The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The University of Hartford betrayed its athletes. Then it threatened them.

Hartford and John Gallagher were a college basketball feel-good story in 2020. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
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Fourteen months ago, the University of Hartford men’s basketball team made history, qualifying for the NCAA Division I basketball tournament for the first time in the school’s 64-year history.

For the next week, as the college hoops world gathered in Indiana for the coronavirus-affected tournament, Coach John Gallagher was onstage nonstop. “I’d like to talk to him to congratulate him,” Phil Martelli, his college coach at St. Joseph’s, said at one point. “But every time I see him, he’s being interviewed.”

Hartford lost in the tournament’s first round to eventual national champion Baylor, but it hardly mattered. In his 11 seasons as the Hawks’ coach, Gallagher had built what was dubbed “the Neighborhood,” a little-program-that-could with good kids and a relentlessly outgoing coach who seemed to be everyone in town’s best friend.

And then, less than two months after Hartford’s shining moment, the roof fell in. The Hartford Board of Regents, at the urging of school president Gregory Woodward, announced the school would transition to Division III by 2025 and would stop giving athletic scholarships by the start of the 2023-24 school year — leading to a cascade of embarrassments that hasn’t abated.

The numbers Woodward originally produced to justify the move were called into question by multiple sources who studied the study he had commissioned. An initial study claimed the school was losing about $13 million per year by competing in Division I. A counter-study said the cost reductions from moving to Division III would be closer to $500,000 — if the school didn’t continue to have success in basketball.

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Some athletes transferred. Others stayed. Gallagher, who had turned down a huge raise to move to Oklahoma as his pal Porter Moser’s top assistant before the D-III announcement, also stayed. Woodward ducked out of a graduation ceremony last spring, amid boos and jeers.

In June, a new interim athletic director was hired to replace the old interim athletic director. That interim AD, Sharon Beverly, sent two emails in advance of Sunday’s graduation. One was to the school’s coaches; the other was to the school’s “student-athletes,” or, as she called them at one point in her note to the coaches, “SA’s.”

To the coaches: “I encourage you to address with your team that while any disruption may result in disciplinary actions, including but not limited to their diplomas or transcripts being held, the respective sport programs may also have repercussions. These will include forfeiting games and/or suspensions of the entire 2022-2023 season. Lastly, keep in mind that as leaders of your program, you are responsible for the behavior of your SA’s.”

And, to the students, under the subject line, “Congratulations!” she wrote in part: “It is also my sincere hope that all of our student-athletes will respect the formality and meaning of the Commencement ceremony. As shared in prior University communications, it is expected that all graduates and their guests will be courteous during the entire ceremony and refrain from behavior that is disruptive, distracting, or dangerous. This is a day to celebrate the years of hard work by you and your peers, and to honor the support of your loved ones. Should any of our graduates or their guests be found responsible for disruptions, there will be athletic repercussions for the respective team, in addition to the transcript and diploma holds. I recognize you are graduating, but your teams will ultimately have to take responsibility for your actions, including the possibility of games being cancelled or forfeited next season.”

Congratulations; now keep your mouths shut — or else. And be glad we don’t demand you sit crisscross/applesauce.

The Day, a Connecticut newspaper, published the email to the coaches Monday. The email to the students has not previously been published.

After receiving copies of both emails, I wrote to “Dr. Beverly,” as she signed her message to students, and asked if we could talk so I could tell her side of the story. I got a response via email from a spokeswoman, Molly Polk, who said she was responding on behalf of the university. There were three sentences in her note.

This is the one that matters: “The University shared behavioral expectations related to disruptive and distracting behaviors before the ceremony because last year’s graduation was interrupted with shouting and other inappropriate actions as some graduates crossed the stage. This affected the graduation experience for all.”

Translation: Woodward didn’t want to be booed, and “shouting” is dangerous.

“The whole thing is so sad,” Joseph Coughlin, a 1980 Hartford graduate and former Board of Regents member, said Wednesday. “The silence [from the board] is stunning. They meet four times a year and just rubber stamp what’s put in front of them.

“When I saw the two emails, I really wasn’t surprised. My thought is this: How much longer do we let this abuse of the coaches and athletes go on? Everything this president has done as it regards athletes and the students has been a disaster. It’s completely untenable.”

College athletes are learning their worth. No wonder the NCAA is concerned.

There is almost no way to describe how sickening this whole thing must be to almost everyone with any connection to Hartford — or, for that matter, to those of us with no connection to the school. Soon after the board decision was announced, it came out that Woodward’s claim in his university-published bio that he had been a scholarship soccer player at Villanova was untrue. In fact, Villanova didn’t play Division I soccer at the time. Woodward also claimed he was part of his high school’s athletic hall of fame. When contacted by media members last year, a representative for the high school said it didn’t have a sports hall of fame.

Woodward apologized for the “inaccuracy” about his athletic career — some of us might call them lies — claiming he didn’t understand the difference between Divisions I, II and III and that he had walked on to the soccer team and then transferred after a year to Connecticut. Villanova has no record of him being a member of its soccer team — at any level.

The Beverly notes are nothing short of disgusting. To ask the students to refrain from booing is fine. But to threaten them — and their teammates — if they don’t refrain from expressing anger for what they see as a terrible and damaging decision is completely outrageous.

How it is possible that the Board of Regents didn’t fire Woodward last year for his lies, if nothing else, is remarkable. If he still has a job when school begins in the fall, the board members should be ashamed.

The board needs to fire Woodward, now, and bring in a president who will commission a new and unbiased financial study. I suspect it would prove that Hartford and its future “SA’s” — don’t you love that term? — are much better off continuing to compete in Division I.

“I could see this coming three years ago — at least,” Coughlin said. “I’m not even sure why I care anymore, but I do. It’s not too late to turn this around — but it’s very, very close.”

“The Neighborhood” was a sweet, wonderful story. Someone needs to step in and stop the carnage before it is burned completely to the ground by dishonest, arrogant, soulless people.

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