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Sunday Word: Gone

I don't know why, but there were an awful lot of echoes to me, for some inexplicable reason, of the Lehigh/Hofstra playoff encounter at Murray Goodman Stadium this weekend.

Well before senior PK Jake Peery's walk-off 23 yard game-winning field goal this Saturday, I was getting flashbacks to RB Trevor Dimmie's fumbled toss, QB Luke Ciannello's improbable march downfield to tie the Pride with 19 seconds to play, and PK Brian Kelley's game-winner in overtime - one of the most exciting games I've ever witnessed at Murray Goodman stadium.

It's a game in the past - a happy memory for Lehigh fans.

But something else fans should remember, too, is that there "ain't going to be no rematch" of that fateful game in 2001.

For Hofstra's football program is "gone".

It's not a perfect comparison, but for those that remember the playoff game in Goodman on December 1st. 2001, there are some freaky coincidences with that game this Saturday's contest.

Start with: in both 2001 and 2011, Lehigh entered both games undefeated - 10-0 in 2001, 4-0 in 2012.

In both games, Lehigh rallied from early 14-0 deficits to win.

2001: RB Trevor Dimmie runs in the Pride's first TD. 

2012: QB Ryan Higgins runs in the Rams' first TD.

2001: QB Rocky Butler finds WR Khamal Roy for a 38 yard touchdown strike. 

2012: Higgins finds WR Nick Talbert for an 18 yard touchdown.

In both games, Lehigh faced off against, er, Pride running backs.

RB Carlton Koonce came to Fordham when Hofstra folded their football program, only six months after Fordham announced they would start offering football scholarships in defiance of Patriot League policy.

And it was hard to imagine, Saturday, the Pride, er, Rams, being competitive without Koonce, who notched 119 all-purpose yards and scored a touchdown.

His mere presence forced Lehigh to double down to stop him rushing the ball, causing Higgins to find loads of room underneath to complete passes.  Higgins' ability to execute once Koonce was bottled up was critical in their ability to hang with the Mountain Hawks.

In both games, the game-winner was a field goal.

There have been two walk-off field goals in Murray Goodman in the last eleven years - Saturday's game, and that 2001 playoff game vs. Hofstra.

Both were 23 yard attempts.  (As a matter of fact, there were three made 23 yard field goal attempts in the game this Saturday.  A line-drive 51 yard attempt by Fordham PK Patrick Murray was just short.)

And both walk-off winners, in 2001 and 2012, were kicked from the left hash. 

Watching Peery go up to kick the game-winner on the Service Electric broadcast again, he looked an awful lot like Brian Kelley, lining up for that historic kick against the Pride in 2001.

In the 2001 playoff game, the game-winner was set up by a critical fumble by the Pride on a toss sweep, deep in Lehigh territory, with just about two minutes to play, and the Pride nursing a 24-17 lead.

"They had not run that play all afternoon - and had rarely run it in previous games," head coach Pete Lembo told me recently.  "They had a chance to put us away on that drive, but S Sam Perryman recovered it."

Lehigh's offense, racked by injuries to QB Brant Hall and WR Josh Snyder, saw QB Luke Ciannello drive the length of the field to tie the game with 19 seconds left.

"The two minute drive to tie the game was well executed and featured a nice mix of run and pass," Lembo said.  "We were able to run the ball effectively from some spread sets."

In overtime - and the standing crowd on an unseasonably warm December day about ready to pop - CB Abdul Byron had an interception to end Hofstra's possession.

"Butler tried to throw an inside slant against our goal line zone coverage, and Byron got in front of it," Lembo said.  "From there, we were able to run it effectively to make it a chip shot for Brian. The rest is history.  I can still see the look in those players eyes after we pulled off the upset."

Techinically, this weekend's game had less on the line than in the 2001 playoff game, which was, of course, win or go home.  Also, Hofstra were prohibitive favorites to advance, while Lehigh was the ranked team this time around to the unranked Rams.

However, any time your team is nationally-ranked team, they are all, by definition, big games.  One slip-up for Lehigh, and it's easy to picture the Mountain Hawks slide right out of the national rankings.  It's nice to imagine that the Mountain Hawks might get the benefit of the doubt nationally if they lose a game along the way, but it seems unlikely to me.

