Stony Brook Arrives, Marching Band and All

By JONATHAN ZELLER
Published: November 26, 2011
The New York Times

When Stony Brook won the Big South Conference football title on Nov. 19, nearly 8,000 fans cheered in a $22 million stadium; many of those spectators stormed the field to celebrate as time expired. Sixty-three Seawolves players were on athletic scholarships. And a 170-piece marching band, that staple of college football pomp, provided a soundtrack for the team’s triumph.

A decade ago, none of it existed. Stony Brook’s win — which catapulted the team to its first berth in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs — was the culmination of a years-long effort to build up sports, including football, at the university, elevating its athletics programs to Division I from Division III in 1999. “There was nobody, man,” Athletic Director Jim Fiore said, in reference to Stony Brook’s lack of a band when he arrived in 2003. “It was me, you, my sisters, you know, my son and a couple of local kids playing, jamming to some music.”

Now, in addition to the band, “everybody comes to our games,” Fiore added. “Everybody’s in red.”

Stony Brook made its postseason debut on Saturday with a 31-28 win against Albany, another State University of New York research institution. Albany also jumped to Division I in 1999. The Great Danes, too, were making their first F.C.S. playoff appearance on the heels of their Northeast Conference title.

This matchup, which could have been called the SUNY Bowl, represented a significant step in both institutions’ climb to bigger-time football. The teams started offering scholarships in the mid-2000s; Albany grants the equivalent of 36. Stony Brook’s Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium opened in 2002; Albany plans to open its 6,000-seat stadium next fall.

The universities hope successful football programs will engage students, generate publicity and foster pride among alumni (who might donate money). Stony Brook claims a marked increase in contributions to its athletic department since 2003, and Albany Athletic Director Lee McElroy said that 25 percent of the financing for the new stadium would come from donors.

Football success generates considerable excitement; yet for a counterpoint, one need look no further than the backfield that has produced much of Stony Brook’s offense this season: the senior Brock Jackolski and the junior Miguel Maysonet.

The two running backs transferred from Hofstra, Stony Brook’s Long Island neighbor, which discontinued its football program after the 2009 season, citing financial losses and a lack of interest among the students. Hofstra’s president, Stuart Rabinowitz, said that the university would reinvest the money into academic priorities, including a medical school. Northeastern ended its F.C.S. program about the same time, also citing financial difficulties.

Fiore, who played safety for Hofstra from 1988-90, did not see academic and athletic investments as competing.

“This is all part and parcel of the maturation process of our athletic program and our university,” he said.

The Seawolves and the Great Danes have had sports-branding moments in recent years. Stony Brook’s men’s basketball team hosted a National Invitation Tournament game in front of a sellout crowd last season, and Albany’s men reached the N.C.A.A. tournament in 2006 and 2007. “We had ESPN here,” McElroy said, “and kids slept outside for 48 hours” to get tickets.

Yet sports success sometimes comes with trouble that can tarnish a university’s image as much as on-field victories enhance it. Within the SUNY system, the 2009 Binghamton men’s basketball team has served as a high-profile cautionary tale. Its N.C.A.A. tournament run was marred by arrests, athletes whose course loads included such classes as Bowling I and, eventually, the dismissal of six players and the resignation of Coach Kevin Broadus.

Stony Brook and Albany have had problems, too. Stony Brook had a string of unintentional violations concerning athlete eligibility during the 1999-2000 and 2000-1 academic years. In 2006, three Albany football players were charged with raping a classmate and dismissed from the university. Fiore, however, is confident that his program is doing things right. “The first thing we did when we got here eight years ago was build a state-of-the-art academic center” for athletes, he said. He said that Stony Brook athletes’ grade point average had increased to 3.0 or higher for five consecutive years from 2.76.

“We hammer home the values of what we’re trying to do from an educational mission standpoint,” Fiore said.
At Albany, McElroy said, Coach Bob Ford, who has led the football team since its inception at the club level in 1970, had a track record of “high graduation rates and recruiting young people with character.”

Albany and Stony Brook plan to continue supporting football. Fiore spoke excitedly of the Seawolves’ future games against the likes of Army and Boston College, and perhaps Southeastern Conference opponents. And Ford said he believed Albany would increase its allotment of football scholarships in the years to come.