Part 1: Trouble in Po-Town
It’s March 5, 1987, a chilly night in Poughkeepsie, New York. Inside the McCann Center, the atmosphere was anything but cold; it was electric.
A sellout crowd had assembled to watch Marist take on Fairleigh Dickinson for the ECAC Metro title and a bid to the NCAA Tournament. When the buzzer sounded, and the Red Foxes came away with a 64-55 win, it might have been the peak of the men’s basketball program, less than a decade into the team’s tenure in Division I.
Players celebrated, and fans stormed the court and lifted head coach Dave Magarity onto their shoulders as Marist earned its second consecutive trip to the Big Dance. Led by the gigantic duo of 7-foot-3 Rik Smits and 6-foot-11 Miroslav Pecarski, the Red Foxes reeled off 14 straight wins after finding the trio of Smits, Pecarski, and Rudy Bourgarel suspended at the beginning of the season.
If you’re a student, try to imagine an atmosphere like this in McCann. If you’re a longtime fan, think about how the last 35 years have mostly been downhill from here.
From the 1984-85 season through to ‘86-87, Marist fielded three of its best teams in program history, earned two conference titles, and won 60 percent of its games. On paper, it seems like this should have some kind of peaceful golden age for Marist basketball. On the court, it was, but off of it, those three years were anything but tranquil.
There were numerous coaching changes, recruiting violations, and scandals that led to the suspensions of Smits, Pecarski, and Bourgarel. The NCAA was breathing down Marist’s neck.
Indeed, to understand why Marist found itself in such a sticky situation heading into ‘86-87, you have to rewind a couple of years.
It all started at the end of the 1983-84 season when head coach Ron Petro decided to get about as far away from Marist as he could while still living under the American flag. Petro amassed a 226-238 record over 18 seasons in Poughkeepsie and helped guide the Red Foxes from Division III to Division I. After his third season at the top level, Petro bolted to become the athletic director at Division II Alaska Anchorage for a $64,000 salary, an amount too good to pass up.
Coincidentally, Alaska Anchorage had recently been put on NCAA probation for recruiting violations. Petro’s successor would make sure Marist suffered a similar fate.
Anchorage, Alaska sits 1,944 miles away from Marist’s campus. Mike Perry came from coaching a pro team in Paris, some 3,500 miles across the Atlantic, to assume the head coaching role in Poughkeepsie.
“This is probably the most important day of my life,” Perry said at his introductory press conference in March 1984. “It’s a great situation. I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen here and the people I’ll be working with.”
In 18 seasons of coaching, Perry never posted a losing season, leaving with a 408-158 record. His connections in Europe allowed him to recruit the “triple towers” that would dwarf other teams in the ECAC Metro Conference.
Perry got the job because of his supposed recruiting acumen. His philosophy was that Marist should look to the European market to recruit players because it could not compete for top talent stateside.
“This was long before a lot of other schools were recruiting European guys,” said Paul Kelly, who covered the team for The Circle, during the ‘86-87 season. “Perry had some connections, and Marist said, ‘Let’s try to fast track our way into Division I and get some of these guys.’”
Perry pledged to deliver a 7-foot-3 European player that could change the trajectory of the program. That savior’s name was Gunther Behnke from Leverkusen, Germany.
“Who the hell is Gunther Behnke?” That’s probably the question you’re asking.
Well, he was the top international center in that year’s recruiting class. Most fans have no idea who Behnke was because getting him to tiny Marist was a pipe dream, considering who the Red Foxes were up against for his services.
“That was part of the reason (Perry) got the job,” said Ian O’Connor, who was the sports editor for the campus newspaper during the ‘84-85 school year. “I believe he told the Marist administrators that he had a good shot to get Gunther Behnke, who ended up at Kentucky.”
The consolation prize was another supposedly 7-foot-3 giant, who grew up in Holland dreaming of becoming a motorbike mechanic. O’Connor quickly learned that Smits was actually 7-foot-4.
“I remember the first time I ever wrote his name in The Circle,” said O’Connor, who has enjoyed a decorated career in journalism and now writes for the New York Post. “I think I listed him at seven-three. So the next day in the cafeteria, I heard this deep voice, and I felt this figure behind me.
