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College basketball’s most controversial program visits SF this week

Hartford Hawks guard J.R. Lynch (13) checks the clock during a game between the Boston College Eagles and the Hartford Hawks at Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Mass. on Dec. 31, 2018. | Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No college basketball team has made more negative headlines than the Hartford Hawks over the past year, and they’ll be in San Francisco this week.

The Hawks, who will face the USF Dons at 6 p.m. on Thursday night, haven’t been embroiled in any criminal cases or had players implicated in cheating or gambling scandals. It’s the university’s upcoming move from Division I to Division III, and the fallout surrounding it, that has made the school one of the most infamous in the nation.

In 2021, Hartford made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in the program’s 64-year history, earning head coach John Gallagher praise and admiration from around the nation for achieving unprecedented success with the little team that could. Two months later, the school announced its plan to transition from Division I athletics to Division III, citing budget problems as a need to move to a level that doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, even after the wave of positive recognition that came from the improbable tournament trip.

“It was like a knife in the heart to (Gallagher),” said USF first-year head coach Chris Gerlufsen, who served on the coaching staff at Hartford from 2006 through 2015, including five seasons under Gallagher.

Former Hartford head coach John Gallagher. | Richard C. Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Reaching the tournament should have been the start of great things for the university. Just one weekend in the limelight can do enormous things for a school, as Florida Gulf Coast showed in 2013. After FGCU reached the Sweet 16, the school launched a $100 million fundraising campaign, and out-of-state admission applications jumped 88% in the following year. Just two NCAA Tournament wins gave the school an identity as “Dunk City,” and students from colder climates were enticed by the idea of attending school in sunny Fort Myers while watching a high-flying basketball team.

“When athletics do well, the rest of the school does well, and I know for a fact the current administration believes in the exact opposite,” said Wes Cole, who graduated from Hartford in 2015. “We played Gulf Coast the year after they went to the Sweet 16, and the environment there was a little different than a random game at Hartford on a Tuesday night. There’s a clear link between enrollment and a good athletic program.”

As shameful as the announcement was in the first place, things have only gotten worse for the school in the aftermath. In May, then-acting Vice President of Athletics and Recreation Sharon Beverly sent an email to coaches and players, informing them that sanctions would be placed on programs who jeered or booed university president Gregory Woodward at graduation, including the possibility of withholding diplomas, suspending players and even forfeiting games. Beverly has since been named full-time vice president of Athletics and Recreation.

Woodward was loudly booed at the school’s 2021 graduation and left the ceremony early. Less than a week later, it was revealed that he had lied about previous college athletic experience on his résumé, echoing the 2019 college admissions scandal that resulted in jail time for actress Lori Loughlin.

‘They weren’t bought into the athletic programs’

“The executives, or president or however you want to call it […] they weren’t bought into the athletic programs,” said Parker U’u, a Sacramento native who played for the Hawks in the 2012-13 season before transferring to San Diego State. His brother, Drake, played at Hartford in the 2008-09 season.

“I had the privilege of being coached by Coach Gallagher and Coach Gerlufsen,” Parker said. “They were always great advocates for the University of Hartford and for getting our team set up with the best possible housing, travel, training staff, student section, etc. So it’s really sad to hear that the executives at Hartford didn’t want to buy into that.”

U’u is far from the only former player to make damning statements about Hartford’s administration. Cole played in 121 games over four seasons, graduated from the school in 2015 and later served as a graduate assistant.

“From when I arrived as a freshman, there was a clear divide between the academic side of campus and athletics. It wasn’t just basketball, it was all the sports,” Cole said. “Walter Harrison (president from 1998 to 2017) was the only one who really supported us.”

The Hawks’ improbable tournament appearance was followed by a mass exodus of players in the aftermath of the decision to move to Division III. The 2021-22 team went 12-20 and lost in the semifinals of the America East Conference Tournament. On Nov. 7, just 36 hours before the Hawks were set to open their 2022-23 season against in-state foe Sacred Heart, Gallagher resigned, citing multiple contract breaches. Most significantly, he claimed the school failed to provide an athletic trainer for a scrimmage and didn’t have a plan to feed the team for away games, allegations that the school is preparing to fight in court.

“I’m not surprised that he resigned,” Gerlufsen said. “They didn’t treat him the way that he deserved. I’m wishing him all the best. He’ll bounce back and get something.”

The 2022-23 Hawks are currently 4-10, but three of those wins are against Division III competition. They’re ranked 362nd out of 363 Division I teams by NET Ranking, the tool that the NCAA uses to evaluate teams and shape the NCAA Tournament field.

So why is USF playing this team in the first place? It’s a matter of personal connections. Gerlufsen didn’t just serve on the staff at Hartford before migrating to the West Coast; he grew up with Gallagher in Philadelphia.

“We’ve known each other since we were 11, 12 years old,” Gerlufsen said. “Since I got the job, we had been talking about trying to get them out to the West Coast, knowing that it’s their last year in Division I. I’m super disappointed that I won’t get to coach against him, ‘cause he’s a great friend.”

“I’m just glad Coach Gerlufsen found a new home at USF, and I’m sure Coach Gallagher will as well, soon,” U’u added.

Considering what he went up against at Hartford, Gallagher should have no trouble succeeding at his next destination. He reached unprecedented heights at a school that had no support from its administration, one that’s burned every possible bridge in recent years.

“I won’t step foot on campus again, and I don’t think too many other athletes will,” Cole said.