Author: Robert Goodwin

University of Hartford – From Division I to Divided

Robert Goodwin, University of Hartford, Class of 1986

April 23, 2024

This article is not an exhaustive history of University of Hartford Athletics. It is my own personal recollection. It is mainly about Hartford Hawks Men’s Basketball. It in no way is meant to marginalize the Hartford Women’s Basketball program or any other sport at the University. That program, under the leadership of Jen Rizzotti, achieved impressive heights.

I am from Worcester Massachusetts. I was somewhat aware of college basketball while growing up. The Holy Cross Crusaders had made the NIT and the NCAA tournament a few times when I was growing up and I had attended a handful of games during that time.

In 1982, I was an incoming freshman at the University of Harford. The school was Division II at the time and had the usual collegiate sports, and even had Ice Hockey and Football club teams.

I had an interest in broadcasting, though never formally pursued it. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the University had two college radio stations. 

WWUH is an FM station with a Public Alternative format.

WSAM at the time was an AM station, 640 on the dial. Its signal did not stray far from campus and was not strong throughout the campus. Its studios were in the basement of the Stevens dorm in B-complex.  A-F complexes each have four interconnected four-story buildings.  They were the only student housing on campus at the time. A and B, and C and D are across the street from each other.  E and F Complexes (aka “the suburbs”) were just around the corner. In between A and D complexes on one side of the street is University Commons, or “The Commons.” This is the on-campus cafeteria.  University Commons has been expanded since 1982.

WSAM had a captive audience – it was piped into University Commons.

My show on WSAM was Thursday afternoons from 1-4pm. I played rock music of course, and literally begged listeners (if there were any) to call in requests… from their dorm landline. There were newsbreaks at the top of the hour and PSAs from various organizations. And one promo from the late Don Imus.

WSAM also broadcasted on campus sports. Soccer and basketball from what I remember. There was also a popular sports trivia show “SportsLine” Tuesday nights at 10pm.  I feel fortunate to have gotten to know some notables – the late Bill Gonillo, Dave Brody and my good friend to this day, Steve Dresner, just to name a few.

I started out part time broadcasting Hartford Lady Hawks basketball. Many of the games were played in the afternoon, and aside from the sounds on the court, the only crowd noise was from the reserves on the benches cheering on their teammates.  On the broadcast, I was awful. Until one day the Lady Hawks went coast to coast after a defensive rebound. I was able to describe the play as it developed until it ended in layup. I did it! What a sense of accomplishment.

I then started broadcasting Men’s basketball part-time. My first game went ok. Then I saw Dave Brody the next day. I failed in one department. Apparently, I had mispronounced most of the opposing players names. Dave let me have it and rightly so.

Regrettably. I stopped doing radio after my sophmore year. This was a mistake given what was about to happen.

The University of Hartford, under the leadership of President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, was accepted as a Division I school starting in the 1984-1985 season.  This was very exciting. But why did the University make this move? The answer may surprise you –  the belief was the way to move the University forward was simple – win the NCAA Men’s Basketball championship.

Remember, while the Big East formed in 1979 and UConn was a member, UConn’s success was limited, and Jim Calhoun was not hired away from Northeastern until 1986.

The Men’s basketball team would become part of the ECAC North Atlantic Conference.  The Lady Hawks would play in the Seaboard conference, along with Northeastern, Maine, Boston University, Vermont and Brooklyn. The Seabord conference had no post season possibilities. The Lady Hawks would join the ECAC North Atlantic Conference in 1988.

For my junior year, I had moved off campus to Farmington. By that time Steve Dresner had transferred to American University. On January 17, 1985 in the late afternoon, I received a phone call. “Meet me at the Civic Center. We’re broadcasting the Hawks game on SAM.”  It was Steve. He didn’t even go to Hartford anymore. I asked him if he was nuts. There was a snowstorm going on with 6” of snow already on the ground. The SUV hadn’t been invented yet and front wheel drive was non-existent in my Oldsmobile Omega (picture a Chevy Nova). Did I head down Farmington Avenue to Hartford? Of course. Broadcasting from high above courtside from section 114 was something I’ll never forget.  The Hawks lost to Fordham University 77-70.

