Categorized | Featured, Football

No More Pride

Football was devalued quickly at Hofstra. Photo by Ben Watanabe

By Ben Watanabe

It all began with a beep, a buzz or a ring.

At about 9:30 on the morning of Dec. 3, 2009, each member of the Hofstra University football team noticed his cell phone lighting up with an incoming text message. The message was short and simple: Come to the Pride Club on the second floor of Margiotta Hall, which straddles one end zone of James M. Shuart Stadium. The meeting was mandatory. No details were given.

Garrett Heron, a 5-foot-8, 181-pound junior defensive back from South Orange, N.J., was printing out homework in the academic lab down the hall from the Pride Club, and asked defensive backs coach Lyle Hemphill by text if he should skip his class. The response: “You’re not going to want to miss this.”

Tom Ottaiano, a 6-1, 295-pound junior offensive lineman from East Hanover, N.J., was just finishing a workout in the 3,500-square-foot weight room when an athletic trainer suggested he skip his shower and head upstairs. Ottaiano did as he was told.

Zamel Johnson, a 6-foot, 175-pound freshman cornerback from Staten Island, was in class when his cell phone buzzed. A team meeting at 10 a.m.? That’s odd, he thought. Film and position meetings usually took place in the afternoon, right before practice, when coaches would preview the upcoming opponent. But the season had ended 13 days ago. Players were a week into their offseason training regimens. Returning upperclassmen had already met with the coaches to elect captains for the next season. What was there to discuss?

Steven Medard, a 6-4, 260-pound freshman from Massapequa, N.Y.; Keith Ferrara, a 5-9, 189-pound sophomore defensive back from Glendale, N.Y.; and Jeff Aime, a 5-9, 205-pound junior linebacker from Queens Village were also in class. A short time later, they joined the befuddled procession of players, training staff, equipment managers and academic support staff who filed into the wide conference room.

Through the glass doors of the Pride Club, they watched athletic director Jack Hayes walk toward the room with head coach Dave Cohen and a number of assistants. Something was wrong. Cohen had his head down. Nobody walked with much bounce in his step.

“I thought coach Cohen was fired,” Ferrara said, reflecting the predominant assumption by players at that moment following the Pride’s 5-6 record that season and 18-27 overall mark under Cohen. “He had four years and didn’t do the job he was hired to do.”

Then Hayes entered the room and began talking. After a brief, halting introduction, he paused.

“The board,” Hayes said, “has unanimously voted to discontinue football.”

He went on to promise the university would help expedite transfers to other colleges to play football immediately if players wished, and assured that those who chose to stay at Hofstra would have their athletic scholarships honored. No one really listened. A few players burst into tears. Some walked out. When Hayes finished, some angrily shouted at his back as he left the room.

Most were simply dumbfounded.

“Honestly, I didn’t know how to react,” Heron said. “Should I be sad? Confused? Angry? What?”

In the weeks and months to come, Heron would have ample opportunity to run through the gamut of emotions. The end of a college football program is usually a financial decision by the institution, but as Heron and his teammates discovered, it also throws the life of anyone involved with the program into flux.

***

Tom Ottaiano still wants answers.

Ottaiano, 22, leans back in a folding chair in the interview room deep in the bowels of Monmouth University’s year-old Multipurpose Activity Center, the $57 million symbol of the university’s effort to revamp and enhance athletics at the 156-acre campus in West Long Branch, N.J. His heather gray T-shirt reads “Monmouth football.” The letters “MU” adorn the left leg of his dark blue mesh shorts. Although he seems content here, he remains dissatisfied with what led to his transfer from Hofstra.

“I had a real tough time when I first got there, because I was never away from home like that,” Ottaiano said of his freshman year, when he redshirted, a common practice in which a player sits out a year to gather himself physically or academically and, in return, receives an extra year of eligibility. “I was like, ‘Where’s my family?’ I grew up so much with that year.”

Starting without a scholarship, Ottaiano grew into a team leader and a coaches’ favorite through his practice and workout habits. The bonds he made were so tight, three Hofstra teammates were in his sister Natalie’s wedding. The day before his sophomore year when he told his parents he had received a scholarship was the proudest moment of his life. His father, Giuseppe, an Italian immigrant, had paid Ottaiano’s tuition by working long hours at Calabria, the restaurant he owns in Livingston, N.J. Giuseppe Ottaiano could now afford to cut back a bit. Both cried.

So when Hayes told the assembled players that they could no longer play football at Hofstra, all of these things passed through Ottaiano’s mind. The memories of his recent past, however, were not as powerful as his uncertainty about the near future.

“Worried?” he said, looking back. “I thought I was done (playing football).”

After earning his scholarship, Ottaiano had had to win a position battle to become a full-time starter as a sophomore and junior. With one year of playing eligibility remaining, he wondered, would he have enough time to impress a new coach at a new school?

“I’m a big guy, but there’s bigger,” Ottaiano said. “I’m strong, but there’s stronger. I have heart, and that’s what made me play at Hofstra. I worked at it to make sure I was a starter for two years. I was proud of that. At the time, I was 12 credits away from graduating, and I was like, man, my last semester of college life, do I want to hang up the cleats? Do I want to try to go one more year and go out the right way? Do I want that senior season? Those are all the questions I was asking myself. People don’t understand, that was in the week and a half after we got the news. I had to figure out my whole life in a week and a half.”

“I know people always say, ‘Life changes like that,’” he said, snapping his fingers. “And man, it changed for me real quick.”

After meeting briefly last Dec. 3 with Cohen and offensive line coach Bill Durkin, Ottaiano’s next stop was the office of university president Stuart Rabinowitz, who joined Marilyn Monter, chair of the board of trustees, and Hayes in making the formal announcement to the public that the school was dropping football. Ottaiano had a mental list of questions he wanted answered. When Ottaiano arrived at Rabinowitz’s office, he said he was barred at the door by two campus security officers.

