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A remarkable thing happened in northeast-area sports 25 years ago Wednesday, something that remains unforgettable for anyone who witnessed it and continues to resonate and impact the American sports scene a quarter-century later.
Oh, and Dan Marino fake spiked the New York Jets, too.
As Marino and the Miami Dolphins were taking ownership of the Jets’ souls at the Meadowlands, Jay Wright was embarking upon his head coaching career at Hofstra’s Physical Fitness Center, located just a few hundred feet from the Jets’ training complex.
Of course, while everyone realized in real time what the Dolphins had just done to the Jets, no one knew what Wright would accomplish at Hofstra, which made back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in his final two seasons in 2000 and 2001, or that he would parlay his success at the Long Island school into a Hall of Fame-bound career at Villanova, which has won two of the last four national championships.
But those humble beginnings make what happened Nov. 27, 1994 all the more remarkable for Wright, his staff, players and the 1,247 fans — 74,359 fewer than at the Meadowlands — who showed up to the PFC to see Wright and the then-Flying Dutchmen fall to the University of New Hampshire, 104-97, in a head coaching debut that also doubled as Hofstra’s first game in the then-North Atlantic Conference.
“We didn’t have a huge crowd,” Wright said this week. “We had a bunch of T-shirts and we were going to throw the T-shirts out to the students when we came out. And (assistant coach) Tom Pecora went out for warmups and he came back in the locker room and said ‘Jay, you’ve got more T-shirts than we’ve got people out there.’”
Wright was 32 when he was named Hofstra’s head coach the previous Apr. 14 — the same day Hofstra was accepted into the NAC — and he needed every bit of his youthful enthusiasm to try and rebuild a program that was on the verge of falling out of Division I.
The Dutchmen were the last ones out of the East Coast Conference, which once featured the likes of Temple and La Salle but absorbed waves of defections in the 1980s before splintering apart for good in 1994, when Hofstra beat Northeastern Illinois to win the final men’s basketball title (but not an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament).
While his late hiring in a pre-Internet, pre-grad transfer world meant there wasn’t much he could do to immediately upgrade the roster — Wright’s first recruiting class consisted of just one player, junior college transfer Jamil Greene — Wright was able to charm students who had grown apathetic towards the basketball team.
He shot free throws with students in front of the Student Center. He organized Hofstra’s first Midnight Madness, which was held at an on-campus bar instead of the PFC.
“We did everything to try to get everybody excited about the team,” Wright said. “Midnight Madness, you remember, we did at Hofstra USA, the bar on campus, which was a big hit. I think we had more people there because it was the bar than we did at the game.”
And before his first game, he left a voice mail message on every resident’s phone imploring them to turn out to see Hofstra and turn the PFC into “the rockingest house in the NAC.” (As a student at the time, I swear all of this is true, even the part about us having actual phones in our dorm rooms)
Eventually, the fans in the seats outnumbered the number of T-shirts Wright and Pecora had in the locker room, and those in attendance were treated to a wildly entertaining game. In fact, Wright would coach 206 more games at Hofstra, and the Dutchmen never again scored as many as 97 points with him on the sidelines.
“First head coaching job, young staff, we were so fired up, and I really was proud — the guys played really hard,” Wright said. “We actually scored, we ran on makes and it was an exciting game.”
Three of the players inherited by Wright — Darius Burton, James Parisi and Rob Ogden — set career-highs in scoring for Hofstra, which led deep into the second half before New Hampshire took control with a late 15-4 run.
“We were upset we lost and the Hofstra people were like ‘We love this style of play, we’re so happy,’” Wright said.
While Wright enjoyed having dozens of alums in his office for a postgame chat, he had to draw the line at having an adult beverage or two with them, as fans did following games with previous coach Butch van Breda Kolff.
“Some of the older alums were there and were like ‘I went back to your office and there’s no beer in the fridge, Butch used to have beers with us every game,’” Wright said. “And I’m like ‘Man, I’m not keeping beers in my fridge. Not going to be able to do that.’ They were all disappointed.”
Hofstra fans only had to wait one more game for Wright’s first win, though he endured an adventurous journey to the Boulder Classic at the University of Colorado before the Dutchmen beat Cornell, 82-56, on Dec. 2. After the Dutchmen landed, Wright was tasked with driving the team to the Colorado campus, and without a GPS to guide him, he got lost.
“I was thinking, wow, my first head coaching job, first road trip, and I got the team lost,” Wright said.
Hofstra lost the championship game to Colorado, 96-77, the next night and never sniffed .500 again in Wright’s first season. Nor did the undermanned Dutchmen do much more running and gunning: They scored more than 80 points four times in the final 26 games.
One of those outbursts was in the penultimate game of the season, an 88-59 win over Maine in the NAC’s 8-9 game. That earned Hofstra a trip to Philadelphia to face top-seeded defending champion Drexel, which was led by future NBA player Malik Rose.
“We were so excited,” Wright said. “We took the team directly to Philadelphia right from Maine and we had them run up the Rocky steps and were convinced that we were going to be the Rocky of the (NAC). I think we lost by 50 (it was only 108-75). Malik Rose was just a monster.”
Now, of course, Wright spends most of his time opposing the Rockys of the world. But even as he’s defined himself as the heir apparent to the likes of Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams, Wright remains close with his first Hofstra players, several of whom visited with him following Villanova’s 95-71 win over Hofstra at Nassau Coliseum on Dec. 22, 2017 and will always associate Nov. 27, 1994 with something other than Dan Marino and the Jets.
“We stay in touch with those guys on that team — Matt Carpenter, Darius Burton, (Jim) Shaffer, (John) Mavroukas, Jamil Greene, just saw him this summer,” Wright said. “I still have the runner-up trophy (from the Boulder Classic). It’s actually a huge buffalo chip and I still have that on my desk at home. I think about that first victory and just really fond memories of that team. Great guys.”