Patrick Moquin, FCLC ’22, is one of the sports and health editors. In addition to covering Fordham football and men’s and women’s basketball, Patrick will also be covering the baseball season in the spring.
Remembering the Tumultuous Neubauer Era at Fordham
The tell-tale misfortune of another Fordham men’s basketball head coach
March 8, 2021
Several years before moving to his eponymous Fordham cottage in 1846, Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “Never to suffer would have been never to have been blessed.” He was speaking to the volatility of life and a person’s inability to prosper without first experiencing pain.
It’s a serviceable quote for many people, but there’s at least one group out there underwhelmed by its message. For fans of Fordham men’s basketball, the exasperated response to Poe’s sentiments comes in the form of a question: “Haven’t we suffered enough?”
In the last 20 years, Fordham men’s basketball has been a source of profound mediocrity for a university that’s enjoyed considerable success in other athletic pursuits. While the baseball and women’s basketball teams have developed into perennial Atlantic 10 (A10) title contenders, the combined efforts of six men’s basketball coaches in two decades have culminated in just two winning seasons.
Nearly a decade after Fordham last fielded a competitive men’s basketball team, many saw a sliver of hope for the Rams in the midst of yet another personnel shuffle.
The team has only advanced past the second round of the A10 Tournament once since 2000, when it made a surprising run to the 2006 semifinals after compiling a 9-7 conference record during the season. The Rams were eliminated that year by Xavier University, and a possible berth in the NCAA Tournament, something Fordham last achieved in 1992, hasn’t been a reality since.
Nearly a decade after Fordham last fielded a competitive men’s basketball team, many saw a sliver of hope for the Rams in the midst of yet another personnel shuffle. After five seasons of losing basketball, former Head Coach Tom Pecora was fired in 2015, and his replacement seemed to represent a new era in the Bronx.
An Impressive Track Record
When former Fordham men’s basketball Head Coach Jeff Neubauer was first hired by the university in 2015, he didn’t appear to be a risky proposition for a program in desperate need of strong leadership. In fact, he entered his new position with all the trappings of success, appearing to be a seasoned overachiever with an elite background in college basketball.
As a player, Neubauer was a member of several competitive teams at La Salle University from 1989 to 1993. The Explorers went to the NCAA Tournament as a 4-seed in his freshman year, and after four seasons, he graduated as a captain with an 83-36 career record.
Neubauer pursued a career in coaching immediately after graduation and was hired as a low-level assistant coach at the University of Richmond in 1996. One year later, John Beilein was hired as the head coach of the Spiders, and he took to his young assistant immediately.
In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2013, Neubauer remembered the impact Beilein had on his career.
“He ended up promoting me,” Neubauer said. “I was in that restricted-earnings spot. He promoted me to one of his full-time recruiting assistants. That was my greatest break in this profession.”
“Jeff Neubauer is one of the brightest coaches I have ever been associated with.” John Beilein
Before becoming the highly successful coach of the University of Michigan Wolverines, Beilein led the University of Richmond to the 1997 NCAA Tournament, as well as the NIT Tournament in 2001 and 2002. When he departed to coach at West Virginia University in 2002, Neubauer went with him, and in his final season as his assistant, the Mountaineers made an improbable run to the Elite Eight as a 7-seed in the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
After eight seasons working under one of the foremost college basketball coaches in the country, Neubauer struck out on his own and accepted his first head coaching position at Eastern Kentucky University. Despite competing in the lowly Ohio Valley Conference, he compiled a 188-134 record in 10 years with the Colonels, leading the team to the NCAA Tournament in 2007 and 2014.
When Neubauer was hired by Fordham in 2015, Beilein offered enthusiasm for the Rams’ future.
“This is a great hire for both Fordham University and the Atlantic 10,” Beilein said in a statement to the New York Post. “Jeff Neubauer is one of the brightest coaches I have ever been associated with.”
A New Hope in the Bronx
From his playing days at La Salle University to a lengthy tenure coaching at Eastern Kentucky, Neubauer had found success wherever he went over nearly three decades in college basketball. A job at Fordham seemed like the natural next step for the 45-year-old Florida native to break through yet another echelon in the sport.
At a 2015 press conference, University President Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., introduced Neubauer and set high expectations for Fordham’s newest hire.
“We are delighted to welcome Jeff Neubauer to the Fordham family,” McShane said. “His ability to inspire superior performance on the court and in the classroom fits well with Fordham’s mission and our culture.”
The president’s words were encouraging, and Neubauer’s vision was clear. The new head coach intended to change the culture at Fordham and create a winning mindset that would attract new talent. In an interview with Bleacher Report, he expressed a strong desire to tackle the insurmountable odds he faced.
“We’re not sugarcoating anything with recruits. Fordham basketball has struggled big time over the last several years,” Neubauer said. “What I need to do is show the young guys in this program, and the guys we bring in, how to win.”
He may have had a clear, determined vision, but Neubauer’s first loss at Rose Hill came months before he ever appeared courtside.
On April 24, Eric Paschall, the team’s leading scorer and freshman all-star, announced that he was transferring to Villanova University. He cited former coach Pecora’s termination as a factor in his decision.
Before he was a two-time NCAA champion, first-round NBA Draft pick, Golden State Warriors starter and 2020 NBA All-Rookie Team member, Paschall was merely a transfer student from Fordham University.