Rebuffed, Ottaiano went to his dorm room and booted up his computer. He sent more than 50 e-mails that afternoon to recruiting coordinators, coaches and friends at other football programs across the country.

At the same time, the Hofstra coaches hit the phones as well. News of the university’s decision was on ESPN within an hour, so publicity was not a problem. Other schools were already contacting Cohen and his staff to set up visits and tryouts. Many freshmen or sophomores were placed at new schools within a few days.

Matters were more complicated for Ottaiano and other upperclassmen. Whereas most underclassmen’s credits came from general education courses that were easily transferable to other schools, Ottaiano was farther along in taking degree-specific courses as a business management major that did not transfer as readily. So while he was 12 credits from graduating at Hofstra, he would be 56 credits short at Monmouth, his top choice.

Ottaiano loved football, but not enough to spend another year and a half in college in order to play.

With the coaches powerless in academic matters and the president inaccessible, Ottaiano took his concerns to the athletic director. Hayes made out a contract: Any player fewer than 30 credits short of graduating could play at another university, take classes equivalent to the ones they needed at Hofstra, and as long as the player got at least a C-minus in those classes, Hofstra would take back those credits and give that player his Hofstra degree.

“Once that got in writing — and I got it in writing and sent it right to my lawyer — every fifth-year guy and senior who was in the same position did the exact same thing,” said Ottaiano, who walked at Hofstra graduation in May and is pursuing his master‘s degree in liberal arts at Monmouth this fall.

Ottiano found his way to Monmouth College. Photo by Ben Watanabe

At Monmouth, Ottaiano almost looked like a man among boys, albeit very big boys. Officially, the Hawks compete at the same level as Hofstra did, in the Football Championship Subdivision, known as Division I-AA until 2006. Unlike Hofstra, which belonged to the Colonial Athletic Association and gave out 63 scholarships, Monmouth is a member of the smaller Northeast Conference, in which schools grant between 18 and 40 football scholarships.

If there is a major drop-off in the overall talent from Hofstra to Monmouth, Ottaiano didn’t mention it. “There are some great athletes here,” he said. “These guys made me discover why I love football again.”

Mention what happened at Hofstra, though, and Ottaiano gets miffed, especially at the constant presence of campus security: at the team meeting, at the president’s office, even standing outside the players’ quads that night.

“What were we going to do?” he asks, rhetorically. “You guys just took our lives away, what else do you want to take away from us? At that moment I thought, what else do they want? Do they want to kick us out of school? Do they want to take our scholarships? It’s hard to comprehend what they did.

“And they’re still cowards about it. I call them cowards. Hofstra is cowards. I’ll never look at the school the same. They never did right by what they did. They said they want to give other opportunities to other kids, but half the kids on my team never would have gotten an opportunity to go to college if they hadn’t gotten a scholarship to play football. The commitment we gave to that school, and that’s how they handled it? Only cowards do that.”

***

Garrett Heron always kind of suspected what was going on. He was recruited and promised a scholarship by head coach Joe Gardi, whom Cohen replaced after the 2005 season. When Heron arrived for camp in the summer of 2006, he was only mildly surprised when the new regime informed him he would not be on scholarship as a freshman, and that he would have to earn any money he received in subsequent seasons.

Undaunted, Heron accepted the coaches’ advice to sit out his freshman year as a redshirt. As a sophomore, when he played in all 11 games, the school covered 12 percent of the $29,080 yearly tuition. His scholarship increased to 20 percent the next year, then went to 60 percent in 2009, his senior year academically. Due to being redshirted his first season, however, he gained an extra year of eligibility.

In a way, Heron felt he was being used, but he loved football.

“I was pretty much treated like a walk-on,” Heron said. “Everything I’ve gotten, I’ve earned. Every evaluation, there was something I had to do so I could get more money. It was very annoying for me and my parents, but any time they said to get faster or stronger, learn this or that, I did it without complaining. At times, I thought it was getting out of hand.”

Until the university ended the program, Heron was willing to play along. After the announcement, his strategy changed. With one year of playing eligibility left, he decided to fast-track his graduation for May 2010, transfer in the summer, and play his final year at another school while pursuing his master’s degree in exercise science or a related field.

He went to his academic advisor and adjusted his schedule. In the winter, spring and summer sessions combined, Heron took 36 credits out of the 130 total needed for graduation. Soon, he discovered it was not that simple.

Every indication given over the last eight months, Heron said, was that he would receive a full scholarship for his senior season. Part of Hofstra’s agreement to honor scholarships, however, was that players only received the amount of money promised to them at the beginning of the 2009 season.

The winter session brought the first headache. “I wasn’t on food scholarship,” Heron recalled. “I was supposed to be on it (spring and summer) semester, but part of the deal from the school was, you only get what you got previously. I was up here all winter with no food on my swipe (card), and I went to the A.D. and said, ‘The only reason I’m up here is because you cancelled the program. Can I get some money for food?’ They told me it’s against NCAA rules. I got snaked with that, so I had to work and ask my parents for money so I could buy groceries.”

The university honored any financial agreements for which there was documentation, Hayes said in an interview, but not verbal agreements such as promises of more scholarship money or room and board.

The experience with his scholarship that winter and over the past four years soured Heron on college football. When coaches from other schools visited during the re-recruitment rush, he listened with a skeptical ear. He knew what coaches saw when they looked at him: a partial-scholarship player who played special teams three years ago, was injured two years ago and shuffled between four defensive backfield positions last season because that’s what he has been asked to do. He wasn’t a star. Who wants to give a role player a full scholarship when the team would only get him for one year?

