Delaware, Hofstra Matchup A Rare Treat With Title On The Line

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If you were to travel back in time a couple decades to inform your turn-of-the-century self about life in 2020, the Hofstra and Delaware men’s basketball teams needing almost 20 years to finally play a big regular season game against one another as members of the CAA probably wouldn’t be your number one revelation.

But fans of the two schools — and two leagues — would surely be surprised it took so long for Hofstra and Delaware to face off in a game with regular season championship implications.

The big day will finally arrive Saturday afternoon, when league-leading Hofstra visits third-place Delaware in a matchup of the CAA’s two hottest teams. The Pride ran its winning streak to seven games Thursday night by outlasting Drexel, 81-74. The Blue Hens began the weekend homestand by earning their eighth win in nine games with a 70-48 rout of Northeastern.

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A win by Hofstra (12-3) would all but lock up the regular season crown for the Pride, while a victory by Delaware (10-5) would give the Blue Hens a sweep of the season series and tighten up the standings heading into the final weekend of league play.

It will mark just the third time since the schools joined the CAA prior to the 2001-02 season that both teams will enter a game against one another with a winning league record — and the first time it’s happened this late in the season. Hofstra and Delaware were both 1-0 heading into their game on Jan. 9, 2013 and 4-2 before clashing Jan. 18, 2018.

The last time Hofstra and Delaware faced each other in such a key game this late in the regular season was Feb. 4, 2001, when the Flying Dutchmen improved to 11-2 in the America East with a 68-55 win over the Blue Hens, who fell to 9-4. A little more than a month later, Hofstra won its second straight America East title by beating Delaware, 68-54.

A few months later, Hofstra and Delaware headed to the CAA, where their established rivalries in both basketball and football were expected to take center stage in the new league. It didn’t quite work out that way — which is why Saturday is going to be pretty neat for players, coaches and alumni of a certain age.

“Those rivalries were really good and it’s cool to see the two of them going after each other there,” said Tom Pecora, who spent seven years as Jay Wright’s assistant at Hofstra before a nine-year run as head coach.

Hofstra supplanting Delaware as the America East champ in 2000, and then leading the way to the CAA along with Drexel and Towson capped a whirlwind decade-long span in which the Dutchmen went from the little brothers chasing the Blue Hens to their equals. 

“Look, when you get to the top, you want to beat the best to get there,” Pecora said. “And I thought it was like the passing of the torch, so to speak.”

The game Saturday will mark the 93rd all-time between Hofstra and Delaware. But the rivalry was paused following the 1990-91 season, when Delaware and Drexel left the East Coast Conference for the North Atlantic Conference (which was renamed the America East in 1996).

Their departures marked the final blow to the once-potent league, which used to include the likes of Saint Joseph’s, La Salle and Temple. Hofstra spent three more seasons in the ECC, which no longer had an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, before being invited to the NAC on Apr. 14, 1994, the same day the school introduced Wright as head coach.

While Hofstra could not match Delaware’s tradition and status as a state university, it could look to approach what the Blue Hens did on the court and on the field as a suburban school that succeeded both in Division I basketball and Division I-AA football.

“Delaware had sold-out gyms and it was generational — it was almost an ACC vibe,” Pecora said. “It was the state university, it was grandfathers, sons and grandsons all in Delaware sweatshirts. They kind of carried it over from their exceptional football program.

“Our place was more like a Big East crowd. You had northeastern people, you had New Yorkers with a high basketball IQ, but not as much of that university rah rah feeling. I thought that made it unique and it made it really good.”

As Wright and Pecora prepared for their first season at Hofstra, the football team, under the direction of former New York Jets assistant coach Joe Gardi, continued its remarkable ascent up the I-AA ranks. The Flying Dutchmen, a perennial Division III power, began the transition to I-AA independent in 1991 and became a top-25 program in 1994, when they won their first seven games and capped an 8-1-1 season with a 41-41 tie at Delaware on Nov. 12, 1994 in which future Jets star wide receiver Wayne Chrebet caught a I-AA record-tying five touchdowns.

After the game, it became clear Hofstra’s pursuit of Delaware — which won two Division II titles before reaching the I-AA national championship game in 1982 — had engendered some hard feelings between Gardi and Delaware’s legendary head coach, Tubby Raymond.

