Part Three: It All Comes Crashing Down
It may seem difficult to imagine today, but the McCann Center was a very intimidating place to play when the Marist men’s basketball team took the floor back in the mid-1980s.
McCann isn’t quite a tinderbox like other small college gyms, but the fans were still close to the court, and the students turned up in droves to support their team. Contrary to what it is now, Marist was the epitome of a mid-major powerhouse as it rolled into the 1986-87 ECAC Metro Tournament.
“McCann was packed every game,” said Paul Kelly, who covered the team for the Marist Circle. “People knew that this team was good. People in Poughkeepsie got into it, they were there, and the students went. It was awesome. We knew this team was special, we knew Rik was special. This was the year when it became clear that Rik was the best player in program history.”
The Marist madness swept from theater enthusiasts to accounting majors. Sports are one of the few things that can fully unite a college campus. Marist basketball brought a diversified college campus together.
“You really, really, really had to dislike sports, to not get swept up in the men’s basketball fever that year,” Kelly said. “Like it was just almost impossible not to get swept up. It was just exciting because it’s such a small school, and we had a really good player, and everyone just went along for the ride.”
When the 1987 ECAC Metro Tournament came to Poughkeepsie, everyone knew that the Red Foxes, riding a 12-game winning streak, would be that much harder to beat on their home floor.
Unlike conference tournaments today, where pretty much every team gets to go, the ECAC Metro during the 80s only took the top four teams. In 1987, the pecking order was Marist, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Loyola University (Maryland), and Wagner College.
As the top seed and the host, all the pressure was on the Red Foxes. An entire season’s worth of work could be wiped out with a loss in the conference tournament.
“Yeah, I think that was probably the most pressure we felt,” said John McDonough, a junior on the team. “We were at home, and we were the big favorites to win, playing in front of a packed house at McCann. It was definitely the most pressure I felt in my four years.”
“The only way you’re getting into that damn tournament is to win your conference tournament,” Kelly added. If they lost either of those games, 15-1 in the league would have gone straight down the toilet.”
Marist’s first opponent was Wagner, a Staten Island-based school that the Red Foxes swept in the regular season. As is the case in March, the game was close the whole way, going into overtime before the Red Foxes came away with a 59-57 victory and advanced to the conference championship game the next night.
With the line for tickets going out the door, the Red Foxes’ next opponent was Fairly Dickinson, nicknamed “Fairly Ridiculous” by the students. Marist had also swept FDU in the regular season, but the combined margin of victory in those two games was only five points.
It was another tough game, closer than the final score indicated, but after a 64-55 victory, Marist was headed back to the dance.
“It was pure elation,” McDonough said. “We were ecstatic. We thought we could go in there and build off last year’s performance [a 68-55 loss to Georgia Tech].”
Marist basketball hasn’t experienced that rush, that high that comes with winning such a big game, since that night in early March 1987.
Still, even though the Red Foxes had kept their winning streak alive, extending it to 14 games, they were by no means invincible.
“They damn near lost to Wagner and needed overtime to get past them, and FDU was another close one,” Kelly said. “There were two close calls there. I remember there was just on campus there was a bit of hubris, you know, FDU could be tough, but we should roll over Wagner. Those close calls in the ECAC Metro were definitely a bit of a reality check.”
Things wouldn’t be any easier once Dave Magarity and his team learned that their opponents in the first round of the NCAA Tournament had a guy who could do this.
Marist earned the 14-seed in the West Region of the 1987 NCAA Tournament, setting up a first-round clash with the third-seeded Pittsburgh Panthers. Being in the West Region meant a trip to Tucson, Arizona, a welcome change from Poughkeepsie in March.
Pittsburgh was a member of the Big East, the best conference in the country during the late 80s. They played a tough, bullying brand of basketball that the Red Foxes did not see in the ECAC Metro, where they were the bullies themselves.
While Marist had height, Pitt had size with the backboard-shattering Jerome Lane at forward and the hulking Charles Smith in the middle.
It wasn’t even close. Marist jumped out to a quick lead but suffered terrible foul trouble, with Smits racking up three first-half fouls and Rudy Bourgarel picking up four personals in the first 20 minutes. The Red Foxes trailed 39-21 at the half and lost the game 93-68.
“We just threw up on ourselves,” McDonough said. “I don’t know what it was. You know, they were a good team. I mean, they had Charles Smith and Jerome Lane. They could play, but we laid an egg. It was a game everyone wanted to have back.”
“They overpowered us. Literally. Rik got in foul trouble early, which was really disappointing because everything we were doing worked around Rik,” said Tim Murray, an assistant coach on the team. “We had a really hard time scoring, and I just don’t think we were as prepared as we would have liked to have been. It was disappointing we didn’t make a better show.”
Right or wrong, those 40 minutes (the loss to Pitt) defined Marist’s season for just about everyone outside the program. In the words of Kelly in the Apr. 5, 1987 edition of the Circle: “Unfortunately, for schools like Marist… memories of a 30-game season are encapsulated into one 40-minute endeavor. And for Marist, it was one 40-minute nightmare.”