As Heron reflects, he sits alone in a corner of the cafeteria at Hofstra. It is late May. A few months ago, he would have been accompanied by at least a dozen teammates, loudly talking and laughing in their corner like the alpha males they were accustomed to being.

Apart from the “Hofstra football” T-shirt and stocky physique, there is nothing to bring attention to Heron as a football player anymore. “We were all tight,” Heron says. “If we went out, it wasn’t one or two of us. We were always 20 people deep. Now, when I go out with some of us that are still here, it’s definitely not the same. People see you on campus and say, ‘There goes a football player.’ It’s like being an endangered species.”

***

Keith Ferrara says “I’m not sure” a lot these days. Of all the players who were thrust into uncertainty when Hofstra eliminated the program, Ferrara may have experienced the residual effects most.

“Right here is where it happened,” said Ferrara, standing in the Pride Club. The chairs, he recalled, were set up in rows, with the players’ backs to the large window that opens to a view of Shuart Stadium. He recounted the abrupt nature of the meeting, the hours that followed, and the increased campus security.

Ferrara has not done a football-specific drill at full speed since Tuesday, Dec. 15. Running in drills that day, looking to stay in shape while deciding whether to transfer to Wagner or Stony Brook, Ferrara felt a pop in his left lower leg. The eventual diagnosis was exertional compartment syndrome, although it took him four trips to three different hospitals before a doctor would admit Ferrara had suffered anything worse than a cramp.

The doctor  at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Hyde Park, N.Y., explained that Ferrara had four “compartments” of muscle tissue, nerves and blood vessels in his lower leg. Damage to one of the compartments causes swelling, which can cut off blood flow and permanent muscle damage. Exertional compartment syndrome is most common in the lower legs and forearms of athletes who perform repetitive activities.

Ferrara had injury problems at Hofstra. Photo by Ben Watanabe

Three surgeries to remove the dead muscle and graft skin from his thigh to cover the wound left Ferrara with a potato-shaped, half-inch deep depression in the flesh of his left shin, not to mention serious doubts on the doctor’s part as to whether Ferrara would ever run again. His football career, he was told, was over.

“Okay, thank you for your help,” Ferrara replied. “Let me out of this hospital bed so I can prove you wrong.”

The rehabilitation has been a challenge. Ferrara finds he can run forward or backward about as well as he ever could, but the absent muscles in his leg make it difficult to pivot or explode upward quickly to defend a pass. As motivated as he is to play again, he admitted he would not be ready to play in 2010.

While he relearned how to run, he became more familiar with the bureaucracy of the NCAA.

When a player suffers an injury that is likely to keep him out for all or most of a season, his program typically seeks a medical redshirt from the NCAA. The player can rehab with the team, not play in any games, and gain back a year of eligibility.

In most cases, the school’s athletic department files the necessary paperwork with the NCAA to petition for the medical redshirt. Ferrara, however, has no program to act on his behalf. So the 22-year-old is doing it on his own.

As Ferrara told his story in early August, he was awaiting word from the NCAA. The petition process was not complicated, he said. Ferrara must file a doctor’s letter confirming he is not medically able to compete this season and not participate in a game, which won‘t be difficult since he does not have a program to play for.

When Ferrara receives the redshirt, Wagner and Stony Brook are still interested in bringing him on for 2011, he said. Recently, he has begun researching Georgetown, after contacting a former Hofstra assistant who was hired there.

Ferrara said his doctors are impressed with how far he has come. He can’t flex his left foot upward, and probably never will — the muscles for that movement were too badly damaged — but the rest of his body is close to playing shape. For many people who suffered such an injury, getting to this point would register as success.

If he were unable to play football again, how much of a physical recovery would Ferrara have to make for him to consider his comeback a success? “Honestly? Playing football again is the only thing I’d consider ‘success,’” he said. “I believe I will. I just need to find the right situation and get my extra year back from the NCAA.”

Yet asked when he thinks he might participate in a full-contact practice again, he thought a moment. Then he responded, “I’m not sure.”

***

David Gordon, the news editor of the Hofstra Chronicle before he graduated in May, can’t help but find it a little funny when he visits the Facebook page, “Help Keep Hofstra Football.” There are 8,208 members. Another Facebook group, “Save Hofstra Football,” has 1,285 members.

Gordon points out that if every member of “Help Keep Hofstra Football” had gone to a game last year, it would have been the largest crowd at any game that season. “For people who didn’t go to games,” Gordon says with a chuckle, “they were particularly pissed off.”

Gordon, who graduated with an English degree and aspires to become a theater critic, grew up in Queens. When he thought of Hofstra football as a kid, he thought of the NFL’s New York Jets holding training camp on campus. He was not one of the estimated 500 students who attended games at Shuart Stadium.

Gordon never covered any football games or interviewed any players or coaches for the Chronicle, the university’s student newspaper, before Dec. 3. That morning, he was walking from class when a friend from the broadcasting department asked who the paper was sending to the press conference.

“What press conference?” Gordon replied.

With no one else available on short notice, Gordon grabbed a recorder and a notebook and joined the crowd at the Hofstra University Club at David S. Mack Hall. He listened in amazement as first Monter, followed by Rabinowitz and Hayes, explained that as the result of a two-year review into all athletic spending, the board “voted unanimously to eliminate our intercollegiate football program in order to redirect those resources toward academic initiatives and need-based scholarships,” as explained in a subsequent press release.

Among the reasons given were the $4.5 million annual cost to run the program, the 4,260 average general attendance and the 500-student average attendance at home games in the 15,000-seat stadium, and the inadequate amount of income from the football program to make it self-sufficient.

“As a student, I was thinking, ‘Wow, I knew people didn’t go to games, but it’s such a part of college culture to have a football team,” Gordon recalled. “From a student perspective, I was thinking, ‘What’s going to happen now in terms of homecoming?’ From a journalist’s perspective, I was salivating to write the story.”