“He called my name. I turned around. It was Rik just standing right over me. Seven-foot four as he’s about to tell me. He said, in a very deep voice, ‘Ian, I’m 7-foot-4, not 7-foot-3,’ and that was the end of that.”
While talent evaluators didn’t know it at the time, Behnke would flop stateside, not appearing in a single game for Kentucky after getting homesick for his native Deutschland and not coming over to play in the NBA despite being drafted on two separate occasions. Smits, on the other hand, ended up blossoming into the second overall pick in the 1988 NBA Draft after four spectacular years in Poughkeepsie.
“I remember watching Rik play after Mike Perry had brought him in,” O’Connor said. “You could see right away, I think I wrote in The Circle, that this guy is going to be a future first-round pick, and some of my roommates were laughing at me. It was amazing to see how much better he got in like three weeks. I said if this guy can walk and chew gum with that size, he’s going to play in the NBA.”
Even at tiny Marist, the gargantuan Smits was not the most-touted player in his recruiting class. That honor belonged to Pecarski, who hailed from Yugoslavia and came in as the more polished player.
“I remember Pecarski coming in with some more hype around him,” Kelly said. “There was a good basketball culture in Yugoslavia, and he had been playing for longer than Rik and definitely had more game at that point in their careers. Then, he broke his foot before that season, and Rik caught up, to say the least.”
Even without Pecarski, things still looked promising for Perry’s inaugural season. But there was a problem. A big problem.
Perry violated NCAA rules to deliver Smits, Pecarski, and later, Rudy Bourgarel–current NBA star Rudy Gobert’s father. Perry is likely one of the most infamous figures in the history of Marist athletics. That is all the more impressive when you factor in that he failed to coach a single game or practice.
It turned out that Perry did things like buying rum-and-Cokes for Smits’s parents in a restaurant in Eindhoven, allowing players to use his phone for long-distance calls back home, and arranging for Smits to stay at the home of a member of the Marist College Board of Trustees while the dorms were closed.
Perry also had assistant coach Bogdan Jovicic meet the newcomers—Smits, Pecarski, and Alain Forestier from France—in New York City. Jovicic later admitted to buying the players Burger King on the trip back to Poughkeepsie. Perry also sent him to New York to buy winter coats for two of the players (with their money, not his).
These actions by Perry and Jovicic all counted as NCAA violations. They were all minor transgressions that added up to about $770 in monetary value, not very much when considering the excessive money that many high-level football recruits received around that same time.
“It was a lot of minor-league stuff,” Kelly remembers. “We definitely weren’t talking bags of cash or anything like that. I remember hearing words like minor and inadvertent. There were schools out there that were definitely doing more, but Marist was for sure breaking the rules.”
Perry might have been able to continue his low-level crime if it wasn’t for one weekend in New York City. Perry and Forestier shared a hotel room, and according to Don Yeager’s Undue Process: The NCAA’s Injustice for All, the player accused the coach of making a sexual advance during the weekend.
Perry denied anything happened, but the incident derailed his short tenure and exposed the minor violations. Forestier filed a complaint with Joseph Belanger, a Marist brother, and foreign-student advisor. In the Nov. 8, 1984 edition of The Circle, Belanger claimed not to know anything about a personal complaint. That didn’t stop him from taking action when he heard of the violations.
“I’m not the first faculty member who was told of the incidents by the player but only the first one to act,” Belanger said to The Circle. “I’m unsure, but I believe that there were at least three others who the player told before me.”
Belanger finally took action and called Marist College President Dennis J. Murray, telling him about the violations. Murray met with Perry in late September. The audience said a lot about Perry’s character.
From Undue Process:
“Perry made no bones about breaking the rules, arguing that if Marist really wanted to compete with the big boys, it had to play the game his way. ‘He seemed to indicate that he would continue, that that was the only way you could get ahead, that the regulations were crazy,’ Gerard Cox, vice president of student affairs, said.”
Perry had the opportunity to apologize, to say he messed up. He didn’t take it. On Friday, Sept. 28, 1984, Murray asked for and received Perry’s resignation. Mike Perry’s short, disastrous, yet strikingly influential tenure was over. He would do everything he could to make sure that Marist regretted its decision to part ways.
