This is the second in a three-part series of stories. If you haven’t read part one, you can find it here.
Part Two: Steadying the Ship?
In 1986, Washington Post writer John Feinstein published his famous book A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers. That fall, he found time to write a much smaller story about a much smaller program that also found itself in turmoil despite unprecedented success.
“Marist Caught Short by Suspensions” appeared in print in the Post on Dec. 4, 1986. The 1,000-word article detailed how Marist’s three international big men, nicknamed the “triple towers” had yet to take to the court in the early going of the 1986-87 season.
Knight is still one of the most divisive figures in college basketball. Mike Perry, Marist’s former head coach, wasted no time becoming a controversial figure in his own right and was the reason Marist found itself in trouble as the season began.
It was just two days before the Red Foxes were set to open the season at the Lapchick Tournament at St. John’s when the NCAA declared 7-foot-4 Rik Smits, 6-foot-11 Miroslav Pecarski, and 7-footer Rudy Bourgarel ineligible. Newly minted head coach Dave Magarity found his team full of giants reduced to one of the smaller outfits in the country.
As Magarity pointed out in the Post article: “There’s so much irony in this. None of the people who were involved in this are at Marist now.”
Perry was named head coach in March 1984 but never coached a game or even a practice. When allegations of sexual harassment toward a player and illegal recruiting methods came to light, Perry had to resign in late September of that same year.
Without an athletic director on the staff, Marist President Dennis J. Murray called the NCAA and reported the recruiting violations.
In February 1985, the NCAA sent an investigator to Poughkeepsie. After two days, he concluded that Murray was doing the best he could to address the problems that Perry had caused. Eventually, thanks to some haggling from Murray, the NCAA decided to let Marist off with a public reprimand, a slap on the wrist of sorts.
What came next was straight out of a serial killer movie. Here’s an excerpt from Undue Process: The NCAA’s Injustice for All by Don Yeager.
“In September 1985, a day before the public reprimand was scheduled to be announced, Murray received an anonymous letter detailing further rules violations. The same day, Smits received a postcard telling him to transfer because Marist was ‘in trouble with the NCAA.’ The card was signed ‘a friend.’”
The anonymous author and the friend were, of course, the same person. After Marist requested a handwriting analysis of the postcard, it was determined that Perry was the unnamed writer. Things got worse when Murray saw a newspaper article that had an interview with the disgraced ex-coach, in which Perry said that the NCAA had never contacted him during the investigation.
“It’s impossible that the NCAA could have investigated without contacting me,” Perry said in that day’s Poughkeepsie Journal. “If they had asked me what happened, the investigation might still be going on.”
On top of Perry’s initial wave of known transgressions, it later emerged that he purchased Smits’s airfare to the United States, a definite no-no by NCAA rules.
In the Dec. 12, 1986 edition of the Circle, Murray all but confirmed the purchase of the plane ticket, saying, “I won’t refuse (the allegations), but I can’t discuss specifics.”
Perry’s response when reached for comment: “How does he know that? I’d like to see him prove it.”
A few weeks after his firing, Perry told the Kingston Freeman that he “had probably committed 40 other violations” during his brief tenure.
“I think that was his way of saying that the violations weren’t a big deal,” said Ian O’Connor, a Marist graduate who now writes for the New York Post. “If I remember, it was something to the effect of, ‘if you want to get technical about it, I probably made a number of violations.’ I think it was his way of saying that the NCAA rulebook was silly.”
Perry might have thought the violations were a joke, but the NCAA certainly wasn’t laughing.
Until that day in late September, Perry had somehow managed to escape from detection from the NCAA. After he was forced out, he vacationed in Florida for a couple of weeks before returning to Kingston, right across the Hudson River.
Days before he moved to Hawaii to sell novelties on the beach, Perry told the Florida Times-Union, “It wouldn’t have been tough at all to find me. It’s curious that the media never had a problem finding me and the NCAA couldn’t.”
Perry passed away in 2002. He was 63 years old.
Again, Murray did the right thing and contacted the NCAA, asking them to put off the announcement of the public reprimand until it talked to Perry.
After it spoke to Perry, the decision would be much worse than a public reprimand. It would also be almost two years until Murray heard anything from the NCAA Committee on Infractions.
While all that was going on, Magarity was preparing for his first season as head coach at Marist. The former Iona assistant was introduced on June 10, 1986, and was everything that his successor, Matt Furjanic, was not.
“Magarity, when he came, he was awesome,” Smits said to Center Field in 2019. “We got along really well. Furjanic was more of a guy that didn’t get close with his players. He let his assistants try to get close. But Magarity was close. He really felt like he wasn’t only your coach but your friend and your mentor. And I responded to that really well. We still talk a couple of times a year. I consider him a friend for the rest of my life.”