The Chronicle ran Gordon’s news story on the front page, and printed stories in the sports section with reaction from players and fans. The newspaper did not write an editorial, but printed four submitted letters in the next edition.

The only downside for the Chronicle was the timing. The fact that the Chronicle comes out on Thursdays during the semester and that Rabinowitz’s press conference was on a Thursday afternoon, forcing the staff to wait a week before the coverage went to print, was not insurmountable. That’s what the paper’s website was for.

No, the bigger problem was that the front page story on Dec. 3, complete with smiling portrait, announced Rabinowitz’s receiving an honorary doctorate from Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C.

“By the time the issue dropped on newsstands, he was public enemy No. 1,” Gordon said.

Max Sass, a sophomore from Livingston, N.J., covered the football team for the Chronicle in 2009. Rumors that Cohen would not be retained beyond the season were common, Sass said, but he never heard anything of the program’s possible demise.

Sass was promoted to sports editor in the spring semester of 2010 and expects to hold that position in the fall. What he will cover, he is not sure. The university converted the locker room at Margiotta Hall and the field and signage at Shuart Stadium to accommodate the lacrosse team, and Sass seemed enthusiastic about the potential growth of that program.

But lacrosse season is in the spring. So Sass hopes for successful seasons by the Hofstra men’s and women’s soccer teams. Otherwise, the Chronicle sports section could have a rather big news hole.

He expects to feel the absence in other ways as well. “You lose a chance to hang out with your friends and sit in the nice weather — at least at the beginning of the season — at a football game,” Sass said in late May. “Who doesn’t like to root for a team? I was at a softball game today, and I’m not a huge softball fan, but it’s nice to root for your school.”

***

Within months of Stuart Rabinowitz’s arrival as president of Hofstra in 2001, Brad Gerstman developed a distaste for him. Gerstman, a Nassau County lawyer and government advocate, played football from 1986 to 1989, when the school was nicknamed the Flying Dutchmen. He graduated in 1990. He estimated that he gave $30,000 to Hofstra athletics in the past five years, and worked with the football program on a number of charitable ventures, such as a summer golf outing.

“Hofstra always played a part in it,” Gerstman said. “It was great. Dave Cohen, in particular, was great. Now, Hofstra’s out. Hofstra’s off my list. I’ll go with somebody else, Adelphi, C.W. Post, Stony Brook, where I have friends.”

Rabinowitz had no interest in football or athletics, Gerstman said angrily in his Roslyn, N.Y., office in early June. Joe Margiotta, the chairman of the Nassau County Republican party from 1967 to 1983, a major Hofstra fundraiser for 22 years and the person for whom the facility adjacent Shuart Stadium is named, was head of the Pride Club, a prominent alumni group, until Rabinowitz arrived. Rabinowitz forced out Margiotta, according to Gerstman, resulting in a drop in athletic donations that “lulled everyone to sleep to the point where Hofstra football was a nonentity.”

Gerstman scoffed at most of Rabinowitz’s reasons for ending the program. At most colleges and high schools, football does not make money; its benefits are cultural, adding to school spirit and providing scholarship opportunities to athletes who tend to come from lower-income, more ethnically diverse backgrounds than the general student body, he believes.

Outside of the major Bowl Championship Series conferences, only 17 of 51 Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A) teams made a profit in 2008-09, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics report. Hofstra broke even at $4.438 million in revenues and expenses in 2008, according to the report.

Details of the two-year review of athletic spending that Rabinowitz cited in December have never been provided to Gerstman. Nor does he agree with the university’s decision to keep the review secret.

“Their excuse is, if we would’ve said we were thinking about something with the football program, we may have scared off recruits,” Gerstman said. “Instead, we freakin’ lie to them. That’s a better way, instead of being truthful and transparent?”

Gerstman does not disagree, however, that support for the program had waned. He disputed the exact numbers in terms of attendance, cost and giving, but when asked how many games per season he typically attended, Gerstman replied, “One.”

“There was apathy,” Gerstman said. “I was a donor. … You know what? I could have done more. Others could have done more. We all know that. Having spoken to ex-players, trading e-mails, we’re all in agreement. We all failed. I failed. I should have been at every football game. I’ve learned now that it’s my responsibility. I would always support, but not enough. Not nearly enough.”

For Gerstman, the fight is not over. He was outspoken in the days and weeks following the university’s announcement, and remains active with a splinter alumni group, “Save Hofstra Football,” its website, and its Facebook group, “Help Keep Hofstra Football.”

Within three to 10 years, Gerstman hopes to see Hofstra field a football team again. Unlikely as that seems, that is his goal.

“I believe we’ll have football back,” Gerstman said. “It may not be with Stu Rabinowitz around. Maybe we can shorten his tenure. In the meantime, it’s an awareness thing. As far as I’m concerned, we’re a watchdog now to make sure Hofstra doesn’t misstep in any of their other activities relating to sports to damage student-athletes.”

For the current crop of football players, he added, “the damage is done.”

***

Despite the impression he made on some of the players, Jack Hayes does not come across as someone who doesn’t care.

Coming off the most challenging year, professionally, of his life, Hayes opted out of a shirt and tie on a warm, humid day in early August. Sitting in a side office in Hofstra Hall, built in 1903 as a home for university founder William Hofstra and now an administration building, the seventh-year athletic director wore a golf shirt and a concerned expression. He is at ease with how the program’s final days were handled, he said, but he is not indifferent to the frustration it caused.

“The meeting with Dave Cohen was a tough one,” Hayes said. “The meeting with the team was the toughest thing I’ve done in the business. They did not see that coming. They had no reason to think it.”

