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It Has Been a Crazy Basketball Season at Fordham University

March 01, 1987|JOHN FEINSTEIN | Washington Post

McLaughlin says that isn't so, but it led directly to Penders' decision to leave. In September, Rhode Island's head coaching job opened when Brendan Malone moved to the New York Knicks. Rhode Island offered a five-year contract. Penders, with three years left on his contract, asked Fordham to match it. "We feel," McLaughlin said, "that three years is ample security."

Penders didn't. He left.

McLaughlin then fired Penders' two assistants, Quinn and Buddy Mahar. Their contracts, he said, were contingent on Penders being the coach. The coaches say that is not true, that Fordham owed them a paycheck until the end of this season. Quinn turned in his leased car and began wondering what to do next. The players met and voted to ask McLaughlin to name Quinn coach.

After calls to Al McGuire and an old friend, Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins, McLaughlin realized finding a coach he truly wanted in October was going to be impossible. Two days before practice was to begin, he asked Quinn to take the job on an interim basis.

"I was torn," Quinn said. "I certainly wasn't happy with Fordham, but the kids had all gone to bat for me and I thought I owed them something."

Quinn, 40, took the job Oct. 13 with the proviso that he would not be a candidate for the full-time job. He says that's fine with him and he now wants out of coaching.

When Quinn returned, his players were relieved. "We were all worried they would hire someone brand new and he would come in and change everything," said junior Greg Pedro. "We thought we had the talent to have a pretty good year if we had someone coaching us who understood us and whom we understood."

They showed their talent early, winning three of four going into the final of the Wheatshocker Classic in Wichita, against Wichita State. "Great atmosphere there," Pedro said. "There were 14,000 people all going crazy."

Fordham received a strong dose of home cooking during that game. Wichita State shot 59 free throws, Fordham 21. Six Rams fouled out and a seventh was ejected for fouling flagrantly. With a minute left, Fordham trailed by seven.

The Rams sent the game into overtime. Then, they trailed by three with six seconds left and Wichita was at the foul line. The shot missed and Pedro made a three-pointer at the buzzer. Double overtime.

By now, the Rams were convinced they were meant to win. They took control in the second overtime and led by eight with one second left. Thrilled, several players on the bench grabbed a bucket and went to pour ice water on Quinn. Just then, Wichita State made a three-pointer. The Rams drew a technical for the ice-water act. Both shots were good and suddenly, the lead was three and Wichita State had the ball at midcourt. The ball came inbounds, a three-point shot went up and . . . "It hit nothing but net," said Tom Parrotta. "I was guarding the guy and, when it went in I thought, 'Oh my God, we really blew it.' Then I saw their coach (Eddie Fogler) going crazy and I looked at the ref and realized he was saying it came after the buzzer."

Wichita State then invoked a Missouri Valley Conference rule that gives a team the right to look at instant replay in such a situation. At this point, McLaughlin came out of the stands.

"This is not a Missouri Valley Conference game and we don't play by those rules," he said. Turning to Quinn, he said, "The game's over. Take the team to the locker room and don't bring them back unless it's to accept our first-place awards."

Quinn did just that. "Frank showed me something there," he said. The Rams came back--and accepted their trophies.

They were 4-1. It looked as if a fairy tale were unfolding.

When the Rams awakened, they were back in the Bronx and Wichita became a memory. A loss at Hartford was followed by a one-point loss to Seton Hall when Pedro's layup was blocked at the buzzer. The close ones began getting away in bunches. The record was 7-5 on Jan. 10 when they bused to Fairfield to play the defending MAAC champion.

With 1:42 left, Fordham led, 70-66. An important road victory was in its grasp. Suddenly, as Fairfield set up its offense, there was a commotion in the stands.

The grandmother of Fairfield's Troy Bradford, sitting behind the Stags bench, had collapsed. While paramedics rushed about, most of the players sat on their benches and waited. An ambulance arrived but the woman died before reaching the hospital. She had had a heart attack. Back at the gym, after a delay of 45 minutes, the presidents of the schools and their athletic directors met at center court. They suspended the game.

The Rams lost their next three games, two in overtime, including Manhattan at home. Manhattan had been 2-26 in the 1985-86 season. Clearly, Fordham's team was shaken. It managed to beat Columbia, then lost in overtime to La Salle. That was followed by two losses in three games, the second one at home in overtime.

"We could easily have 16 or 17 wins by now if we had played well in the close games," Pedro said. "Since Wichita, we haven't. It's been unbelievably frustrating."

For everyone. Quinn, a small, soft-spoken man with an easy smile, points to the gray at his temples and says it is recent. "The last month has drained me completely," he said. "You would think, with all we have gone through, somewhere we would catch a break. This is a good group of kids and it isn't a bad team. We still deserve something out of this season."

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