As the games get bigger for Lehigh, and the Mountain Hawks remain in the national rankings, the crowds, slowly, are starting to return to Murray Goodman.  Nearly 10,000 fans came as part of Family Day and Young Alumni weekend to cheer on the Mountain Hawks - a crowd which almost matched the 10,131 that watched the Hofstra game in 2001.

But even though not as much was at stake, I was truly surprised how much I saw the Hofstra/Lehigh playoff game echo this Fordham/Lehigh game this weekend - much more than I would have thought.

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I've never met him in person, but Jerry Beach, one of my earliest Twitter follows (@defiantlydutch), is one of my unabashed all-time favorites.

Writer of the "Defiantly Dutch" blog, he says he has been "oddly obsessed with Hofstra sports since 1993", something that describes me pretty well if you just subsitute "Lehigh" and "Hofstra" and subtract five from the year.

He saw many Hofstra games against Lehigh in the playoffs, the win by the Pride in Shuart stadium in 1999, and the win by Lehigh in 2001.

He was also there when Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz', with 90 minutes notice, shockingly decided to pull the plug on the Pride's reasonably successful football program nearly three years ago.

The house phone rings. An unfamiliar cell phone number appears on my caller ID. I was spell checking a post about Tom Pecora’s appearance with Mike Francesa Wednesday and wanted to get it up ASAP, so I let the call go to the machine.

“JBeach, it’s Ray. Get over to Hofstra. I’m sure you heard about this already, but Hofstra is having a press conference at 11:30 to announce it’s canceling football. If you haven’t heard about this, get your ASS over there.”

It was one of those moments in life in which one is overwhelmed by equal parts disbelief and certainty. This cannot be happening. There is no doubt this is happening.

The cell phone rang. I greeted Sully Ray with the standard “Are you serious?” someone utters when he knows the person to whom he is speaking is not kidding.

“I was wrong,” Sully Ray said. “It’s 11.”

It's a blog posting I go back to frequently, and I'm not afraid to admit it.

The reason is that the writing is so true, and so raw - and so unique.  No football program has been killed so swiftly and so suddenly, yet also had the process documented in such a personal way.

Rereading it now, it seems just as fresh today as it did then - the press conference, the surprise from all fronts, including the commissioner of the CAA, Tom Yeager, the disappointment, and the patently false statements from Rabinowitz to justify his decision.

It even digs up all the resentments I felt at the time, and still feel today, about Hofstra football being "gone".

There's the line about "only 500 people going to games, a figure he says includes cheerleaders, dance team and pep band members," Beach writes.  While nobody would mistake a late 1990s or early 2000s Hofstra game for one at Penn State, anyone who had ever attended a game at Shuart Stadium (as I have) could call that out as an immediate falsehood.  The 1999 playoff game at Shuart Stadium vs. Lehigh had an announced attendace of 6,770 alone, and it certainly felt like a packed stadium to me.  I know.  I was in the visiting bleachers, and saw the local TV camera crews which were broadcasting the game locally.

Then there's the eminently flawed "cost/benefit" analysis the university president and his board of trustees made - one where - publicly in the press conference, anyway - only the costs are acknowledged, but none of the revenues.

This was angrily called out by me days after it happened:

The great majority of "money" "spent" on the football program is financial aid. Hofstra's tuition is $42,526 a year. Multiply that times 60, and you get a little over $2.5 million in scholarship money. (Money which - oh by the way - largely goes to folks who need full or partial assistance anyway, and goes to the most diverse team on campus.)

"OK", says the skeptic. "But what about that other 2 million?"

Well, for starters, there is sponsorship income. Folks may not realize this, but Modell's Sporting Goods, the LIRR, the Wing Zone, State Farm Insurance, the LI Herald Community Newspapers, and Fresh 102.7 FM all were partial sponsors of Hofstra football last year (never mind the Hofstra bookstore, whom you'd expect to be a sponsor). While harping on the expenses, Rabinowitz pointedly did not mention all these sources of income last year.

There is also the $400,000 football endowment - which, presumably, will not be a part of future plans with Mr. Rabinowitz. Could it have been bigger and better? Sure - but it's not an insignificant chunk of change.

