Four head coaches have left the University of Hartford in recent weeks, including women’s basketball, women’s lacrosse, softball and baseball.
Meanwhile, John Gallagher reports to work each day and fights on for the program he built into a conference champion, keeping his players on board amid the tumult created when the school adopted a plan to transition from Division I to Division III.
Women’s basketball coach Morgan Valley left to become an assistant at UConn on April 21. Softball coach Angie Churchill left for Seton Hall on June 21. Meg Decker, who started up the women’s lacrosse program at Hartford, moved to Xavier on July 12, and Justin Blood, who has taken the UHart baseball team to the NCAA Tournament and developed several pros, left Tuesday for Keene State, an established D-III program, to be close to family in New Hampshire.
“Justin Blood’s the best baseball coach I’ve ever seen,” Gallagher said. “He’s an SEC, high major baseball coach. He’s stood by me through tough times in my program, which I will never forget.”
Interim athletic director Maria Feely left on June 2, replaced six days later by Sharon Beverly, who was named acting vice president of athletics and recreation. As the athletic environment has deteriorated, a number of student-athletes have also transferred or decommitted since the school made known its plans to move from Division I to Division III.
“We are proud of the accomplishments of our coaches and of the programs they have helped to build at UHart,” University of Hartford president Gregory Woodward said in a statement. “We wish those who are leaving continued success, and we are lucky to have so many talented people in our Department of Athletics who can step up and continue to lead our teams on and off the field.”
Through it all, Gallagher made it clear in an interview with the Courant that he is not leaving, at least not this year.
“As a university, we need to come together,” Gallagher said. “And how we do that? It can’t be done by pointing fingers and blaming. I’m so taken aback that people care this much in the community. The in-fighting, and you can feel the tension in the air, and then you have coaches leaving, lifelong friends leaving. It saddens me. It’s difficult seeing people who care about a university, care about a place, leave.”
Since April, Gallagher, the men’s basketball coach since 2010 and face of the school, has been in a fight to save what he calls “The Neighborhood,” the segments of the Hartford area community that rallied to support the Hawks as they won the America East championship and played in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history on March 19.
With 25 minutes of the Hawks’ NCAA Tournament loss, Gallagher learned of the intention to go D-III, and a month later, it became public knowledge. Predictably, there have been angry protests by students and supporters, and there is now a lawsuit aimed at forcing a reversal of course. Also predictably, there has been the wave of defections and decommitments among current athletes and incoming recruits, especially in baseball and softball, given the school’s lame-duck status in D-I.
“It definitely did not take us by surprise,” said Beverly. “The school is in a position of transition right now, and we would always want every member of our department to seek out opportunities that might be better for their families.”
Gallagher has two years remaining on his contract. He has somehow insulated his program from the chaos, keeping all but one of his players, including incoming recruits, even in a year when, with eased transfer rules, more than 1,000 men’s basketball players entered the NCAA’s transfer portal since the season ended. The one player who transferred from UHart did so for basketball reasons.
“It is an anomaly, it’s an outlier, it is the best team in school history,” Gallagher said. “It’s the best culture, chemistry that I’ve ever had. Look, I’m taken aback by the players’ commitment to the program, to the Neighborhood, to the coaching staff, and that’s why my commitment to them is so strong. ... It’s a high-level group. We want to represent the university with great love, and passion and energy.”
Gallagher has said little publicly since the proposed move became known in April, and struck a conciliatory note this week, calling for numbers not name-calling, respect not rancor, more transparency and dialogue.
“I want respect to be given to everyone on the board,” Gallagher said. “I’m not a person who leads with animosity. I want respect to be a major part of this. What I’d like is that respect to be shown two ways, to be communicated. Let’s help us understand why you’re doing it to place that means so much to everyone, instead of saying, ‘we made this decision.’ There are lives involved here. We need to respect them, but we need respect shown. If it’s the best thing for the school, we have to understand that, but let’s have a healthy dialogue, a transparent conversation. … I would love a town hall meeting.”
Although UHart, a No. 16 seed, lost to No.1 Baylor, the eventual national champion, by 24 points in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Gallagher left it all on the court, his emotions spilling on the sidelines long after the outcome was obvious. In the most triumphant moment of his career and UHart athletic history, he returned to his Indianapolis hotel room where he was visited by school administrators who told him that Woodward was considering the move to D-III. Although he had “suspicions” something was afoot, this was the first time Gallagher had heard the words.
“I didn’t even have a chance to celebrate the ride,” Gallagher said. “I was just rattled. There was a lot of pain.”
Gallagher recalls he was so shaken, he packed up and left without his computer and had to have another coach, Loyola’s Porter Moser, retrieve it and ship it back to West Hartford. A few weeks later, the report from CarrSports, commissioned by Woodward, was leaked to WTNH-TV. Its finding — that UHart loses an unsustainable $13 million per year as a Division I school — has been questioned by critics who say the losses and the potential savings in going D-III are exaggerated, and that UHart’s financial problems are the result of plummeting enrollment, not athletic spending.
“My focus is really on the future,” Beverly said. “We want people that basically want to be at the University of Hartford. This is going t be a wonderful opportunity for us to align our athletics department with the mission of the college and be an integral part of the values and campus life. I’m not looking back, not so much evaluating what occurred before me, my view and focus is firmly on the future and how we can best move forward with those who want to be a part of this new vision.”
UHart will file its application with the NCAA to move to Division III in January, and Beverly said she anticipates a conference affiliation will be secured. The Hawks will play the 2021-22 academic year in America East, then plan to play as an independent DI school in 2022-23.
“I don’t think the institution would have taken this road if we didn’t think we would land in a D-III conference,” Beverly said. “My role is to get us ready. Once we are able to determine our conference and and have confirmation on our move, maybe we can get more folks with us to go forward. We first have to get everything settled for this year, and make sure we’ve got all the pieces in place. We’re a Division I institution, we have to make sure this year looks as seamless for our student-athletes in possible. Once we have all those pieces in place we can continue to look at what the future is going to look like.”
Gallagher has met once with Beverly. He estimates he has had less than five conversations with Woodward, who became president in 2016, where he met regularly with former president Walter Harrison. Gallagher said he reached out via email, but has not heard from Woodward since March. Woodward laid out his case for a move to Division III in an Op-Ed for the Courant on May 7.
“It’s not easy being a college president in this day and age,” Gallagher said. “It’s not easy being on the board and giving your time. I respect that. Tough decisions have to be made when you’re in a position of leadership, but what goes hand in hand is how we communicate it and respect those who are affected by the decision.”
In the meantime, the program’s supporters fight on, with podcasts and social media volleys, and soon in court. Gallagher continues to coach his team, business as usual. There is no doubt that, if he were to lead the Hawks back to the NCAA Tournament next season, his personal stock would soar and he would resurface elsewhere. But he insists that is not the way he wants this to end.
“A program is your child,” Gallagher said. “It is my child. You want me to just get up and leave? I can’t do that. I can’t do it for [former coach] Jack Phelan, I can’t do it for so many players, for all of the people in the community who have supported me, the alumni base. I’m not built like that. Is my hope that it will be reversed? Sure, that would be a dream of mine. My hope is that we all take a breath and we all realize that we all love this university and we find common ground. We need to find common ground.”
Dom Amore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org