A roughing the punter penalty on Delaware gave Hofstra a first down near midfield with a little more than a minute left and set up a drive that ended with Dutchmen kicker David Ettinger missing a 34-yard field goal just before time expired.

Gardi said he “…thought it was dumb to block the punt.” A little while later, Raymond said he didn’t know how things worked in the NFL but that he was comfortable with his decision to try and go for the blocked punt.

“You could depend on him to drop a couple bombs during the week or after the game,” Raymond said during an interview in 2014, three years before he died at the age of 92. “That was the one he told them at the press conference what he would have done if he was coaching my team.”

While Hofstra remained a successful independent for the rest of the decade, Raymond and the Blue Hens managed to retain their upper hand. The Dutchmen reached the I-AA playoffs in 1995 and 1997 and fell at Delaware in the first round both years.

Similar results occurred on the hardwood. After going 19-36 in Wright’s first two seasons, the Dutchmen began to climb the NAC in his third and fourth campaigns, both of which ended with CAA Tournament losses at Delaware.

But the initial relationship between Wright and Delaware head coach Mike Brey, who arrived in Newark in 1995, was far more collegial and symbolic of two men born fewer than three years apart (Brey in 1959, Wright in 1961) and at the same nascent spots in their careers.

“I think very often people don’t realize that in the coaching fraternity, you can have great rivalries with coaches and still be very good friends with them,” Pecora said. “They both came from great blood lines — Mike (at Duke) with Coach K (Mike K) and Jay (at Villanova and UNLV) with Rollie (Massimino). So I think there was a mutual respect there.

Turns out the same thing existed within the football dynamic, too.

“Everybody thought that we hated each other,” Raymond said with a laugh in 2014. “And years later (in 1999), he recommended me for the Lombardi Award — which I got.”

In 1999, the Dutchmen won 22 games and, but with star Speedy Claxton injured, fell to Drexel in the CAA semifinals and missed a chance to face Delaware in the title game.  

Hofstra finally broke through in 2000, when the Dutchmen won the regular season title with a 16-2 record and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 23 years by beating Delaware 76-69 in the America East title game at Hofstra. 

Wright, displaying the coolness that he’d show most famously after Villanova won the national title on Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer in 2016, calmly walked along the sidelines and shook hands with Brey as hundreds of fans stormed the court around him. It was the penultimate game at Delaware for Brey, who left for Notre Dame following the Blue Hens’ NIT loss to Villanova (really).

The leap to the CAA was initially viewed as an equally momentous move for both basketball and football programs. The new league finally gave Hofstra a football home — with Delaware, to boot — in the Atlantic 10 football conference along with fellow CAA schools James Madison, Northeastern and William & Mary.

But after winning the A-10 title in 2001, Hofstra never reached the playoffs again under Gardi, who “retired” following the 2005 season, or his replacement, Dave Cohen. The program was dropped following the 2009 season. Delaware won the I-AA national title in 2003 but hasn’t reached the now-rebranded FCS playoffs since advancing to the championship game in 2007.

In basketball, Hofstra and Delaware both found it difficult to break through in a league dominated by Virginia schools. The Pride made three straight NITs from 2005 through 2007 but never finished higher than third in the regular season. The Blue Hens had one winning league season in their first decade before going 39-13 in CAA play from 2011-12 through 2013-14 and becoming the first America East school to win the CAA title in 2014.

Hofstra went 27-70 in that three-year span before going 105-59 over the next five seasons, a stretch in which Delaware went 61-98. But the paths of the longtime rivals finally began to cross last season, when the Pride reached the CAA title game by outlasting Delaware, 78-74, in the tournament semifinals.

And will Saturday be a sign of things to come, 20 years after Hofstra and Delaware faced off for the America East championship?

“I think it’s great,” said Pecora, who left Hofstra for Fordham following the 2009-10 season and is now an assistant coach at Quinnipiac. “I’ve always felt, with the restructuring there, Hofstra, Charleston and Delaware are probably the three best jobs in the league where we were always trying to play catchup in the past to the VCUs and the Masons and the Old Dominions. I think it’s great to see the two teams on top.”

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