Hayes supervised a career’s worth of damage control in the 2009-10 academic year. In December, he broke the news to a roomful of young men that the university was shutting down the team. In May, he introduced his second new men’s basketball coach in less than two months after the first, Tim Welsh, was arrested for drunk driving 30 days after the university announced Welsh‘s hiring.

In each case, there were people who wanted to talk to Hayes. Players, administrators, alumni, parents and reporters all got a chunk of Hayes’ time. In contrast to Rabinowitz, who was inaccessible to players and who declined numerous requests to be interviewed for this story, Hayes was constantly accountable.

“I have to say, watching the athletic department operate in the days after the announcement, I personally had a lot of admiration for them,” said Melissa Connolly, vice president of university relations. “They took every conversation. Some of them were difficult conversations. In many cases, it was multiple conversations. And they talked to anybody who wanted to talk to them.”

Following the announcement, Hayes literally left his door open to every member of the team. He believed that would be more constructive than staying longer at the team meeting, when he informed the players of the decision and then ceded the floor to Cohen. Some players saw that as a slight.

“I knew those types of things, questions, conversations, discussions, would take place over the next couple of weeks,” Hayes said. “There was going to be too much emotion in that room. Sure enough, over the next couple of weeks, a number of them did come in prior to going home for break, and a lot more, especially those who lived locally, were here over break. Right after the announcement, in fairness to them, they weren’t prepared. I don’t know what we would have been able to do.”

Hayes wrote out individual contracts for players like Ottaiano, held a workshop to familiarize players with the transfer process, and met with disgruntled alumni. He had anticipated the range and depth of reactions the move would inspire.

As the two-year review unfolded, Hayes began to see that cutting football might become a reality. While the board of trustees conducted the review and the president made recommendations, Hayes prepared for the result, whatever it might be.

Hayes had no direct role in the review. He held no vote and did not make any recommendations. He was convinced, however, that eliminating one sport was preferable to making equal cuts across all sports, because he believed that would harm every program. Rabinowitz also made a strong case in the review that the football program was inherently limited by way of its status as a second-tier Division I program outside the BCS money-making behemoth.

“Another thing that came out of that review was, we have sports that have the ability to compete regularly against some of the best teams in the country,” Hayes said. “In this level of football, we did not have that.”

“The president felt very strongly about that,” Connolly interjected.

“And that was an issue,” Hayes continued. “You could play one game a year against a Connecticut or a Boston College. But the reality was, that was not the level at which you played, whereas that is the level at which you played in basketball or lacrosse or wrestling.”

When the board voted Dec. 2, Hayes put into action the plan he had hoped never to have to use. He met with the coaches the following morning, the players an hour later and announced the decision publicly that afternoon.

Neither Hayes nor Connolly were sure anything could have been done differently. “You can think of all the contingencies, but at the end of the day, you’re still ending the program and not everyone wants to see it end,” Connolly said.

That was why they stationed public safety officers in Margiotta Hall at the team meeting. Hayes had tried to prepare for everything. “You never know what’s going to happen,” Hayes said. “It’s an emotional time, a frustrating time. God forbid someone gets emotional and does something that hurts him down the line.”

As for the stated reason for cutting football, to reallocate funds into other academic and athletic endeavors, the results are not yet known. Of the $4.5 million that was required to run the football program annually, it is uncertain how much will be redirected and how much will simply be absorbed as savings in the budget, Connolly said.

For now, most of it is going to need-based aid and scholarships for the 19 former players who either did not transfer or had not decided. “A university budget is a very complicated instrument,” Connolly said. “Numbers change and enrollments go up and down, so there’s no direct line.”

***

Not everyone connected to the football program was at the Pride Club the day the program ended. Dave Patenaude awakened that morning in a hotel room in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. An assistant coach at Hofstra for three years and the offensive coordinator for the past two years, Patenaude had arrived in Florida the previous day and had four visits scheduled to local high schools to evaluate potential recruits.

A little after 8 a.m., driving to his first stop, Patenaude received a call from graduate assistant Phil Armatas. Hayes had called an impromptu meeting, Armatas informed him. Nobody knew what it was about.

Pateanaude pulled over and waited. He considered the possibilities.

Was Cohen being fired? No, Armatas had said Cohen was attending the meeting, and in Patenaude’s 20 years of coaching, athletic directors typically did not invite a lame-duck coach to announce his own dismissal. To add to his doubt, the season had been over for almost two weeks. Every school is different, but in Patenaude’s experience, coaches were usually dismissed right after the season ended, to maximize the time the administration had to search for a new coach and to avoid sending assistants like himself off on unnecessary recruiting trips.

“Honestly, I thought someone had passed away,” Patenaude said. “I thought one of our kids got in an accident or a staff member had some personal emergency, which would be the only other reasons why you would call that kind of deal.”

What Patenaude did not — could not — conceive of was the program being shut down. Fifteen minutes later, Cohen called and told Patenaude it was just that.

It happened, Patenaude thought. Again.

Patenaude was finishing his second year as head coach at the University of New Haven in 2003 when the small, private liberal arts school just off US-95 in southern Connecticut was in severe financial distress. Patenaude remembered conversations about the school possibly going under. The Division II football program wasn’t in a league, so games had to be scheduled in such far-flung locations as Greeley, Colo.; Ellensburg, Wash.; and St. Cloud, Minn.

For the team, it was inconvenient. For the university, it was expensive. When the program was shut down, Patenaude was surprised, but not incredulous.

What happened at Hofstra, though, stunned him. After his roadside phone conversation with Cohen, Patenaude went back to the hotel and turned in his room key. He drove to the airport, returned his rental car, and hopped a flight back to New York. During the flight, he had plenty of time to think.

