As his players warm up, swishing jumpers at three stations, John Gallagher sidles over to the press table and leans against the bumper, shaking his head. “Honestly,’’ he says, “I figured I’d have three players here.’’ Gallagher’s skepticism is hard-earned. On May 6, a little more than a month after Hartford made its first men’s NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, the university announced it was transitioning from Division I to Division III. The switch, which will be formally enacted with a final vote of the board of regents in January, won’t take effect until 2025 but the decision has created an uproar on the small campus. Students not only have protested the decision but booed so forcefully at graduation that embattled university president Gregory Woodward left the stage in the middle of the ceremony, explaining later that he didn’t want to be a distraction.
Alums, athletes and staffers are actively rooting for Woodward’s ouster, rumors and/or wishful thinking running rampant that he will resign or be forced out in a matter of days. A resume embellishment has added to the distrust, as has a lack of transparency around the board’s decision. Along with the catcalls at commencement, the end of the spring semester included marches and more than 1,300 flags planted on the campus, representing each of the athletes who signed a petition against the decision. One online petition, demanding the university remain Division I, has gathered 6,000 names.
As the controversy swirls, beneath the barned roof of the Reich Family Pavilion on a Wednesday morning, the Hawks — 11 of them (Moses Flowers is still recovering from hip surgery) — form in a wide circle to begin practice. Summer workouts and classes began a week ago, but the Hawks already are in full form. Gallagher begins the session as he always does, choosing a player to recite the thought for the day, as well as the offensive and defensive keys they’re working on. They nail each, even the message, word for word. “Excellence is not a long-term aspiration. Excellence is the ultimate short-term strategy. Excellence is the next five minutes,’’ Austin Williams says from memory.
The Hawks break off for shooting drills, the start to a high energy and efficient hour that includes only positivity. Gallagher salutes good decisions and smart passes, and the players’ encouraging voice and clapping drowns out the music that blares for the entirety of the practice.
It is entirely normal, and yet utterly remarkable.