Also, from Kelly in that same article:
“Build those crosses with the realization that Marist basketball was more than a game this season. A simple child’s game united this community as nothing ever has.
“For once, a MacGregor basketball, not IBM, controlled our region. For three days in March, everyone at Marist had the same major — Red Fox basketball — and saw it played at the highest level in a 4,000 seat classroom.
“Then, the four-lettered demon resurrected itself. NCAA.”
While Kelly was talking about the tournament loss, his words would prove prescient for the offseason.
After over a year of silence, the NCAA was finally ready to levy its punishment on Marist for the violations during the Mike Perry and Matt Furjanic eras.
In May, the decision was still pending due to “the reluctance of some individuals” (Perry was one of them) to cooperate with the NCAA. Students went home for the summer not knowing the verdict, but by the first weeks of the fall semester, the ruling hit like a ton of bricks.
On Sept. 10, 1987, Marist athletic director Brian Colleary received a letter from the NCAA detailing the penalties for the 14 rules violations committed under the two previous head coaches.
The violations, which occurred mostly under Perry, included the purchase of over $600 in clothing for two student-athletes, various purchases of meals, and automobile transportation for two players to play in a summer league game in New York City. There was also free use of athletic department telephones for international players to make long-distance calls and the organization of team workouts before the permissible start date of October 15 during the 1984-85 season.
The NCAA hit Marist with probation and banned them from the postseason for two years. The college could appeal, but if the decision stood, it meant that the team could not go back to the NCAA Tournament in Smits’s final season.
Assistant coach Bogdan Jovicic, who specialized in recruiting foreign players, was banned from off-campus recruiting for the next two years. He himself bought the clothes for the recruits and provided the meals and transportation to the summer league games.
To make things worse, Jovicic initially denied his involvement to the investigators before coming clean later.
“After denying involvement in these (recruiting) violations, at a later time, he admitted his involvement in the violations,” the report read. “The violations were serious, and the repeated giving of false information to the institution and the NCAA made the situation far worse.”
Jovicic, a native of what was Yugoslavia, did not have a firm grasp of the NCAA rulebook.
“I was not familiar with any NCAA rules,” he said. “The second time I told them I made a mistake. I did apologize for that mistake.”
Predictably, the reaction to the NCAA’s punishment was swift and negative.
Colleary called the penalties “grossly excessive and without precedent,” especially since Marist got rid of Perry and self-reported the violations.
In the appeal to the NCAA, Marist officials wrote:
“The case against Marist College is unprecedented in the history of the NCAA because of the many mistakes and the misconduct of the NCAA staff in handling this investigation. From the very beginning of this case, NCAA staff provided incomplete and/or inaccurate advice to college officials, have not been forthright in admitting these errors, and have attempted to fabricate a major case against Marist College to cover up their own inappropriate activities.”
Marist had been an underdog in the previous two NCAA Tournaments, but this was a different kind of battle against a much mightier Goliath in the form of the NCAA.
After such a unifying experience the season before, Marist students once again joined together to express anger with the decision. For the players, it was a familiar sense of “why us?”
“Again there was a sense of disappointment and frustration with the rulings,” McDonough said. “As seniors, we felt we could make another run, and even though the school filed an appeal, it was still something that hung over us all season.”
Like the previous season, the onus fell on Magarity to pick up the team’s spirit after an NCAA intervention. This was more than suspensions to Smits and Pecarski, this was the NCAA saying, “you can play, but your season won’t mean anything.”
Once again, Magarity tried to make the best of a bad situation.
“Dave did his best to turn things around,” Murray said. “He made the team believe again. He talked about potentially winning the appeal, but even if the decision stood, just having the best team we could. We tried not to dwell on it because it had nothing to do with us.”
“Dave kept us together,” McDonough added. “We might have been naive college kids, but he led us to believe, to keep playing. He said, ‘let’s play hard because there’s a chance we can get this overturned.’ We bought in, even though it was always hanging over our heads.”
Even though Smits returned, Marist lost a pair of international players, highlighted by the absence of Pecarski.
Pecarski, who would have been a senior, remained in his native Yugoslavia to prepare for the 1988 Summer Olympics, with hopes of playing on his national team. The 6-foot-11 forward averaged 12.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game during the 1986-87 season. He ended up returning to Poughkeepsie for the ‘88-89 campaign.
Peter Krasovec, who would have been a junior, was the other player who stayed in Europe. Krasovec, a Hungarian, had to stay in his home country to fulfill compulsory military service when Hungary was still a satellite of the Soviet Union.
Even with some new faces forced into action and a difficult out-of-conference schedule, Marist still put together another solid season, even with the specter of the penalties following them everywhere they went.
In January, with the basketball team beginning its ECAC Metro schedule, Marist officials, including president Dennis Murray and athletic director Brian Colleary, went before the NCAA Council for an appeal of the original decision.
The cards were stacked against Marist in advance.
