SUNY school continues to grow

Stony Brook head men's basketball coach Steve Pikiell
 
Stony Brook head men's basketball coach Steve Pikiell
 

July 11, 2011

Stony Brook, N.Y. - Consider this the first Robbins Nest quiz: Which New York university will send its basketball team to Europe this summer for a five-game exhibition tour to prepare for the 2011-12 season, when it will play one game in the Garden?

St. John's? Nope. Steve Lavin needs every second to make sure his Fresh Princes of Jamaica know how to get to Taffner Field House.

Hofstra? No. Mo Cassera is losing sleep over the thought he won't have the majestic Charles Jenkins to depend on.

The answer is Stony Brook.

Stony Brook is the surprise answer to a lot of college sports questions these days. Under athletic director Jim Fiore, who could convince Joey Chestnut that hot dogs are bad for you, the once quaint SUNY school in Suffolk County is poised to become a big-time player in college athletics.

"When I took this job, I was cocky, arrogant and thought I had all the answers," Fiore told The Post. "After six minutes in the AD's chair it was clear I had no answers. We had won one conference title in our history. We didn't have a marching band. No one knew the school colors.

"I went back to my roots," he said. "My dad was a cop and owned a bar in Long Beach. Long Beach: where the beach is long and people are strong. I rolled up my sleeves and went to work."

Eight years later, Fiore, who still can be cocky, along with brash and proud, has a department that could serve as a model.

Consider this:

* He used a $500,000 donation from former Stony Brook pitcher Joe Nathan of the Twins to build a $1.3 million baseball stadium.

* He has a $3 million track and field complex.

* He has a 200-strong marching band that performs in the new 9,000-seat football stadium, where an FCS program (formerly Division I-AA) with the maximum 63 scholarships plays.

* He has an 8,000-square foot training facility, courtesy of a $4.5 million donation from hedge fund guru Glenn Dubin, who recently returned to his alma mater after a 30-year absence and was blown away by the campus's growth and Fiore's rhetoric.

"I wanted the community to be engaged and to have this be Long Island's team," Fiore said. "So we went right after Hofstra. We went right after them. And I think we've taken over the marketplace on Long Island, to be perfectly honest with you.

"You talk about the fall, we own the fall market," he added. "You talk about the winter, let me tell you what, our basketball team is pretty damn good. And you talk about the spring, our men's lacrosse team lost 10-9 to Virginia [for a chance] to go the Final Four last year. So we're right there."

The basketball team -- without one of its best players, forward Tommy Brenton, who was injured for the season -- lost in the America East championship game to Boston University, has a real chance to garner the university's first NCAA Tournament appearance.

When I was a junior at Stony Brook in 1980 and the mascot was a bland patriot figure, the team went to the Division III Final Four in some place called Rock Island, Ill., and lost in the semifinals.

The Seawolves, under Steve Pikiell, will play Rutgers in the Garden this season at the MSG Holiday Festival. All of the athletes can study in a new 5,000-square foot academic center.

Fiore is sitting on $25 million of frozen state funds that have been allocated to expand and renovate the basketball arena. He bemoans the fact that until funds are released, "It's holding Stony Brook back from being recognized as one of the nation's best research universities."

"We're going to embark on a 4,000-seat, state-of-the-art arena that will be commensurate with most research universities on the East Coast," Fiore said. "It will be nicer than Gampel [Pavilion at UConn], not that that's saying much. Gampel is bigger, but ours will be beautiful."

Is Fiore looking to turn my alma mater into a jock school? Will Stony Brook one day join the ranks of USC and Ohio State by facing serious NCAA allegations because some AD thought the athlete is more important than the student?

"My vision when I got here was to have the athletics program reach the same profile and standard of the university's research and academic standard," Fiore said. "We're a top 50 research institution. We're a member of AAU."

That would be the same prestigious Association of American Universities, which recently dropped Nebraska, preventing the reconfigured Big Ten from boasting that all of its members have AAU affiliation.

So what's the future of Stony Brook?

This is certain: Fiore won't rest until he has done for Stony Brook what John Toner and Lew Perkins did for Connecticut.

"My thing is, we got to have some swagger," Fiore said. "We have an institution that lacked swagger when I got here. I think the athletic program has brought a swagger to this institution."