There's also $3.5 million dollar Margiotta Hall, a display of the "history of Hofstra Athletics", which was dedicated this past summer with the names of two former football players and made possible by one-time lacrosse player John C. Metzger. Metzger's generous contribution, it was pointed out in this release, was made "to support the men's and women's lacrosse programs and the football program".

Would Metzger have made the gift if he thought that there wouldn't be a football program to benefit? Maybe, maybe not, but it does demonstrate that the possibility of athletics contributions drying up at an institution without football is very real.

(The Hofstra board of trustees cost/benefit analysis for dropping football has still been yet to be made public today, it bears repeating, despite repeated requests for it from multiple outfits.)

There's plenty more misinformation, too, from that day: about the "lack of visibility" an FCS championship gives a school, the idea that college football should be "I-A or bust", and a whole lot more, not least the assistant coaches that were on the road recruiting, the players, the coaches.

But I'm not here to rehash that entire battle.

As long as Rabinowitz is the president, it seems pretty clear, as long as he's in Hempstead, Hofstra football is "gone", and, barring some pitchforks and torches from Hofstra students, it will remain "gone".

At this point, all that's really left of Hofstra's 69 years of playing football are a whole lot of memories - memories that deserve to be preserved.

And there are plenty, starting with the story of a small Division III program transitioning to Division I program, being prominently mentioned by Bill Cosby in a legendary stand-up comedy bit, competing as an independent in the word of I-AA football with decent success.

In the 80s and 90s, Hofstra had the well-deserved reputation by many, under late, great former head coach Joe Gardi to become the cradle for future NFL players like WR Wayne Chrebet and WR Marques Colston.

That last class of Hofstra football players and coaches stopped representing the Pride in 2009, but their echoes still reverberate today around college football.

In fact, of we know know about the rest of the story of Hofstra football, it's fair to say that the Pride almost certainly would have fielded a pretty damned good team.

You've already seen the story of RB Carlton Koonce, who is having a breakout season for the Rams and is probably the early favorite to win offensive player of the year.

Pride offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude went from Hofstra to Georgetown, where he presided over one of the biggest offensive turnarounds in Division I history.  He took one of the least effective offenses in Division I and with his modified spread-style, rushing offense helped craft the Hoyas into a title contender in his two years at Georgetown.

He has now brought his talents to Coastal Carolina, as he attempts to take last year's improbable Big South champions two years ago back to the FCS playoffs once again.

And then there is former Pride RB Miguel Maysonet, who simply transferred from Hempstead to nearby Stony Brook, where the Seawolves are featuring him as their primary running back.

He is one giant reason that the CAA-bound Seawolves - who are, effectively, filling in Hofstra's void in the CAA on Long Island - are the No. 13 team in the nation.

And last week, on national television on the CBS Sports Network, the Seawolves didn't just beat Army, they out-classed the Cadets 23-3 in a game that frankly wasn't as close as the final score might indicate.  He had over 100 yards - by halftime.  (He ended with 220 total yards and 2 touchdowns.)

Those aren't the only former Hofstra players still competing in college football, but it's clear that the Pride had plenty of talent on their team before the rug was pulled from under them.

It is always sad to see a football program, especially a quality one like Hofstra's, "gone" with the waving of an arm - and, frankly, it's worth wondering what might have happened if the program were to have stuck around.

This wasn't a team that had been hemorrhaging money, or lacked physical or monetary support.  Anyone with eyes could see it wasn't Penn State, but it was still delivering something great for the students and community, delivered a fine homecoming, and was a source of, er, Pride for the Pride.  (Not to mention NFL players.)

This wasn't a team that lacked facilities - facilities that were the choice of the NFL's New York Jets for the preseason.

This wasn't a team that simply couldn't compete with the rest of the CAA.  They clearly could.  And they did.

This wasn't a team that was geographically isolated, or lacking in local opponents or potential local rivalries.  While it was only a couple of games, the conditions were ripe for a Lehigh/Hofstra rivalry to form, thanks to the magic of the FCS playoffs.  There was also the potential for any number of easy travel games, with Fordham, Columbia, Stony Brook and even Wagner only a subway ride away.

But the Pride are a team which - for now, anyway - are "gone", and one man's decision affected games all over the East this weekend, from West Point to Bethlehem and beyond.

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