From Don Yeager’s Undue Process: The NCAA’s Injustice for All:
“In their efforts to prepare for the appeal, Marist officials asked for a copy of the tape-recorded infractions committee hearing. They were told that the only way they could hear the tapes was if they flew to Kansas City and listened to them in an NCAA office. Once there, they were told they could not take any notes on the tape verbatim.”
On top of that, the Marist delegation only had 20 minutes (the length of an oral argument in the Supreme Court) to present their case about a three-year-long investigation.
Marist lost the appeal and any hopes of making it to the postseason in Smits’s final year.
The Red Foxes finished the year 18-9 and 13-3 in conference play, coming in second to Fairleigh Dickinson. Marist closed out the season with a narrow win over Robert Morris at McCann on senior night. Still, it was a premature end to a season that should have been remembered for more solid basketball.
Marist never had a chance against the NCAA. In basketball terms, it was like a 16-seed taking one a 1-seed in March Madness. Except the 1-seed was allowed to play with two extra guys on the court and all three referees in its pocket.
It didn’t matter that Marist self-reported the violations, or that Dennis Murray called the NCAA and asked them to talk to Perry when it had failed to do so in its first investigation.
What mattered to the NCAA was a winter coat, a car ride, a cheeseburger, and a fountain soda. These items, in the NCAA’s opinion, gave Marist an unfair advantage in recruiting Smits even though few college coaches knew who he was at the time of his recruitment.
The thing that really made the Marist administration cry foul was the NCAA’s inconsistency with issuing penalties. The exact monetary value of Marist’s violations was $773.26. For less than a thousand dollars, the Red Foxes found themselves banned from the postseason and on probation for two years.
UCLA, a very proud basketball program a little more than a decade removed from a national title, committed 10 violations that totaled up to $2,600. The NCAA ruled on UCLA’s case a week after they issued the decision on Marist.
Using Marist’s punishment as a baseline, the Bruins should have gotten harsher penalties than the Red Foxes. Instead, the NCAA censured UCLA, basically slapping them on the wrist and allowing them to compete in the postseason.
The difference was that UCLA drew attention and high television ratings and was a national brand. Few people outside the northeast knew of Marist College.
For a few golden years in the mid-1980s, Marist was a powerhouse mid-major program. It got a taste of what it was like to be in the spotlight for the right and wrong reasons. The Red Foxes got to play the role of David for three charming seasons. But in this story, David could never get past Goliath.
It was January 1990 by the time Marist was finished serving its probation. The ECAC Metro had become the Northeast Conference and Marist was in the middle of a 17-11 season that saw them miss the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season.
Smits was in the middle of his second season with the Indiana Pacers and finished the ‘89-90 campaign averaging 15.5 points per game. When he walked onto campus in 1984 as a gangly 7-foot-4 freshman, no one could’ve predicted his incredible success in and after college. After hearing his name called second overall in the 1988 NBA Draft, Smits played 12 seasons with the Pacers before retiring in 2000.
Smits is the greatest men’s basketball player in Marist history by an incredibly wide margin. Without him, Marist could very well still be looking for its first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Smits wasn’t the only player to enjoy a professional career. Pecarski returned to Poughkeepsie in the fall of 1988 and averaged nearly 20 points per game in his final season at Marist. He also lasted until 2000 in the pros, bouncing around in Greece, France, and Spain.
Players like Pecarski, Krasovec, and Rudy Bourgarel all retreated back to Europe, where they fell out of touch with their old teammates. The rest of the team and some of the coaching staff has stayed in sporadic contact with one another over the years.
Jovicic, the assistant coach involved in many of the violations, stayed on the coaching staff until 1989, serving five seasons under Magarity and Matt Furjanic. The news of the penalties for the violations was crushing to him. He spent a brief stint in a psychiatric institution and was bitter about the NCAA’s ruling for years.
He worked for the athletic department until his death in 2004 at age 52.
Magarity continued to coach at Marist until 2004, stepping down to take an administrative job with the MAAC. After Smits and the NCAA penalties, Magarity couldn’t find the same success as he did in the first few years of his tenure.
Though few people would probably admit it, the NCAA’s sanctions impacted Marist far beyond the two-year enforcement period.
After the ‘87-88 season, Magarity’s teams tended to hover around the .500 mark. He only registered one more postseason appearance, a trip to the NIT in 1996. He went 253-259 in 17 seasons at Marist.
He returned to coach women’s basketball down the road at West Point, assuming the head role at Army from 2006 until his retirement last year.
The longest holdover from the Marist teams of the mid-80s has been Tim Murray, who left Magarity’s staff after the ‘88-89 season but became his boss after being named Marist’s athletic director in 1995.
Under Murray, Marist has become a more well-rounded athletic institution, but the men’s basketball program has crumbled in the last decade-plus of his tenure.
After a brief resurgence under Matt Brady in the mid-2000s, which included another NIT trip, the Red Foxes fell into a funk from which they have still yet to fully emerge.
Since the 2008-09 season, Marist’s record is 126-301. The Red Foxes haven’t even won 30 percent of their games in the last 13 years.
Marist hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1987, 35 years this March.
Edited by Dan Aulbach and Bridget Reilly
Photos from Marist Archives