘We’d love to have you at Fordham,’’’ Pecora recalled. “Then it was a guy my age, a graduate of the business school, telling me how much money he gives and how he knows 100 guys who would do the same if I was named the coach. Then it was a kid in his 30s. I looked at my wife and said, ‘Is this a setup?’’’

If it was, it worked. Those alums affirmed what a lot of other people were telling Pecora -- you can, despite recent evidence to the contrary, win at Fordham.

And so, at a point in his career when he could have put his life on cruise control, sailing along to more 20-win seasons at Hofstra, Pecora made the jump to Fordham.

On the surface, it looked preposterous. Why leave a good thing for something that hasn’t been good in so long? Why go from Easy Street to Hard Luck Road?

Simple answer -- Pecora is a coach. They don’t do Easy Street.

“It is sick and demented; we’re a sick and demented bunch,’’ Pecora said. “I could have stayed there and won 20 games, but I don’t think I’m built to sit around. So what the heck? Let’s roll the dice a little bit and have some fun with this thing.’’

Fun? Rebuilding Fordham is fun? Yes, sick and demented sounds about right.

After the disastrous Rams fired Dereck Whittenburg in December, they went on to win two games, finishing 2-26 overall and 0-16 in the A-10.

That’s one win fewer than the year before and nothing more than the next step in a continued run of non-excellence. Fordham has had only one winning season since 1991-92 and since joining the Atlantic 10 in 1995, has put together a depressing 134-292 record.

But to Pecora, Fordham offered a few things: one, the re-energizing challenge of starting from scratch. Pecora took over for Jay Wright at Hofstra, inheriting a program that already was heading toward that cruise control. He suffered a few years as he tried to establish his own mark, but really the Pride was running full throttle.

At Fordham, he gets a program stuck in neutral.

“It was a challenge and at this stage of my life, this is a good time for a challenge,’’ Pecora said. “I’ve got what, maybe 10 years left in this crazy business? Why not try it?’’

Fordham, for all its current woes, offers something else: potential. As well-respected as the Colonial Athletic Association is, rare is the year it earns more than one bid to the NCAA tournament. Four years ago, Hofstra had 24 wins heading into the conference tournament title game, but a loss there relegated the Pride to the NIT.

In its history, the CAA has received multiple bids just three times.

On the flip side, the Atlantic 10 has positioned itself right outside of the "power six" conferences. This past season, the A-10 actually finished with the sixth-best conference RPI, topping the Pac-10 and Mountain West. Multiple bids are commonplace for the league, and while the selection committee will never admit it, there is certainly a comfort in taking teams on the cusp, knowing how well A-10 predecessors have done.

“I know he’d been working for years to try and get Hofstra in the Atlantic 10,’’ Wright said. “And I think, as much as it was killing him, he decided if they weren’t going to switch, he might have to leave.’’

Wright, though, admits he needed convincing. He didn’t see Fordham for the sleeping giant his longtime buddy was selling him. He saw a Hofstra team that was always knocking at the NCAA door versus a Fordham team that could be a good four to five years away from even being in the conversation.

He saw security versus a tightrope.

“We’d had those conversations before, when people came after him for jobs and eventually he’d agree that it wasn’t worth it,’’ Wright said. “This one, he just kept saying that in the Atlantic 10 you have a better chance at being successful. Plus, it’s a chance to stay in New York. He basically said, ‘This is what I know,’ and I wasn’t going to argue with him. Not that he would have listened to me.’’

Probably not. Pecora is, after all, a New Yorker.

And that is yet another reason that the Fordham job was so intriguing.

New York is more than Pecora’s home; it’s his roots. Born in Queens Village, he went to school at Adelphia on Long Island and only moved out to jumpstart his college-coaching career. After two seasons at UNLV and one at Loyola Marymount, he came screaming back to the East Coast to serve as Wright’s assistant at Hofstra.

“This is what I know,’’ Pecora said simply.

And make no mistake: Who and what Pecora knows was every bit as attractive to Fordham administrators as his win-loss record.

The Rams need players. New York has players. Yet Fordham’s most recent roster included just five guys from the New York-New Jersey area.

“When we were together, a lot of the people we met weren’t necessarily Hofstra fans; they were New York basketball people,’’ Wright said. “They wanted the Knicks to win. They want Christ the King to be good. They want Fordham, St. John’s and Hofstra to be good. Tom is very connected to those people and they’ll all want him to be successful. When they are, everyone will feel a part of it.’’