The Age of Neubauer
Within two months, Neubauer and the Rams had lost one of the most promising prospects to ever step foot in the Rose Hill Gymnasium. His departure was the first of many transfers that Fordham would suffer during Neubauer’s tenure of six seasons.
But the team moved on, and for the first month of the 2015-16 season, it seemed as though Neubauer had overcome the massive loss. After losing the first game of the season, a non-conference defeat at the hands of the University of Texas at Arlington, Fordham went on to win its next nine games. By the time they began A10 conference play in late December, the Rams held a 9-2 overall record.
The team had largely been built by Pecora, but Neubauer was leading it in a very promising debut season. Fordham didn’t fare as well against its A10 opponents, going 8-10 within the conference and losing in the second round of the A10 Tournament. The team did, however, earn a bid to compete in the 2016 CollegeInsider.com Invitational Tournament, the program’s first tournament invitation since 1992.
In retrospect, Neubauer’s 2015-16 season represented the best effort he would ever put forth in the Bronx. In the 2016-17 season, the team compiled a 13-19 overall record and was again eliminated in the second round of the A10 Tournament.
“We wish him well as he embarks on a new chapter in his career.” Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J.
The following two seasons were even more disappointing as Neubauer continually failed to field a competitive team for A10 opponents. The team posted a combined 7-29 conference record, finished 14th in both seasons, and didn’t make it past the first round of the A10 Tournament in either year.
By the end of the 2018-19 season, Neubauer could only console himself with the fact that he was beginning to recruit effective talent out of high school, a goal of his from the beginning.
In 2018, he managed to recruit six high school players to Fordham, among them current team members like Ty Perry, Onyi Eyisi and Jalen Cobb, all FCRH ’22. The class was headed by Nick Honor, a three-star recruit who led the team in scoring that season before transferring to Clemson University after his freshman year. Neubauer was powerless as another future star left his ranks.
Neubauer’s last full season with the Rams in 2020 was no less abysmal than the previous two, as the team finished 2-16 in the conference and entered the A10 Tournament as a 14-seed for the third straight season.
But with pressure mounting from fans and administration alike, Neubauer and the Rams finally won a postseason game, upsetting 11-seed George Washington University 72-52 to advance to the second round. The team was technically on its first postseason run since 2015.
The next day, on March 12, the A10 announced that the remainder of the conference tournament would be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even in victory, Neubauer’s progress at Fordham came to a halt, his fifth season ending in unique disappointment.
The Final Days
With one year remaining on his contract, the 2020-21 season was Neubauer’s last to convince Fordham to let him keep his position. He didn’t last a month; the team went 1-7 in its first eight games, and the university announced his departure on Jan. 26.
In over five seasons, Neubauer finished with a 61-104 overall record in the Bronx. McShane’s farewell to the head coach was no less cordial than his introduction.
“We thank Jeff Neubauer for his hard work and dedication on behalf of our student athletes and the University,” McShane said. “We wish him well as he embarks on a new chapter in his career.”
Former assistant coach Mike DePaoli filled in as interim head coach for the rest of the season, but he could do very little as the team finished with a 2-12 record. On Wednesday, March 3, the team lost to George Washington in another first-round exit from the A10 Tournament.
Pitfalls of Blaming the Coach
Despite spending several years at the lowest levels of the A10 conference, it would be difficult to condemn Neubauer as a singularly hapless coach that doomed Fordham to another disappointing drought. He’s the most recent addition to a long list of coaches that entered with promise and left in infamy.
Pecora was an assistant coach to current Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright and led Hofstra University to multiple winning seasons. He never won more than four conference games in five seasons at Fordham. Before him, Dereck Whittenburg only had one winning season in seven years with Fordham after leading Wagner College, relative unknowns, to the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
Blaming the coach for the team’s failure is convenient for fans and the administration alike, but after so much time in the shadows of other A10 rivals, it may be time to locate another source.
The most famous example, however, is Bob Hill, who coached at Rose Hill from 1999 to 2003. Hill entered Fordham as a former NBA coach, leading the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs in various stints between 1986 and 1996. He signed a massive 10-year contract to coach Fordham and bring the team back to its glory days of the early 90s.
But Hill only lasted four years, compiling a 36-78 overall record before returning to the NBA to coach the Seattle SuperSonics. In his case, he took several recruiting risks at Fordham that proved calamitous, resulting in extremely poor seasons toward the end of his tenure.
Hill’s comments about his time at Fordham have differed over the years. Speaking to The New York Times in 2006, he claimed that the school didn’t care about athletics and should only “have club sports.” But in an interview with New York Daily News in 2007, he made remarks that will likely resonate with his successors like Neubauer, men who have desperately tried to turn the tide for a program in constant disarray and obscurity.
“It’s a good school, good people, the whole thing, but I made a mistake,” Hill said, referring to his coaching decisions. “I don’t really regret it. I’ve learned so much about what those young guys go through to try to be successful. It’s hard for them.”
Earlier this year, Neubauer joined a group of highly skilled coaches who have failed at Rose Hill. Blaming the coach for the team’s failure is convenient for fans and the administration alike, but after so much time in the shadows of other A10 rivals, it may be time to locate another source.
As Poe suggests, the blessing may come in due time for Fordham men’s basketball. But if the university expects the next head coach to succeed where so many others have failed, then the program may have to prepare to suffer a little while longer.