“At that point, it puts you at a crossroads and the question is whether this is a way you want to support your family,” Patenaude said. “College football is a hard enough business as it is. To be faced with dropping the program and getting put out on a limb makes you question, is the time and energy you put into this really worth it?”

Once back in Hempstead, Patenaude put those thoughts aside. The assistant coaches were kept under contract for the remainder of the school year and summer, so for the time being, they and their families would be taken care of. Patenaude credited the university and Cohen, who “went in and fought for the staff to be covered through the summer.”

In the meantime, there were players to place. Patenaude was uniquely prepared for what was next. “I knew exactly what we had to do,” he said. “As soon as things went down, we went to the registrar and had all their transcripts sent up. Kids were coming and doing cutups for highlight tapes, phoning their high schools to get their high school videos. We knew we were going to have an onslaught of schools in, and we did all we could to be best able to facilitate that kind of rush. It was pretty organized, actually. When schools came in, they said, this is what we’re looking for and we said, this is what we have. Having gone through it took a little bit of the anxiety out of it.”

As of Aug. 25, 2010, there were 44 former Hofstra players on the football roster at other schools.

As for his own future, Patenaude learned that Georgetown had an opening for an offensive coordinator. He joined the Hoyas in April, coaching for the first time in the Patriot League, a Football Championship Subdivision conference that is an annual leader in student-athlete graduation rates and only grants need-based scholarships in football.

Patenaude never seriously considered leaving the profession last winter; he went deep enough down that road in 2003, when he was within hours of accepting a job as a pharmaceutical representative for Merck & Co., the company that produces Gardasil, Zocor and other widely-used prescription products. The money was good. The hours were nine-to-five. Merck would pay for his schooling. For the first time in his career, he could switch jobs without moving.

“I’m out of this thing,” he told his wife, Christine. All he had to do was call by noon and accept the position. Christine suggested they go out for coffee first. “We got to the coffee shop and she said, ‘You can’t take this job,’” Patenaude recalled. “’You’re a coach. This is what you do. You’re a positive influence on these kids’ lives.”

He didn’t take the Merck job. But he still had doubts.

A few months later, he was at a high school in Connecticut, recruiting for the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., where he had been hired as running backs coach. His cell phone rang. The caller was a former player from New Haven who had been in and out of trouble with the team.

“This was a kid who was constantly on and off the team, got in trouble as a senior and we eventually had to suspend him, so when the phone rang, my immediate thought was, he’s in trouble or something’s not right,” Patenaude said.

“I just wanted to call and let you know I got married,” the player said. “I got a great job working for a production company. We just had a baby. I called because I want you to understand that if it wasn’t for the things you guys were talking about and teaching all the life skills we learned at New Haven, I would’ve have ever been able to do this.”

That did it. Never again would Patenaude doubt his worth as a coach.

“It totally put it in perspective for me,” Patenaude said by phone in early June on a recruiting trip through Maryland. “I was in front of this high school in Connecticut and I sat there with tears in my eyes, because that’s all you ever want as a football coach.”

When Hofstra dropped football, Patenaude held onto that memory while he looked for a new job for three months. He made a few jokes at his expense in an interview with Newsday in January. He did not get discouraged.

“Ultimately, you come back to, this is who you are,” he said, “and this is what you do.”

***

Coming out of Port Richmond High School on Staten Island, Zamel Johnson was, for lack of a better word, a commodity.

Using his blazing speed and soft hands, Johnson was a standout wide receiver and defensive back who fielded offers from every Football Championship Subdivision program in the region, in addition to many schools in non-Bowl Championship Series conferences at the higher Football Bowl Subdivision level. He caught 33 passes for 788 yards and nine touchdowns his senior year of high school, made 49 tackles and recorded three interceptions, and then let Hofstra, the University of New Hampshire, Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts and the University of Rhode Island sweat while he made his decision.

He loved every minute of it.

“Having different schools come in and take you out of class to talk with you, it was a fun experience,” Johnson said. Little did he know that after choosing Hofstra, he would go through the entire process again in less than a year.

When Hofstra cut football, Johnson, who redshirted as a freshman after tearing the labrum in his left shoulder in preseason camp, had no doubt he wanted to transfer. As a highly-sought recruit with four years of eligibility remaining, his coaches figured he would not be a tough sell to other programs.

Johnson wasn’t as certain. When Hayes informed the team that Hofstra was eliminating football, he started to cry. Football was his life. Without it, what was he?

As it turned out, he underestimated himself. Within a half-hour, other schools were calling Lyle Hemphill, the Pride’s defensive backs coach, to inquire about Johnson. Temple University and Bowling Green University, members of the Mid-American Conference, a second-tier league in FBS, recruited Johnson hard. He was promised the same things he had been promised a few months earlier. He heard the same catch phrases he had been fed before.

He liked both schools. He agonized. He also studied, because it was finals week.

“This time, it was probably more stressful because I had less time to make a decision,” Johnson said. “I had a couple finals coming up, so I’m studying for finals and trying to decide what school I’m going to transfer to.”

Johnson ended up ignoring what the recruiting coaches said and focusing on the tangible benefits of each program: practice facilities, defensive scheme, coaching concepts, academics, location. When Hofstra was recruiting him, they promised the moon and the stars, too, yet in the end they were powerless to stop the program’s demise. Coaches, he realized, only hold so much sway.

“It opened my eyes more to see that it is a business,” Johnson said. “The coaches do have a lot of power, but if something like that is going to happen, if the program is going to be discontinued, they can’t control that. So I just have to know what I can control. I can control my actions, and that’s my performance on the field and in the classroom.”

Johnson chose Temple for its proximity to home (compared to Bowling Green, Ohio) and the fact that the Owls were coming off their first bowl appearance in three decades.