“I remember hearing that Perry was just sort of a shady guy,” Kelly said. “And the way he recruited and his attitudes about breaking the rules just kind of confirmed that.”
O’Connor covered the saga for the The Circle and remembers Perry’s firing a bit differently than Undue Process, which claimed the violations had more to do with the coach’s departure than Forestier’s complaint.
“I remember what the personal complaint was, the nature of it,” O’Connor said. “I wasn’t allowed to print it, but he was not fired because of an NCAA violation, he was fired because of that complaint.”
O’Connor and Circle faculty advisor David McCraw (who now works as a lawyer for the New York Times) were summoned to Murray’s office, where they met for a short time. It was a sensitive case, with lawyers ready to jump in at a moment’s notice, but Murray granted O’Connor the first interview, ahead of the Poughkeepsie Journal.
“My first question was, is it true that Mike Perry was fired because of a personal complaint filed by a player against him? And Dennis Murray got pretty angry, and he said, ‘If that’s going to be your line of questioning, we’re gonna have a problem here,’” O’Connor remembers.
The story ran on the front page of the Oct. 4, 1984 edition of the The Circle, with the title, “Player’s complaint plays key role in Perry’s exit.”
From the story:
“In a Monday morning meeting with Circle editors, Murray was asked if Perry had a personal problem with any of the players. To that, Murray replied, ‘No, not to my knowledge.’ The president was then asked if Perry had a personal relationship with any of the players. Once again, Murray said, ‘No, not to my knowledge.’”
At the end of the story, Murray said, “It’s just unfortunate. You might even classify this incident as tragic.”
Murray called the NCAA and reported the violations soon after Perry’s forced resignation. In doing the right thing, Murray ensured that the Mike Perry saga would continue well past Perry’s Tenure at Marist.
By chance, O’Connor saw Murray soon after the story ran. They were the only walkers on an empty path, headed right toward each other. But instead of a showdown, Murray stopped to shake O’Connor’s hand.
“Basically, I was saying that the college was not completely forthcoming, and there are reasons for firing the coach,” O’Connor said. “And he had no problem with it. So that told me that what I wrote that, it was basically his way of confirming it.”
Marist was now without a coach and athletic director just weeks before the regular season and days before the first official practice. With such a short turnaround, who would coach the Red Foxes in the ‘84-85 season?
The answer was Matt Furjanic, the bespectacled, balding head coach at Robert Morris University, an ECAC Metro foe.
The 35-year-old Furjanic had plenty of success in the Pittsburgh suburbs, leading the Colonials to back-to-back- NCAA Tournament bids in 1982 and 1983. He didn’t need to go elsewhere to find success but he did if he wanted a bigger payday.
I was making $22,000 at Robert Morris and my contract at Marist was $36,000,” Furjanic said. “So that obviously had a little bit to do with it, but Marist also had a good recruiting class coming in that season, and I thought it would be very interesting to coach a couple of big guys in that league.”
The ‘84-85 team was an amalgamation of talented young players and experienced upperclassmen. Seniors Ted Taylor and Steve Eggink were joined by the international newcomers who Furjanic was excited to coach: Smits, Forestier, and the injured Pecarski.
Even though Furjanic was the third coach in six months, the timing of the Perry resignation didn’t really complicate things for the players. Since Perry never ran a practice or instituted a system, the team only had to adjust to Furjanic’s system. It was the start of a run of truly talented Marist teams.
The Red Foxes won in both seasons under Furjanic. In ‘84-85, they won their first regular-season conference title in Division I. They also played Villanova close, losing 56-51 early in the season. The Wildcats would end up winning the national title in upset fashion over Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas.
Marist finished the regular season 16-11 and 11-3 in the ECAC Metro. A trip to the NCAA Tournament, however, would need to wait. The Red Foxes lost a heartbreaking 56-55 contest in double overtime to Loyola in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
“I think, overall, that team was one of the best, certainly the top-three,” Eggink said. “Overall in Marist’s Division I history, I mean. I don’t think too many people would argue. It was a great team. It was a tough ticket for a lot of friends that weren’t basketball players.”
