New Hampshire's relatively strict academic standards constitute only one reason that it's at the bottom of the pecking order among the 293 Division I basketball schools. Says part-time assistant coach Andy Johnston, "Players want to play, win, travel and compete in front of big crowds and on TV."
Travel? Typically, New Hampshire, which plays in the ECAC North Atlantic Conference, makes one airplane trip a year—to Buffalo for its league games against Niagara and Canisius—and rides the bus to the rest of its road games. Stunningly, Friel has arranged a two-game trip to California this year (against Fresno State and St. Mary's)—which prompted forward Dave Marshall to quip, "It will be a lot more fun to go to California and lose than to go to Providence and lose."
And crowds? The highest home attendance last season was 411, for the game against Northeastern. When last year's matchup with Fairfield attracted 195 fans, Bruckner told the P.A. man, "Tonight, instead of introducing the players, we're going to introduce the crowd."
The Wildcats often practice in the gym at the same time as the gymnastics team. Until a year ago Friel didn't have a full-time assistant, and he can't go far afield to recruit because part of his $36,210 salary is for teaching theory of coaching basketball every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:10 a.m. What's more, Friel pays $42 a year for a parking place at the gym.
Compounding Friel's difficulties is the fact that New Hampshire isn't exactly a basketball hotbed. Mike Deane, coach of one of the Wildcats' conference rivals, Siena, says, "If they got the best player in New Hampshire every year, they'd still be last in the league." Few dispute the fact that Friel is a first-rate coach stuck in a difficult situation. Skip Chappelle, a former coach at Maine, says that when New Hampshire was his next opponent, "it meant you had to prepare longer and harder for Gerry than for any other coach."
Perhaps it is a by-product of Friel's enthusiasm that some Wildcat fans can't seem to recall just how bad things have been. Buchanan, who's both a trustee and a rooter, says, "I've never seen Gerry lose by more than half a dozen points." In fact, last season New Hampshire lost nine of its 13 home games by more than six.
But some people have been keeping count. Unfortunately for Friel, New Hampshire president Gordon Haaland is one of them. "A 4-25 record is not acceptable," says Haaland, who has been president since 1983. "It doesn't reflect well on the university, so I can't ignore it. If we're going to bother with something, we ought to try and do it well." In fact, on Feb. 29, Haaland asked Friel for a letter of resignation; Friel refused. After a long stalemate, Haaland, in June, agreed to let Friel coach this season, partly in response to support for Friel voiced by various trustees and alumni.
Meanwhile, it seems that there is a motion in the student senate to ask Haaland to resign—for reasons unrelated to the Friel situation. Says Friel, "Haaland has bigger problems than winning basketball games right now." It should be an interesting season. Friel, who easily makes basketball's top 20 of good guys, has a wide body of support. Cousy fumes that the school "wants to have high academic standards and spend no money on basketball—and win. These things are in direct conflict. Gerry does it one way. The other way is to get down into the cesspool with the others. It's a question of how you interpret success. Pressure is being put on him by people who don't understand the game."
Oddly the university, in July 1987, gave Friel a full-time assistant, upgraded a part-time assistant and established a basketball recruiting budget of $20,000—the first such funds Friel has had. Trustee Jim Hatch argues that Friel should be given a chance, meaning more than one season, to see what he can do with slightly increased resources. "The administration has decided it wants to win," says Hatch. "That's a major shift in emphasis." Says Friel, "The new ground rules were never explained to me."
Another member of the administration who's itching to fire Friel is Mike O'Neil, director for the division of athletics and recreation, and special assistant to the president. O'Neil, ironically, is ("He used to be," says Friel) godfather to one of Friel's four children, Keith. O'Neil has worked on campus for 20 years and became director of the division in June of '87; to get the athletics program on a firm financial footing, he immediately advanced the notion that winning basketball games would draw more fans. Which, of course, it would. O'Neil calls Friel "a great humanistic person," but says, "We want to be competing for the conference championship every year. We don't want to be 4-25."