Johnson headed down I-95 to Temple University. Photo by Ben Watanabe

His new teammates asked questions, of course. Just five years ago, the Owls were 0-11 and the university seriously considered dropping its football program. There seems to be little danger of that happening now; Temple went 9-4 last season and head coach Al Golden was signed to a five-year contract extension in May.

The Owls, like Johnson, have new life.

Football is “something I love doing, and even having it taken away from me a little bit made me cherish every moment that I get to play,” Johnson said. “It was always in the back of my mind when I was injured and still at Hofstra, ‘OK, when I get healthy, I’m going to take advantage of what I have.’ Then coming here, it’s like I was given another opportunity, so I’m definitely going to take advantage of what I have.”

***

These are supposed to be the best years of his life, Steven Medard used to think to himself. He was part of a Division I football program located less than 15 minutes from his hometown of Massapequa, N.Y. His family and friends could easily come and see him play every weekend, and the university picked up the tab for his tuition, books, room and board.

Yet Medard had a feeling he was living life on other people’s terms. He had a passion for business and wanted to study economics, but his major remained undecided as he redshirted as a freshman in 2009. His coaches did not pressure him into any area of study, but Medard believed an economics or marketing major would be challenging, given a football player’s schedule. His parents pushed the job security of the medical field.

When Hofstra discontinued football, the news that he could continue going to school for free, without the demands of football, was enticing.

“I used football as a great way to go to school for a free education,” said Medard while relaxing in the study lounge in the top floor of his dormitory building in early April. “I didn’t come from a high financial situation, so football was a great way to earn a full scholarship. When it came time to make a decision to continue playing or stay (at Hofstra), I got to the stats. The chances of someone going to the NFL are so low, I wouldn’t mind going to school and focusing on something else. In the end, 100 percent of my heart wasn’t in football.”

Medard is aware he sounds like he did not love football. He insists that is not the case.

“What can love do for you?” he counters. “Love can’t provide for you all the way throughout life. Love can’t put food on the table. At the end of the day, it was about being realistic. Some people, all they have is football. For some people, getting their homework done or going to class, their motivation is football.”

His lifestyle changed drastically. In the fall, he awoke at 6 a.m. to work out until 8 a.m., then ate breakfast before going to class from about 9 a.m. to noon. After lunch, he attended team or position meetings from 1:30 p.m. until practice started at 3 p.m. When practice ended at 5 p.m., he ate dinner, then was in mandatory study hall until 8 p.m. to fulfill his required eight hours per week.

Last spring, Medard struggled to wake up for class at 9 a.m. His scheduling options were much greater now that he did not need to fit classes around his practice schedule. He spent two or three hours every afternoon “hanging out,” and three nights a week he worked security at a local restaurant for extra money.

He didn’t even mind studying, since he formally switched his major to business marketing.         “It was kind of funny, because once this thing happened, my eyes opened,” he said. “I got into the business field, which is what I love to do. I was hesitant to do it while I played football. I don’t know why. I don’t know if I would’ve been [majoring in] business marketing if ending the program hadn’t happened.”

Medard was asked if he would like to walk over to Shuart Stadium, which he had not visited since the fateful team meeting. Sure, he said. When he and his friend, ex-teammate Omar Jacobs, walked onto the grounds, the women’s lacrosse team was practicing on what was once Medard’s field. A plaque by the main gate read, “The Home of Hofstra Lacrosse.” Dirt paths the football players used to get from the locker room to the field were now covered with pavement or brick. Five retired jerseys hanging from the outside wall of Margiotta Hall, overlooking the field, were the only evidence the football team once played there.

Something about it bothered Medard, just a little, he admitted.

“A friend of mine from Riverhead, which is not that far from here, was supposed to come in to visit in December,” Medard said as he watched the lacrosse players practice clamps, picks and rakes. “He was shut down, obviously. He went to Albany. It affects a lot of guys. It’s a benefit for Stony Brook, but it’s killer for those who want to stay local because Hofstra was obviously the better program, had better facilities, was a good academic school. Now their options go from two schools to one.”

***

None of Dave Cohen’s previous three coaching stops — Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., the University of Albany and two stints at the University of Delaware — lasted longer than five years. The Commack, N.Y., native cherished every moment at Hofstra, knowing it could be over at any time.

“I was home, you know?” Cohen said of his four years living in Commack while coaching the Pride. “I was living eight houses down from the house my wife grew up in.”

The end, he figured, would come when he was fired or left to coach at another school. He never imagined he would be the last head football coach in Hofstra history.

“It wasn’t just me losing my job and what I had worked so hard for,” Cohen said. “I was home. In a job where you can go anywhere in the country and you have to be very mobile, it was a neat thing to come back home.”

Still, the situation was far from idyllic. Cohen described the relationship between the program and the university administration as cold and distant. Whenever there were improvements to be done, such as the $250,000 to redo the locker room and workout facilities or the $200,000 to update video equipment, furnish meeting rooms and redo the floors and carpets in the football offices, Cohen led the fundraising efforts.

For the most part, though, Cohen stuck to coaching. When La Salle University in Philadelphia or Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., both FCS programs, dropped football in recent years, he worried briefly. When he broached the topic with Hayes, Cohen said, the athletic director told him that every private school brings up cutting football as a cost-cutting measure every now and then, though the schools seldom follow through.

“If made sense,” Cohen said. “There are anti-football people, anti-athletic people, anti-everything people.”

Then on Nov. 23, 2009, Northeastern University in Boston cut football and that changed things, Cohen said. Hofstra’s board of trustees could vote knowing its decision would not be the only one for people to analyze.

“That was a time you wouldn’t be sticking your nose out all by yourself, because you have another school that already did it,” Cohen said.

As for the timing and manner of the announcement — two years after the start of a department-wide review, one day after the board reportedly voted, less than an hour before the news went public — Cohen was not as critical as some of his players.

