Fordham's Rose Hill Gym Continues to Stir Debate

Charles CostelloContributor IApril 10, 2014

Feb 16, 2013; Bronx, NY, USA; Fordham Rams forward Travion Leonard (2) celebrates on the court against the Butler Bulldogs during the first half at Rose Hill Gym. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Fordham has been playing basketball in the Rose Hill Gym since 1925.

The gym, which opened with the Rams beating Boston College, 46-16, is the oldest facility still in use by an NCAA Division I basketball team.

ESPN The Magazine called it one of only four college basketball cathedrals.

John Feinstein told USA Today that it's one of the top 10 venues for watching a game.

Madison Square Garden it is not. Still, the place has some appeal.

But can Fordham compete with the big boys of college basketball when it plays its home games in a gym that seats 3,200 and doesn't have so many of the amenities found in more modern arenas across the country?

To many—probably the vast majority of people—the answer is no. They'd tell you that in order to attract recruits to come to Fordham, which would ultimately make the team better, the school needs a new arena.

Frank McLaughlin, Fordham's athletic director and executive director of intercollegiate athletics from 1985 to 2012, told me back in 2009 that building a new arena would be a huge boost for the struggling program.

“There’s no question we’re at a disadvantage,” McLaughlin said. “Kids that are basketball players come here and the first thing they want to see is the arena.

“There’s no question if we had a facility we’d really enhance the program.

“If we had Saint Louis’ facility or Xavier’s facility the first thing you’d get is a much higher level player. You get a much higher level player you have a much better team. You have a much better team then people want to come and see the team.”

McLaughlin said back then what's become a reality ever since. There won't be a new arena, at least not anytime soon.

“The plans are there,” McLaughlin said. "There’s no question that if there’s a major donor that was interested in building an arena and made a substantial contribution, obviously it would move up on the priority list.”

Five years later, there's nothing new to report, except for the constant rumblings about the drawbacks of playing in what many consider to more closely resemble a high school gym.

Last month, the New York Times's Matt Krupnick ran a story on the Rose Hill Gym and reported that a new 10,500-seat arena was almost built in the 1970s.

But Vince Lombardi, who was leading fund-raising efforts, died, and Digger Phelps, who went 26-3 in his one season at Fordham, left the school for Notre Dame. They took all hope for a new arena with them.

Per Krupnick, P.J. Carlesimo, the former college and NBA coach who played and coached at Fordham, offered his take on the current facility.

“I love it, but I think most people would say, ‘Come on, you can’t have a major Division I program playing in a place like that.' I do think it’s a real problem.”

Tom Pecora, the current head coach of the Rams, didn't deny that the gym presents its own set of problems.

“I knew it was going to be the biggest challenge in the recruiting area,” he said, per Krupnick, admitting that some recruits are turned off by the gym. “I know it’s something every other school uses against us. You have to find guys who can look beyond that.”

When I asked Pecora about those comments, he made it very clear that he was not using the gym as an excuse. But he was adamant about the challenges of recruiting players who aren't going to be sold on the history of the place.

"We address it immediately," he said about the Rose Hill Gym. "I tell them there are young men who visit Duke and they visit North Carolina, and they go to Duke. Duke's got an 8,000-seat arena and North Carolina's got a 24,000-seat arena.

"It's not about where you play; it's about how you play. It's about the experience you get while you're there playing."

At Fordham, it always comes back to the academics. The school can't sell victories or facilities. It can sell the value of a top-notch education.

"You can't base your decision on bricks and mortar," Pecora said. "You can't go to a place because they have a beautiful arena. [If] they graduate 50 percent of their players, where are you going with a degree from that institution as compared to what you can do and how you can set yourself and your family up for the rest of your life with a Fordham degree?"

Still, Pecora talked about how challenging it is to convince 17- or 18-year-olds to understand that.

Would a new arena immediately change the Rams' fortunes? Of course not. Would it help with recruiting, give the coaches more to work with and increase the prestige of the program? You bet it would.

Pecora talks about recruiting against Atlantic 10 and Big East schools. When a high school kid walks into the Chaifetz Arena in Saint Louis or the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence, he's going to have a much different reaction than when he walks into the Rose Hill Gym. That's a major obstacle for Fordham to overcome.

At the same time, this is a complicated issue with no end in sight, mostly because there doesn't appear to be any movement underway to build a new arena.

Give the university credit on this front, however: The game-day experience has improved. There are new video scoreboards and a few other tweaks here and there. But there's only so much you can do with a facility that's so small and so old.

For now, and for the foreseeable future, it will only add to the challenges Pecora faces as he tries to rebuild the Rams.

Unless otherwise noted, quotations in this article were obtained firsthand.