The head basketball coach was the late Jack Phelan and he would continue as coach through 1992.

For the next six seasons, all of Hartford Men’s basketball games were played at the Hartford Civic Center (now called the XL Center).  My recollection is the University took on financial risk based on attendance (or lack thereof). 

To entice attendance, there were “Third Half Concerts.” After the game, the basketball court would be ripped up, seats installed, and a concert would be held. The Beach Boys, Dionne Warwick (sorry I walked out of that one) and others played these concerts.

One of my classmates at the time was an up-and-coming boxer named Troy Wortham. I had one class in common with him, though I didn’t know him very well. When he had a bout at the XL Center, who was his sponsor? Hartford Athletics! He came out wearing a scarlet robe with the Hartford Hawk displayed proudly on the back. The student attendance at the bout was impressive.

The move to Division I was ambitious for sure. The Division I team went 99-128 under Coach Phelan with two winning seasons and zero post season berths.

On December 29, 1986, I went to the game at the XL Center. It was technically an away game and the Hawks prevailed in a thriller, 49-48. The opponent? UConn.

The team had moved to the North Atlantic Conference in 1988, and membership would continue under coach Paul Brazeau. Coach Brazeau’s record was 100-122 and again, no post season berths.

The University would move to one last conference in 1997- America East.

You could say things changed when John Gallgaher was named coach. His team became known as The Neighborhood. Six winning seasons out of his first eleven seasons. The last two are being excluded from this conversation. More about that later.

In Coach Gallagher’s eleventh season (2020-2021), with the cloud of the move to Division III hovering above, the team went 15-9 (8-6 in their conference) and shocked the world by winning their conference tournament and finally ending the post season drought. The Hawks were going dancing in the NCAA tournament. The #16 seed Hawks lost in Indianapolis to #1 seed and eventual NCAA Champion Baylor, 79-55.

The Hawks would go 12-20 in their lame duck season of 2021-2022.  Coach Gallagher would stay on as the Hawks were an independent team in 2022-2023 (5-23). I think of those as lost seasons for Coach Gallagher. Amid his resignation and a lawsuit that was eventually settled, Coach Gallagher would move on to be head basketball coach at Manhattan College. The Neighborhood and the University of Harford community has wished him nothing but success.

Before we get to the part about the downgrade to Division III, I find it necessary to reflect on the program’s history.

The NCAA as we know it has evolved to what it is today. In the 1970’s post season play included a handful of teams. For most colleges and universities there was no post season.

Hartford’s post season drought lasted thirty-six years. Or so I thought. According to Wikipedia, the University of Hartford last made the post season in 1975. They lost in the NCAA Division II Regional Semi-finals under coach Gordon McCullough. Coach McCollough would go on to be the Athletic Director for many years.  So, the drought actually lasted forty-seven years. Nearly half a century. Ouch.

In retrospect, the Men’s basketball program lacked upward mobility. The team’s record was better under Coach Gallagher, but the school never became more competitive, like UConn did. Hartford never gained entry into a more competitive conference, one that would provide the possibility of national visibility. Like UConn did.

This can only be because of one thing – lack of commitment, financial and otherwise.

This lack of commitment turned into zero commitment. Under the leadership (I use that term loosely) of President Gregory Woodward, the school made the unprecedented step of downgrading from Division I to Division III. The word “rigged” seems appropriate. Hartford was never Division III so why was this move made? It has been said the move was financial and better aligned with the school’s academic goals. Division II schools offer some scholarships. Division III schools offer none.

The saddest part of this move was the abandonment of the student-athletes that were caught in the middle. There were several lawsuits brought by student-athletes.  All suits were dismissed.

While I hope you enjoyed this retrospective, this alumnus has a hard time supporting the University of Hartford because of its abandonment of Division I Athletics. This move will prove to be permanent.

I hope the future graduates of this Division III school believe in it and support it for what they gained by going there, and for how proud they are to say they are graduates of the institution.

If you have any comments or memories that you would like to share, please reach out to me.