“Is there an easy way of doing that?” he said. “The decision was made from the administration’s perspective. Do I agree with it? That’s irrelevant, just like it’s irrelevant what some of the players thought with some of the academic requirements I placed on them. There’s rules and it is what it is. Do I wish someone would have clued me in, maybe given me an opportunity to take a look at different job opportunities and other things that came up? Yeah, it would’ve been nice for someone to level with me. But I don’t know if there’s a right time or place or way to ever do something like that.”

Cohen spoke by cell phone from outside Kalamazoo, Mich., where in January he took over as the defensive coordinator at Western Michigan University. Considered a top defensive coach, Cohen need not be reminded the Pride surrendered a respectable 306 yards per game, fourth-best in the CAA, but gave up almost four touchdowns a game, fourth-worst in the CAA, in his final year.

“My regret was that I didn’t make it harder on the administration by winning more games,” Cohen said. “We were 5-6 this past year, and in all honesty I thought we underachieved. We should have gotten more wins out of the talent we were coaching, and that’s on me. If we were in the paper every day getting good press, it’s tougher to drop football than when you only win five out of 11 games.”

***

Jeff Aime still eats like a football player.

Aime munched on a grilled chicken sub in the student center at Hofstra in June, a large plate of French fries and another grilled chicken sub, still wrapped in wax paper, off to the side. It was a large lunch for a 22-year-old former linebacker.

When the size of his helping was mentioned, Aime smiled.

“I could eat anything,” he said. “It’s no secret, I eat. Don’t cook, but I can eat. You can ask anybody. Everybody knows me for being greedy at the table.”

When Aime played football, his large appetite was no problem. He more than shed the calories in the weight room and on the field. Although he walked away from the sport with a year of playing eligibility remaining, he still lifts weights and works out with the same intensity as he did when he was playing.

After the initial shock wore off from the university’s announcement in December, Aime said he came to a fairly easy decision. He had missed the entire 2009 season with a torn meniscus in his left knee, and was forced to sit out the final two games in 2008 with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He had not appeared in a game in 24 months.

A marketing major, Aime received a job offer to work in sales at Cintas Corporation, a cleaning services and supplies company. Without much schedule-shifting, he could walk at graduation last May and finished his last class in the summer. Playing his senior season was not very important to him.

“I didn’t get to play my last season,” Aime said with a shrug, “but you play every game like it’s your last, so I have no regrets now.”

In Aime’s mind, he had contributed to a team that barely missed the FCS playoffs in 2007. He had trained with NFL wide receiver Marques Colston and played with Kyle Arrington and Kareem Huggins, former Pride players now in the pros. Perhaps most importantly, he had gotten a free education.

His parents, Ernst and Marie, were born in Haiti and immigrated to the United States a few years before Aime was born in 1987. They first live in Brooklyn, then settled in Queens with Aime and his two older siblings. His parents put Daphne, 32, and Gregory, 28, through college, and by the time their third child graduated from St. Francis Prep, an athletic scholarship was welcome news.

Now, though, no seniors from Aime’s high school will follow him to Hempstead on a football scholarship. He shakes his head at the loss of opportunities for students of his background.

“It’s terrible, I think,” he said. “That’s a lot of people that came here and added a little culture to the school. When a school has a football team, even if there’s not a lot of fans, there’s still a football team. That’s what homecoming is. Who’s having homecoming now? Little things like that. And tradition. I think we were called Pride for a reason. And now there’s no more Pride in football.”

***

Zamel Johnson’s first thought when he walked into Lincoln Financial Field was that he never saw anything like this at Hofstra.

For all the program’s struggles over the past three decades, the Temple football team has always had nice digs. Since 2003, the Owls have played their home games at the 68,532-seat “Linc,” home to the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League. Before that, they shared Veterans Stadium with the Eagles and played select games at Franklin Field, on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus.

On this day in late August, there was no game. Johnson and his teammates were in the stadium, dressed in full uniform, for the team’s media day. That in itself was a symbol of how much had changed for Johnson; at Hofstra, there was no need for a media day. At the end of training camp at Hofstra, the players would pose briefly for a team picture and then return to their daily business.

In contrast to earlier in the summer, when Johnson seemed hesitant on the practice field in a new system and reticent off the field among new teammates, he exhibited no uneasiness. While time certainly did its part to help him get settled, training camp was no small factor.

“Camp is camp,” Johnson said. “You work hard, you’re tired, you’re hurting, but you fight through it and come together as a team. It being an all-day thing where you’re just with these guys for a certain amount of days, all day, you have no choice but to bond. You’re all going through these hardships, whether it be things back at home or problems with your body. Everybody’s going through something similar, so it forces you to stick together.”

Training camp also worked its healing wonders on Garrett Heron. A few months earlier he had been coming to grips with the probability that his football career was finished. By mid-August, he had graduated from Hofstra with a degree in exercise science, been accepted to graduate school at Duquesne University, and risen to the top spot on the depth chart at cornerback.

His feelings regarding his old school are still strong, he said. He just didn’t feel the need to voice them as much anymore. “It’s unfortunate, because I probably would still be at Hofstra, going to camp with my old teammates, but I’m in a new place now,” said Heron, who is pursuing his master’s degree in health management systems, a hybrid of health and business studies. “I’m trying to make the best of a bad situation. I can’t worry about Hofstra. There’s no football there anymore. All I can do is be the best student and athlete at Duquesne I can be.”

As does Heron, who now proudly wears Duquesne’s blue and red, Johnson feels at home in Temple’s cherry and white. But he has not completely abandoned Hofstra’s blue, white and gold.

“I still have some stuff,” Johnson said. “I still have my jersey, a couple shirts, just to remember people I was there with and experiences I had — because it was an experience.”

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