Eggink transitioned to the sidelines as an assistant for the ‘85-86 season, but most of the core remained the same. Smits made the all-important jump in his sophomore campaign, and Pecarski returned from the foot injury he suffered the season prior.
Marist overcame a poor out-of-conference record and won 15 out of 19 games to close the season. They won the three that mattered most, grinding out three victories in the ECAC Metro Tournament at Furjanic’s old stomping grounds in Pennsylvania.
In their first trip to the big dance, the Red Foxes earned a 15-seed in the Southeast Region and had the tall task of Georgia Tech, a top-10 team waiting for them in the first round in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Marist lost a 68-53 decision that was much closer than the scoreboard indicated.
“It was a great game,” Furjanic recalled. “We were right with them at about the 10-minute mark, but then Rik picked up his fourth foul, and we had to take him out when it was a three or four-point game. Then, they went on a run, and it was a 13-point game a couple of minutes later.”
At one point in the second half, Marist held a 38-37 lead over the second-seeded Yellow Jackets. Even after they faded later in the game, the Red Foxes still felt encouraged by their performance.
“We felt that we played them close and gave them a good run,” John McDonough, a sophomore on that team, said. “We thought that we could go a step further next year and win a game.”
So, little Marist acquitted itself quite well on the national stage, the team leaving the court to an ovation from the 10,000 spectators that packed the LSU Assembly Center. If the 7-foot-4 Dutchman had stayed out of foul trouble, it might have even won the game. From an outsider’s perspective, everything looked just fine. All the key contributors were set to come back and play for a coach who was 36-24 in his two years in Poughkeepsie.
Everything was, in fact, not fine.
When people talk about Furjanic, one of the things that always comes up is his intensity.
“He was a fiery coach in that he wasn’t afraid to kind of get in people’s faces rather quickly,” McDonough said. “His gum used to come flying out of his mouth all the time, in games and in practices.”
“Furjanic was one of those really intense coaches,” Kelly added. “He was always moving around, and you know, the team could be up 25 with four seconds left, and he’d be screaming and gesticulating at guys to get to the right spot.”
People who have played sports at any level likely know what it’s like to have an intense coach. In the heat of a close game, coaches scream and yell and stomp and curse, but with Furjanic, it seemed to be a constant flow instead of a rising and falling tide.
Furjanic, for one, never felt a disconnect between himself and the team.
“I never felt anything like that,” he said. “I never heard anything from the team that season. There might have been some guys that didn’t like their roles, but I thought it was a great group of guys that worked really hard.”
At a time when the Cold War was in its final years, Furjanic coached like a tyrant you might have found in the Eastern Bloc.
“A lot of guys just didn’t like him,” McDonough said. “It was more of a dictatorship than anything else. We felt like we never really had our say.”
Things came to a head near the end of the spring semester in 1986. In late April, the team met with senior college administrators to discuss Furjanic’s handling of the roster. Several players made it clear that they would leave the program if Furjanic remained in charge.
In the May 1, 1986 edition of the Circle, Marist athletic director Brian Colleary said, “There’s definitely discontent spreading among members of the men’s basketball program. It’s been magnified throughout the year.”
Several players threatened to leave if Furjanic remained in charge. The college was faced with a difficult decision: get rid of a winning coach to please the players or keep the coach and risk losing some of the team’s best talent.
As O’Connor wrote in The Circle, “You can’t fire the players, but you can fire the coach.”
In the end, it didn’t come to that. Furjanic resigned his post, citing personal reasons.
“I needed a change,” he said. “I was giving too much attention to the game and not enough to my family. I learned later that I came down with depression and anxiety, and I’ve been getting treated since.”
If he hadn’t been feeling the heat, odds are that Furjanic would have stayed. Originally, he expressed his intent on fulfilling the final season of his three-year contract, even though he applied for three head coaching positions, including the vacancy at Iona College. The climate around the team made that impossible.
So Furjanic was out. Marist was in the market for its fourth coach since the ‘83-84 season. Whoever the successor was, he needed to have one thing above all else: staying power.
The program was already in turmoil, but Perry’s words and actions from after his tenure ended were about to make things even worse for the Red Foxes going into the ‘86-87 season.
Edited by Mackenzie Meaney and Bridget Reilly
All photos from the Marist Archives