“The players responded to him because he was probably as much of a player’s coach as a college coach could be,” added Paul Kelly, sports editor of the Marist Circle during the ‘86-87 season. “Dave was, from what I recall, was much less of a drill sergeant than Furjanic, and the guys played hard for him.”
Magarity’s background as a player endeared him to the roster.
“He wanted the best out of his players and he knew how to handle them,” said John McDonough, who played at Marist from 1984-88. “Furjanic didn’t give a crap who he stepped on and how he stepped on him. Magarity wanted things done his way, but he also understood the other side because he was a player.”
Magarity’s first task was a tall one. Literally. Smits returned to his hometown of Eindhoven in the Netherlands, his Marist future very much up in the air.
After getting national exposure for the first time following the 1986 NCAA Tournament game against Georgia Tech, Smits had his fair share of options. Sure, he could remain at little Marist, but he also could have transferred or gone pro in Europe. It was up to Magarity to woo him back to Poughkeepsie.
“Dave literally went over to Holland and re-recruited Rik,” Tim Murray, an assistant on the ‘86-87 team said. “Because Rik played so well against Georgia Tech in the NCAA Tournament on a national stage, everyone was like, ‘Wow, this kid’s pretty good.’ Dave was worried about losing Rik and some other guys, but he had great relationships with the players, and I think that was the reason why so many of the guys came back.”
So, Smits came back. Alain Forestier, who submitted the complaint against Perry, left the program, but the rest of the roster was intact. Smits and Pecarski naturally drew a lot of attention for their size and skill, but the Red Foxes returned other key pieces who were instrumental in the success the team would achieve in Magarity’s first season.
Ron McCants and Drafton Davis anchored the backcourt. McCants was the scorer, and Davis was the floor general who preferred to pass instead of shoot. Davis ended up being one of the leading assist men in the country for the ‘86-87 season, dishing out eight helpers per game.
To supplement the frontcourt, Marist had Peter Krasovec, a Hungarian import, and Mark Shamley. Krasovec made 34-of-73 from behind the three-point line (just 19 feet, 9 inches in those days) and averaged nearly 10 points per game. Shamley was the kind of forward that was never flashy but always consistent. His seven points and five rebounds per night cannot go understated.
Marist’s full roster was better than anyone else’s in the ECAC Metro and could challenge a good number of power conference teams, even some of the so-called bluebloods.
The problem, of course, was that Marist didn’t have its full roster for the first part of the season.
A little over a week before the Red Foxes’ season-opener, everything still seemed alright. Then, on Nov. 21, 1986, Marist athletic director Brian Colleary got a call from the NCAA. The message: “Marist has some serious eligibility issues to deal with.”
The issues concerned Smits, Pecarski, and Bourgarel, all Perry recruits. Four days after Colleary got that call, the NCAA told Marist that it must declare the three foreign big men ineligible. There was an expectation that the NCAA would promptly reinstate the players. That expectation proved to be incorrect.
On November 26, the NCAA announced that Smits was suspended indefinitely and that Pecarski and Bourgarel would each receive seven-game bans.
Nobody took the news very well.
“We were all over the place because nobody understood it,” said McDonough. “There was so much uncertainty about it. We didn’t know what was gonna happen. You know, we heard everything from kids getting a one-game suspension to the program was going to shut down.”
It fell on Magarity, who took the job without knowledge of the NCAA violations, to comfort and reassure a shaken team.
“Dave’s immediate reaction was to console the kids,” said Tim Murray, who has been Marist’s athletic director since 1995. “We weren’t here when it happened. We couldn’t control it. Marist was doing the best it could from an administrative level to deal with it, but we just had to worry about the kids.”
Even if Magarity quieted his team’s worries, what was left of the roster had to make the coach sweat a little bit. In the blink of an eye, the Red Foxes went from one of the tallest teams in the country to one of the smallest.
With guys like Shamley and Krasovec left to fill the massive gaps down low, Marist’s dreams of becoming the first team other than St. John’s (the tournament host) to win the season-opening Lapchick Tournament were quickly dashed.
“We had to make a lot of adjustments to the game plan,” said Jeff Bower, the assistant coach known for being the “x’s and o’s guy.” “With the big guys out we had to rely a lot more on the backcourt, and we had to go to more of an up-and-down style of play.”
The Red Foxes lost to Youngstown State in the first game, then again to Southern the next night for an 0-2 start. Marist’s most successful season in the last 35 years was off to an inauspicious beginning.
Marist sat at 2-3 for the season on Dec. 11, 1986, its roster still very much in limbo. The Red Foxes didn’t play a game that day, yet it proved to be one of the most important moments of the season.
December 11 was the day the NCAA Subcommittee on Eligibility heard Marist’s appeal regarding Smits, Pecarski, and Bourgarel. While Pecarski and Bourgarel were due to be back in a few more games, Smits was still suspended indefinitely. If Marist failed to get the decision overturned, then the “Dunking Dutchman’s” future in Poughkeepsie was in serious jeopardy.
Colleary told the Dec. 12, 1986 edition of the Circle that Smits would be permanently ineligible if the appeal failed. It was a tense few days.
In the same edition of the Circle, there was another bombshell. The program committed more violations after the Perry era. The rule-breaking happened during Furjanic’s tenure, but the balding, bespectacled head coach was not complicit in the events.
Bogdan Jovicic, the Yugoslavian assistant coach who Perry sent to New York to buy winter coats in the fall of 1984, had stayed on the staff after Perry was forced out. Jovicic was spotted at a summer league game that featured Smits and Pecarski in 1985.
He had given Smits and Pecarski a ride to the game at City College in New York City, breaking another NCAA rule.
There were also more free long-distance calls for European players, one of the things that Perry was cited for allowing. The violations were all pretty minor, but they were more ammunition that the NCAA could use against Marist.
When he looked back on his Marist career with Center Field in 2019, Smits mentioned that he was told not to be transparent during the first part of the investigation.
“At the time, we were just impressionable kids who did what our athletic director told us to do,” Smits said. “We put our trust into him, and it didn’t work out too good, unfortunately. He didn’t know how to deal with it, either.”
“He made some wrong choices that ended up costing us. Costing me nine games. And us. Not everyone got suspended maybe, but I know personally I would not have gotten penalized as much as I did if it just did what was right, right from the beginning. We were told to say certain things, and we went with it. And it backfired on us, unfortunately.”
According to Smits, it was Colleary who told the players to obfuscate rather than come out and tell the truth about the things Perry had done during his brief tenure.
Dennis Murray was upfront with the NCAA when he learned about the violations. He did things by the book. Somewhere along the way, this approach changed. Later on, Marist brought in a lawyer who promptly told the players that they need to tell the NCAA the truth.
The accumulating list of infractions would come back to bite the Red Foxes in the not-so-distant future, but for the time being, Marist won a major victory when the NCAA curbed Smits’s indefinite suspension to nine games.
Pecarski and Bourgarel also got to come back earlier, but everyone knew that Smits would have the biggest impact.
Smits wouldn’t be back until the new year, which meant the Red Foxes still had to grind out the remainder of their non-conference schedule without him.
The nadir of the ‘86-87 season came in Utica, New York, two days before Christmas. The Red Foxes cratered inside Utica College’s Clark Athletic Center, losing 59-57 to a team that didn’t have a conference and stopped competing in Division I after the ‘86-87 season.
“I remember Dave telling me that he hated games before Christmas because he never knew what he was going to get from his team,” Tim Murray said. “The kids wanted to go home and see their loved ones. Sure enough, we were terrible. It was a dark day.”
Everything changed when Smits returned. Without the 7-foot-4 Dutchman, the Red Foxes were a team that could make it to the ECAC Metro playoffs, but not much further. With him, they were head and shoulders above the league.
By January of 1987, Smits was no longer the raw prospect imported from Holland. After many late nights in McCann, he had slowly blossomed into a skilled post player. Jeff Bower, one of Magarity’s assistants, put in countless hours working with Smits and the rest of the team.
“I think we spent a lot of time doing individual work and trying to work on things that were going to be needed for him to continue to grow as a player,” said Bower, who later to went on to work for several teams in the NBA. And whatever areas that Rik wanted to try to refine and improve defined how we went about developing a way to do that.”
Kelly, who ran track on top of his duties with the Circle, remembers seeing Bower and Smits burning the midnight oil on the court.
“He would be down there working with Rik on his post moves,” Kelly said. “I can remember him like having football blocking pads because Rik came from Europe, and they weren’t physical in Europe, and they had to get Rik used to taking a beating. Man, did that guy work hard through all his four years.”
Back in 1987, the Red Foxes actually lost their first game with Smits in the lineup. Marist sat at 3-7 through 10 games, but to paraphrase Sam Cooke, a change was about to come.
“When we got Rik back, we could actually run the plays we’d been working on for months,” said Murray, the assistant. “With him, we knew we were the best team in the league.”
Some games were close, others weren’t, but a three-game streak became six, and six games became 10. After a 61-57 victory at Robert Morris on February 28, Marist had closed the regular season with 12 straight wins to sit at 18-9 on the year.
Twelve straight wins were great. A program record at the Division I level. But for that to mean anything to the team, Marist would need to add two more victories to that streak at the ECAC Metro playoffs to clinch a return trip to the NCAA’s.
This time, the team thought it could do some damage.
Edited by Andrew Hard and Bridget Reilly
Photo from Marist Archives